A Parent’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, drew from his experience as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Auschwitz to assert (and I don’t think anyone would argue) that the way in which we approach our lives determines our ability to find fulfillment and purpose within it.

He writes, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This conclusion is echoed by the Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who in his long-form essay The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to imagine what motivates the king from Greek mythology whose eternal punishment in the afterlife was to labor to push a huge boulder up a hill, near the peak of which it would inevitably slip through his hands and roll back down to the bottom. Camus argues that, when faced with even incredible, incomprehensible hardship (such as that lived by Frankl, above), we must use direct our free will to the conclusion that “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Finally, noted (to me, anyway) writer Jeremy Anderberg, in the great blog that everyone should read, The Art of Manliness, lists a few of the many character-building aspects of fatherhood before hitting on this discovery of meaning. He concludes:

“No matter your position in life — CEO, cubicle automaton, day laborer, stay-at-home dad, entrepreneur, freelancer, trade worker, unemployed — it’s very possible, perhaps even probable, that your greatest, most important role in life will be that of parent. Of provider. Of protector. Of wisdom-purveyor. What that looks like can vary widely from man to man, but have no doubt that raising and loving your children well is one of the most significant things you will do in life.”

Parenting, as you know, can be joyful and full of fun and mirth. It can also be grinding, harrowing, even absurd, and in the march of sleepless nights and seeming lack of evidence that our children are learning or even paying attention, it can be hard to find the motivation to be nurturing, patient, humble and persistent in our work. That’s when we must let the struggle be enough to fill our hearts. Unlike Sisyphus, however, we will experience the joy, the fun, the mirth, if not over this hill, then over the next, or the next.

A final thought, from Frank Pittman, author of Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity:

“These guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of childraising is not the child but the parent.”

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Some Class

 

What’s that old joke that isn’t as funny as we think it is? About how kids don’t come with a manual? (Also, why are there always a couple of extra grommets? Was it just me?)

A corollary to that joke is a serious question: if there were classes on how to be a parent, would you take them?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re already a parent and you don’t need no outside learnin’. Life is the best teacher. Your child is the best teacher. You are the expert on your kids.

All of those things are true. And that’s exactly why you should consider taking a class.

In a plug of epic shamelessness, I would like to recommend the Nurturing Parenting classes offered at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Starting this week, they are offering three separate classes.

On Wednesday:

  • is the general Nurturing Parenting class. It is for moms, dads, grandparents, and caretakers of all stripes (even with stripes!).

Thursdays feature two classes:

  • Nurturing Fathers, for dads and male caretakers only and co-facilitated by yours truly, and the
  • Nurturing Parenting class for parents in Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery.

All three classes are FREE, and offer childcare, dinner and bus and transportation assistance.

All three classes focus on doing the work on ourselves that help us to help our kids–nurturing ourselves and each other so that we can nurture them.

To enroll in a class, simply call Family Tree at 541-967-6580.

Hope to see you there!

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Friending

Being a parent can be…absorbing. So much so, in fact, that it’s possible to lose track of the things that make up a non-parenting life. Case in point: today I am home with the kids while my wife left to spend the afternoon with her friend, who had managed to find someone to watch her own. Our kids were genuinely puzzled by what was happening. “Where did Mom go?”

“To hang out with her friend.”

“But…what are they doing?”

“I don’t know. Going to lunch. Going to a bookstore. Whatever they want to do, I guess.”

“But…why?”

Etc.

Clearly we don’t spend enough time with our friends. Outside of church or other family-related functions, it just doesn’t happen. For our first several years as parents, it was just hard to manage. One is busy, what with the children and all. It’s hard to spend time with other adults who aren’t also parents. Eventually, it got easier, but I guess it just hadn’t occurred to us until recently. And we’re both relatively (and happily) antisocial anyway. Evenings in this house are a flurry of knitting and book-reading.

And yet…friends! They’re kind of important, aren’t they? From a parenting standpoint, it’s good to model this kind of social interaction (as became clear when my daughters were baffled by the idea of adults hanging out together away from children).

But there’s more! Last night we had accepted a long-standing invitation for dinner at the home of some people we knew from church. It was fun. I forgot. Other people: fun! On the way home, the 12 year-old pointed out what a different sort of household this was, with an open invitation to whomever needed a place to go. People in and out all the time. Long dinner table, guest bedrooms. Stay as long as you like. Definitely different from our rather more insular household (plus, short dinner table, no spare anything).

But again, good to model the interactions. And good for kids to know about other kinds of family.

Sounds like a project! In the new year, I resolve to have some friends. Wish me luck.

 

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The Wheel

In Nurturing Parenting, as I’ve mentioned, there is an emphasis on parents being able to recognize and meet our own needs so that we can do the same for our children. Hopefully by now this is a familiar concept (though I can attest that it doesn’t get any easier with repetition).

There’s more. In the class, we talk about the several areas in which we (as parents, humans, etc) have needs. They are categorized as follows:

Physical. Self explanatory, I would hope. Includes all the things you imagine keep you alive; things that feel good, ya da ya da.

Emotional. Knowing the feelings, feeling the feelings, expressing them in an appropriate and legal way.

Social. Interacting with people; making connections; communicating. I suck at this.

Intellectual. Learning things, developing skills. If reading books covered it, I would win this pie piece. Just don’t ask me how to change a tire.

All of the above tend to have a lot of buy-in with our parents. No disputing their importance or their practical value. But from there it gets a little tricky.

Creative. Some people wonder out loud why this is a category. The most common story is this (perhaps you’ve heard it. Perhaps you’ve said it!): “I can’t do any of that creative stuff.” Or, “I can’t even draw stick figures.” Or, “Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing.” This is where I start whacking people with (rhetorical) rolled up newspapers.

First of all, none of that is true. It’s just that you don’t think it’s important enough to do it. Or to practice. Then, I point out all the ways in which you probably are meeting (or attempting to meet) your creative needs. What about that story you told at work about your last fishing trip? What about that casserole thing you made last Thursday?

Spiritual. Again, a lot of people have trouble with this one. Sometimes it’s for the same reason that stuff about a higher power in the Twelve-Step programs can bother folks. Look, the takeaway is that whatever higher power it is that you land on, it’s important that it’s not you. The same rule applies to meeting your needs. Your mom and your dad couldn’t do it for you, and you can’t do it by yourself. The spiritual need is the need to plug into something other than our ego. “I go to church” is the automatic answer, and probably that helps.

But what about going fishin’? I am being completely serious. Solitude works to meet this need. So does silence. Taking a walk, outside, without your cell phone, can check all the boxes. Easy peasy. Except it never is.

So it has to become important.

Crucially, this array of needs is not a hierarchy; some are not more important than others. Rather, it’s a wheel. It needs some inflation all around in order to turn properly.

Which of these needs are you meeting on a regular basis? Which need some work? Most importantly, which don’t you want to think about?

Start with those.

Take care!

 

 

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Sick Days Revisited

We have managed to make it nearly two years without a major bout of illness: you know, the kind that circles the family like a brush fire, touching off some of us maybe more than once before it’s spent. My lovely wife claims it was the strictness of our vitamin regimen that did it.

Those vitamins had been notably absent this year, which is maybe partial but certainly not adequate explanation for Coldfest 2017, which currently has its tents and vendors set up in our house, evidently for an extended run.

I have written before about the generous and enlightened illness policy at my work, so I will just say that gosh do I appreciate it. Sick kids + sick parents = one big bubbling pot ‘0’ sickness. As for me, I had been staggering along for a couple of weeks already, going to work and pretending that my cough was actually someone else in the next room. Now, after having ruled out pneumonia and the alarming (but kind of awesomely Victorian-sounding) pleurisy, I understand that I just have a cold. Possibly the biggest, baddest beast of a cold I’ve ever hosted, but still. Nothing to be done.

A sick house still has to function, so even if the normal routines are disrupted we still have to function somehow. Meals mean that we prepare a lot of one thing and eat it all day. Laundry, vacuuming and other pretty important jobs happen when I’ve stored up enough energy from leaning against a wall and moaning (it’s the new sleep).

Having everyone at home all day, with no plans to go anywhere and no energy to do so, can be strangely liberating. “What are we doing today, Daddy?” “Let’s sit around in scarves and drink broth and watch movies.” “Again? Yaaay!”

We did get to watch Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, so it hasn’t been all bad. Who knew that it was, like, about something?

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Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused around what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage. On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, it engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

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Giving in to Self-Care

Are you taking care of yourself?

This question, along with the equally earnest “So what do you do for fun,” never fails to elicit a guffaw of disbelief from parents when I ask it.

Of course we’re not taking care of ourselves. If we’re doing our job then we are putting the needs of the children before our own, every time. This is our lot, our destiny, and admit it, kind of a badge of honor, right? The more we have to suffer for our work the more points we get against other moms and dads. Also, and this is crucial, the more we can justify the poor decisions we make about our  self-care.  By the end of the day we might be incapable of anything other than another one more Chocodile, one more Marlboro, and one more level on Plants vs. Zombies. I was not compensated by the makers of any of those products. Just tellin’ it like it is.

The thing about that is, it’s a vicious circle that tightens right quick. If we don’t devote some energy to replenishing ourselves, we won’t have what we need to do the parenting in the first place. We can’t pour from an empty cup. And if we fly without fuel we crash, hard.

I work in a helping profession, so I count myself among the worst offenders on the self-care front. We even have workshops on the topic, and the very words “self care workshop” make me shudder. Those paper bags full of pipe cleaners and lavender scented erasers and a balloon “for funny.” I would rather do paperwork.

Why? How come it’s so hard for us to make the right decision?

There’s the guilt, for one. Taking time out for ourselves can feel like we’re snatching food directly out of kids’ mouths. Sorry for that image. Plus, you might not be able to relax and leave the work (and the control) to your spouse while you take a break.

More than that, though, there’s just the fact that being healthy is hard. Late-stage consumer capitalism got pretty good at putting the fast, easy empty thing, in whatever form that might take, at our fingertips. Self-care is slow. It is quiet. Unassuming. In other words, the direct opposite of what we’re immersed in all day.

Walking away and taking some deep breaths? That takes getting up and walking. Drinking a glass of water? Finding a faucet. Going to bed early instead of letting the next episode unspool on Netflix? You’d have to– well, close the cover the laptop. You could strain a muscle.

I’m being facetious (the kind way of putting it) because I’m largely addressing myself. It does take effort, and it doesn’t immediately shoot endorphins into your eyeball. Self-care is a hard sell.

A bath, on the other hand. That sounds alright.

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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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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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