Like Baby Steps, Only Tinier

“It takes 30 days to form a habit.” It’s always somehow shocking to me when these cliches turn out to be more or less true, as if the truthiness (thank you Stephen Colbert) rubs off in the repetition. But what if it’s backed by science? Turns out the facts are more complicated (AGAIN). Certainly too much so to comfortably aphorise.

So let’s put this another way: “It takes 66 days to form a habit. Or broadly, 18 to 254.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, does it?

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t bother to do this research before I started forming my new exercise habit. Because I was going by the 30 day thing.

Let me back up a little bit. I just turned 45 and I was thinking about, like, mortality, and things. In my parent-mind, I was thinking about how nice it would be to still be around when all my kids were doing grownup things and thinking about their mortality, and things.

Related to that thought was the one about how well I’ve modeled literacy and learning for my kids at the expense of other things like movement, sport (in the phenomenological sense), and exercise. Sure, we like to take hikes and go for walks, but that’s more about being in nature. And they do love to swim. So. But I have not prioritized those things, and I want to turn that around.

My brilliant wife is right on board, and has instituted a morning walking/jogging regimen for the girls, supplemented by yoga and frequent trips to the pool. It’s going…okay. And by okay, I mean that about half the kids are into it on any given day. Granted, it hasn’t been 30 days, much less 254.

As in all things parental, I had to start with me (we fill our own cup so that we can yada yada). As much as I cherished my morning ritual of making coffee and reading on the couch with a pointy cat on my lap, I knew I had to get moving. My aforementioned wife–the brilliant one–got me some workout clothes for Christmas (I HAVE NEVER OWNED workout clothes). I visualized myself waking up, suiting up, and heading out for an early morning jog, frost, rain and snails be darned (really, tried to be careful of the snails though).

I kept visualizing it every day as I made my coffee and sat down on the couch with coffee and a pointy cat, trying not to look in the direction of my workout clothes, which were balled up in a corner.

Finally I tried another way. Less ambitious, more…tiny. In this case, doing some research would have been helpful because I would have found something like this.

What I did was this: I got a gym bag. I put my workout clothes inside. I left the bag on the dining table when I went to bed. When I got up in the morning, I saw it there, taunting me like Mickey.

After a few days, I opened the bag and put the clothes on. And once I had done that, it just seemed silly not to go outside.

And the rest is…ongoing. Every morning, I put on the clothes and head out for a brisk walk. When I return, in 20-30 minutes, I feel awake and ready for the day. And also ready to do things like bend over and walk up stairs without wheezing.

My kids have noticed all these things. After (insert number of days here), it becomes just something that is done in our family.

Sometimes there are advantages to kids watching everything we do.

 

 

 

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The Replacement

After some reminders about the importance of self-care (including one from Parenting Success Network boss Aoife Magee), I was thinking about some of the things I’ve been trying to do for myself. As I have written–and said–countless times, we can’t fill someone else’s cup unless we have filled our own.

In case this image is not clear enough (or if you still consider your cup to be half empty), imagine sitting next to your child on an airplane. If God forbid there should be an emergency and the oxygen masks come down, whose will you attach first? If you answered “your own,” you are in the company of the approximately 2/3 of respondents I just made up. Our instinct is to meet the child’s needs before your own, so it’s natural to want to put their mask on first. However, it’s also the wrong choice. Because if something goes wrong you need to be able to help, and you can’t help if you can’t breathe.

So there. How does this apply to the day-to-day? Without plane crashes and such?

I remembered that I hadn’t told you about my new car. New to me, anyway. It’s a 1993 Toyota Tercel, and it’s pretty much so uncool that it comes back around to cool again. To say it is an improvement on my previous car, a Volvo that could allegedly not be repaired following a crash into a curb one icy day because the company no longer made the parts. I took to calling it The Death Car and refused to take on passengers unless absolutely necessary, believing it would someday kill me, Christine-style.

Thankfully, this did not happen. It did not happen because I finally resolved to replace it and finally bought the Tercel from a mechanically inclined friend who had driven it for years before passing it down to adult daughters. The Volvo I donated to my workplace, using the great company V-DAC, for which they netted $25. Sorry, workplace!

Anyway, the point of this story is that once I decided to focus time and energy (and a surprisingly small amount of money) on my own needs, namely a reliable commuter car capable of more than 8 miles per gallon, I was able to shrug off a huge burden of shame and anxiety that was interfering with my ability to parent.

Am I recommending that you go out and buy a new car, for parenting purposes? Sure, I guess. But wait, there’s more. The Tercel is a manual transmission, something I hadn’t driven in about 20 years (ask me about that someday). I have been rediscovering the joys of riding up a learning curve. Between practicing driving a stick (thanks once again to the mighty Art of Manliness blog) and taking as many different routes to and from work as I can (thanks to decent mileage), I’m keeping my brain healthy and burning some new neural pathways. And that’s a good way to fill your cup.

Also, did I mention it has a tape deck?

 

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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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Rough Patch

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this lately, but my wife Kyrie is super well trained in child development. We’re talking the whole gestalt ball of wax: Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, the regular OSU kind. So when she tells me that what is going on with our youngest daughter is not an extraterrestrial brain-swap or demonic possession or something equally drastic, but just an expected shift in the child’s growth (known in Waldorf arcana as “the seven year change”), why then I believe her.

Never mind that we have seen nothing like this with her older sisters. The next one up went through a rough patch at around the same time (in fact, I covered it pretty thoroughly while it was happening). That one didn’t want to sleep without an adult in the room even though she had been doing so just fine for a couple of years now. My solution to that had been to 1.) shunt her younger sister into our bedroom and sleep in her bed, which required me to be quite a bit shorter than I actually am, or 2.) move the seven year-old into the grownup bed and take hers, thus allowing the younger one to continue sleeping. Neither particularly worked, and the whole operation was almost certainly prolonged by my accomodationist method.

So when this one adds an inability to sleep for more than an hour at a time to a complete loss of her words to express a need for help (the words having been replaced by loud grunting and yelling), I tried to wait it out. I can get up once an hour, no problem. Get her some water, get her a homeopathic lozenge, pack her back into bed. Repeat.

The results were apparent after a couple of nights of this plan. She continued not sleeping and so did I. Turns out that neither of us do well on sleep deprivation. Something had to change, but I was fresh out of empathy. We were both pretty sure that she was just never going to sleep through the night again. And we both felt terrible.

It was at this time that I was preparing for the Nurturing Fathers class and came across the following passage: that we as parents want our children to know that “you are lovable, and you are capable.” Let’s read that again.

“You are lovable, and you are capable.”

It was enough. That night I reminded her of how good a sleeper she is and that this was a temporary phase. We would get through it. In fact, it was already better. Her hard work had already paid off.

I’d like to say that it turned around right away. We’re kind of still working on it.

But boy, does it suck less. I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part II

So, as I was saying. The X-Men were always my jam. They appealed to me because, unlike other superheroes with their fantasies of power that came about usually through accidents (gamma rays, cosmic rays, radioactive bug bites), the X-Men (and -Women, and -Girls and -Boys) were who they were. In the comics, a mutation usually became active with the onset of puberty, which is just about the perfect way of talking about what happens to the adolescent body and brain. Think of Rogue, for whom intimate contact could have deadly consequences for the other person. Or Shadowcat, who in her social awkwardness could become a literal wallflower, fading into the wall and out the other side. Or Cyclops, who had to keep his vision (feelings?) covered up or risk causing limitless damage. Like millions of readers, I identified with these young adults who hadn’t asked for their powers, struggled to understand and control them, and in some cases would give anything to get rid of them.

What happens in adolescence that leads to such perilous places? We have long understood the changes that our bodies go through during puberty, with those new combinations of chemicals; those strange and powerful feelings; that hair.  It would be easy to think that you were going through this by yourself, and were suddenly separate from the human race. A mutant!

Recent work in neuroscience has been trying to understand the changes that take place in the teenage brain. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, in her extensive reporting on terrorism, wanted to understand the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS to adolescents. What would make a seemingly “normal” kid from a typical suburban background want to leave everything they knew and enter a life of secrecy and violence? Her excellent piece on reformed ISIS recruit Abdullahi Yusuf (seriously, it’s really good) shows how these questions must lead inevitably into teenage brain development. The teenage feeling of invulnerability, the aggrieved sensitivity to injustice, the penchant for risk-taking, the lack of consideration for consequences, can take an adolescent into any number of far-flung places. What’s missing during this time is that still, quiet voice that (tends to) guide us as adults. In the piece, Temple-Raston identifies it as the “part of the brain that neuroscientists liken to an internal compass, called the insula, can be built up during adolescence through critical thinking and self-reflective practices.”

This kind of strengthening practice, provided in Yusuf’s case through a reading list and assigned poetry, is what the X-Men find under the guidance of Professor X at the School for Gifted Youngsters (having a responsible adult mentor is clearly important as well). With these opportunities for reflection and control, those scary changes can become powers.

Now if only the films could get it right.

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The Big Reshuffle

I never did believe it, not really: that rearranging your space can help you to rejigger the rest of your life. Sure, I thought, it’s nice to see things looking a little neater and more symmetrical, but with four kids in a two-and-a-half bedroom house one can’t expect this new state to last more than a day or so.

So when I volunteered (after about six months of “mulling it over”) to take a full day to tackle our “spare room” (there is no room to spare in our house; the term refers to its former life as a garage), my wife undertook to remove herself and the girls from the premises for the duration. I had thought this was a little extreme, but appreciated the lack of distraction and the chance to queue up several of my Spotify playlists and crank them at unsettling volume.

After an indeterminate period that passed like a drugged dream in which I was forced to play Tetris with boulders attached to my limbs, I emerged covered with sweat to find that a vast, unmanageable pile of objects had been assembled into something approaching order.

I rested on my laurels for as long as it took for my family to return home, convinced that I would not have to do any more of this kind of work for months (providing I could spend a few minutes each day assuring that my arrangement of the spare room remained intact). I soon learned, though, that my efforts, greatly appreciated they may be, were only the beginning. It would be a new, glorious era of rearranging in our land.

Now that the spare room–our primary storage space–was in order, my wife could shift all the furniture everywhere else. We could clean the girls’ rooms and wash all the bedding. And then the real work could start: changing out the hundreds of books that double as the interior walls of our living room.

I dreaded the prospect, and asked if we could save the book wrangling for the next weekend. I continued, to say the least, to not look forward to the work. I had boxed and meticulously sealed all the books in the spare room, and they were stacked just the way I wanted them. To bring them out again would erase the sense of order I was holding in my mind like a fragile egg. Why did one good deed have to lead to a deluxe economy pack of new ones?

You know what? It was fine. In fact, it was really, really great. The bookshelves are pristine with room to grow and the spare room looks better than ever. The peace of mind we have gained is no mean thing.

For a close, largish, homeschooling family, this kind of organization amounts to a total reset. I have undertaken projects like this before. But finally I think that I get it, and can genuinely enjoy the results.

Also, I should mention that no one is allowed to touch anything from now on. Wish us luck!

 

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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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Three Scenes

Sullen tee w/dad

Here’s a specific problem that has been coming up for me lately, at work and at home. I thought I’d find out more about it and share it with you.

Close your eyes and take a journey with me. You are in a room. A clean, well-lighted place. You are calm and relaxed. Take a few breaths in and out. Good. Now, open your eyes.

Before you is a child. Your child. The child is rolling her eyes in disbelief that you have just expected her to do something that you regard as perfectly reasonable. She intends to ignore you and go on with what she was doing before.

Close your eyes. Take another breath. Now open them.

Now your child is throwing his younger brother’s half-constructed Attack of the Clones Lego playset down the stairs. When you ask him why he has done this, he explains that his brother was being, and in fact is, a “butt.”

Close your eyes. Feel around for the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. Take two and be sure to drink a whole glass of water. Open your eyes.

Now your child, as you watch, is saying “$@%#.” You are positive that you have heard the word crisply and clearly and have watched the precise mouth movements required to form the word. When you ask the child to repeat the word, she insists that she was using the euphemistic spelling employed by Norman Mailer in his WWII novel The Naked and the Dead.  You do not believe her (though I also made a Hemingway reference in this post. Can you spot it?).

Oh, boy. We’re done. Come back to your body and shake yourself out.

These children are engaging in what is known by scientists as disrespectful behavior. Now, you might be asking, “Where did they learn this kind of thing?” The answer is a.) You, b.) Their peers, c.) Their uncle Steve, d.) YouTube, e.) It doesn’t matter. The answer is e.)

There are some definite do’s and don’ts in common to these scenes:

  • Stay calm. Do not respond with the kind of words or behavior they are presenting to you.
  • Ignore provocation. Do not be drawn into a power struggle, which is exactly what will happen if you attempt to assert your power right now. Walk away if you have to.
  • Speak your expectations clearly. “I don’t want to hear that kind of language.” “I expect you to listen when I give you a direction.” Stick to it but don’t feel you need to explain or defend it. Don’t negotiate.
  • Give encouragement when you see or hear things you like.
  • Spend some time with them. Let the relationship do the repairing.

Now. What was the child feeling? Probably frustration and a need for power. Now that everyone is calm, you can work with your child on ways to have (age-appropriate) input into rules and routines in order to feel more in control. Can you arrange for he and his brother to have separate play time? Can she choose when she does her chores, with the promise of an activity she enjoys at the end (or even while she does the work; music, an audiobook)? Can she practice deep breathing with you so she can learn to express her feelings appropriately?

Alright. Now close your eyes again. And have a nice long nap.

 

 

 

 

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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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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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