Thursday, July 29, 2010


I read a post in the Daddy Dialectic blog the other day about gender equality at home and it got me thinking...

As I've mentioned before, our family is moving. Ava recently got a new job, and, as such, we are extracting our lives from Cincinnati and transferring them to Lexington, KY. However, before Ava got the new job, she had applied to and been accepted for a research methods training course that would take place at the end of July. To manage the kids in her absence, we had decided back in April to take them to my parent's house for the week of Ava’s training. That way, I would get some help with the kids and my parents would get some extended face time with their grandchildren. So when Ava got the new job, we had a decision to make. Do we cancel the training and the trip in order to handle the details of moving or do we just tack another event on to the previously scheduled ones?

We weren't thrilled with the first option - we knew that the training was going to be a good one, and I didn't relish the idea of disappointing my parents. So, making the second option work became our focus. After a while of discussing how to fit both the trip and the move into the month of July, we realized that this arrangement presented us with an opportunity. We were worried about what to do with the kids while the movers were in the house. Pip likes to be involved in any house related activities and keeping him out from under the feet of the movers without upsetting him was going to be a challenge. The obvious solution to this was right there in front of us: schedule the move for right after Ava's training and keep the kids at my parents for an extra couple of days. The kids were going to be there anyway and by keeping them with my parents for a bit longer, Ava and I wouldn't have to bounce them from house to hotel to new apartment on the day of the move.

And yet, Ava and I were uneasy about the idea of doing all of this at once. The week away was already going to be a big undertaking. Adding the move was going to draw very heavily on our physical and psychic resources. Plus, Ava and I both felt a certain amount of guilt about our assigned roles. Ava felt guilty for leaving me to manage the children without her for so long. I felt guilty that Ava would have to drive twelve hours from the site of the training in order to meet the movers and chaperone all our stuff down to Lexington.

We eventually put the guilt aside. Keeping the kids with my parents for the extra days was the best available plan and, in practice, it worked out very well. But all our uneasiness did get me thinking about where that guilt came from and what it means for us.

My first thought was that our guilt emerged from the reversal of industrial-era gender roles existing within the plan – i.e. more often the wife/mother would take the kids to her parents while the father would do the moving work. In this theory, our guilt would be a result of our blatant violation of an established cultural inheritance. This kind of violation, even when I know it’s insignificant, still makes me feel strange. For example, having Ava mow the yard seems odd to me. That’s my job. More importantly, it’s my job because my dad mowed our yard and his dad mowed their yard. It’s just what I am supposed to do.

However, this theory would also lead us to expect that neither Ava nor I would experience any guilt about the plan if our roles were reversed. I don’t think this is true. If Ava took the kids to her parents and I handled the move, we would both still feel guilty about not being able to help the other with their task.

Which leads me to another consideration…

In our family we have established a certain expectation that most household tasks are shared. At various times, Ava and I both take the lead in doing laundry, cooking food, cleaning bathrooms, or bathing the kids. While we certainly have our own tasks, the lines that divide one person’s responsibilities from the other’s are much less distinct than they were in my parents’ household. I get the sense that this increased scrambling of household tasks is true for many families now. In many of the families that I know, each parent ends up doing a little bit of everything and in the process the traditional domestic roles of husband and wife, father and mother become pretty hazy.

Now our moving plan ran completely counter to this sharing framework of organization. Instead of spreading out each job across us, it demanded that we undertake our tasks wholly and completely for a number of days without the ability of the other to assist in any physical way. It was in essence an old school division of labor that took advantage of our individual skills and played to our specialized foundations of knowledge. By the standards of basic economic theory, it was rational and it was efficient. Each of us did what we could do in order to accomplish the larger goal of moving our family from one place to another. As such, one could argue, it was a plan based in the idea that equality can be found in diversity. It was just not the kind of equality we were used to.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bedtime renewal

So often it’s big things that make me frustrated and little things that remind me how great it is to be a dad. Here’s one of the latter that I didn’t want to let slip past.

Pip has been taking swim lessons for about six months now. Last fall we started going to a ‘water babies’ session at the local YMCA where kids and parents putter around a pool and get the kids used to the idea of being in a giant tub of water. Pip liked it a lot so when he turned three in January, we signed him up for the full scale, learning to swim version. He’s been going every week since. Last month, the swim instructor invited me to come into the pool with the class under the rationale that if I was there and wanted to help with my kid, he was happy to have the extra set of hands. This has worked out great for us. Pip gets to splash and frolic with daddy and I get to swim a little bit each week. As such Tuesday afternoons have become one of the most highly anticipated and ultimately enjoyable blocks of our week.

Unfortunately, there was one week that did not live up to our expectations. About a month ago we had one of those days when things just did not go the way we wanted them to. First of all, the instructor bailed on us by making the entire hour a ‘free play hour’ instead of going through the set exercises like we usually do. The other kids loved this, but Pip is not immediately comfortable in chaos that is not of his own creation. He prefers to have a certain order around him or at the very least a space separate from the jumping and splashing and shouting of the others. Secondly, the instructor also moved all of us to the facility’s outside pool for our hour of play. This would have been fine if the weather was hot and sunny. However, we had enjoyed some beautifully cool weather over the previous few days and the pool temperature as a result was chilly at best. To compound this, a thin veil of clouds kept the sun out of view for much of the afternoon and a slight breeze frequently blew across the pool area. Thus, we had cool water, cooler air, and a whole mess of kids splashing, jumping, and getting in the way. Not a good recipe for us.

Pip tried to make the most of it. He gamely waded into the shallow end to practice putting his face in the water. Then, he did a couple of doggie-paddle laps before deciding that he would like to do some jumping in instead. I was in the water the whole time bouncing up and down trying to keep warm. After about twenty-five minutes, the chill finally won out and with blue lips and shivering legs we headed into the locker room to take a hot shower.

We came home that evening in a mildly somber and distracted mood which Ava managed to keep from getting worse. She got Pip through dinner by telling him stories about when he was born. There is nothing fancy or outlandish about these stories but an extended version of the basic who, what, and when was enough to distract him for the time necessary to consume most of his food. In this way, we made it through dinner and on to the bedtime routine without any major breakdowns.

Our bedtime routine has evolved over time into a series of shifts and handoffs between Ava and I that finally ends with Pip, Polly and I all together in Pip’s room. Once Ava leaves the room, Pip hangs out on his bed while I walk Polly – happily strapped in a baby carrier - back and forth until she falls asleep. Once Polly has fully crashed, I take her into her room and put her into her crib. Then, I go back and lay down with Pip until he falls asleep, too. The whole process runs about 45 minutes to an hour.

Usually Pip comes with me to put Polly in her crib. He likes to come into her room, turn on the baby monitor, and roll around on the floor while I perform the steps necessary to carefully remove Polly from the baby carrier and get her down into the crib. Oftentimes, Pip will make some kind of low-level noise during this process like kicking his feet on the floor or whispering questions to me or scraping himself back and forth along the edge of the rug. I’m always worried he’s going to wake Polly up with this fidgeting. Usually it’s a silly concern because Polly is out and can’t be roused with a 20 piece brass band. But every once in a while she doesn’t play by the established rules. For some reason, she hears or feels something that catches her interest and she decides to open her eyes and take a look around. Then we have to start the bedtime choreography all over again and its 10 PM before everyone is finally asleep. I never know exactly when such a night is coming so Pip’s noise making constantly worries me.

This particular night Pip added an extra hurdle to getting Polly down on the first try. As we were heading out of his room and into Polly’s, he informed me that he needed to pee. When he said this I thought he was just going to go straight to the bathroom but instead he followed me into Polly’s room and went to turn on the monitor as usual. Then, as I was beginning the delicate process of shifting Polly’s head around to unclip first the left carrier strap and then the right, Pip headed for the door. He passed through the doorway, grabbing the doorknob and pulling the door quickly behind him. As he did so, I tensed up involuntarily in anticipation of the door slamming against the jamb. I could hear the noise coming. I could see Polly’s eyes popping open. I could feel my spirits deflating that much further after the disappointment of the afternoon. All this passed through me as the door swung to meet the frame.

Then, Pip, without apparent thought or effort, caught the door with his hand and skillfully eased it to a stop with about half an inch to spare. No bang. No click. Just the sound of little feet padding down the hallway into the bathroom. It’s a move I’ve done a hundred times but one that I never considered Pip to be aware of, much less capable of executing. And he did it so naturally and with such nonchalant fluidity that I wonder if he was even conscious of what he was doing in the moment itself. All I know for sure is that after putting Polly down, I walked into the bathroom to find Pip sitting on the toilet, dinosaur pajama pants around his ankles and a big smile on his face. He was so proud of himself that I couldn’t help but smile too.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Taming the Wildebeest

We are in the process of selling our house and, given the nature of the current housing market, it is a real struggle. So, we are doing everything we can to get that one magic person to walk through our door. This is includes doing open houses on as many Sunday afternoons as possible.

Early on we decided that the best way for our family to deal with an open house day was to set things up the night before and then get out of Dodge after breakfast the next morning. That way we don’t spend the entire morning trying to corral Pip’s and Polly’s natural inclinations towards chaos or fretting about what other little things Ava and I might do to make the house look just a touch nicer. To accomplish this, we have taken to going on day trips.

The past two open house days we have ventured out to a state park that is about an hour from our house. The state park has a small lake, a nice wooden, A-frame lodge, a few hiking trails, and a nature center with some rehabing raptors and a live mountain lion. We take a picnic lunch with us and go play in a creek that runs along the side of one of the hiking trails. It’s a wonderfully peaceful spot. The creek runs down between two hills and is just deep enough to cover your ankles. The running water and the shade of the summer foliage overhead keeps things cool even when the temps are breaking the 90 degree barrier. And the kids love having the freedom to play. They throw rocks in the water, traipse up and down through the shallow areas, float sticks through the mini-rapids, and look under rocks for crawdads. Throw in a few nostalgic memories of creek-walking from my own childhood and the general absence of other people and this excursion has become one of my favorite things to do as a family.

All that fun does take its toll, however, and when we get back to the house in the afternoon, everyone is exhausted. Now, this type of exhaustion can be really nice if you have the chance to languish in it - maybe have a beer or some ice cream, then put your feet up and watch the sun set. Unfortunately, the kids are not ready for that kind of recovery process yet. They are more in the coax-some-food-into-me-then-put-me-in-the-bath kind of stage. This is a fine process, too, though much less relaxing for Ava and me than the beer and sunset version.

So, two weekends ago, we had an open house, we went out for the day to the state park, and we returned home tired. We dragged the kids into the house, and they set about acting out in their established ways. For Pip this means that he becomes whiny. He wants this, he wants that. If something isn’t exactly right, tears will follow. Polly, in contrast, becomes mischievous. She’ll push the limits on things, letting her impulses to bang, throw, or yell run even more freely than usual.

One of the tricks Polly has developed over time is this high pitched screech. Modeled after a scream Pip uses when he is overly excited, the screech starts quietly and seems like it is going to build into a full scream, but as her voice gets louder it starts to break apart. Instead of a single clear tone, the sound rattles around in her throat, giving the final pitch a slight gargle at its apex. She usually deploys this screech during meal times after she’s had her fill and is starting to get bored with being strapped into her chair. The sound echoes around our kitchen and effectively ends any other conversation taking place. It also has the power to bring Pip to tears.

Pip has never been able to make sense of the screech. To him, it seems random and unpredictable. He can’t correlate it with any other regular happening and so the screech doesn’t have a set place in his knowledge of the world. Sometimes he finds it funny. Sometimes he finds it annoying. Oftentimes, it scares him. All he knows for sure is that he can’t ignore it. He has to react in some way. So, when Polly looks directly at Pip in the instance before she lets loose, you can feel Pip tense up in expectation. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen but more often than not it all ends with him huddling up on his chair with his hands covering his ears – a reaction that Polly finds very amusing.

And so, on this night when Pip was tired and whiny and Polly was acting especially mischievous, the conditions were ripe for some theatrics. About halfway through dinner Polly let loose with a full throated screech. Pip dove for cover. After about fifteen seconds of this, I got up and took Polly out of the kitchen in order to move her away from Pip. After a couple of minutes or so when Pip began to calm down, I walked with Polly back into the kitchen to continue with dinner.

Then Polly took things to a new level.

Walking back into the kitchen, she went around the table to the chair where Pip was sitting. She does this frequently during mealtimes. Usually she just wants to say hello or see what Pip is doing up close for a moment. This time, however, she walked over, looked straight into Pip’s eyes, and let out the screech again. This caught all of us off guard and sent Pip into a whole new round of convulsions that were capped off with him wailing, “Why? Why? Why did she do that? Why?” I finally hustled over and carried her once again out of the kitchen.

After Pip had settled down again, Polly and I came back into the kitchen to try and finish off our meal. Polly had different ideas. She walked right back to the same spot from which I had whisked her away a few minutes before. I didn’t move to stop her because I couldn’t imagine that she would do the same thing again. It was such a brazenly deliberate move that I didn’t think she was capable of it. And yet, there I went hauling her a third time out into the living room while Pip shed still more tears. With this, we mercifully brought an end to dinner for the night.

Ava took Pip on to her lap and tried to explain to him what was going on. She told him that Polly was tired and was using her ‘wild animal noise’ to get a reaction out of him. Its tough to know exactly what Pip understood but as we talked it through several more times, he was able to calm down. Also, as we repeated this explanation over and over, the ‘wild animal noise’ morphed into the ‘wild beast noise’ and then finally into the ‘call of the wildebeest.’

This last phrase, ‘the call of the wildebeest,’ seems to have tickled his funny bone, and in doing so may have finally enabled him to fit Polly’s screech into a fixed locus of meaning. Because today at lunch when Polly broke out the screech once again, I asked Pip, “Is that a wildebeest I hear?” and he responded with a smile and a short laugh. No tears, no nervousness. Just a confident nod of bemused acknowledgement. Polly, ever watchful, decided to try banging the table with her sippy cup instead.