Watching football, hoping for something that is not there

On Sunday afternoon I hauled our television upstairs from the family room and placed it beside our large front window, where the reception is best.   I dumped a bag of popcorn into a bowl, pulled up two chairs, and invited Jay to sit beside me for the Patriots-Broncos game.  For fifteen rapt minutes he stared straight ahead while his left hand shuttled automatically between the bowl and his open mouth, popcorn crumbs spilling into the creases of his jeans, a smear of white cheddar forming around his mouth.

This was an unusual event in our house.  We don’t do much that counts as pure leisure time.  Most of the hours of the week we shuttle between chores or mark time against a schedule that sometimes feels like our only bulwark against entropy.

My desire to watch football on this particular Sunday was motivated by the way I remember similar afternoons feeling growing up.  In my dad’s house football was the main event each Sunday.  We’d drift around after breakfast until the early game came on, eat wings and nachos, and welcome the arrival of the late-game, from sunny Arizona or Raider Nation in LA, as a contrast with the encroaching winter darkness outside our windows.

I liked those Sunday afternoons as a kid because they felt safe.  The world was simple from 1pm-7pm, just football and snacks during the last languid hours of the weekend.  I think I was trying to recapture that feeling this past Sunday when I brought the TV upstairs. I wanted life to feel simple, contained, controlled, easy, for just a few hours.

And to an extent it did.  I drank Great Lakes Christmas Ale while Jay raced to the bottom of the popcorn bowl.  Caroline bounced Wally on her lap.  He’s been sick for the last few days, but the frantic glow of the television seemed to take his mind off his stuffy nose.  At the commercial breaks I ran into the kitchen and worked on dinner (Tunisian fish cakes with paprika aioli), chopping the herbs after a Tim Tebow touchdown run, measuring the spices at the two-minute warning.

I recently thought about how those Sunday afternoons growing up might have felt for my dad.  They felt safe for me but I imagine that for him the experience was always more complicated than that, with concerns about money and the responsibility of raising three kids playing on his mind as we munched nachos side-by-side, cheered the Giants, stoked the fireplace when the flames got low.

And in retrospect I realize that even for me those afternoons didn’t feel completely safe in the way I idealize them. I remember the faint feeling of dread I’d get when commercials for 60 Minutes came on—that stopwatch ticking ominously, counting down the seconds until our Sunday afternoon bubble burst and it would be time to do homework.

This past Sunday our football Eden began to fray by halftime: Wally’s cold started to make him fussy again; Jay grew bored and started threatening to run his cheddar-stained fingers across the TV screen; the effects of two 7% beers began to muddle my head. I took the tilapia from the fridge and began to chop.  A piece of fish fell on the floor, another flew up and stuck to the side of the coffee pot.

That night when I went to bed my heart was beating fast.  I thought about that afternoon—the few hours when everything was in its right place, and then the time after that, the time at the margins of consciousness where the edge crumbles, things aren’t so certain, and there’s the real possibility of something terrible happening.

And this is what I wonder, almost more intensely than I wonder anything else: Is life going to feel safe like a story, or in the end is it bound to scare the ever-loving shit out of me?


Between the two of us, a celebration

As I was lying in bed tonight, lights out, but not yet committed to sleep, I watched thoughts from the day float by: a phone conversation with my sister who was tired, a magazine article I’m writing that has finally turned a corner, a rekindled desire to win an exercise competition I’ve entered with my friends (are you reading this Rob?).

But I realized that of all the things I might think about as I drift off to sleep, what I most want to think about is Jay.

For days now I have been unable to resist picking him up at every opportunity, hugging him and kissing him and putting him down just to do it all again moments later.  There’s been something about him recently—he’s funnier, more aware, more in control.  He radiates life and light. I am falling in love.

I realized tonight that I have complete conviction that the one thing I most want to do with my life over the next two decades is help Jay grow up (and Wally, too, though I don’t really know him yet so it’s hard to imagine what that will look like).

And then I asked myself why, out of all the ways I could I spend my time is this the way I choose? I considered a few possibilities: a sense of duty; a desire to have a meaningful task to devote myself to; a hope that he’ll mourn me when I die.

But none of those seemed quite right.

Then it hit me. What I most want to help Jay develop is a sense of wonder and love for the life he’s been given.  So that he blinks, and looks around, and blinks and looks around, and says over and again, every day that he’s alive, I cannot believe I am here.

He’s not the only person I want that for, though. Raising Jay is the most optimistic thing I have ever done.  To want life for Jay is to want life for myself, too.  There is, between the two of us, a celebration.

48 hours alone with the boys

Early this morning Caroline left for a two-day work trip to Los Angeles.  This has been on our calendar since September and we’ve been making plans accordingly: banking milk in the freezer for the last two months and, more recently, helping Wally learn to sleep through the night without any restorative nursing sessions.

The day before Caroline’s departure I made my own preparations for 48 hours at home with the boys. I cooked a pot of pasta sauce that ended up as enough food to get us through New Year’s, and last night I shaved one day ahead of schedule because I remembered Caroline saying that she barely had time to brush her teeth when she had the boys alone two weekends ago while I was in South Caroline.  Also I ran six miles this morning while the boys were with their nanny.  I did it for Jay.  To take the edge off. Because I know there’s going to be at least a moment when he drives me crazy.

Pasta sauce for the duration: tofu, broccoli, olives, mushrooms

All told, though, I’ve been looking forward to these two days.  The last time I was home alone as a dad was back in April when Caroline was seven-months pregnant and flew to San Francisco for a bachelorette party.  For that trip I made a pot of dal.  Jay and I ate rice and lentils twice a day for three days and I, at least, enjoyed the feeling of minimalist living, just me and my son and food to get us through the day.  We also took walks together, played blocks, went to bed early and woke up even earlier, and generally established a rhythm and intimacy that I find is harder to cultivate when parenting in tandem.

So far today things are going very well.  Jay slept late and I used the extra time to make Irish oatmeal and mix Wally a bottle of half-formula-half-breast-milk.  And right now both boys are napping downstairs in the family room.  I turned up the heat to 74 degrees, hoping to stultify them into sleeping past 4pm.  After that, maybe a trip to Target to buy Jay some additional pairs of training underwear (turns out that 3 pairs is not even close to enough), and then dinner, maybe a story or two, and lights out.

I love how simple life becomes during long stretches at home as a dad.  For two days I wont think about achievement or bills, presidential politics, NBA trade rumors, or how well I’m using my time on earth.  I’ll just take care of Jay and Wally, eat and sleep.  Except for missing Caroline, I think I could go on like this for a long time.

Jay is who he is, but his behavior is not inevitable

Yesterday afternoon at 4:30pm it was time to pick Caroline up from school and Jay was still fast asleep.  Wally and I went into the room where Jay was napping. I put Wally on the bed beside Jay, and Wally began to paw excitedly at Jay’s face and bare legs.  Jay’s eyes fluttered open.  He reached up, groggy in the dim late-afternoon light, and petted his brother on the head.

As I’ve written before, Jay is very affectionate towards Wally, always kissing him and giving him hugs.  But his motives are suspect.  After he performs any kind deed towards his brother he looks right at me or Caroline for affirmation.  If we happened to have missed it he’ll say “Look Mama,” kiss Wally on the head again, and wait for his praises.

But the petting of Wally’s head, in the moments right after waking and before Jay had all his faculties together, struck me as a sign of authentic, deep-seeded affection.

Yesterday was also the fourth day in a row that Jay has taken a two-hour nap.  The run of good napping comes on the heels of a month in which Jay napped fewer than a handful of times, and it coincides with a decision I made over the weekend (and wrote about on Monday) to let Jay do naptime beside me on the guest bed.

Parents often talk about the nature/nurture dichotomy in relation to their kids.  Over the weekend we had brunch at a friend’s house and met a mom with one-year-old twins.  She said the differences in their personalities even at this young age were all the evidence she needed that kids are who they are from birth.

Most parents I’ve talked to say the same thing.  Caroline and I do, too, having had the chance to compare Jay and Wally over the first six months of their lives.  Jay has always been spirited, a little defiant, somewhat volatile, prone to frustration, intent on doing things his own way. (In short exactly the kind of kid I always imagined I’d have.)  Wally is even-keeled, adaptable, relentlessly cheery, pragmatic, poised.  (In short, the kind of kid I can barely fathom as a product of my own genetic material.  So kudos to Caroline.)

Personality seems to be innate, but the recent run of good napping is a reminder to me that behavior is very modifiable.  Jay didn’t nap for a month.  Then I changed the circumstances of naptime and introduced new incentives and he’s napped four days straight.  I don’t expect this run to continue much longer which I take as a function of who Jay is—you need to work to stay ahead of him—but I also take it as a reminder that while his personality may be inevitable, his behavior is not.

There’s nothing profound about this, but I think it’s an important reminder whenever narratives about the boys begin developing in my head- narratives that take for granted what they do well and make me feel resigned to what they don’t.

To Wally: Cry now so we can be friends later

This weekend was the first one we’ve all been home for in more than a month, which perhaps explains the air of contentment that settled over our house this Sunday morning: Wally on the floor, grabbing hopefully at blocks; Jay sitting beside him, cheerfully and somewhat accurately narrating a picture book to himself; Caroline and I sitting in a flood of morning sunshine, sipping micro-lot Guatemalan coffee (which has become a fixation of mine since reading about coffee’s third wave in The New Yorker a few weeks ago), feeling for one blessed moment like characters in an American Express ad: this could be your life.

The main storyline from the weekend, however, was sleep—as in we’re all getting more of it, though for two very different reasons.

On Friday night a little after 6:30pm Caroline laid Wally down in his crib, awake, and walked away; at long last, sleep training had commenced.  Wally approached this new turn of events sensibly, which is how he’s approached just about everything in life so far.  He cried for five minutes, flopped over onto his belly, sniffled into his snug fitting crib sheet, and went to sleep.

That night Caroline and I turned off our bedroom light and settled against each other forehead to chin, the way we used to before Wally wedged his way into our lives.  As we nodded off the monitor hummed eerily in the background, filling the negative space left behind by Wally’s silenced protests.

The second major sleep event took place on Saturday afternoon.  Jay and I were lying together on the bed in the guest room when naptime rolled around.  I was tired and not very excited about the thought of cajoling him upstairs to his room for a nap so I made a different proposal: “If you promise to be quiet and not leave the room,” I told Jay, “We can do naptime down here on the bed.”

Jay, who loves novelty, readily accepted.  I turned over and closed my eyes while he played quietly with his cars beside me on the bed.  Every now and again I would hear him stop and settle into sleeping position, only to fidget, sit up, and begin playing again.

Some time later (I think I’d drifted off) I had the dawning recognition that it was quiet in the room and maybe had been for some time.  I turned over slowly towards the other side of the bed, hopeful but hesitant, and there was Jay, lying on his back crosswise across the bed, legs dangling off the edge, hands behind his head, breathing slowly right where he’d been when sleep had finally caught up to him.

Seeing him lying there was my favorite moment of the weekend.

What I loved about it was two things:  First, the independence and responsibility Jay had shown to play quietly in the room and put himself to sleep; and second, that Jay being responsible had made it possible to share the experience of napping together, our heads resting only inches apart on the same pillow as we dozed through the afternoon.  I didn’t have to worry that he was going to run out of the room (because I knew he valued the privilege of being down there too much) or that napping together was going to create a dependency I’d later have to undo (because at two-and-a-half, Jay is solidly established as an independent sleeper).

I realized later that the dynamic between Jay and me at naptime was opposite the one that ruled poor Wally’s fitful weekend.  Wally’s too young to be motivated by privileges, but he’s plenty old enough to have developed dependencies.  He wants to sleep beside Caroline (and part of her wants to sleep beside him, too) but according to our view of how best to help him grow up, he can’t have it until he no longer needs it.

Sleep training deprives me and Caroline and Wally of one kind of intimacy but my hope is that the independence and sense-of-self Wally gains as a result will open up a new kind of intimacy between us: the possibility of meeting as something like equals and sharing an experience (and our lives) the way Jay and I did during our Saturday nap.

Rating Jay and Wally’s effect on my well-being

Earlier this month I wrote a post called “How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness.”  A reader responded with what I took to be a gentle and well-placed admonishment: “Funny, though, how parents seem to spend so much time thinking about whether or not they are happy.”  Nevertheless, here I am with another post on how kids affect parental well-being.

The term “well-being” as opposed to “happiness” is the preferred nomenclature of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, whose work I’ve been reading today as part of a story I’m writing about his colleague and disciple Angela Duckworth (who, for her part, studies character traits like self-control and determination that correlate with achievement in school and in life).

Seligman is a lion in psychology—one of the most important members of his field over the last century.  He’s the founder of the “positive psychology” movement which he defines in his most recent book “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being” as “exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living.” The “positive” in positive psychology is meant to distinguish the pursuit from traditional branches of psychology focused on negative aspects of experience like depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, etc.

In “Flourish” Seligman argues that there are five components of well-being that go by the acronym PERMA:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

I thought it would be interesting to rate on a scale, from -5 to +5, how becoming a parent has impacted my life in each of those five dimensions.  Here goes:

Positive Emotion:
This refers to how often you experience the best feelings in life, among which Seligman includes “pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort.”  When assessing Jay and Wally’s impact in this realm I’m also going to dock points for negative emotions like anger, boredom, and frustration that they sometimes inspire.

Overall, Jay and Wally have greatly enhanced the quantity of positive emotion in my life.  And these contributions are not close to being outweighed by negative emotions. I’m definitely prone to anger and frustration but I’ve found that I tend to experience those feelings no matter where I am or what I’m doing, whereas the possibility of positive emotion seems to me to be much more situationally dependent.  So basically, I’m not much more angry/frustrated/bored as a Dad than I was before Jay, but I’m a lot more rapt/ecstatic/comforted.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Positive Emotion a +4.

Seligman defines engagement as “flow”: “being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity.”

This is a tough one to rate.  On the one hand, when I’m up at 5:30am with Wally the minutes pass like crawling across a parking lot littered with broken glass.  But on the other hand, I have found that parenthood is a nice antidote to self-consciousness.  I remember looking in the mirror while holding Jay a couple weeks after he was born: I was so much more interested in the baby I was holding than in my own reflection, and I think something like that change of focus has maintained over the last 2+ years.

But overall this diminishment of self-consciousness (or diminishment of focus on my-self) has been less profound than the anti-flow impact parenthood has had, in terms of making me more preoccupied with activities like chores and household routines.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Engagement a -2.

On the plus side, I’ve formed two extraordinary new relationships with Jay and Wally.  And Caroline and I get to share the intimacy of having and raising kids together.

On the minus side, Caroline and I share the intimacy of raising kids together. Our marriage revolves around Jay and Wally, which was made apparent the other night when we went out to dinner for Caroline’s birthday, just the two of us, and remembered a long forgotten secret: just how much we like being together as adults. (We intend, btw, to improve on this by kicking Wally out of our bed as soon as he gets over his current cold.)

And in terms of other relationships—friends, family—having kids has been a net negative to this point.  In a practical sense there’s just not as much time or mental energy to go around.  And on a dispositional level, as I wrote over the summer, becoming a parent has narrowed my ethical circle: the stronger my ethical attachments to Jay and Wally, the weaker my ethical attachments to all the other people in my life.

On the bright side, I suspect that Jay and Wally’s impact on our marriage and on all the other relationships in our lives is more negative now than it will be even in a few years when they’re a little more independent and don’t consume quite so much of our mental and physical energy.

Still, for now I rate parenthood’s contribution to Relationships a -3.

Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self.”  Here, parenting is a home run winner.  For reasons I’ve written about a lot,  Jay basically solved my longstanding meaning problem the day he was born.

I rate parenthood’s contribution to Meaning a +5.

There are some confounding factors here.  In the three years before Jay was born I was pretty lacking in career direction, and Reversion to the Mean suggests that my early-thirties were likely to be a more fruitful period in my professional life regardless of how many kids I had.

That said, I have found Jay and Wally to be a spur to work harder and to be more serious about figuring out what I want to do in life.  But I hesitate to give too high a rating here because the optimal conditions for Achievement would seem to be having a lot of career direction and not having any kids to worry about.

Still, given my particular career circumstances at the time Jay was born and the changes that have happened since, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Achievement a +1.

Totaling it all up, becoming a parent has improved my well-being by 5 points.  Seligman doesn’t provide a scale to evaluate what that means, but my intuition says it’s a pretty big positive change.  At the same time, Seligman warns that when people rate their own happiness, 70% of the score they give themselves tends to be determined by the mood they’re in at the time they perform the rating, and only 30% of the rating tends to be determined by analytic judgment.  And, despite the fact that Jay, Wally, and I are all suffering from our first colds of the year, I’m in a pretty good mood today.

I’d be very interested to know how readers of the blog assess the impact of having kids on their own lives in these categories.  Please share in the comments if inclined.