Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Piss on the Door Knobs

Hello readers, Ava here. I have asked Jeff to use his blogspace to insert some reflections about parenting in the post-industrial era. While Jeff’s perspective is written from the local, household influence, I’d like to write about the political economy of parenting in these post-industrial times. What I have found is that what distinguishes us from our parent’s and grandparent’s generation are the constraints that act upon us for which we have no control.

We moved for employment a year ago. Our house didn’t sell the first week on the market, or the first month, or the first year. To sell it, we will pay an ungodly amount of money to bring our total losses to an even more ungodly amount of money. And it hurts. Polly was born there. Pip took his first steps there. There were birthdays and holidays and visits from friends. I remember the weekend that Polly learned to wave and we had pizza at the kitchen table for dinner.

We now rent a two bedroom apartment, as described in Jeff’s post, On Wildness and Sharing Our Space. And while the location is wonderful, we are tired of being exploited in the shameful renter/tenant environment that clouds most places in America. Our lease was inaccurate when signed, we are responsible for maintaining a property that the owner avoids responsibility at all costs, and we are at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.

For the past two months, we have pursued purchasing another home. After signing a contract and getting it inspected, we found that the risk of potential repairs was too great. And we’re sad, because we feel we have done “everything right” and we deserve the security and stability that marked previous generations.

And this is the chaos of post-industrial parenting: the notion of doing “everything right” as causally related to security and prosperity is a myth. I know it’s a myth, I teach hundreds of students a semester that it’s a myth, and yet I don’t want to believe it. I want to believe that I can work harder and harder and it will result in a better life for my family. I want to believe that there is a “right decision” and a “right way” and that we are, indeed, doing things right. And the frustrating thing for the post-industrial parents is that we ARE doing everything right. It just doesn’t mean what it used to.

In explaining our ups-and-downs in the post-industrial economy, a friend of ours said of our vacant house, “Piss on the door knobs. It will make you feel better.” Well, as a nation, we’d better get ready for a whole lotta piss on a whole lotta doorknobs. Because there are a whole lotta post-industrial parents doing “everything right.” And we’ve got nothing to show for it but vacant houses with pissy doorknobs and a crumbling economy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Wildness and Sharing Our Space

In the midst of a busy and complicated part of the summer for our family I decided to take an impromptu break from my weekly blog writing. It started out as just another delayed posting, something that had become frequent over the summer. But after spending ten days in late July visiting with my parents and three of my closest friends and then taking another three days or so to recover from it all, a few items arose with the house we have been trying to sell. After more than a year, a potential buyer had finally emerged, and we made a push to make sure the house was in great shape for their decisive walk-through. In order to handle those details, I decided to let another week slide by without a blog entry. Since then we have undergone a multi-week frenzy of real estate selling and real estate shopping that continues to soak up more of my life than I wish. It has been difficult to think about anything else, including putting together a blog post.

During this frenzy, a touch of wildness has entered the play of Polly and Pip. While they have always enjoyed tracking back and forth along the straight-line that runs from their bedroom through the dining room and into the living room couch, now each run ends with an airborne child crashing face first into pillows and cushions. In addition, they have started adding odd sound effects to their lives: grunts, buzzes, and growls fill any quiet moment at the dinner table, in the bathroom, or outside playing. Stomping across the creaky hardwood floors of our apartment has also become a regular form of entertainment. One day last week they pulled out every doll and stuffed animal they possess, piled them on the floor in their bedroom, and proceeded to slide, crash, stomp, and jump on the pile.

In and of themselves these actions are not particularly new, but the energy with which Polly and Pip pursue them has intensified. The reasons for this intensification are multiple. For one thing, Polly is growing more physically adept every day. She can now jump down from 18-24 inches above the ground and land on her feet. She can slide headfirst off Pip’s bed without hurting herself. She can copy all the noises Pip makes. In all, she can do an increasing number of the things that Pip can do. This means they are playing together more and engaging in a type of mutually reinforcing play that takes Pip’s energetic ideas and ramps them up to levels I wasn’t prepared for. Ava and I have approached this development tentatively; we are thrilled that they are playing together and want to stay out of the way as much as possible but at the same time we’d like them to maintain some semblance of self-control. Figuring out when to stay aloof and when to step in has taken some time and experimentation.

Also, much of August was so hot that we were unable to get in our customary evening walks. For most of the summer, we took the kids out after dinner, put them in the double jogger and rolled them around the neighborhood for a half-hour or so. This gave us a regularly planned activity that headed off some of the end-of-the-day squirreliness that the kids get as they grow tired and gave Ava and me a few minutes to catch up with each other. Without these walks, we found ourselves at loose ends for the hour or so between the end of dinner and the start of the bedtime routine. This open, unstructured time works okay in the morning when the kids can direct themselves. But in the evening, it generally leads to craziness.

It hasn’t helped that our real estate frenzy has sucked away time that Ava and I normally spend with the kids. Over the last couple of weeks I have spent multiple hours talking on the telephone with Ava, my parents, and real estate agents while trying to cook lunch, to get Polly through the bathroom process, to take the kids to the park, and to do any number of other basic activities during which the kids usually have our undivided attention. At first they thought our distraction was fun. It was something new for them to figure out. But now that this curiosity has worn off, they quickly become unhappy and demanding whenever the phone rings. It has been a stressful experience for all of us as Ava and I know exactly what is happening but feel compelled to continue with our conversations anyway.


With all of this swirling around us, I’ve come to appreciate the attraction of having a larger living space than the one we currently occupy. Our apartment consists of a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom for Ava and me, and one for Pip and Polly. Within this configuration, there is really no place the kids can go play without having to constantly negotiate with their parents. Their bedroom presents some opportunity for separation, but between the two beds, a rocking chair, a set of shelves and a dresser, there is very little floor space available for energetic play or multi-day toy arrangements. This leaves the dining room and the living room for these kinds of things. However, those are spaces which we all share together, meaning the kids cannot have primacy in either for extended periods of time.

When I was younger, my sister and I were fortunate to have two such spaces. One room was a storage room running under the eaves of our house that my parents turned over to us for a play room. We had shelves, a record player, and a dresser to stuff with our things. Toys remained strewn across the floor for weeks at a time. We also had a full, finished basement that was lightly furnished. It was an excellent space to get away from our parents’ eyes and have a pillow fight or eat a bit too much candy. It also gave our parents a place to send us when we got too rowdy upstairs in the nicer rooms of our house.

And, in truth, I had a third space that fit this characterization: my own bedroom. In many respects I was not as free to do with this room as I was the playroom or the basement – it wasn’t the place for rough play and it had to be kept relatively neat and clean – but it was a place for me to retreat to, a room where I could close the door, where I could decide who would come in and who would stay out. It was a separate space of my own, one that facilitated my own individuation.

Pip and Polly do not have that kind of space (and, frankly, neither do Ava and I) in our current apartment. While I don’t think all of this shared space creates a necessarily better or worse experience than my own, living here certainly hasn’t been meaningless. Sharing this apartment for the last year has shaped the way we relate to one another. I think and talk more about ‘family’ as my primary social unit than I used to – there’s a lot more “our” and “we” in my speech than “I” now. I have also slowly peeled away the time I have designated for myself as the demands of keeping the kids and the house together have increased. Part of this is the reality of having young kids and performing my role as their primary caretaker. Part of it has to do with the shared nature of the apartment space. With an extra room or two we’d probably just designate an area for kid craziness and send Polly and Pip there when they want to bounce around. Instead, we have to constantly negotiate with one another, finding a way to accommodate our different needs for the space we have and our different ideas about what the space can and should be used for. It would seem like a recipe for frustration – and sometimes it is – but ultimately I think it has been good for us. When there is nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide, you have to talk with one another; at the very least you have to tell each other what you are up to or what you are planning to do. With all that talking we get to practice communicating with each other. We’ve had to figure out how to make requests and demands of one another in respectful and conscious ways. All that practice has been valuable when real problems have arisen.


And yet, even as I write this, Pip has started carving out little bits of personal space around the apartment. Now whenever it is time to clean up and put things away, it is common for Pip to identify some creation or arrangement of things he would like for us to leave in place for the next day. Yesterday it was a fire truck by the bathroom door. Today it was a pile of LEGO pieces he had collected in a little cup and left by his seat at the dinner table. More often than not he never returns to these items. They get forgotten over the night and reintegrated into the play of the next morning. The regularity of this pattern makes me see these acts as a way of staking a more permanent claim to our shared spaces, as a way of exercising some control over them even when he is not present in them. It is his way of asserting his own individual place amidst the communal swirl of our family. I imagine there will be many more instances of this kind of activity headed our way in the future.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sibling parents

In his four and a half years of life, Pip’s dominant examples of social interaction have come almost exclusively from Ava and me. While in some ways this relationship is to be expected of most children and their primary caregivers, Pip’s bubble has a few qualities that make it even more intense. For starters, since I am a full-time father, he has had very limited experience with non-familial caregivers like preschool teachers, day care providers, nannies, or even babysitters. Our home-centered childcare model also means that he does not currently have a classroom of peers that he interacts with on a regular basis. Instead, his contact with children his own age tends to be limited to whatever casual interactions happen on the playground. Lastly, as we don’t watch television with the kids, that avenue of social observation is also unavailable to him. For better or worse, when Pip wants a model for how to handle a situation, he is largely stuck with using what he has observed from us as his starting point.

One effect of this bubble is that frequently Pip’s mode of approach to Polly has been parental. At times this has taken on a classic, bossy older sibling form where he watches Polly closely and does his best to regulate her behavior according to the rules as he knows them. He keeps her from walking out into the street without a parent. He gently chastises her for throwing something inside the house. He asks her repeatedly not to splash water out of the bathtub. He does all these things because he has seen Ava and me do them.

But other times he mimics our caring acts, whether it’s helping Polly get something that is out of her reach or finding toys to entertain her while Ava and I are cleaning up the dishes. He is particularly quick to seek out ways to comfort her in times when he anticipates she’ll be upset.
He can be very creative in these endeavors. He’ll bring her little gifts from the toy shelf or he’ll make up silly rhymes to make her laugh.

One day this past week Polly woke up from her afternoon nap in a cranky mood. This sent Pip scurrying about in search of a way to help her through this. After about half-an-hour, as Polly’s mood started to brighten, I went into their room and found all their larger stuffed animals sitting on the floor. Tigger, Eyeore, Purple Duck, Blue the bear, Soft-soft Bunny, and Woolly Mammoth were arranged in a tight circle around George, a old teddy bear that is one of Polly’s favorites. When I asked Pip what was going on, he told me he had created a “family hug” for George in hopes that it would make Polly feel better. Whether this arrangement was meant to make her laugh or to give her a big hug using George as her proxy, I’m not sure. But either way it was a gesture that warmed all of our hearts.


These parenting efforts by Pip leave me feeling somewhat ambivalent. While there is plenty of historical precedent for older siblings taking on a parental role with younger siblings - particularly in larger families where taking care of younger brothers and sisters was frequently part of an older child’s core responsibilities – I feel like contemporary social expectations tell me that Pip is doing too much. He is supposed to be an independent kid, living his own childhood free from the burden of feeling responsible for someone else. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this feeling is coming from, but I can see some manifestation of it in the narratives of sacrifice that people use when they talk about unconventional families where older siblings take on tasks usually handled by parents or adult caregivers. In these narratives, older siblings often get depicted as martyrs, giving up their childhood so that younger brothers or sisters can have one. Such an understanding depends on the idea that the older siblings had little responsibility for their younger siblings in the first place.

Perhaps this is how it should be. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can feel the influence of this idea on my interpretation of Pip’s relationship with Polly. Early on, Ava and I tried to reduce the amount of behavior regulation work he did, telling Pip that such things were our job and that his job was to play with Polly. This did not really have much effect on him. I imagine there are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, the distinction we were trying to make was vague, randomly applied, and at times just confusing. It was unfair to expect a three or four-year-old to really make sense of it. For another, playing with Polly was something that Pip had to figure out and to do that he had to start somewhere. As his predominant examples for interacting with his sister were parental ones, it is not surprising that these approaches were the ones he tried first. On top of that, Pip’s social inclination is to observe and analyze the activities of other people. He is constantly interested in the actions of those around him, often to the point of distraction. With respect to Polly, this inclination led him easily into a mode of parental-style surveillance where he sees when she is doing something wrong and tries to help all of us by getting her to stop whatever it is.

More recently, we have backed off our attempts to actively shape the way Pip approaches his relationship with Polly. While we still step in when we sense Pip is getting overbearing, we have mostly allowed their interactions to develop as they will. Fortunately, this seems to be working as, on a daily basis, there is more play and less bossing than before. I think much of the reason for this is Polly’s own developmental growth and her quickly expanding physical and linguistic capacities. Her increasing ability to keep up with Pip makes the power dynamics in their play more balanced which in turn is enabling the emergence of the kind of relational structures that we were initially trying to force upon Pip.


All the same the power of the bubble remains in effect as Polly has now taken to doing a bit of parenting of her own. The same day that Pip built the family hug around George, Polly began trying to help Pip with his bicycle. While out on a walk that afternoon, Pip got his training wheels stuck on an uneven spot in the sidewalk. Usually when this happens, I give him a little push to get him going again. This time, Polly wanted to be the one to give him the push. She rushed forward and strained hard against the bike seat to get him moving. When he finally did inch forward again, she looked back at me with a twinkle in her eyes. She had helped Pip, just as any good parent would do.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fundamental Problems

How come so many children of well-off, attentive, and conscientious parents are growing up into emotionally fragile and narcissistic adults whose dominant feelings are ones of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety? This is the question at the center of the cover article for the Atlantic Monthly’s July/August “Ideas” issue. Entitled “How to Land Your Child in Therapy” and written by a psychologist and mother named Lori Gottlieb, the article argues that in their attempt to provide kids with a perfectly happy childhood, well-meaning parents are depriving their children of the kinds of failures and discomforts necessary for learning resilience, independence, and self-confidence. As happiness cannot be a constant state – it, like all other emotions, is only understood in comparison to all one’s other feelings – these parents, Gottlieb concludes, are preventing their children from acquiring qualities that are vitally important to living a functional and meaningful life.

Gottlieb supports this conclusion by pointing out a range of ways that contemporary parents (of a particular class standing) are paying too much attention to smoothing the ripples in the daily lives of their children. This protective mode begins early with parents swooping in to help a fallen toddler before they even start to cry. It moves on to intervening in the negotiations of preschoolers to insure a parental interpretation of fairness even after the kids who were quarreling have worked things out to their own satisfaction. It spikes with the placing of kids in noncompetitive sports leagues where no one (officially) keeps score.

As these children age, their parents constantly tell them how special they are and rarely offer a meaningful evaluation of their own capacities. They become the center of all family activity with mom and dad shuttling them from place to place and running back home when they forget to turn off their laptop. The product of this kind of attention is a blissfully/ignorantly happy child who moves into adulthood with an overwhelming sense of entitlement and a critical lack of functional resiliency. This “overinvestment” of modern parents in their children, writes Gottlieb, is contributing to a “burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.”


An obvious question that arises from this assessment is: why are we (and both Gottlieb and I consciously include ourselves in this group) parents going to such ends with our children? Gottlieb and all the experts she quotes believe that modern parents are, at one level or another, using their children to address their own emotional issues. Whether this is the absence of other meaningful relationships, a desire to find some avenue for outstanding achievement, or to overcorrect for what they see as their own deficiencies, modern parents are, Gottlieb argues, often crossing the line between “selflessness (making our kids happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy).”

This line, of course, is a very difficult one to negotiate. Gottlieb herself notes with a touch of bewilderment how she and other experts find themselves experiencing the same inclinations with their own children that they criticize in others. As Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist at Harvard told her, “I’m about to become an empty-nester and sometimes I feel like I’d burn my kids’ college applications just to have somebody to hang around with.”

Ultimately, though, Gottlieb declares that there is a fundamental immaturity at work in their behavior that overinvested parents need to deal with. “Maybe,” she writes, “we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do.” “Our children,” says Wendy Mogul, another expert quoted in the article, “are not our masterpieces.”


It seems to me that the diagnosis of parental immaturity and, more importantly, the idea that we parents need to grow up overlook an important quality embedded in the modern relationship between parent and child. In the agricultural era preceding and overlapping with the industrial revolution, procreation carried with it a certain economic logic. While each new child represented another mouth to feed, it also added another pair of hands to do chores, gather food, herd animals, etc. Given the prevalence of large families during this period, I feel it’s safe to assume that on balance the production of children added slightly more to the family economy than their consumption took away. I think it is also safe to assume that until the advent and widespread acceptance of child labor laws, this economic logic remained an important influence during the industrial era as well. Add into these calculations the need for continued familial care as parents aged, and the rationale for having children certainly extended beyond a mere biological impetus.

Those rationales no longer exist. Having a child in twenty-first century America is an act that places a significant drain on a couple’s resources. To start with, you’re looking at almost two decades of feeding, clothing, educating, entertaining, and insuring this child. Then, if you’re lucky, you get to pay for college. It all costs a lot of money. And with retirement funds, Social Security, Medicare, and the cultural push to maintain an independent household in one’s golden years, children no longer bear the type of caregiving responsibilities for their parents that they used to. It all means that, from a logical perspective, the costs of having a child in this day and age far outweigh the quantifiable benefits.

This reality means that for a great many people the choice to have a child emerges from a largely emotional motivation. In deciding to bear a child, these parents seek to obtain something meaningful and ineffable, an experience that makes the economic costs of the endeavor unimportant. Perhaps this makes parents ‘immature,’ but it fundamentally cannot be any other way. The emotional ‘overinvestment’ of parents is embedded in that relationship from the beginning. You can’t ‘grow-up’ and change it.

And the decision aspect of all of this should not be underestimated. With the development of a pill for birth control in 1960 and the subsequent proliferation and normalization of pharmaceutical contraception, any biological impetus that might be seen as driving procreation can be largely subverted. This disjuncture between sex and reproduction (at least in populations with access to decent health care) has made having a child that much more of a considered choice. In so many more cases now than in earlier eras, childbearing is a project that a couple decides to take on, not one that they happen to fall into.


What I guess I am arguing here is that I find it unfair and unhelpful to condescendingly urge hyper-invested parents to “grow up” in their relationships with their children. In that framework, the only thing one can do that would pass for actual ‘maturity’ is to not have children at all. While this would certainly solve the problem of self-entitled teacups (if they really are that much of a problem), I don’t think that is the kind of change Gottlieb has in mind.

Plus, it is not hard to find other factors that might explain, and provide avenues for influencing, the proliferation of “burgeoning” narcissists. For one thing, there is an awful lot of money to be made from perfection-seeking parents and fragile, self-centered children, particularly in an economy that is more and more oriented towards providing services of every stripe and color. And, aren’t the feelings of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety exactly what advertisers are trying to provoke? In a society where advertising saturates just about every possible experience, why would we expect people to be happy, confident, and fulfilled? I’m not sure it matters what kind of parents one has when the predominant themes of so many images we encounter on a daily basis are that we need something or that we are missing out on something. In light of this bombardment, it seems incredible to believe that people might think about themselves in any other way.

Perhaps a fuller recognition of the effects these forces are having on ourselves and our children would be a more effective start towards keeping all of us out of therapy.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Looking Back; Looking Ahead

One year ago this week, I published the first post for Post-Industrial Parenthood. In honor of this anniversary here are four discoveries I’ve made in the process of putting this thing together each week:

1. Blogging is good for my parenting.

Parenting is a very gradual process containing long, repetitive stretches of maintenance punctuated by unpredictable bursts of excitement. It is a largely uncertain and constantly incomplete form of work. In the face of this open-endedness, it is helpful to have a project that is capable of providing a sense of accomplishment within a relatively short and easily defined time-frame.

The weekly posts for Post-Industrial Parenthood have come to fit the bill. Each week when I get a post completed and published, I get a little jolt of excitement. The completion of a cycle of outlining, drafting, typing, and publishing makes me feel productive and successful. It also brings me to a moment that I especially enjoy: the one just after completion where I feel justified in not doing anything for a day or two.

In addition to a sense of accomplishment, this project has made the decision-making processes of my parenting easier. I tend to think about the world in a post-hoc manner, feeling my way along and then (over)analyzing later on why I like or dislike something. Writing about the factors involved in such things as our decision not to send Pip or Polly to preschool or my enthusiasm for the kids’ interest in LEGOs has brought to my attention the things I truly value as a parent and has reinforced my understanding of how to realize those values. This understanding has made me a more confident parent as I have a clearer sense of the basic principles I want to guide my decisions in various situations. This doesn’t mean I’ll always make the right choice, but at least I have a better chance of knowing what the right choice is.

And, I get to tell stories in the process. There are frequently events that occur or thoughts that come to mind that I want to share with people but that don’t fit into the flow of everyday conversation. When this happens, these stories and ideas become like a caged animal in my mind. They pace within my skull, circling round and round looking for some way out. At the rare times when a conversation will provide the opening to unleash one of these thoughts, the experience is a mildly ecstatic combination of excitement and relief that feels much like winning a good door-prize at the company Christmas party.

Post-Industrial Parenthood has allowed me to share many more of these thoughts than I would otherwise ever get the chance to. As a result I’ve had many more ecstatic moments and become a more patient and less distracted parent.

2. The audience influences the material.

When I first started writing posts for Post-Industrial Parenthood, I wanted to publish stories that would appeal to friends and family as well as a broader audience of readers who might be interested in some of the social and cultural aspects of parenting in this era. What I did not anticipate was the importance a third group of readers would have on the topics and stories I decided to take on.

About a month or so into writing, I came to realize that I was not just interested in speaking to those who would be reading from week to week but also to those who might read these entries twenty or thirty years from now. This group would obviously include adult versions of Polly and Pip as well as much older versions of myself and Ava. The emerging awareness that I was recording a sort of family history with Post-Industrial Parenthood led me to write about more individual moments and milestones than I had originally intended. On the whole, the blog has become more personal than I initially thought it would be.

3. Kid Moments are blogger candy.

Back in February, Ava and I finished watching the fourth season of the television show 30 Rock. Organized around the interactions between the head writer of a Saturday Night Live-type television show and her boss - a businessman who has almost reached the top of the corporate ladder - 30 Rock is funny because, in addition to presenting the craziness going on behind the scenes of the television show, it satirizes many of the structures, practices, and pressures that are commonplace in large American businesses. Much like with The Office, this satire gave 30 Rock an extra sharpness that made it more interesting than the average television show.

In the fourth season this satire mostly slipped away. It was replaced by a couple cycles of dating/romantic slapstick with the businessman character. While these cycles were still funny, it feels like the originality of the show evaporated. What remained was sitcom candy – a series of storylines that were amusing but largely empty of real substance. After watching a few episodes, these storylines lost their distinction and started to taste like every other half-decent romantic comedy ever made.

In a parenting blog, Kid Moments – those stories where the kids do something that humorously reveals the parents’ ineptitude - present a similar danger. They are easy to write. The stories have a definite beginning, middle, and end. They are funny in a kind of inoffensive, banal way. And they happen just about every week. All together this makes it very tempting to write Kid Moments over and over again. But like candy and romantic slapstick, Kid Moments are largely repetitive and lacking in distinction. As an occasional break for both writer and reader, they are fun. As the main course, they quickly blend together in a mass that is basically dull and lifeless.

4. I’m beginning to figure out what it means to be a post-industrial parent.

When I started this blog last June, I chose the name Post-Industrial Parenthood because it conveyed a sense of the theoretical background upon which my writing would draw. The term ‘post-industrial’ was one I had encountered frequently in graduate school. It was used there mostly to point to a series of transitions taking place in advanced industrial economies like the United States whereby the driving force of economic growth was shifting from the manufacturing of goods to the provision of services. In such an environment jobs in government, research, education, health care, law, banking, and sales become more numerous than those in factories or manufacturing facilities. One result of this shift is the emergence of ‘knowledge’ as an important asset or measure of capacity for both individual workers and companies as a whole. Another is that the geographical location of these assets is becoming much less important than the network or web of (electronic) relations in which they operate. Ideas travel much easier than widgets.

As a parent, these developments exert pressure on me in at least one major way. When ‘knowledge’ and ‘networks’ are the most important assets my kids can obtain in their pursuit of a successful future, everything we do together takes on an extra bit of significance. Gaining ‘knowledge’ is an infinite business. Unlike developing a skill set where you learn a discrete series of operations and work to get better at them, building ‘knowledge’ is a process of constant education. It means gaining exposure to an unending array of ideas, concepts, narratives, facts, stories, and the like. And it starts from day 1. Acquiring ‘knowledge’ does not require the development of other capacities. It is something that is constantly in process. The same goes for building networks. There will always be more people to connect with and more links to be made.

The ‘responsible’ parent senses these facts and acts in accordance with their associated pressures. It’s one reason preschools sell themselves as places where children as young as two years old can gain socialization and prepare for kindergarten instead of as places to send the kids while mom or dad goes grocery shopping. Summer enrichment camps and toddler music groups both appeal in subtle ways to the same combination of ‘knowledge’ building and network development.

For me the central question of post-industrial parenthood is how much of this matters and what values we are enacting with the choices that we make. In a world where capital in the form of ‘knowledge’ and ‘networks’ is theoretically infinite, we’ll kill ourselves trying to acquire it all. The choices we make in the face of this reality and the underlying influences on how these choices appear to us will be a major theme in the year ahead.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fire and Ice

Tracking the growth and development of children can be a tricky business. There are plenty of physical traits you can measure with rulers and scales – height, weight, the progressive increase in clothes and shoe sizes – but the intellectual, psychological, and emotional ones are much less accessible. Once you get past basic things like speaking and eating, tracking these traits requires a lot of extrapolation from ad hoc events. Every once in a while, however, you do get some definite indicators regarding the kind of growth that is taking place. Saturday morning brought me one of those moments.


Pip fears thunderstorms. For reasons that he cannot articulate, thunder makes him exceedingly nervous. I think it has something to do with the deep and ominous intensity of the sound and the way it makes things vibrate as a clap rolls through the house. Whenever he hears this, Pip makes a beeline for Ava or me and will follow us around from room to room until he the storm has passed and he feels safe.

On Saturday morning, we had a line of thunderstorms blow across our region just after breakfast. They weren’t bad. There were no severe weather alerts or tornado warnings; just some rumbling and a bit of rain. Pip was handling it pretty well until we went back into the kids’ bedroom to make the beds and put on some daytime clothes. While Pip was pulling up his sheets and blanket, I opened the curtains in the room. He took a peek out the window and immediately collapsed on his pillow. When he looked up at me, his bottom lip was quivering and his eyes had the droopy, searching quality they take on whenever he is about to cry.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The ice scraper,” he said.

I looked out the window and saw laying along the path that runs beside our garage and into the backyard the black bristles and foot-long yellow handle belonging to one of the snow and ice scrapers for our car. Its presence there on the path was something of a surprise, though not because of the obvious seasonal disjuncture (both Pip and Polly have found our pair of scrapers to be highly versatile and entertaining toys). Instead, it was unusual for us to leave something out like that. We are usually very good about cleaning up all the playthings before we go inside for the evening. This scraper, however, was tucked far enough back along the path to have escaped our notice the day before.

Thinking Pip was concerned about the scraper getting wet, I said to him,

“Don’t worry, a little rain is not going to hurt it.”

To which he replied, “Yes, but it’s going to get struck by lightening.” Then he resolutely jammed his face back into the pillow. It was one of those incongruous moments with kids that are at once painful and downright hilarious. Even as his anguish resonated in my heart, I had to take a second to avoid laughing out loud.

The thing is Pip has a very clear idea of what happens to something when it gets struck by lightening. This idea is linked to a very specific experience. In the spring of last year, we had a line of brutally severe thunderstorms go through our area just before midnight. These storms brought with them a number of tornados and copious amounts of lightening. The storms were strong enough that we spent a good hour or so huddled in the basement that night sitting on blankets and checking the weather radio periodically to see when the danger had finally passed. The next morning we learned that during the storm lightening had taken down a local landmark in spectacular fashion. Up the highway from us, one of the new mega-churches had, a couple of years back, erected a building-sized sculpture depicting the arms and head of Jesus rising out of a small lake that sits in front of the church. As the highest object present in the open field in which the church was built, the sculpture was probably a magnet for lightening. Surely, it had been hit before. But this time it was different. Whatever defenses were in place were not enough to dissipate the massive amount of electrical energy the sculpture had to absorb. And, as it turns out, the styrofoam substance from which it was made was highly flammable. As such, the whole thing caught on fire, and once the sculpture was ablaze there was little to do but take pictures of the black clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky.

Pip and I saw some of those pictures the following afternoon. While he did not appreciate the variety of darkly funny suggestions these images presented, he was fascinated by the fact that lightening could create such a scene. He asked me to tell him the story of what happened over and over again that week and for several months afterwards one of his favorite ways to liven up a boring hour was to ask me about the “statue that got struck by lightening.”

Now, in Pip’s mind, the storm this past Saturday morning presented a similar threat to the yellow ice scraper. Lightening could strike it at any time, and the resulting fire would burn until all that was left was some blackened shards of melted plastic. The thought of this was just too much for him. To help him gain some relief, I talked him through a list of things that were different between the sculpture and the ice scraper. There were the obvious differences in size, the fact that the sculpture had been in an open field while the scraper was tucked away between numerous taller objects, and that, while the sculpture had a steel frame, there was no conductive material of any kind in the ice scraper. By patiently going through this list a couple of times, I began to calm him a bit and to release some of the tension from the position of fetal curvature his body had assumed.

While all of this was going on, Polly had been running back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, playing with some finger puppets and a fire truck. She finally came over to us as I was running for the third or fourth time through the list of reasons the ice scraper was not going to be hit by lightening. Looking over at her I saw that her bottom lip was protruding significantly out and downward, and I was grabbed by the sudden fear that she would be following her brother’s lead into barely contained distress.

I hesitantly asked her the same question I asked of Pip.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked up at me very seriously and, while holding that bottom lip firmly in place, said,

“Polly want to be upset, too.”

I stared at her for a moment wondering if I had heard her correctly, wondering if I had not understood what she was trying to say. Then, from down in the pillow, I heard Pip start to laugh. The laughter seemed to push his face upward, and as he turned toward us his teary eyes sparkled with glee. Seeing Pip, Polly’s face also changed. The bottom lip slipped back into its normal place, and a small grin began to emerge in place of her frown.

With this transformation I finally realized what was going on as well. Polly was obviously not upset. She had not wanted to be left out of whatever Pip was into. So, she had decided to follow his lead. For his part, Pip had picked up on the absurdity of Polly “wanting” to be upset before I had, and found it to be extremely funny. He found it so funny in fact that the ice scraper melted from his memory. He didn’t mention it again until that night at bedtime when, looking out the window, he once again saw it laying on the path by the garage. This second sighting precipitated a flashback and another small breakdown that was finally brought to an end by Ava’s going out and putting the thing away.


A month ago this whole scenario would not have been resolved in the way it was. Polly would have come in to the bedroom with her bottom lip stuck out and not been able to tell us exactly why she was doing it. Pip would not have understood the humor embedded in her act even if she had been able to tell us. That they both did what they did on Saturday morning is an indication of the kind of growth and development that is happening right now with them. It is amazing, hilarious, and unnerving all at the same time.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A week away...

I don't have a new entry for this week. I've spent much of my writing time helping Ava edit an article she is putting together. As it's now almost done, I'll have something new for you next week.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Training Day

It may not seem like it, but holding one’s pee and knowing ahead of time when a release of that pee is forthcoming are sequential, not coincidental, skills. This is something I did not appreciate when Pip was making the switch from diapers to underwear. As he started to show interest in using a toilet and began acquiring the ability to hold his pee for longer and longer periods, I expected him also to be able to tell me when he had to go. That he didn’t was a cause of much frustration for me. I didn’t understand the sequence and, as such, every time he wet his pants it sent me into all kinds of confused deliberations. I couldn’t figure out whether I was doing something wrong or he was just trying to antagonize me. This ignorance on my part made the whole toilet training experience much more difficult for Pip than it had to be.

What I understand now is that the tired line, “Toilet training a child is really about training the parents,” is true. The sequential nature involved in developing bladder control means that even after a child has learned the first step, a parent still has to be pro-active in order to get this child to deposit their waste fluids in a toilet instead of on the living room couch.

This is where Polly and I are at this moment. She can hold her pee long enough that wearing underwear all day is a viable proposition. We can go for a long walk and not worry that she will be wet before we get home. We can even get down to the park and back on most days, though this does push us up against her limit. But, as she can’t yet tell me ahead of time when her seal is going to break, I have to make sure she gets to the bathroom on a regular schedule. If I do this, she will stay dry all day. If I fail, she will plow through four sets of clothes in an afternoon.

So, Polly’s bathroom visits are a normal part of our everyday domestic life. She goes after breakfast, before snack, after snack, before lunch, after lunch, after nap, before dinner, and usually twice between dinner and bedtime. This pattern is so regular, I barely have to think about it when we’re at home. The challenge arises when we venture away from the house. Then, the regularity of our schedule breaks down and things get more difficult. On these trips, it becomes my responsibility to keep track of how long it has been since her last bathroom visit and to make a calculated guess as to how much longer we can go before we will need to find a restroom again. As there is no visible gauge by which to measure how much pee is currently residing in her bladder, this calculation is fraught with all kinds of uncertainties. Plus, my ability to keep track of these details is frequently hampered by the plethora of additional variables that come into play when we are out and about.

Our trip to the public library last week presents a prime example of the dynamics involved in this process:

First, I love taking Polly and Pip to the library. There are books to read, computers to type on, and stuffed animals to carry up and down the aisles. And the kids always seem to run into something new and interesting. Last week it was a massive globe overlaid with a contour map that allowed them to feel the difference in elevation between our home, the Rocky Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. They were enchanted by this globe and wanted to keep spinning it round and round.

At the same time, managing both of them and their disparate interests in this setting can be a challenge. It requires a certain amount of hedging, a certain amount of gambling, and a certain amount of willing ignorance as I keep bouncing back and forth between them. In short, I have to pick my spots and choose at any given moment which pull or request is most important to handle. Within this flow, monitoring Polly’s toilet timing doesn’t always stay at the forefront of my mind.

There is also another variable at play for me in a place such as the public library. I am very self-conscious about the counter-normative nature of my role as a full-time father. What I mean by this self-consciousness is that I know people are watching me, and I feel it is my responsibility to demonstrate what fathers are capable of. Despite the hordes of skilled and accomplished fathers out there, the bar of expectations regarding men’s parenting abilities remains set pretty low. I am reminded of this each time some stranger sees me out with my kids and says in passing “You’ve got your hands full today.” This is supposed to be a friendly and innocuous comment but, as with most pleasantries, it communicates more than the speaker necessarily intends. In this case, it says “I see you are out of your element. Good luck holding it together until you can pass those kids back to their mother.” Again, I know that the people saying this to me are not trying to be mean. They are trying to be sympathetic. And yet, they are basically saying that I, as a man, am largely incapable of handling small children, that when it comes to parenting I am a temporary stand-in, good mostly for providing the kids with some entertainment while the real experts, their mothers, get to take a well-deserved hour away.

For many men, this implication is fine. It allows them to be distanced and distracted when watching their kids. It gives them some leeway to screw up without incurring any real social penalty. It enables them to be little better than a third-rate nanny and still be praised for their efforts.

But I hate it. I don’t want to play the overwhelmed father. I don’t want to have my efforts devalued and brushed aside. And I don’t want other men to get away with shoddy parenting because that’s all that is expected of them.

As such I constantly strive to show how much fathers can handle. I work to stay calm regardless of what Polly and Pip do. I pay close attention to their questions and seek to help them with whatever needs they have. I avoid appearing frazzled or overwhelmed even when I’m tired and frustrated. I inject care and confidence into my interactions with Pip and Polly. I do all of this because I am a good parent but also as a way of demonstrating to those who may be watching that I am fully capable of parenting my children; that, no, my hands aren’t full today.

Then last week, as I am juggling the kids’ various interests while simultaneously trying to select a couple of books the kids will find fun and I will not mind reading repeatedly over the next two weeks, Polly says to me, “Polly needs to pee.” Unfortunately, what she means by this is: “I am currently hosing down my drawers and you may want to get me to the nearest bathroom forthwith.” So, I quickly scoop her up, call for Pip to follow us, and head for the restroom where I can switch out her wet pants and underwear for the dry set I always carry in my backpack.

No problem. Polly and Pip handle the whole thing very well. Polly doesn’t get upset about being whisked up and away and Pip follows us without hesitation. In the bathroom, Polly stands still while I take off her soiled duds and replace them with a clean set of pants and a pair of blue rocket ship underwear. Pip takes the opportunity to relieve himself and wash his hands. In less than five minutes we are back out on the library floor and heading back to our respective places.

I’m feeling pretty good about the whole situation until I get back to the bookshelf where Polly and I were standing. There I find a wet spot on the carpet. It’s not large but it’s clearly fresh and is certainly not water. I walk over to the spot and rub it a bit with my shoe. It does not fade any.

And now, I begin to ponder an ethical question: Do I tell anyone about this?

The proper answer would have been “yes.” It’s the children’s section of the library. Kids pee on the carpet from time to time. I could have told the librarian at the desk twenty feet away from us and she would have called someone from the custodial staff to come and spray it with some disinfectant. Then it would have been done.

But I chose to go with “no.” I didn’t want to face the female librarian and tell her that one of my kids pissed on the floor and then have her give me the sympathetic, that’s-okay-you’re-just-a-dad look. So, instead I stood on the spot for a few moments and then moved Pip and Polly to another section. I rationalized this action by saying that the spot wasn’t very big and probably would vanish soon anyway. Then I could walk away with nothing harmed and no one the wiser.

In retrospect, I realize I botched this situation in two major ways. First, there was an obviously right thing to do, and I didn’t do it. Instead, I acted like a temporary stand-in and took the easy way out. In the process I undermined my own internal credibility when it comes to all those good parenting exhibitions.

Second, I missed two demonstration moments. One of them was the opportunity to demonstrate for Polly and Pip how we should collectively care for and maintain our public spaces. While I don’t think they knew about the spot on the carpet, by not bringing it to their attention and then going to talk to the librarian about it, I missed the chance to act out the kind of responsibility that I would like for them to take on as they get older. Similar sorts of opportunities will come around again but it’s a shame to waste such a good one.

The second opportunity was a bit more ephemeral. By not bringing the spot to the librarian’s attention I missed the chance to make an active performance of what a father is capable of. All my efforts to exude confidence and care with the kids in public are done in the hopes that others are observing us and recognize on some level how well that father is doing. By going over to the librarian’s desk, I could have made a more direct and immediate demonstration of these same ideals.

The parent who handles problems well is even more impressive than the parent for whom there are no problems at all. Sadly, in this instance I was neither parent and for that I am truly sorry. It looks like I have a bit more training to do.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Power of Eating

Why do we eat what we do when we do? Humans may be the only animals in the world for whom sustenance is not the first and final answer to this question. The events surrounding Pip’s hunger strike brought this reality home to me. We don’t just eat to eat. Food – making it, serving it, eating it, cleaning it up – is wrapped up in power. All of these processes are enacted through the social relations in which we exist. We don’t just eat because we’re hungry. We eat for entertainment. We eat to show love. We push food on others in order to gain attention. We refuse to eat for the same reason. Eating is never just about getting food into our bodies. It is simultaneously and inescapably about shaping, producing even, the array of relations in which we live.

I know this because I have done all of these things. I’ve purposely eaten three helpings of turkey at Thanksgiving to impress Ava’s family. I’ve consumed stupid amounts of pizza or hamburgers or rolls or buffalo wings in order to elicit astonished laughs from my friends. I’ve pushed my homemade mac and cheese on people at numerous picnics and pot-lucks because I wanted them to make some fuss over me. I’ve eaten discernibly less food than usual when I’ve been upset with someone or something.

While these acts are sometimes consciously pursued, more often they just happen in the course of things. The strategic manipulations involved are so well-established and naturalized that I don’t even realize what I am doing. They are part of the socio-cultural inheritance that I acquired long ago.

And now, for better or worse, I am passing them on to my kids.

Like most parents, Ava and I want our children to eat well. This desire spurs a series of actions on my part that from a distance seem odd. For example, I constantly find myself telling both Pip and Polly what good eaters they are. I do this strategically in hopes that the positive-reinforcement will over time instill in them a feeling of joy when they eat sufficient amounts of healthy food. But, I wonder, shouldn’t one’s body give you that feeling on its own? Is this behavioral training really necessary? Am I doing more harm than good by pushing Polly and Pip to pay more attention to the amount of food on their plates or the reactions of the people around them than to the signals from their body?

Then there is my all-too-common practice of trying to coax one more spoonful of something into Polly and Pip. Why does it matter so much that Polly gets down two spoonfuls of spinach instead of the one she willingly ate? It’s not like the second bite is going to make one bit of difference to her body. Nor is there a real down-the-road consequence. She already happily ate one bite. She’ll eat more another day. And yet, I prod her lips. I make the spoon fly like a helicopter around her head. I keep her at the table until she sweeps the spoon clean. Then I am satisfied.


As far as I can tell there are at least a couple of diabolical impulses going on here. At one level, there is the desire to have Pip and Polly demonstrate their appreciation for the work that went into preparing food for them. Ava and I work hard to make meals that are both tasty and healthy. We avoid prepackaged food and seldom get take-out from a restaurant. Given the labor involved in preparing and cooking their meals, it is gratifying to see them cleaning off their plates and incredibly frustrating when they pick and nibble. While it’s just food, these actions feel more substantial to us. They are like validations and rejections of our labor and our love.

On another level, Polly and Pip’s food consumption becomes a venue for me to reproduce my position of authority as a parent. I know that Pip and Polly sleep better when they have eaten a good dinner. I know that Polly and Pip get cranky when they don’t eat enough. I know they poop more regularly and easily if they eat the vegetables we prepare for them. Ultimately, “I know what is good for them” and mealtimes provide an excellent opportunity to remind them of this. If I think Polly should eat two spoonfuls of spinach then I am justified in pushing the second spoonful on her. (This is, of course, a trap because Polly is her own locus of power, and she rightfully pushes back against me in these moments. Caring authority is earned not imposed.)

One other force at work is my own desire to feel useful as a parent. If I am not actively involved in directing the consumption of Pip and Polly’s food, I start to feel unneeded, unnecessary even. It is a strange and awkward feeling. When this feeling is coupled with the idea that a good parent has a child who eats well, I feel like I have to stick my head in there and make sure that they eat. Their (supposed) dependence reinforces my identification as a parent, and their eating well justifies the sense I have of my own ‘goodness.’


Dr. Bill Sears, the guru to whom we turn when we have child-related questions, promotes the idea that children should be allowed to eat as they choose. He suggests that early on in their child’s life parents should prepare an array of healthy foods, serve them in ice cube trays, and allow the child to nibble as much or little as she likes. The idea is that the parent can control the available selection of foods, but the child chooses what tastes good and how much of it she wants to eat. In the process, the child learns to listen to her body’s signals and avoids some of the confusion that comes from the dynamics of parent-directed eating.

While I could not quite accomplish the ice cube tray trick, I have been working hard to keep my interfering impulses at bay. I have become much better at letting Polly and Pip eat what they want from their plate and not getting worked up when they leave something untouched. I’ve also learned to bring out from the kitchen only as much of a given food as I want them to eat. With these two gestures we have been able to significantly reduce the number of struggles that take place during meal times. The power of eating remains in play, but by shifting its flows we have created happier and more enjoyable meals for all of us.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hunger Strike

People can be perplexing creatures. Shaped by a mix of social and cultural influences, biochemical fluctuations, and personal divinities, we’re creatures of routine and habit until suddenly we’re not. This irrationality seems to be a fundamental part of being human. It’s what makes each person different, lively, interesting. It is often a source of great joy. At the same time, it can be the genesis of real pain. Especially when you’re dealing with your kids.

Three weeks ago Pip stopped eating. At breakfast on that Tuesday morning he ate a half-piece of toast and then said he was full. He skipped his usual morning snack and then at lunch only ate a few bites of his sandwich before begging off with a stomachache. At dinner he said he was too distracted to eat. It was unclear exactly what was distracting him.

The next day brought the same thing, and so did the day after that. During each meal he would half-heartedly nibble a couple of bites and then tell us he was done. At first we did not think too much of it. Perhaps he was feeling sick or a little off. We figured the next day he would wake up hungry and plow through a couple days worth of food in twenty-four hours. But after three days of eating just a bare minimum of food, he showed no signs of returning to normal.

While his absence of interest in food was frustrating, what really worried us was the depressive demeanor that accompanied it. At the table, he would slump in his chair and stare blankly ahead or slowly and drearily move his food around his plate. His normal, overwhelming chatter vanished into a series of thick silences which he broke only to provide single word responses to the questions Ava and I directed at him. He asked no questions of us. He told no stories. He made no requests. He had no demands. All of the barely contained energy that makes him such a beautiful kid was drained away. What remained was an enigmatic husk.

Away from the table, things were only slightly better. He went about his normal daily activities – getting dressed and brushing his teeth, doing a reading lesson, playing with some toys, riding his bike – but there was always a crucial element missing. Every movement, every action he undertook was just slower, softer, quieter, duller than usual. It was like looking at a rainbow photographed in black and white. His form was present but his true animas, the magic dynamism of his colors, was gone.

This state of affairs continued into the latter half of the week. On Thursday and Friday I really began wondering what the hell was going on. I began periodically asking him “what’s wrong?” but this was a question he was probably unable answer even if he had been willing. I picked through my memories from the previous week searching for something that might have triggered this: was it because I had scolded him one evening for being too jumpy and out of control during our bedtime routine? Was it because I had gotten frustrated with him one morning because he woke up whiny? Was it because I had been spending more time with Polly as she was toilet-training? Was it because I had been less than understanding one night when he could not go back to sleep at 2 AM? Every little moment of negativity I had encountered with him over the past couple of weeks became, in my mind, a potential generator of his funk.

In the midst of all this pondering, I became very aware of the delicate balance I wanted to strike in my interactions with Pip. At one level, I was very conscious of the manipulative possibilities at work in his behavior and sought not to reinforce it with a heightened level of attention and special enticements. At the same time, I didn’t want to ignore the obvious and pretend like everything was just fine either. As such, I began engaging in all kinds of complex gymnastics with him, trying to do things the way we normally would do them while simultaneously probing him, asking him lots of extra questions, and trying to engage him in some kind of conversation. These efforts were not very fruitful. Ultimately, they just sucked the life right out of our house. In measuring every action and every word before moving forward with anything, I squeezed all the life out of the air around us, suffocating us in an atmosphere devoid of spontaneity.

On Friday, the situation brought me to tears. The precipitating incident came at dinner. After two bites of his food, Pip dripped slowly out of his chair and onto the floor. Then he stayed there on his hands and knees looking absently out through the windows at the front of our apartment. I got down beside him and asked,

“What are you doing, Pip?”

“Just looking at the trees,” he replied in a slow, distant voice.

I looked up at Ava and felt tears starting to build on the lashes of my eyes. I was done. Whatever it was that had gotten into Pip was now taking me down as well.

Fortunately, Ava had been working on her own theories – perhaps he needs a change in sleep patterns; maybe he is compensating for the increasing difficulty of his reading lessons; it could be he is just bored with our regular cycle of foods; perhaps he is bothered by sitting beside an increasingly active Polly at the dinner table; maybe he needs more time with four-year-olds instead of adults and two-year-olds. We talked through these and several other ideas that night and decided to take a more active approach to solving his funk the next day.

So, on Saturday morning breakfast was served with a few silly variations: oatmeal in a juice glass, egg sandwich instead of the usual egg and toast. After breakfast we moved the dining room table, pushing it from the center of the room to a position by the windows, and then rearranged the chairs such that Pip and Polly were facing each other across the table. For dinner that night we actively engaged him in the process of selecting the meal choices, preparing the food, and getting it from the kitchen to the dinner table.

The effect was not instantaneous, but there was some noticeable improvement. He ate more breakfast and seemed a touch more lively at that morning’s swim lessons. When he really perked up was later that afternoon after we ran into a new friend of his. The interaction was relatively brief - consisting mostly of showing each other how much they could hop on one foot – but it seemed to be the thing that pushed him over a threshold and returned him back to something approaching his normal vivacity.

In the wake of these changes, Sunday was a much better day. Pip ate his usual portions and went about the day with his accustomed exuberance. Then on Monday morning, he slipped. We got up at our normal weekday time – about 30 minutes earlier than on the weekends – and Ava and I started making breakfast before Pip and Polly got out of the bed. The result was not good. Pip was very upset at not being able to take part in the making of breakfast and by the time Ava left for work it looked like we might have lost some of the progress we had made over the weekend. Fortunately, Pip and I went back to the kitchen and started breakfast over again. This seemed to assuage him and, once he got some food in him, he went about things with his usual cheer.

He’s been fine ever since.


I don’t know what happened that week. Maybe it was a biochemical hiccup related to a coming growth spurt. Maybe it was a necessary break from an accumulation of unspoken grievances. Maybe it was a need to wake up differently in the morning. Or it could be something completely unrelated. We’ll never really know.

But, for the last two weeks Pip’s level of food consumption has sky-rocketed. Most meals he now cleans his plate and asks for second and, sometimes, third helpings. And the pace at which he is eating has increased as well. He used to pick his way through his food at an excruciatingly slow pace. Now, he usually finishes his first helping in about the same time as Polly and me. These changes are both a relief and a curiosity. I’m thrilled to have him eating with such gusto, but I find it hard to understand how his new appetite fits into the puzzle of his previous disinterest. Was his funk really caused by the food or the arrangements at mealtime? Or is this spurt of interest just a side effect of resolving whatever was actually at the heart of this crisis? Again, we’ll never really know.

Whatever the case, I sure am happy to see him bouncing around the house again.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Losing Childhood

In the April 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, there were three review articles devoted to books about parenting and childhood. The first two covered various angles of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother book. The third, written by Christina Schwarz and entitled “Leave Those Kids Alone,” posed a related but broader question: What happened to just letting kids play?

Schwarz took as her jumping off point a memoir of childhood originally published in 1957 and recently reissued called “Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing.” This book, written by a man named Robert Paul Smith, simultaneously reminisces about childhood play in the early 20th century and disparages adult-organized activities of the 1950s like summer camps and Little League. It invokes a nostalgic world where a child had the space – both physical and metaphorical – to engage in kinds of play that seem foreign today, to, in Smith’s words, take the opportunity to “find out whether he breathes differently when he’s thinking about it than when he’s just breathing,” or to, in Schwarz’s words, “stare at the sky and study the imperfections in his own eyeball.” To put it simply, Smith describes a world where play was, frankly, to do nothing in particular.

In contrast to Smith’s vision of a “Tom Sawyer childhood,” Schwarz half-heartedly jokes that contemporary kids, “boxed-in by adult-imposed structure[s]” in the form of professional music lessons, high-intensity soccer leagues, and foreign-language tutoring, “apparently…have for so long been deprived of time and space to play that they no longer know how. They’re like those eyeless fish in caves.” She then argues, more seriously, that in the process of all this developmental work something of true value is being lost. “Childhood,” she concludes, “those first, fresh experiences of the world, unclouded by reason and practicality, when you are the center of existence and anything might happen – should be regarded less as a springboard to striving adulthood than as a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life.”

While I might quibble with Schwarz that there is some balance to be struck between living in the now and working towards the future in all stages of life, I am in full agreement with the main thrust of her argument. Young kids get sucked into a lot of organized stuff these days, and I’m dubious that all this commotion will help them live happier lives. I say this, in part, because my own best memories from being 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years old reflect the kind of play Smith describes: heading out with one of my friends to explore the creeks and wooded areas around my house, hopping on my bike and repeatedly riding up and down hills with other kids from the neighborhood, grabbing my sled on a snowy day and walking off in search of the best place to slide or jump or fall, playing pick-up games first of spotlight tag and later of basketball, football, and wiffleball. There were days during the summer when the only times my sister and I saw my parents were during meals and at bedtime.

Now, thirty years later, it’s difficult for me to imagine my own kids playing this way. The kind of creative play and unsupervised freedom that I enjoyed - at what now seems like an incredibly young age - was enabled and supported by a set of conditions that I believe are less and less easy to find in our present child-raising environment.

For one thing, they don’t physically build neighborhoods the same way anymore. The two neighborhoods I grew up in were both built one house at a time. Empty lots were left intact with all their trees and rocks and dips and swells. The drainage areas where the creeks ran were wooded and undeveloped. Backyards were rarely fenced in. These were the spaces in which we traveled. These were the spaces of adventure and exploration, the ones where we built forts and climbed trees, the spots where we imagined entirely new worlds for ourselves. Now, it is common practice in developing a new middle-class neighborhood to bulldoze every living thing, grade out each lot, build a whole bunch of houses at once, and fence in every backyard. The only open spaces available for play are the sidewalks, the roads, and the specifically designated playgrounds. It’s a limited and limiting terrain.

Even more important than the physical changes in neighborhood construction over the last thirty years is that the social structure that existed in my old neighborhoods is now more difficult to find. For starters, one of the things that gave my mother the confidence to let my sister and me roam was her reasonable assumption that were we to get into real trouble someone would be around to help us out. I don’t have that same confidence with my current middle-class neighborhood. So many of the households contain two working parents that people are just not around as much. The parents are occupied every day at least until dinner. The kids are in after-school programs or the assorted variety of other organized activities that fill the time until the parents’ workdays are through. This gives the space around us an emptiness that I don’t remember my old neighborhoods having. (though I can’t blame many parents for going ahead and tracking kids into focused training in music or language or sports or whatever. If you are going to have to pay someone to take care of the kids anyway, they might as well gain something from the investment.)

Another reason for this feeling of emptiness may be the labor mobility that is now so highly prized in the middle and upper reaches of our economy. The nature of the contemporary geography of employment is such that moving up often means moving out, and the constant shuffling involved undercuts the network of relations that enable us to trust our neighbors with our kids. For example, we moved into our current neighborhood last July. This in and of itself is not that big a deal. In the neighborhoods of my youth there were always a few people moving in and moving out. However, as more and more people become movers, it leaves fewer people to anchor the social community of the neighborhood. There is a tipping point where this web begins to break apart and each new family that moves in has to build a network instead being able to merge into an established one. I feel like this is the situation we are in right now.

All of these dynamics also have ramifications for our kids’ development. One of the more significant social structures among the kids in both neighborhoods of my childhood was a generational chain through which the commonly known games, stories, secret places and such of the neighborhood was passed down from older kids to younger kids. There was nothing official or ceremonial about this. It just happened as a consequence of the mixing of ages involved in our play.

If it appears that children now no longer know how to play, I would argue that this is in part because this generational chain has been ruptured. As kids have become more engaged in activities outside the neighborhood - and in the process are more and more segregated into distinct age groups – the cross-fertilization that occurs among a group of heterogeneous ages is being lost. This leaves parents like me in the awkward position of trying to fill this absence, of trying to generate games and start up adventures that stimulate and push my kids the way I was by my efforts to keep up with the older kids in the neighborhood.

Ultimately, Schwarz would see my efforts in this regard as another example of an “interfering adult” whose structures are sapping childhood of its magic. She might even see me as being just as implicated in the atrophy of childhood as the Tiger Mothers or Tennis Fathers who so adamantly drive their children toward adult achievements. In either case, her article ends with a final plea directed at people like me that we back off our kids just a bit and allow them the freedom to live as children instead of as adults-in-the-making. It is a sentiment I want to wholeheartedly embrace. Unfortunately, I think it will take more than just stepping back to give our kids the childhood Schwarz imagines they should have.

Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?

Take a look at my blog at http://www.postindustrialparenthood.blogspot.com

There's a new post every Thursday.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Power of Reading

I want my kids to be a lot of things - smart, respective, friendly, inquisitive, creative, curious, happy – and I often look for ways to encourage these qualities in them. I read to them. I encourage them to use their imaginations to build things and to tell elaborate stories. I explain everyday things to them using the language of science and mathematics whenever possible. I strive to be friendly and respectful with them and others at all times. I smile and laugh a lot. I seek to model the kind of people I want them to become.

While this seems like plenty to expect, there is also another set of qualities I would like for them to possess: the ability to persevere in the face of adversity; the ability to accept their own shortcomings and work to improve them; and the ability to take on a challenge, to endure the inevitable failings that come with trying something difficult, and to ultimately do the labor necessary to find success. More than anything else, these are the qualities that will enable them to carve out a place for themselves in the world, to take their dreams and turn them into realities.

The problem I face with instilling this second set of qualities is that the situations necessary for developing them are not situations I want to intentionally create. I like to keep the environment around our house calm and happy. I like to use redirection to solve problems. I prefer to tell the kids what they can do instead of what they are doing wrong. This doesn’t mean that Polly and Pip’s lives are free of adversity. But, the post hoc nature of working through such moments does not lend itself to systematically developing the skills necessary for handling them.

Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother essay made me worry about this even more. If her kids gained nothing else from having her as a parent, they developed strategies to deal with adversity. I began to wonder if I should be doing something more for Pip and Polly in this regard. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the solution to my worries would come from something we were already doing: teaching Pip how to read.


Pip and I have doing reading lessons every weekday for a couple of months now. We are using a book of progressive lessons that asks Pip to do a bit more every day. The pace is fast, and this is forcing Pip to work hard. Within two months he has gone from identifying a couple of sounds to reading full paragraphs. Fortunately, he can feel this progress, and those positive vibes encourage him to keep coming back for more.

The hardest thing with the reading lessons is that there is always something that gets him hung up. This week’s challenge has been getting out the word “tame.” For whatever reason, whenever he sees this word, all he can get out is “tam.” He knows this isn’t right, but he can’t get his mouth to hold the long ‘a’ sound through the transition to the ‘m’ sound. Instead, he starts with a long ‘a’ and then morphs into a short ‘a’ before saying the ‘m’ sound. Then when he says the word quickly the wrong sounds come out.

When the reading lessons first started getting harder about a month ago, neither Pip nor I knew how to handle this kind of challenge. After failing a couple of times to get a word right, Pip would just flop his head down on the table and say “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” A few tears would often follow. This display would frustrate me because I felt the amount of drama was way out of proportion to the actual problem. I would have to get him a handkerchief, give him a couple of moments to compose himself, and then coax him into trying the word again. This would eventually work, but the frequency of these breakdowns meant that each reading lesson took an incredibly long time to complete.

So, we began trying some different strategies. First, we worked on eliminating “I can’t” from Pip’s reactions and replacing it with something more positive. I suggested “I think I can” from the old children’s book ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ Pip rejected this and decided on “I’m trying” instead.

Second, I found that letting him take a break for a moment when we encounter a problem only prolonged the process of working through the problem as he was less inclined to go back into the lesson if he walked away from it feeling unsuccessful. So now, we just take a breath for a moment without leaving our seats, then we dive back in.

Third, I am working to get him to go back to his basic skill set whenever he encounters a problem. One of the great things about this particular reading book is that it focuses on teaching the process of sounding things out as much as the actual sounds and words themselves. From the very start it had us doing exercises in which I said a set of words slowly and Pip then repeated them. Now when Pip encounters a word he can’t read, I take him back to the beginning. We identify each of the sounds in the word. Then we say the sounds slowly together. Then I tell him to say them together quickly. This way I can give him an assist while not actually telling him the word. More importantly, it gives us a strategy to go to when Pip stumbles on a word and falls prey to frustrated guessing.


Friday’s lesson brought together all of this factors. Pip had trouble again, this time with the word “fame.” When he did not get it right initially, he started guessing haphazardly and moving farther and farther away from his target. I stopped him and had him take a breath. Then I told him to go back to our basics. He worked the sounds again and again. He did not ask me to just tell him the word. He went through the full process, repeatedly saying “I’m trying. I’m trying.” Eventually, he got the word out and with it gained a sense of accomplishment that carried him like a wave through the rest of the lesson. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.


The gains from all of this work are twofold: 1) Pip is learning how to manage failure, how to keep himself going, and how to overcome or work through sticking points; and 2) I am learning how to guide him without resorting to meanness or anger; how to keep him focused on the task at hand; and how to walk him back without just telling him the answer. The result – while still a work in progress – will hopefully be both a kid who has gained the confidence and skills to fail at something and eventually work towards a solution and a parent who understands how to push without being demanding and how to guide without disabling.

We began reading lessons because I wanted Pip to learn how to read. It turns out that the side effects of this effort may be just as significant to his long-term success as the main objective. This is a welcome surprise that makes me even more excited to get Polly started when she is ready. I could not have planned any better way to develop their abilities to deal with adversity.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


About once a day I find myself saying about Polly, “That’s something that Pip use to do.” Usually I say this as a reminder when Poly does something I don’t like – chucking a stuffed animal across the room, flinging her feet up on the dinner table, holding her hand against a running faucet and spraying water everywhere. These are the experiments and antics of a two-year-old, and as she grows older they will disappear. The reminder keeps me from getting too worked up about them.

But, there is at least one thing Polly does for which Pip provided no precedent: Polly always speaks about herself in the third person. Unlike some other households where the chorus of “MINE!” can pound you into the ground, our house is filled with oddly royal declarations of third-person self-referentiality like “May Polly go play with Polly’s toys?” and “Polly want to do it” or when things are slipping out of her grasp just “POLLY!” For her, there is no “I” or “me” or “my.” There is only “Polly.”

How this came to be I am not sure. I would like to blame Elmo, Sesame Street’s little red monster whose own statements of perpetual self-reference I have read over and over to Polly. Ava tells me I’m being silly, and she’s probably right. Its more likely Polly picked this up from us than from Elmo.

As I pondered this, I realized that I refer to “Daddy” a lot in talking with the kids. When we’re getting ready to do something, I tell them what Daddy is going to do. When I need to run down to the basement for a moment, I tell them that Daddy will be right back. When I put them down for a nap, I tell them that Daddy loves them. At times it sounds like I’m talking about another person or that I’m trying in a subtle way to hold the Daddy identity at arms length from me. But, neither is the case. Instead, this is mostly just a habit born of my early attempts to act cute with Polly and Pip.

Another likely culprit in this situation is birth order. Polly was born into a world in which words constantly swirled around her. Much of this was driven by discussions with or questions asked by the ever loquacious Pip. As such, before she could talk Polly heard conversations about her all the time. And within these conversations, she was obviously never “I” or “me;” she was always “Polly.”


When Polly first started talking, one of the things she did was to lay claim to things by using her name. If she wanted something, she would point at it then make a clasping gesture with her hand and say “Polly.” It was so much more amusing and endearing than “mine!” that we didn’t make any real efforts to change it. Now she is two years old and in transition from speaking in sentences to speaking in paragraphs. I still find the absence of personal pronouns in her speech amusing and endearing, but it is probably time to teach her the correct way to refer to herself in everyday speech. I don’t want her to reach twelve years of age and still be talking about herself in the third person like some professional athlete with an over-inflated ego. I imagine it would not go over well with her middle school teachers when she says “Polly decided not to do her homework today. Perhaps Polly will do it tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to go about correcting her. Since this was not a challenge I had to resolve with Pip, I don’t have a blueprint to follow or a history of mistakes to avoid. I’m at square one and have to feel my way along. At first, I thought that if I corrected my own use of “Daddy” and started using the first-person more often, she would follow suit. This appears to not be working. After a couple of months of correcting myself, Polly has yet to volunteer an “I” or a “me” of her own volition.

So now I am stepping up the interference. During meals and whenever I get a chance I am asking her to repeat any sentence in which she uses “Polly” instead of the correct personal pronoun. I give her the corrected version and then ask her to say the sentence again. This is a tactic Ava and I have used in trying to get the words “please” and “may I” into the kids’ regular usage, and we’ve had enough success with this that it seems worth trying for the third-to-first person switch as well. At this point, I’m not sure what other strategy there is.


Ultimately, I’m not in a hurry to erase Polly’s self-referentiality. I figure that for now if I can get her to use “I” or “me” every once in a while then I have established the idea well enough for a more sustained push later on. As she gets older and more conscious of what she says and how she says things, then we can really work on it. At four years old, Pip has been remarkable in his ability to quickly change established linguistic habits once we point them out to him and provide him with an alternative. I imagine the same will be true for Polly. When the time comes and she swiftly dispenses with "Polly" in favor of "I" and "me," I suspect I will once again be saying, “Pip used to do that, too.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Illness and Memory

Polly and Pip were sick last week. It was some sort of minor respiratory bug that produced a lot of snot, irritated their noses with all the wiping, gave them both a low-grade fever, and kept all of us from sleeping well. It took about four days for them to get through the worst of it. Now we just have to finish off the last of the snot.

The whole experience was relatively normal except for one small coincidence: About this time a year ago, I had to take Pip to the emergency room because what I originally thought was just another cold turned out to be much more.


Ava had a job interview that week. The day before she left, Pip developed the sniffles and a fever. It seemed like no big deal. He had been bringing home colds from preschool all winter long. That night his temperature went up and with it his breathing rate. We’d seen this before, so I gave him some fever reducer and did not worry too much about it.

At breakfast the next morning, it quickly became obvious that he was laboring to breathe. Every intake of air was short and quick. Every breath out sounded like he was blowing bubbles through a straw. I spent an hour watching the bit of skin between his collarbones flex in and out as he worked to get enough air into his lungs. I kept hoping the motion in this little triangle would fade back to its normal state of calm, that his difficulty was just the result of some overnight mucus accumulation that had to be cleared out. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and, after a brief phone call to our doctor, I packed up some food and books and took both kids with me to the emergency room at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

The experience of walking into that emergency room in the middle of a weekday was a paradoxical one. It was a relief to be doing something, to be past the stage of weighing whether I should or should not take him somewhere. It was also comforting to walk into the ER and find the waiting area largely vacant. There were a few people scattered about the available seating but the general feeling was one of an airport in the early hours of the morning. The space was calm and still, almost in repose, as if composing itself before the rush that would eventually come. At the same time, I was anxious to get Pip in to see a doctor. He was breathing like Darth Vader, but I had to stand quietly in line as a young woman gradually signed in patients at the registration desk then trundle both kids and our stuff over to the waiting area to hang out until a nurse called us back into the ER itself. The absence of urgency in the process was unnerving.

Once we got out of the waiting room things happened more quickly. We spent only a few minutes in the nurses’ triage station before moving into an examining room. In this room the hospital staff got Pip hooked up to some monitors and a doctor started assessing his condition. After some observation and a couple of tests, they found no major problems. So they gave him a steroid inhalant to dilate his bronchial tubes in the hopes that this would give his body the chance to push back against the mucus. (In another argument for baby-wearing, I was able to do the necessary paperwork, talk to the doctor about Pip, feed both kids, keep Polly from messing with the room’s medical equipment, and eventually get her a nap by holding her in our baby-carrier the whole time.)

After administering the inhalant, the doctors left us alone for a while and Pip took a well-deserved nap. The whole time he slept all I did was watch the monitor that was tracking his respiration rate, trying to exert whatever force I could to make that number move slowly downward. I felt each slight drop as a personal success and each little rise as a horrific failure. Eventually, the drops began to outnumber the gains and my sense of crisis started to fade. Around dinnertime, the doctors released Pip from the ER.


Of all the things that happened in that twenty-four hour period, there is one image that has come to dominate my emotional memory. It comes from our time in the hospital, as we were escorting Pip to the X-ray lab for a chest X-ray. A nurse was leading us. Pip was following close behind her and Polly and I were bringing up the rear. There was something about Pip in that moment. He was walking down the hallway wearing a hospital gown, brown pants, and leather shoes with thick soles and wide laces. A bit of red from the dinosaur underwear he was wearing peeked out between the overlapping edges of the gown. His body posture was relaxed but curious. He kept turning his head left and right as if briefly pondering over each of the things he passed: the beeping green monitors, the empty stretchers, the IV tubes dripping their clear liquid, the stark red bags of hazardous waste. While doing this his bright blue eyes widened and took on an angelic hue. I don’t think I was the only one who saw it because everyone we passed looked down at him and smiled.

It was a beautiful, poignant, and potentially tragic picture – the blond haired boy contentedly padding his way along, unconcerned that his lungs might be filling up with life-quenching mucus. I remember thinking in the moment that so many truly sick kids have this kind of beatific aura about them and that in some ways it is a very cruel thing for a parent to see. I hoped and hoped and hoped that it was not an indication of where Pip’s illness was heading.

Luckily, it was not. Several colds have come and gone without another trip to the hospital. It appears that this event was an outlier, an aberration of sorts, and not an indicator of some chronic or terminal disease. But the crystalline wonder and fear of that walk to the X-ray lab remains with me. I manage to keep it locked down most hours of the day, but in the middle of the night, with Pip’s snot filled nose gargling beside me it skips loose for a few minutes. I find myself comparing his breaths to mine, trying to judge if they are unusually quick or painfully short. When it feels like they are, the image comes floating back. I see Pip in his hospital gown and leather shoes walking blithely past all those smiling faces, down the florescent hallway towards a white light from which he can never return. It never fails to overwhelm me and it may be the real reason why the nights that either child is sick are sleepless ones for me.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Effects of Playgroup

On Friday, Polly and Pip went to a playgroup with some neighbors we recently met. Now, they are both snotty, feverish, and not sleeping well. As a result, I lost my usual writing time the last two nights and do not have a post ready for this week.

For a substitute, I offer the comments from last week's Daddy Dialectic post. I went back and forth with a couple of others over exactly what we should take from my post, and I thought the results were worth perusing. Here is the link: http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=23363296&postID=474601232720578166.

Hopefully, this bug won't last too long, and I'll have something more for next week.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Breaking Down a Real Lemon

Two items for today.

First, I recently read a very erudite and funny spin off from the topic of Tiger Mothers by blogger Paul Rasmussen. In it he pits Tiger Mothers against the legendary mothers of Sparta and finds that the Tigers are weak by comparison. You can find the post here.

Second, this week's full post can be found on the Daddy Dialectic blog. Here's a short teaser to whet your interest:

Imagine the following scenario:

A father and his five-year-old daughter head out to a basketball court at the local playground. He has carries his regulation ball on his hip. She rolls her kid-sized version in front of her, occasionally kicking it to keep it moving. When they reach the court, the father shoots a couple of shots while his daughter proceeds to dribble her ball around the court with two hands. After a few minutes, the daughter says,

“Look Daddy.”

When he looks her direction she begins awkwardly batting at her ball with just her right hand, managing to dribble it four times before it gets away from her. After corralling the ball, she looks up proudly at her father. He smiles quietly back at her. Then he leans forward slightly and dribbles his own ball effortlessly back and forth between his legs.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Ripple Effects from a Petty Theft

Last Saturday night, somebody stole our cellphone. It was a petty crime. There was no damage or injuries. Due to a change in our regular routine and some distracted carelessness on my part, the thief had an easy grab and walk away situation.

That afternoon I had taken the kids with me to pick up Ava from the airport. After confirming that she was waiting for us in the pick-up area, I put our cellphone down in a cupholder on the center console of the car. We picked Ava up and made our way home. During this time, some new neighbors were moving into the apartment above us. When we got home, their moving van was blocking the driveway. So, I parked on the street. Then, when I got the kids out of the car, Polly started heading for the truck. I hurried over to keep her from getting in the way and, in the process, failed to lock the doors on the car.

The next morning when we went looking for the phone, it was gone. At first we thought it was just lost. But after calling the phone and having it send us straight to voice mail – an indication that the phone had been turned off by someone – we understood what had really happened. During the night, someone saw the phone sitting there in the unlocked car and took the opportunity to snatch it.

After this realization set in, I spent the next couple of hours drifting around the house in a pool of impotence and frustration. While it was not my fault per se that someone stole our phone, my actions were the ones that had created the possibility. Now, all I could do about that was to file a police report and try to get over it. There was no other action to take; no way to save the day or repair the damage. I had to just sit there, chew up my mistake, swallow my ire, and push all the frustration of the morning out through the other end.

This digestion was not easy to take. But in the process, I did have two experiences that gave me a bit more insight into the dynamics that shape families in crisis.

The first showed me how easy it is for kids to become victims in this kind of situation. The second made me wonder about what trials may lie ahead for full-time fathers as our numbers continue to increase.


Pip is a curious and inquisitive four-year-old. He wants to be included in everything his parents are doing and wants to understand everything we are talking about. His pursuit of this understanding is persistent and determined. He will ask questions and ask questions and then ask some more. Then he will return to the same questions again to see if the answers are different the second, third, or fourth time he asks them. From a distance it is a very impressive operation. When you are in the middle of it, it can be overwhelming.

So, as I was stewing over the stolen phone, Pip was plugging away with questions. Ava provided some buffer for a while, but eventually Pip made it over to me. His questions were the ones you would expect a four-year-old ask:

What happened to our phone? Why? What are you going to do? Where is the phone now? Are we going to get the phone back? Why are you filing a police report? What will the police do? Why did someone take our phone? What are they going to do with it?

They were the basic questions of a child trying to make sense of something that had never happened before. And yet, in my state of frustration, each question felt like a small accusation. After a while all I could hear was: Why did you not lock the door, Daddy? Why did you forget to lock the door, Daddy? How come the door was not locked, Daddy? It was like a mosquito biting me over and over, and I had to fight with myself not to lash out at him.

A couple of times I could feel my patience cracking. In those moments all I wanted to do was angrily hiss “Leave me alone.” This little outburst would have stopped him in a hurry and more than likely brought on a few tears. It would have sent him off to his mother or the couch or some other safe place until I was ready to deal with him.

While this is not the parent I want to be nor the model of what I want Pip to do in a similar situation, in that moment of frustration and anger, there was something very satisfying about playing through such a scenario. It would have demonstrated (to whom? I don’t know) that I still had power over something, that I was not helpless in the face of the world’s randomness. It would have given me a chance to regain some feeling of control over everything that was going on around me. It would have eased my pain by spreading it around to others.

It also would have been wrong. In thinking about that rush of feelings later in the evening, I began to recognize in a more substantial way how truly vulnerable kids are when the crises of life hit their families. Given their position as dependents in the family structure, kids become ready targets when the adults who are supposed to care for them are feeling powerless and out of control. In many respects it doesn’t matter what the kids do or don’t do. In the moment of abuse, it’s a question of relationships and the desire by the abuser to re-activate a hierarchy of power. It’s why people who abuse animals are also more likely than others to abuse their children and their spouses. The actual being suffering the abuse doesn’t matter. Its all about where they reside in the hierarchy.

What amazes me is that while I know all of this, the boundaries between the person I want to be and the person I abhor are shockingly thin. When the emotions generated by someone stealing our lousy cellphone can send me hurtling into a position where I had to struggle mightily to remain civil with Pip, it makes me wonder. Is this flimsy restraint all that separates me from the abusers of the world, the kickers of dogs, the beaters of women and children? I scares me some to think that such may be the case.


The other understanding that came to mind as I worked through my frustration and disposed of my anger has to do with some of the undermentioned vulnerabilities that come with being a full-time father.

As I said above, while having the cellphone stolen was not really my fault, my actions were the ones that made it possible. The financial loss involved is not horrendous – about $200 – but it hurts nonetheless. This is particularly true right now as we are coming to terms with the fact that we are going to take a $30,000 - $50,000 bath on a house we bought for $150,000 five years ago. In light of this, even the waste of a dollar on something we could have gotten cheaper elsewhere brings a certain amount of anguish.

For me, this anguish is intensified because I do not bring in any income to our family coffers. In a previous life, I could make the claim that I would pay for the phone myself, thereby taking – at least in my mind - the financial hit fully on my shoulders. Then I could go to work and earn more money to pay for a new one. Now, I have to find other ways to expiate my sin. This usually means being extra conscientious about taking care of things around the house. These are things that I would be doing anyway, but in the wake of this kind of mistake, I feel the need to do them with an extra bit of hustle and attention. In this way I feel like I am demonstrating to Ava both how sorry I am that I messed up and how useful I am to keep around.

It comes back again to a question of power. In a single income family, there exists an often unstated imbalance of power. Ava has a job. She brings money into our household. I do not have a job. I send money out of our household. In this simple flow diagram, Ava can do without me. I cannot do without her.

Even more critically, if our relationship were to deteriorate to a point where we wound up separating, I would have a very difficult time getting a job. I have been out of the workforce for four years and counting. My credentials are aging and my resume shows no development of job-related skills. My local contacts are mostly other full-time parents. In order to become employable again, I would probably have to go back to school and take whatever part-time or menial job I could get in the meantime.

This all means that I feel a certain extra pressure to make sure my relationship with Ava works. While this pressure is not something that matters on an everyday level, when something goes wrong because of my choices or actions, I want to make sure that Ava knows that I am doing what needs to be done to address the problem. This is something I want to do anyway because its how a good team handles problems, but I also can’t ignore the reality that my financial dependency on Ava exerts a subtle push on my attitude and choices.

This kind of push and the other ramifications of such an imbalance in financial status are a familiar experience for many women. The choice made by many battered women to stay with their abusers is just one example of the power this imbalance exerts. But I’m not sure that men like me who are acting as the primary care-giver in a family are as cognizant of their vulnerabilities. It’s just not something that we have seen before. However, as the number of men becoming full-time fathers increases, should we expect to see the emergence of a population of men who, in the wake of divorce, struggle to maintain the lives they once enjoyed? Or is there something in the current order of things that will make the experiences of these men different from those of full-time mothers who after divorce suffer substantial rates of poverty? I don’t know the answer to this, but I imagine that we are going to eventually find out.