Profiled on The Parent du Jour

About a year ago I discovered a website called The Parent du Jour.  Even the monolingual among us can probably guess what it’s about: Every day, 365 days a year, they profile a different parent.  And today they’re profiling me.  Some of my answers will be familiar to regular readers of this blog and some cover new ground.  I hope you enjoy reading the profile and that you’ll keep coming back to their site.  If all goes well a couple of Growing Sideways’ favorite parents- Lis Fogt and Chris Huntington– will be parents du jour in the near future.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

HOW HAS PARENTING CHANGED YOU AS AN INDIVIDUAL?

I saw this episode of The Dog Whisperer Once. There was this overly energetic, slightly manic dog. A yellow lab, I think. And Cesar Milan’s solution was to strap a weight jacket on the dog. He explained that the dog needed to feel like he was doing work—he needed a sense of purpose—in order to settle the dog down enough so that he could handle the mundane parts of his life—going for a walk, lying around the house. I was like that before I became a father. I was pretty confused in my 20s. Not in any dramatic kind of way—I just didn’t know what I wanted in life. Becoming a father gave me enough structure to begin to fill in the other pieces of my life.  [keep reading…]

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A tearful conversation during a weekend away from home

This past weekend I went to New York City for one last go around with a good friend before he becomes a father later this spring.  Our itinerary included a baseball game, a barbeque, beer, and a lot of ping pong.  When we finally turned out the lights a little after 3am on Friday night, I thought of Jay and Wally back home, and how it wouldn’t be long until they began to stir.

Earlier on Friday evening I’d talked with Jay and Caroline on the phone as I walked from the subway in Brooklyn. Jay was hysterical.  Caroline explained that they’d been reading Where The Wild Things Are and that Jay had started crying when they came to the part where Max gets in his boat and says goodbye to the Wild Things.  Apparently that part of the story was more than Jay could handle at a time when themes of (temporary) abandonment were alive in his own life.

We talked on the phone for a few minutes.  Jay sniffled throughout but managed to pull it together long enough to tell me what he’d had for dinner (pasta with grapes and salad) and to confirm what I already knew via text message, that he’d been a good boy during quiet time that afternoon and had earned the prize of a single Thin Mint cookie from the freezer.

But then he asked me if I was coming home tomorrow and I told him the truth that it would be a couple days yet.  He started sobbing again.  I was at a loss, simultaneously heart broken and disoriented: It was just not the kind of display I’m used to seeing from Jay.

I arrived at my friend’s house ten minutes later.  We sat down and started to catch up but for an hour or so my mood was still under the influence of that conversation with Jay.  When I thought about it later, I realized there were a couple different emotions operating.

The most prominent one was guilt. Jay was back home suffering in the depths of anguish so that I could…Eat pizza and drink beer? When I tallied things up like that it seemed hard to justify absconding for the weekend.  Of course, parents shouldn’t tally things up like that.  Otherwise our kids would hold us hostage.  In a masterstroke of self-justification it occurred to me later as I walked to a bar in Brooklyn Heights that one of my foremost responsibilities as a parent is to help Jay and Wally calibrate their emotions to the reality of the world rather than always trying to fix the world according to their emotions.

A second emotion, nearly as strong as the first, was vanity.  When I arrived at my friend’s house I wanted to tell him about my phone call with Jay—I wanted to emphasize just how hard Jay was sobbing, I wanted to play up the poignancy of him starting to cry because of a book.  My heart broke for Jay but it also swelled a little bit, too:  It feels good to be missed like that, to be so thoroughly at the center of someone else’s world.

The weekend proceeded and Jay got his emotions under control, suggesting that half the outpouring of the night before had been because he was tired.  We Skyped on Saturday morning before he went off for a belated Easter egg hunt at a friend’s house and we talked again that evening before he went to bed.

On Sunday evening he and Caroline and Wally picked me up at the Detroit Airport.  Both boys had fallen asleep on the ride over, but Jay roused as the car came to a stop. I peered in at him through the window beside his carseat.  His eyes were open but sleep was still heavy on his face.  He didn’t react to seeing me.

I got into the passenger seat and Caroline merged onto the highway.  Every couple minutes I looked back at Jay.  He was reviving, slowly.  When I thought he was ready I blew him a kiss.  He blew me a kiss back.

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A short trip far from home

A claustrophobic in a closet

Yesterday I wrote about the challenge of figuring out when to enforce household rules with Jay and when to make exceptions based on particular circumstances (like when he’s sick).  Last night I was reading The Pale King and I came across a funny passage that fit with the day’s theme:

‘It was on either Twilight Zone or Outer Limits– one of those.  A claustrophobic guy who gets worse and worse until he’s so claustrophobic that he starts screaming and carrying on, and they trundle him off to a mental asylum, and in the asylum they put him in isolation in a straightjacket in a tiny little room with a drain in the floor, a room the size of a closet, which you can see would be the worst thing possible for a claustrophobic, but they explain to him through the slit in the door that it’s the rules and procedures, that if somebody’s screaming they have to be put in isolation.  Hence, the guy’s damned, he’s in there for life- because as long as he’s screaming and trying to beat himself unconscious against the wall of the room, they’re going to keep him in that little room, and as long as he’s in that little room, he’s going to be screaming, because the whole problem is that he’s a claustrophobic.  He’s a living example of how there has to be some slack or play in the rules and procedures for certain cases, or else sometimes there’s going to be some ridiculous foul-up and someone’s going to be in a living hell. The episode was called ‘Rules and Procedures,’ and none of us ever forgot it.’

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A heightening of specificity

Like physics

On Wednesday night Caroline and I said goodnight to Jay and closed his door, at which point he commenced to talk to himself and loll about in his crib for more than an hour.  Last night was a different story: I closed his door and when I came back upstairs ten minutes later, he was asleep.

The source of the difference was obvious: On Wednesday Jay took a nap, on Thursday he didn’t.  And this pattern holds unerringly.  If he naps for an hour in the afternoon it takes him an hour longer to fall asleep at night.  If he doesn’t nap in the afternoon you can count on him falling asleep almost immediately at night.

What’s interesting about this, I think, is how perfectly correlated Jay’s ability to fall asleep is with his level of fatigue.  If you take away an hour of sleep over here, he makes it up over there, almost like shifting weights on a balance.  And if he’s not tired, there’s no way he’s falling asleep.

This hasn’t always been the case.  When Jay was first born I remember thinking like many new parents probably do: If he’s tired, he’ll fall asleep.  I quickly learned, of course, that this wasn’t true.  All sorts of factors interfere with an infant’s ability to fulfill the basic urge to sleep.  The main source of interference is that they don’t know how to relax themselves enough to let sleep take over.  They have to learn how to do that.

Even as recently as a few months ago Jay’s actions were still not perfectly attuned to his level of fatigue.  There were many afternoons when he clearly needed a nap but his busybody antics made it impossible for him to get into position to sleep.  He’d lie down on the bed, rub his eyes, then start fiddling with the zipper on the pillowcase, and before he knew it, he was sitting up and looking for something else to play with.  His body wanted to sleep, but his mind wouldn’t obey.

Recently, though, the gap between what his body wants and what his mind allows has closed.  Now, when he doesn’t take a nap I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s just not tired.  And some afternoons, he’ll play for an hour and then, when he realizes he is tired, he’ll go lie down on the couch and fall asleep.  Recently he’s become noticeably more aware of the state of his own body—when he’s tired, or hungry, or thirsty, or cold—and he’s learning how take appropriate actions based on that awareness.  Developmentally, I think this is where he’s made the biggest leap in the last few months.

I had time to think about all this last night because, unlike Jay, I did not fall asleep quickly.  When Caroline and I turned out the lights at 11pm I was plenty tired, just as I am at the end of most days.  But as soon as I lay down my mind started to race with images from the day and half-formed anxieties about the future.  After thirty minutes of failing to fall asleep I started to feel like a feeble newborn, unable to give myself the one thing I wanted most.  I pictured Jay, sleeping easy in the room next door, and I thought: Enjoy it while it lasts.

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To Wally: Cry now so we can be friends later

A short post on my birthday

Today is my 31st birthday, though it hasn’t included any of the usual festivities.  Caroline has been in Vancouver for a research meeting since Friday morning and won’t be back until late tonight.  Jay, Wally, and I have managed pretty well on our own.  They haven’t cut me any slack but there have been no hammer blows, either.

My first rule for spending long periods of time with the boys is: let happy kids keep doing whatever it is that’s making them happy.  In practice this meant that I spent twenty minutes this morning sitting on the bathroom floor watching Wally play with the shower curtain (while Jay did idled the time in his booster with his bowl of oatmeal).  Part of me was eager to get on with our morning errands but I reminded myself, “The errands can wait; better to take an easy twenty minutes now than to fight through a hard twenty minutes later on.”

I’d share the details of the errands but typing them out would only double down on just how un-celebratory they were.  After completing them my plan had been to drive to Burns Park to take advantage of the sunshine and spend an hour outside before lunch.  But Wally fell asleep in the car on the way home; rather than roust him so that his brother could play on the playground, we parked in a sunny spot of our driveway and I let him nap while Jay splashed in the puddle-cum-mud-hole at the end of our driveway and kicked a soccer ball with the amazingly patient and kind nine-year-old girl who lives next door.

(To further feather this girl’s cap, it should be noted that later in the day she came by and delivered two boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints that I’d ordered back in December and which definitely counted as the best birthday surprise of the day.)

Following Wally’s nap we went inside for a long lunch and then an even longer time lying on the floor doing who-even-remembers-what in the playroom.  All I can tell you is the boys were happy and that maybe for the first time ever, Wally beat up Jay. (The two of them were lying in the pack-‘n-play and Wally started to claw amiably at Jay’s face.  Jay squealed to be rescued.  I picked him up and told him that he did a good job not pushing his brother back, but inside a little part of me was embarrassed for him.)

Overall I relied on inertia as much as I could to through the day.  It occurred to me that this is opposite the way birthdays are usually paced.  Birthdays tend to be more planned and deliberate than most days of the year and they carry the expectation that you’ll enjoy them.  I’m happy to enjoy my birthday, of course, but as I wrote in June, a few days after Wally was born, “I’m not very comfortable with experiences that come loaded with the expectation that you’ll feel any certain way in response to them.”  When my sister called this afternoon and asked if I was having a fun day, I was relieved to be able to say that fun, in the sense of steak dinners and vodka shots, had never really been on the table.

So here we are now.  It’s 8:15pm.  Both boys have been asleep for almost an hour already (I packed them off to bed early).  Caroline is due home in about six hours.  On the table in front of me there’s an empty glass of Zinfandel and a mug of coffee ice cream topped with crumbled Girl Scout cookies.

I wouldn’t call it a grand birthday, but I’m happy to call it mine.

“Life everywhere is life”

“Brother, I am not depressed and haven’t lost spirit.  Life everywhere is life, life is in ourselves and not in the external.  There will be people near me, and to be a human being among human beings, and remain one forever, no matter what misfortunes befall, not to become depressed, and not to falter- this is what life is, herein lies its task.”

A letter from Fyodor Dostoevsky to his brother on December 22, 1849, hours after receiving a last-second reprieve from execution on charges of belonging to an underground utopian society

This philosophy rings true to me, even though it didn’t serve Dostoevsky well (he was by all accounts depressed and anxious his entire life).

“Life everywhere is life, life is in ourselves.” If there’s a lesson in this for Jay and Wally it’s this: Life is too complex to expect that if you fine tune this, or fix that, or buy more of this other thing, then you’ll be happy.  You’re never going to avoid being who you are, wherever you are, and one of the first tasks is to make peace with that.

This letter also expresses one of my biggest fears for them:  “To be a human being…and remain one forever, no matter what misfortunes befall, not to become depressed, and not to falter- this is what life is.”

Actually, I hope life is more than that for Jay and Wally.  I want them to flourish, to see all the uncertainty that surrounds being alive as an opportunity- their chance for a short while to participate in something sublime.

But sometimes, after a hard day, I think I’d be happy knowing that they’ll get through without losing their minds.