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:

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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Thank you to everyone who took a moment over the last several days to vote for this blog in the Circle of Moms Top 25 list. With 337 votes, we (the collective, not the royal) finished in 33rd place. As there were more than 150 entries, I'm thrilled with that result and so appreciative of everyone's support.

A new post is coming tomorrow evening.