“I miss life as a family of three”

Last night Caroline stepped out of the shower and said something that we’d both been thinking: “I miss life as a family of three.”

This isn’t at all a commentary on Wally, who just turned a week-old.  Knock on wood, he’s been about as easy as could be so far.  He knows his days from his nights, he’s been a breastfeeding pro since day one, and he tolerates his older brother’s clumsy attempts to hold him. He shows every sign of fitting in just fine.

But our lives in the months leading up to Wally’s birth were awfully close to perfect.  As we lay in bed during the final months of her pregnancy, Caroline and I would sometimes talk about how odd it was that we’d chosen deliberately to upend a life we were so completely happy with.  For much of Jay’s first year we had felt overstretched, but by the time he had turned 18-months-old our life as a family of three had settled nicely into place: Jay was sleeping through the night and spending his mornings in daycare which gave me and Caroline enough time for work; we were going out on the weekends with our friends again; Jay was talking a lot and had become legitimately fun to hang out with; and Caroline and I had gotten through our early hiccups as a parenting team.  On the eve of Wally’s birth I might have said there was nothing about our lives I really wanted to change.

Reflecting on how happy we were at the time of Wally’s birth, it struck me that we’d decided to have a second child for very different reasons than we’d decided to have a first.  Three years ago Caroline and I first entertained the notion of becoming parents because we were dissatisfied with our lives.  We were both 27.  Since graduating from college we’d been free to do just about whatever we’d wanted, but after five years in which we’d bounced between cities and backpacked around the world, all that freedom had started to feel empty.  We wanted more weight in our lives and a child seemed like just the way to provide it.

When I observed to Caroline that the circumstances surrounding Jay and Wally’s respective arrivals were very different, she pointed me towards a study by Duke sociologist Phil Morgan called “Why Have Children in the 21st Century?” which argues that couples have a first child for different reasons than they have a second (and a third and a fourth, etc.).  Morgan found that couples plunge into parenthood initially to fill an immediate need in their lives like wanting “a child to love and care for” or in order to have “more fun around the house.”  By contrast, he found that couples have a second child for more long-term strategic reasons, like wanting to “provide companionship for siblings” or out of a desire to achieve a certain sex balance, like a boy and a girl.* That certainly captures why we decided to have Wally when we did.  We wanted Jay to have a sibling and we wanted them to be close enough in age that they could grow up together as friends (at least theoretically).

As I think about the family circumstances into which Wally was born I keep coming back to a hiking analogy.  Six years ago, before Caroline and I had any children at all, we took a three week hike around the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal.  One afternoon we stopped in this picturesque little village to rest and drink some water.  The village was perched halfway up a steep hill overlooking a rocky Himalayan river.  We’d been walking for five hours and the setting was so beautiful that once we sat down, it was hard to fathom why we wouldn’t just settle down where we were.  But the place we’d planned to spend the night was eight miles farther up the trail.  So after lingering for a few minutes, we stretched our legs, shouldered our packs, and started off again.

Wally’s arrival has felt a little like that afternoon in Nepal.  Before he arrived we were happy where we were, but we also were not yet the family we wanted to become.  So we said let’s go, and took to the trail again.

*Morgan also found that couples who have more than 3 children generally do so for economic reasons, like wanting help around the family farm.  The fact that there are so few family farms in the US anymore is one reason why very big families are rarer than they used to be.







Maybe I don’t want to be a big brother

After waking up and drinking his milk this morning, Jay rushed straight into the other room and slam dunked a basketball into Wally’s* bassinet as if he’d been up all night long planning his ambush.  “If Mom and Dad won’t do something about it then I will,” I imagined him thinking.  Wally, thankfully, was in bed with Caroline at the time.  When Jay realized his plot had failed he slumped to the carpet and began shuffling around his blocks.

Many people have asked me how Jay’s taking the arrival of his baby brother.  My first answer, which is probably the most accurate one I can give, is that I don’t know: Jay is two-years-old and a bundle of tumult all his own.  Even before Wally was born Jay would collapse to the floor sobbing if I took off his socks rather than let him take them off himself.  So it’s hard to disentangle his pre-existing emotional craziness from whatever shock he’s experiencing from having a new child brought into our home.

Plus, Jay isn’t very good at telling us how he’s feeling.  He can tell us when he’s hurt (on the short walk to school this morning he told me that his foot, shoulder, and back hurt though I’m fairly certain none had so much as an itch wrong with them) and he lets us know when he’s scared, as in, “Snuffy uh scare me,” which he said recently when watching a Sesame Street song on YouTube.

But that’s about it as far as self-awareness goes.  His first inkling of a bowel movement occurs only seconds before he needs to go to the bathroom.  I’d put it at fifteen years before he’ll be capable of expressing what he’s probably really been feeling since Wally came home on Monday: “I’m emotionally conflicted about my little brother’s presence in my life, and unsure of how I fit into our family now that he’s here.”

There have been some tender moments, though. On Tuesday Jay asked to hold Wally for the first time.  We sat Jay on the couch and then placed Wally on his lap. Caroline chaperoned the meeting and she only had to restrain Jay twice: Once when he pinched Wally’s nose a little too hard and again when he tried to play the conga drums on Wally’s head.  But besides that their first real interaction as brothers was a success. Jay bent Wally’s head up to his lips and gave him a kiss and he gave Wally gentle pats on the tummy, just as we’d taught him to do with dogs in the park.  Caroline suggested that Wally might like it if Jay sang him a song; Jay responded by repeating Wally’s name over and over to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

I don’t remember how I felt when my siblings arrived but I do have strong memories of another period of family upheaval when I was young.  I was nine-years-old the summer my parents divorced.  As my parents divided their lives and my sister, brother and I began to shuttle between their two houses, I felt a lot of things, but what I remember most is that whatever I felt, I felt it strongly.   When I felt scared it was the most scared I’d ever been.  When I felt elated it was nearly to the point of mania.  When I felt angry, I felt so massively angry that I could barely tell I existed anymore.

I thought about this yesterday evening when Caroline, Jay, Wally and I came home from the park.  Jay had spent the last hour digging in the dirt.  His hands were filthy and he tried to wriggle away when I propped him up against the sink to wash.  I begged him to comply.  I told him about all the fun things he could do as soon as his hands were clean. I reminded him how big boys always wash their hands.  I even told him about germ theory.  None of it worked.  Finally, with the water running and Jay pinned between my body and the sink, I washed his hands myself.  I pried apart his clenched fingers and pressed liquid soap into his palms.  I scrubbed his hands with my fingers as his body went rigid and his face turned red and he screamed and screamed and screamed.  By the time it was over he was so hysterical he couldn’t stand up and my heart was racing nearly as fast as his.

Maybe he reacted this way because of Wally.  Maybe he didn’t.  As I picked him off the bathroom floor I thought about how hard a time this probably was for him, even if he couldn’t have begun to say why.

He was still sobbing as I carried him into his bedroom.  I told him to put his arms around me and to squeeze as hard as he could.  I felt his thin arms press against the back of my neck.  I told him to do it again, and as Jay squeezed me I felt a catharsis, too.  In that moment life felt very real.

With tears drying on his face I brought Jay over to a panel of switches on the wall.  Even as an infant he’d loved playing with them.  Jay flipped the ceiling fan on.  Then off.  Then on. Then off again.  The fan’s momentum kept it spinning even after he’d turned it off for good.  “Fan stopping,” he said, pointing up to the ceiling.

“That’s right,” I said, “The fan is slowing down.”

He took a long, deep breath and ran the back of his hand across his wet nose.  As Wally cried in the other room, Jay and I watched the blades of the ceiling fan ease slowly through the air, and before they came to a complete rest we headed back out to dinner.

*Starting today I’m going to use pseudonyms for the kids’ names: two-year-old Jay and newborn Wally.

The feeling you get when a baby is born

During the last month of my wife’s pregnancy with our second child, she and I began to work our way through a stack of restaurant gift certificates we’d accrued over our five years in Philadelphia.  We knew that once the baby was born we wouldn’t have much time to go out and that by the end of the summer we’d be packing up and moving to Michigan.

The culminating event was a night out at Vetri, sponsored by my brother who’d gifted it to us this past fall for serving as the best man in his wedding.  Vetri enjoys a reputation as quite possibly the best Italian eatery in America: you have to call ahead a month to the minute to have any chance of reserving a table; there is no menu per se—all patrons are served a meal assembled at the chef’s discretion that costs more than we spend on groceries in two months; the food was described by people we knew as profound, the type of experience you’re likely to remember for the rest of your life.

So on a Thursday night two weeks before her due date Caroline and I arranged to have a friend babysit James and we slow-walked down Spruce Street to an awaiting 7:30pm table.  As we approached the entrance to the restaurant we paused; it’s worth stepping lightly into a life-changing experience.

In general I’m not very comfortable with experiences that come loaded with the expectation that you’ll feel any certain way in response to them.  Among the Himalayas, in front of the Taj Mahal, and as I waited for my wife to turn down the aisle on our wedding day I was trailed by the idea that these were some of the greatest experiences that life has to offer.  If the experiences underwhelmed, would it mean that the world is a less magical place than it’s made out to be? Or, maybe more distressingly, would it indicate that for some reason I’m not able to appreciate what magic there is?

When Caroline and I left the restaurant three hours later we were of the same mind about the food: It was certainly very, very good, but maybe there’s no combination of ingredients on earth that can equal the hype and price of Vetri, at least not in our tax bracket and with our taste buds.  We went to bed that night stuffed but not permanently altered, and with our last restaurant gift certificate expended, we settled down to wait for the arrival of our second child.

Two weeks later Caroline went into labor.  Her contractions began mildly just before bedtime; by the time we woke up the next morning (or rather I woke up; she didn’t sleep much that night) they were coming hard and fast and Caroline told me that really, we needed to go to the hospital right now.  We called a friend to come watch James who was still asleep in his crib, we packed an overnight bag, and we headed off on foot to the hospital 12 blocks away.  Every half block Caroline stopped to lean against a light post or a building as she grimaced through a contraction, while passing pedestrians snuck a glance at this clearly anguished woman and wondered if maybe they shouldn’t offer to help or hail a cab.

No experience comes weighted with greater emotional expectations than the birth of your child.  It is the crowning moment of a life.  As Caroline prepared to deliver James two years ago I remember an odd moment of self-consciousness: there were a lot of people in the room—midwives, nurses, in-laws—and I was the dad and what if I didn’t react the way I was supposed to?  It was a silly thought to have at such a moment, but what can I say, it was there.

Her labor with James had taken all day but this one progressed much faster.  We’d been at the hospital for only a few hours when the midwives told Caroline it was time to push.  I stood on Caroline’s left and her mother stood on her right.  A midwife lined up at center and urged her on.  Little by little the head came into view: first as a spot, then as an arc, and then as the unmistakable round of a newborn child straining towards life.  Out he rushed, screaming, wailing, wet and blind.

Together we wept because it was the only thing we could do.

Marriage or children: Which is more important? Which should be?

As a recently minted husband and a new father, I’m interested in trends around marriage and childbearing.  The 2010 Census has yielded a host of interesting patterns (detailed Census report here) in this regard: marriage rates are down for people of all demographics; marriage rates are down most dramatically among Americans with the lowest educational attainment (46% of Americans with a high school diploma or less are married, compared to 64% of college graduates who are married);  Americans of all stripes are getting married later in life (the average age of marriage for men is 28, for women 26); successful marriages are increasingly concentrated among Americans with the most education (a college degree or more).

One of the most interesting pieces of analysis around marriage and childbearing trends comes from a survey by the Pew Research Center that found that members of the Millenial Generation (roughly speaking anyone born between 1980 and 2000) believe that being a good parent is more important in life than having a successful marriage: 52% of Millenials said being a good parent was one of the most important things in life while only 30% said the same thing about marriage.  This roughly tracks with Census trends which show that Americans are getting married later in life and less often overall and also increasingly having children outside of marriage.

This result really struck me, first because in my own life I never considered having children before I’d gotten married, and second, because it’s unclear whether marriage or children is more important for happiness.  My sense is that the available evidence suggests a successful marriage contributes more to happiness than children do.  There’s the fact that married couples are better off financially than single people, and that marriage correlates with better physical health and longer life expectancy.  At the same time there have been a slew of articles and studies in recent years questioning whether having children actually makes people happier, including this piece from New York magazine subtitled “Why parents hate parenting.”  [N.b. It will come as no surprise that I disagree with the argument that children are detrimental to happiness; I’m just noting that it’s out there.]

It’s possible, then, that there’s a tension between what Millenials prioritize (children over marriage) and what will make them happy.  At the same time, it’s also possible that Millenials have soberly concluded that while a happy marriage might not be possible for them, they don’t want that to mean they have to miss out on having children too.

Not ready for primetime: James at the tee ball game

Last Saturday morning James and I went down to Taney Park along the Schuylkill River.  He insisted on walking to start but got tired halfway there and hopped aboard his tricycle.  When we arrived the playground was nearly empty (I’m always surprised that dog owners are outside on weekend mornings far earlier than toddler owners) and James was bored.  He had no interest in going down the slide; there were no kids whose toys he could try to steal; he picked up a pine cone and then dropped it.  Then he saw a group of kids running around on a nearby baseball field and he perked up.  “Yook kids,” he said, pointing.  So we walked over to the chain link fence and watched the early innings of a tee ball game.

The kids were about six years-old though they looked like mini-Major Leaguers.  They had on yellow and blue team shirts with the logo of a local business sponsor on the front and a number on the back.  There were matching caps; most of the kids had on polyester baseball pants; a few even sported eyeblack.

Whenever I see kids even just a little older than James I can’t imagine how he’ll eventually turn into them.  This has been true all along: It seemed impossible that he’d ever walk until one day he did; when he was born some friends gave him a Nike sweatsuit that was so big we stowed it at the bottom of a drawer thinking maybe he’d grow into it before he went to college.  This spring I pulled it out, tags still affixed, and was shocked to discover that sometime, probably over the winter, his head had become too big to fit through the top of the shirt.

Kids of any age are a funny combination of skill and incompetence. When the tee ball sluggers stepped up to the tee they looked like pros: Their legs perfectly spaced, the bat cocked and wagging in their hands, their eyes bearing down on the pitcher who wasn’t actually there.  Then they’d swing and reality was restored.  Most of them hit the tee beneath the ball, which is one of the feeblest feelings in all of youth sports, for players and spectators alike. One of the dad/coaches would run quickly onto the field to replace the ball on the tee before the kid grew too discouraged.  Everyone made contact eventually.  Once you put the ball in player there was zero chance the fielders were going to get you out.

After a few batters James became more interested in the gravel along the bottom of the fence than the game, but I kept watching.  I would have imagined a tee ball game as one big scrum but they actually did a good job holding their positions, just like the Phillies do.

I was curious about how they’d been assigned positions: Why was one kid directed to shortstop and another told to go play right field?  On what basis was the kid with the knee-high stirrups made catcher?  The assignments were probably fairly random but also consequential.  In a couple years they’d be in Little League and the coach would ask them what positions they’d played before and the catcher would say catcher and the shortstop would say shortstop and the right fielder would kind of lie and say he didn’t really have a position.  The process by which a child’s future possibilities winnow and branch goes on all the time; it just seemed particularly apparent to me that morning watching the baseball game.

Last fall James and I were in Rittenhouse Square when I started chatting with a dad who was there with his five-year-old son.  The son had two baseball mitts and it happened that he wanted me to wear one of them.  We played catch for awhile and I remember thinking “This is pretty fun.  Won’t it be great when James and I can do this.”

But Saturday morning at the tee ball field I had the opposite feeling.  For the kids I’m sure it was thrilling to step up to the tee and know that whether the ball flew or sunk was completely up to them; it seemed thrilling for the dads, too, who cheered and encouraged like it was Game 7 of the World Series.  But for my part I was happy—for that day at least—to have James at my feet throwing gravel at the grass, and to know that in a short while he’d mount his tricycle and I’d push him home.

Parenting decisions today, a relationship with grown children tomorrow

There was an enjoyable essay in The Times this weekend about a mother taking a cross-country train trip with her two twenty-something sons. I agree with the observation the author, Dominique Browning, makes at the outset: “As parents, we are inundated with child-rearing books, but none of them explain how we should behave when children become adults.”

Over the course of the week-long trip from New York to San Francisco Browning distilled several lessons for how to have a good relationship with your children once they’ve grown up. They include:

  • Don’t say everything that pops into your brain
  • No more corrections of any sort
  • Do interesting things together. Do anything together.
  • Listen and do nothing. Or, do nothing and just listen.
  • They will never be 8 years old again. Nor do you want them to be. Not really. Just a bit.

James’  turned two just last week, so it’s not quite time to worry about how I’ll handle things the first time we have a beer together. In her essay Browning says that one of the keys to the success of the trip was that she let her twenty-six-year-old son Alex plan the itinerary as a way to show that she considered him an adult. This morning I let James plan the walk to daycare and it was a disaster. It took 20 minutes to walk two blocks and the experiment ended with him screaming in my arms, “I wanna touch it,” as I hauled him away from a pile of dog poop.

Even though we’re a few years away from traveling together as equals, I still think about how the relationship James and I have now will translate once he’s an adult. The first two years of his life have passed in what feels like almost not time at all; I imagine the next 16 will, too. Given that James will have no choice but about spending time with for only a relatively small percentage of the years we have together, I want to make sure that the relationship we form while he’s young sets the stage for the relationship I hope we’ll have when he’s older.

I don’t have any particularly keen insights for how to accomplish that. As parents we probably have less to do with that process than I think. (Maybe one-third of a child’s eventual happiness owes to his parents, with the rest just alchemy?) But in the day-in-day-out sometimes slog of parenting I find that thinking about the relationship I’ll have with James when he’s older is a useful way to remind myself of a larger point: that Caroline and I are raising a child whose life is ultimately his own.

Disciplining a toddler with timeout: smart or soft?

Almost nothing stays with a kid longer than the feeling of being punished by his parents.  What I remember most is not the particulars of the punishment—a spanking, a bar of soap, not being able to drive for a month—but the feeling of having done wrong in my parents’ eyes.  Even at 30 it would still hit me hard if my dad were to let me know that he thought I’d acted badly.

I had this thought in mind yesterday at lunchtime when James launched his sippy cup into the tray of the open dishwasher.  It clattered among the dirty plates and startled me enough that I dropped/slammed the wooden cutting board I was washing down in the sink.  “That was not funny,” I shouted as I spun his high-chair around to face away from the kitchen. “You’ve got timeout!”

Now, I didn’t receive timeout as a kid but Caroline and I have taken to using it as parents.  I think of it as one of the stereotypical practices of middle class American childrearing.  I’ve read several academic studies about parenting recently and in the compare and contrast between American-style parenting and parenting styles in other parts of the world, “time out” is always listed as a key distinction between the way we raise our children and the way the Kalahari bushmen raise theirs.  If it’s not on Stuff White People Like it should be.

I asked Caroline why she thinks “timeout” is ridiculed.  “Because it’s wussy,” she said.  That sounds right to me.  The most obvious point of comparison is the belt, as in “Dad’s going to get the belt if you don’t shape up,” and in that sense timeout is just another way that late-stage American culture has grown soft.  During the ’08 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton called Barack Obama a Pollyanna after he said he’d be willing to hold diplomatic talks with the world’s worst dictators.  In her view dictators, like toddlers, only respond to force.  (Caroline adds that it’s misguided to think that either dictators or toddlers respond to force or to diplomacy: “They’re both just crazy,” she says.)

So I felt like a bit of a caricature yesterday as I gave James timeout for throwing his cup in the dishwasher.  When his minute was up I turned his seat back around and asked him if he knew why he’d been given timeout.  “No throw cup a dishwasher,” he said.

“That’s right,” I replied, pleased to hear that the time he’d had to contemplate his misdeed had clarified things for him.  “We don’t throw the cup in the dishwasher.”  The grin on his face told me that he was already plotting his next projectile.

One of the central things timeout accomplishes is that it depersonalizes punishment. If James throws his cup into the dishwasher and is given timeout, the implication is that he did wrong by the dishwasher.  If, instead, James throws his cup into the dishwasher and dad flies into apoplexy, the implication is that he did wrong by dad.  The difference between timeout and spanking is like the difference between a police officer giving out a parking ticket—”Nothing personal, I’m just doing my job”—and God raining fire and brimstone on Gomorrah—”You better believe it’s personal.”

So which approach is better?  I’m not a timeout kind of parent by disposition but I’ve warmed to its merits.  I like that with minor events like the dishwasher incident timeout keeps the interaction between me and James simple and more predictable.  As he gets older and the lessons he learns grow more complex I hope I’ll keep in mind how powerful my parents’ judgments were to me as a kid (both when they’d praise me and when they were angry at me), and be conservative in how and when I express my own judgments to James.

At the same time, I know that I’m going to be an integral part of James’ moral world as he grows up, and that my responsibility to him is as more than an umpire who dispassionately calls strikes and balls in his behavior.