When Super Dad Isn’t

It’s time to talk about something that makes me really uncomfortable. As you may know, I’ve been teaching the Nurturing Fathers class, which emphasizes the value of men being present–really present–in the lives of their children and their partner. And where we are as a culture right now is a tricky place. Because it is still the case that a disproportionate number of children are parented by unmarried women, the fact is that any involvement, any effort exerted by men in the lives of their family is of great benefit to all. And we have to start somewhere, right?

Let me be clear: I cannot overestimate the importance of this involvement and effort on the part of men. Our society really is changing, and while more women are working, earning degrees, buying property, etc etc all while raising children, more men are taking part in the most important work of childcare. This is a big deal and worthy of celebration. And I particularly want to bow deeply in the direction of any single fathers out there.

But without getting into a whole thing about privilege (honestly, I just googled it to try and find a good article on the topic and what I saw just made me tired, which is itself probably an indicator of my privilege), I can tell you that as a dad I get a lot of recognition for what I do. In fact, I was once told that I’m a fantastic dad simply for the fact that “I stuck around.” As nice as it is to feel supported for my attempts to be an involved, connected father and an equitable partner, I know that I have the crowd on my side. I get noticed, in a way that a typical mother does not. “Aw, isn’t that cute? Look at that that guy with his little girls. He’s such a good daddy.” How often do mothers get recognized that way in public?

I get that male privilege gives me an advantage as a parent. It’s like my superpower is that I just get up and do it every day (following coffee, of course). The bar, in other words, is pretty low.

So how do I explain the literal physical pain I felt when I came across this comic by French cartoonist Emma? The comic describes, in lucid detail, the sociological concept of the “mental burden,” that constant storm of decisions, calculations and consequences that mothers usually take on and that fathers not only don’t share but often aren’t even aware of.

When I first skimmed it, I began to feel increasingly nauseated; I felt as if my bubble of daddy privilege had just been popped. I felt so uncomfortable I couldn’t even finish it. Though the term was unfamiliar, both the argument it laid out and the picture of my marriage that it painted seemed obvious, even inevitable. But it was too much. It was a piece of knowledge about myself that I just didn’t want to accept. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to move on with my life.

Weeks passed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mental burden that my wife, clearly the person who runs our household, carries with her. I wondered why, for example, it took an internet comic for me to begin to absorb a problem that she has been telling me about for years. Telling words right into my ears.

I can’t say I’ve fully processed it yet, and I certainly haven’t sprung into action to take on some of that burden myself. My casual claims that I do at least a half-share of the housework and the parenting ring pretty hollow now. But here’s something I vow to change right now: may I never utter the phrase “Just let me know if you need help” again.

Anyway, read it. It’s good. No, really.

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All the Feelings

On the one hand, I think we have way too much discourse in our culture about feelings. As in, the importance of going with your feelings, following your feelings, avoiding stepping on the feelings of others. How important are they, really? Should they be the organizing principle of our lives?

On the other hand, feelings happen. They come and go like the weather, and sometimes they take down trees and flood canyons. And whether they come from outside or from deep within (“I’m a person with deep feelings who feels things deeply*”), the fact is that we can’t avoid them and we can’t deny them. As my great-grandpa might have said, “You can ignore the rain all you want until your boots fill up**.”

This is especially tricky for men, as we are generally raised to minimize and control the spectrum of our feelings.

So if our feelings are really powerful and we can’t stop them, what is there to be done?

Well, according to Nurturing Fathers, there are a couple of things to do.

First is simply to recognize the feelings when they come, and to name them. This takes practice, and as we see from our children, emotional literacy is a learned trait. We need feelings to be modeled for us; we need to see examples, and connect them to a context (“____ makes me feel ____;” “When _____ happens, I feel _____”). The therapeutic classrooms at Family Tree are dedicated to this task.

What if you grew up without very many of these models, these examples? Most likely you are aware of what sadness, happiness, fear, etc. look like, because Netflix. You simply may not associate some of these feelings with yourself. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don’t get angry?” Back away slowly from that person.

In this case, it’s good to do a little inventory. How easy or difficult is it for you to feel: Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid, Excited, Jealous?

Then, and this is the other thing…how easy or difficult is it for you to express: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Excitement, Jealousy?

For many of us, there is a disconnect between feeling the feelings and expressing them. So, like, if they don’t come out (which is the definition of “express”), where do they go? Probably, we are stuffing them down. And/or piling food on top. The usual.

Do we have to express all of our feelings? The short answer is yes. Nice if it happens on our own terms, in a safe place, and not in a job interview. All of this takes practice. What constitutes a safe place for you? Who is a safe person? When is a safe time?

Here’s something that comes up in parenting. We see it in our kids, and sometimes in ourselves: should there be a gap between feeling the feeling and expressing it?

Ideally, yes.

How much?

I don’t know, one second? Let’s work on one second, shall we?

Every little bit helps.

 

* Evan Dando, Reality Bites (1994). 

**I actually made it up, but I have no evidence that he didn’t say it too.

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Wait, What Happened?

This photo is totally out of date.

Time for another one of those periodic parenting reality checks. This one’s not so focused on mortality, but as always it’s surprising. What happens is this: I realize that some time has passed, and that my children are all…different. Somehow. And I feel like I have been shirking my duties. How did I miss the changes?

Case in point: my twelve year-old is, first of all, twelve. Missed it. Secondly, she is ready to set off for a week of summer camp in Washington like it’s just what you do. And apparently it is! My ten year-old, who suddenly looks like a miniature woman, has decided not to go. “Too many people.” I get it. All she wants to do is listen to The Lord of the Rings for the I’m not even sure how manyth time because I missed it.

My eight year-old has learned to make bread from her mother. She is doing so as we speak. Most tragic of all is that I think she may be losing her childhood habit of running back and forth a short distance when she is thinking of something. No, no. Never mind. She just did it. Also, she will be a full-blown reader just as soon as she decides it is worth her while.

The most confounding transformation has taken place with the six year-old. There is a gangly, long-legged creature galloping about the house that bears an eerie resemblance to my youngest daughter. She can get herself in and out of the bath. She has picked up an entire package of new facial expressions, hand gestures and vocal intonations that belong to a much older and more world-weary person. It’s as if she downloaded the software.

This happens every once in a while: things aren’t changing, but suddenly they appeared to have already changed. For once, I’m not thinking about how little time I have left to live. Though now that I mention it, that’s a good point. Mostly I’m just glad that I am here to see it, even if I’m clearly not paying enough attention. And if they are able to do more things every day without asking for help. Or permission. Or for that matter, push notifications.

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Parenting From the Bleachers

My favorite week of the Nurturing Fathers class is the one I spent a year preparing for. When it came up in my training, I knew I would be in trouble if I didn’t bone up on a sport. Any sport. This was desperate.

Let me back up a little. Usually when discipline is brought up in a parenting class it’s on the level of, “how do I fix this behavior? How do I stop it? How do I get more of this or less of that?” There’s probably a bit about how discipline is not the same thing as punishment, as we tend to conflate them in our culture. And this class, just like its parent curriculum of Nurturing Parenting, takes care to emphasize that the root of discipline is disciple: it’s about teaching and learning, not retaliation. There will probably be time to discuss the merits of spanking (there are none) and time outs (it depends).

All that is well and good. Where Nurturing Fathers tips over from “well” and “good” into “genius” is the part where it taps into the male brain just tells it like it is. Namely, that discipline is a sport. Your family is a team. The parents are coaches (player-coaches, to be precise). Behold:

Just like any team sport, your family has rules. Ways to win and ways to score points. There are do’s and there are don’ts; the don’ts are the penalties and fouls. And because you’re a team, you all want to win. Right? So as a coach, Mom and/or Dad, you want to be sure that everyone knows the rules.

And, um, they should probably make sense.

From this model, the game of discipline becomes ridiculously simple.

  1. Explain what the rule is. For example, “Be home by 10 pm.”
  2. Name the consequence for breaking the rule. “You won’t be able to go out next weekend.” Note that this is logical and follows from the rule itself.
  3. Follow through.

If each player follows the rules, it benefits the whole team.

Cool, right? The only problem is that we (as in, the class facilitators) are supposed to talk about this stuff in terms of the sport of our choice. And that’s where I was in trouble. Nothing is more an impediment to learning than a teacher who is obviously full of crap (as I learned trying to score points with some metal-savvy high schoolers with some discipline issues when I misidentified “Rainbow in the Dark” as Dokken [obviously it’s Dio!!]. Seriously, I still cringe when I think about it).

And I literally do not know anything about any sports. So I had to do some homework. I decided that baseball had the most going for it, socioculturally and aesthetically (I’ve always liked baseball movies, anyway). I read some books, watched some Ken Burns. Then I mentioned casually at work that we should start a softball team. Interest was high (immediately and alarmingly so) and even more alarming was that somehow I ended up as head coach and manager. I started reading faster.

Our team is in its second season now, and going strong (the fact that I am no longer in any way involved with its functioning has, I’m sure, a lot to do with it). And in the bargain, I am now able to talk about discipline as baseball for a whole class period.

That’s all I have to say. Let’s get out there and win!

 

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Crossing the Threshold

The other morning I was doing what I usually do for the first hour of my waking existence (or at least what’s left of the hour after making coffee and preparing breakfast), which was to read on the sofa. As my four daughters emerge one by one, they generally grab a book from the shelves and sit next to me, until we’re a wire full of birds.

The other morning, though, it was just me and the eight year-old. She was sitting silently by my side with one of the lesser known works of Dr. Seuss: the title escapes me, but it was something he had written under sub-pseudonym Theo LeSieg. At some point she turned to me and said “Daddy” (she puts the emphasis on the second syllable, which just kills me).

When she had my attention, she said, “I think I’m reading now?”

She proceeded to demonstrate. Yup, no doubt. She was reading.

This has been a frustrating process for her, especially since she knew perfectly well that her two older sisters were both younger when they started. She had asked me one night after she got into bed: “Daddy? Do you think I’ll be able to read when I’m a grownup?”

Like most things we learn, the final hurdle is one of confidence. And she’s not quite there yet. The elder girls, by contrast, took to reading like a leap out of a plane. It was as if they had finally found the key to the handcuffs. This one is taking it slow.

I try not to imagine my kids in future professions, but occasionally the mind does drift. Of the four, it’s the eight year-old I can see becoming a writer. Not because of her reading, but because of her drawing; the way she renders people in her pictures–in their gestures, expressions, positions, hair, clothing, orientation to one another–casts each of them as utterly distinct and alive. They are characters as realized as any in a novel. Of course, she could be an artist and that would be okay too.

But not a pirate. And that’s final.

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Fathers, Real and Imagined

So I know Father’s Day was last weekend, but we can still talk about them, right?

Fathers. We all had ’em at some point. Some of us are one! I mentioned a while ago that I was about to start teaching a Nurturing Father’s class at Family Tree Relief Nursery.  Well, we’re a few weeks in now and I am happy to say that it exceeds my highest expectations. There are so few places for men–fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, godfathers–to get together and talk about the experience of being male and having children your care. Every week I see light bulbs of recognition or the shock of the new. Both are valuable.

The currency of fatherhood is devalued in our society. Worse, this has happened even while the expectations for men to care for children and participate in household labor have increased. At least part of the problem is that it is easy–and largely tolerated, if not encouraged–for men to opt out of parenting altogether. There is a price, of course (in the form of child support payments). But the real cost is borne by children. When it comes to fathers and male caretakers, any degree of (safe) presence and involvement makes an outsize difference.

There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about fathers and fatherhood (and many of them are carried on by the men in question). Here is an excellent piece from the Washington Post last weekend called Five Myths About Fatherhood. Among the takeaways is this explication of the dilemma of men who, like many mothers, want to “have it all:”

“Men with children say they feel continued pressure to be the primary providers for their families (in opinion polls, about two-thirds of Americans say a married man should be able to support his family), and at the same time they want to meet modern fathering ideals (in polls, they are just as likely as mothers to say that parenting is ‘extremely important’ to their identity). Even when flexible schedules and other family-friendly work arrangements are available to men, there’s often a stigma associated with taking advantage of them.”

Workplaces in America obviously have a lot of catching up to do. But so do those very institutions–government and law–that have traditionally not exactly been seen as ignoring the needs of men. I, too, will be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy. But when it comes to the rights of fathers, misconceptions about men and children can skew things the other way. As a parent coach working with families seeking reunification, I sometimes have to explain to state agencies that a father engaging in wrestling and roughhousing with his kids is not necessarily “unsafe” (that’s what I’m there for), but a perfectly valid way for men to nurture their children.

Guys, I hope you had a good Father’s Day. Keep celebrating.

 

 

 

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With Teeth, and Without

I’ve been a little distracted lately. I was finally ambushed by twenty years of dental inaction when the crown on one of my front-and-center teeth snapped off. It was exactly as horrifying as it sounds. After scheduling an appointment and working out with my parents a plan to pay for the backlog of dental work that needed to be done all at once, I tried to become accustomed to making it through my work days with a gaping tunnel in my teeth. Turns out I am both too lazy to take care of these things in time and too vain to suffer the consequences with grace.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about my kids, none of which have ever had a cavity. Heck, I don’t even know if the older two even brush their teeth, and whenever I ask about it I learn that they have “lost” their toothbrush at some indeterminate point in the past. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, they have been surprisingly accepting of my temporary defacement; which is interesting, considering that when I periodically shave my beard there is crying in their ranks.

Also interesting is that my experience has paralleled that of my six year-old, who is just about to lose her first baby tooth. Right now, thanks to a temporary bridge that feels to me like a slightly modified version of those plastic fangs we used to wear on Halloween, my daughter and I are both contending with a disconcertingly flapping hinge in our gums that could come tumbling out at any moment.

If I have learned anything from this fiasco, other than not to eat anything crunchy ever again, it is to have rediscovered what it is like to be in a place my children know all too well: that changes are happening that are at the edge of our understanding and out of our control. Every time I attempt to chew something in the only intact corner of my mouth, I experience the helpless fear that a morsel will roll itself between my center teeth and pull my silly fake smile right out. That kind of helplessness is part and parcel of childhood, with its routine lack of answers and its sudden, jarring transformations.

To be adult is to live increasingly in a place where, ideally, the incidences of helplessness and uncertainty dwindle if not entirely disappear. It is humbling to be back in that position. I can only hope to handle it as well as my six year-old.

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How Do We Even Know Anything About Parenting?

Okay, so this piece from Longreads, My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, is pretty funny (be advised of a single strategic use of profanity within). In the essay Emily Gould spends the first few months of her new motherhood desperately reading parenting books. She finds, as one would, that there are rough schools of thought around parenting practices that cancel out, if not fiercely oppose, others. Without pledging loyalty to one camp or another, then, it can be mighty hard to find a way forward that isn’t mined with confusion and contradictions. Gould explains her dilemma in this way: “There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early ‘sleep training’ paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.”

Of course, it isn’t really like that. As someone who participated in a fair amount of attachment parenting (holding our babies or slinging them, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) I find this assessment of the movement, as embodied in print by the prolific Dr. Sears, to be unfair, if kind of hilarious: “Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of ‘Rowan, please sit back down!’ Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with ‘attachment’ parenting.”

I can certainly understand Gould’s feeling of being overwhelmed and bullied by so much disparate parenting advice. She claims to have read 25 parenting books in a row, which strikes me as fairly reasonable (she does not mention looking at parenting blogs, forums, social media groups, or other online sources; this means either that she was careful to keep herself out of that endless swirl of potential madness or that she just didn’t want to talk about it).

What Gould highlights in her entertaining and often insightful piece is how difficult it is for a parent to find what works for them. There are no lack of authors, experts, companies, organizations and agencies who are ready and willing to dump advice on us (and in the process, generally make us feel as if we are failing and/or totally irresponsible if we don’t follow their path or buy their product). There is certainly nothing wrong with reading books and taking what we find to be useful. And no parent can be expected (heck, is even able) to go all in with one particular method or another.

Rather, what Emily Gould leaves smartly between the lines of her essay is that instead of turning to experts on how to raise our own children, we ultimately have to just get to know them, and figure it out, day by difficult day.

Much easier to read a bunch of books, right?

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To Boldly Go

There’s a topic I keep coming around to because evidently I think about it a lot. Namely, what parts of ourselves do we share with our kids? What’s appropriate? How much should we try to guide their tastes and interests? Previously, as in the post linked above, I was critical of those parents who wanted their children to like the things they liked at the same age. I think about this every time that I’m in Target and I see shelves of retro-styled board games and toys from my childhood. In this case, Star Wars was the main example. Not that I have received any angry emails or anything, but you should know that, as my daughters get older, I find myself shifting my position.

Case in point: a few weeks ago I told them about Star Trek (the Original Series, or TOS, as the nerds term it) (and I’m enough of a nerd to know that we like to be called Trekkers rather than the pejorative Trekkies) (but not enough to, like, dress up and go to a convention or anything, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Where was I? Right. Well, surprisingly, they told me last night at dinner that they were very interested in watching Star Trek. So I counted it as a win and went to work.

What was the best way to introduce kids–who had limited experience with a.) science fiction, and b.) TV shows that aren’t documentaries about wildlife or running a Medieval farm–to this pillar of mid-Twentieth Century popular culture? Going through synopses of the episodes, I settled on “The Trouble with Tribbles,” one of the lighter and more humorous ones, and we watched it in the evening after they got into their jammies. It was a hit.

What do I want my kids to get out of this artifact that had given me so much pleasure and food for thought in my own upbringing? Given that I habitually watched it in the afternoons while doing my math homework, I could make an argument that I was trying to stimulate their left-brain functioning. Or, I could cite the liberal humanist framework of the show that presents a multiracial, (sort of) gender-integrated crew working together to examine ethical dilemmas across the galaxy.

But who am I fooling? What I really wanted to do is to introduce them to one of my heroes, one Mr. Spock. His relentless logic, vacuum-dry sense of humor and valiant attempts to master his half-human emotions are ideals that I had long since absorbed into my personality. Maybe I want them to know in some small way where I’m coming from.

During bedtime my eight year-old, after determining that his ears must be prosthetic, pronounced him “pretty cool.” I’ll take it.

And I promise to not be so dismissive of Star Wars dads (and moms). Even though Star Trek is way better.

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Kids Hitting Kids

As you know, occasionally I like to delve into an internet search (well, it’s not really delving, per se, since it takes three microns of a second) on a parenting topic. This time it’s something that’s been coming up in my work with families: namely, siblings wailin’ on each other. Parents have been asking me what to do in this situation, and as all parties (including the kids) agreed that it wasn’t a good thing to hit each other, we were at a bit of an impasse.

So here goes. One of the first articles to come up, at least in my info bubble, was kinda preachy and alarmist: the title says it all. Aside from pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is bad for people to hit each other (we’re in! We bought a ticket!), we’d like to know how to get to the bottom of it. How do we help our kids to try something else next time?

This next one was very promising. It focuses on how to talk to siblings about hitting when one is able to express himself in words and the other is not. It was written by an extreme parenting genius with perfect recall of a 15-minute conversation (did the author transcribe it from tape? Does she have a dictation team?), and really it is totally worth reading. She makes sure both of the kids are able to talk, and able to listen to each other. Which is really what they wanted in the first place.

Because, say it with me: “all behavior is an unmet need.”

Which is one of the 31(!) tips featured in this list which turned out to be the winner of the parenting internet this week. Note the first one: “Remember that this is normal,” and note as well that this makes it the complete opposite of what the first article said. Maybe it’s useful to tease out the meaning here. By “normal,” I think we’re saying both that it’s “something that happens” and that “the world does not end when it does.” The children do not explode (unless they are actually attaching explosives to one another, in which case it’s a more serious problem than this post can address), and one presumes that the hitting is not so frequent and vicious as to spill over into something else, which is called abuse, no matter who’s doing it to whom. Again, different blog post.

The fact is, though, when children are siblings (or in the same classroom, or sharing playground equipment, etc etc), sometimes they whack each other. What does it mean? In almost every case, it’s frustration, or tiredness, or hunger, or some combination thereof (“It’s an unmet need.” Everybody, now).

What do we do about it? That’s where it gets tricky, and where the author is smart enough to not give a straight answer. Or at least, a single answer. What I like is that she wants us to mostly look at ourselves. Should we interfere? If we do, are we actually just performing for the other parents in the room? Are we bringing our frustration into it? Are we blaming (this time or every time) one child or the other?

One of the answers is “do nothing.” I love when people give that advice. What if they can work it out? Isn’t that a skill?

Another is “make sure they have their own toys.” If they have things that they don’t have to share, there are no grounds for disagreement. Also, “don’t make toddlers share.” Word.

Also, too, “take them outside.” In my work that sometimes means to literally take them outside (we have swings, and a lovely meadow), but more generally it means that we need to change the environment. Move to a new place, find a new activity, take the energy up or down. Make it different.

Who knew there were so many things we could do about it? Come on kids. Bring it on.

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