Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax..

Almost Killed by a Fashion Doll
The American Question
Asleep in My Arms
Believing in Children's Goodness
Boys will be ....
The Best Father You Can Be
The Biggest Stress In Today's Families
Children's Friendships
A communal version of family
Controlling Bossiness
Crossing into and out of Dreamland
The Daddyman's Christmas list
The Daddyman's Dad
"Dad, I'm bored."
The Dad I want to Be
Emotional Abuse Defined
Exclusionary Play
Freedom's Birthday
The Fun Club
Getting Dragged Along
God bless you, Mary Poppins
Halfway Point
"Heads Will Roll"
Healing Our Way Through Divorce
Interpretting Jesus's teachings at Christmas
Is it a boy or a girl?
I Win!
Just Go to Sleep
Learning To Parent by Experience
"Little House on the Central Coast"
The Meaning of Parenting
Men and Suspicion of Child Abuse
The Morning Rush
My Dad’s Advice
My daughter, Sisyphus
My, She's Shy
My Vasectomy
The Naked Truth
On Dad's and Love
Our Beautiful Daughters
Our Family Beds
Our Family Talks About Sex
Parenting is challenging
Peanut is Gone!
Piano Practice
The Playground and the World
Punishment and Permissiveness
The Report Card
Reproductive Rights & Fatherhood
The Second Parent
Sibling Competition
Strengthening the Marriage
Talking to your kids about sex
Teenage Christmas
This Story Has An End
The Toll of the Breadwinner Role
Two Bedtime Scenarios
Until Mid-life Do We Reconsider
Valentine's Day - Acts of Love
Validating Feelings
Wake Up DaddyMan
What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Getting Dragged Along

Kids don't just grow up one day. It's a gradual process. Along the way, though, one sometimes notices subtle shifts. I think I 'm feeling one this week.

We just got back from a camping trip. My plan had been to recreate the magical time I had as a child, camping with my dad. I remember being enthralled with the wilderness, and eager to prove that I could cut the mustard in the great outdoors.

My eight year old daughter, Molly, however, did not fit the role I cast for her. She likes to be outside, but she doesn't quite see the point of driving a long way and then hiking forever. The hiking part is especially abhorrent. Our house is under the redwoods and she can catch frogs in the nearby creek. Why walk for miles?

She complained all the way to the trailhead. I insisted that this was an important part of her education.

"It's only two miles to the lake," I enjoined her, trying to sound as chipper as Yuell Gibbons in the old Grape Nuts commercials. "It'll be fun!"

My partner, Amy, and I tossed on our day packs and headed down the trail. Molly refused to follow. Our packs were light compared to the heaviness we felt when we heard Molly, 150 feet behind us.

"I'm not coming."

"Then you can stay there and we'll see you when we get back." I had anticipated a protest and I was determined not to cater to it.

"You can't leave me here." She tried to call my bluff.

"Don't look back," I whispered to Amy. We walked on.

Half an hour later we stopped to look at the map. Molly had maintained her 150 foot distance behind us the whole way. I was tracking her whereabouts by the distant sound of her occasional whimpers. She was miserable, and it was difficult for Amy and I to enjoy the hike under these circumstances.

The map showed that in our haste to get started (and not indulge Molly) we had taken the wrong trail. We turned around and headed back. Molly felt quite vindicated by our mistake. It proved her point that hiking is useless. I wondered how I was going to convince her to join us on the correct trail once we got back to the trailhead.

"I am not hiking one more step," Molly announced with all the authority an eight year old can muster. Neither Amy nor I was up for another power struggle. We had succeeded in getting her to hike for an hour, but in winning that battle we had lost the war.

I will not plan another hike with Molly for a while, not until she evidences some interest of her own. It takes a lot of motivation to hike for miles on a hot day. I feel that motivation, because I relish the rewards I get from the experience. Molly, however, is different.

It wasn't always this way. Molly used to come with me wherever I went. She was happy to be along for the ride, happy just to be with her dad. As she grows older, however, her own preferences are becoming more clear. To spend time together, we have to work harder to find something we both want to do. I can't just drag her along.

It scares me to think of how different we may eventually become. When she is a teenager, will there be anything we both like to do? I guess if we are to stay close I am going to have to take up some of her interests. That will be a challenge. I have spent a lot of years getting clear on what I do and don't like to do. I do like Greg Brown. I don't like Brittney Spears. I do like working in the garden. I don't like painting my toenails. But maybe it will be good for me to keep an open mind.

Sibling Competition

My dad turned seventy a few years back. The planning of his party brought up all the old resentments of we, his five children, competing for his favor. It was like opening the door to our attic storage closet. Old tennis racquets, down coats, boogie boards, and boxes of photos all spill out onto the floor.

My oldest, and most important sister, Christy, took charge and planned the event. The next youngest and oft forgotten sister, Sarah, was furious about not being included. My third sister, Elaine, fought back, slyly convincing my mother to change Christy's plans. Christy screamed of betrayal, stabbed in the back once more by her younger siblings. Sarah and Elaine complained bitterly of Christy's arrogance. My brother and I only found out about the party a week before, too late to make plans to attend.

When the dust had settled my Mother made one request. "The only thing I want for my seventieth birthday," she said, "is for my children to be able to get along." I wondered what it takes to raise a such a family. Was there something missing in our upbringing that accounts for why we still bicker with each other in our forties?

The whole brouhaha came back to me when I got an email from Sarah addressed to each member of the family, asking everyone to respond to a number of questions about how we might together plan my parents 50th wedding anniversary. Each was to have an equal say before any decisions were made. It seemed like such a rational way to gather information and include everyone in the decision making process. I've been organizing groups of people in both my personal and professional life with this type of democratic-cooperative style for many years. Still, I had never considered using such a process in my family. I don't know why.

Perhaps I gave up long ago. Christy was eight years older than me. Her myriad concerns about her boyfriends and her dawning political awareness would almost always dominate the dinner conversation. "Joe Fuller's Dad wants Joe to get drafted. Can you believe that?!" I had no hope of debating a topic with her. She courted my parent's approval, but had only a passing interest in the rest of us. We were too easy a match. I learned not to try to compete. Sometimes I thought of something funny I could say if I could find a pause to say it in. Mostly, I just listened. No one listened to me until bedtime, when I had a few moments alone with Mom.

Without conscious structure, our family had a distinctly Darwinian feel. The loudest and pushiest got all the attention. In this setting Christy never learned that the rest of us had ideas just as interesting as hers. She wondered why we didn't just speak up if we had something to say. She never intended to prevent any of us from getting our chance to shine. So she never understood why we resented her.

My parents didn't seem to know that they could have structured things differently. There is a simple rule that would have changed everything. If there are seven people at dinner, then each of us should take only one seventh of the group's attention. If my parents had structured the way we shared attention, then the quieter among us would not have to compete with the loudest. We might have found out that Sarah had been using drugs most of high school. We might have found out that my brother needed help with his homework before he almost flunked sixth grade.

Christy garnered much more of my parents' attention than the rest of us. But it didn't made her any happier. The resentment she felt from her brothers and sisters only made her more desperate for parental approval. The more she struggled to get it, the more resentful the rest of us got. No one wins when children are having to compete for attention.

It doesn't matter whether each child has the charisma to capture the family spotlight. We each have an equal need to be heard and seen. One child might be choosing what college to attend. Another may be waiting to hear if she got a part in the class play. The youngest may be just figuring out how to make a three word sentence. A good look around the dinner table reveals that each have a genius with which they make their way through life.

Peanut is Gone!

There's a huge pile of stuffed animals beside my daughter, Molly's bed. Bears, tigers, puppies, an alligator, a moose, and even a few human infants. They all lay ignored by their now eight year old owner. Moving them all once again to vacuum, I even found an expensive designer doll that Molly begged me to buy her for Christmas one year. I feel vaguely sorry for these abandoned beings, like the castaways Rudolf the Reindeer met in the land of misfit toys.

Each of these animals and dolls had their day. Some lasted as a favorite for over a month. Others were a just flash in the pan at a birthday party, cuddled for two minutes, then tossed in the pile with the rest of the has-beens. Despite their neglected state, I would be roundly chastised should I ever suggest that perhaps they are now merely clutter, which we could clear to improve the bedroom's feng shui. "Dad is such a boar!" is the unspoken opinion toward the family member whose sense of practicality scores much higher than his sense of sentimentality. "He doesn't understand anything."

But there is one animal who does not sit in this pile. Peanut is a little baby stuffed monkey. Peanut has enjoyed the royal honor of being Molly's favorite for over a year now. Peanut's reign has lasted longer than any before, and possibly longer than any to come. Peanut sleeps in Molly's arms. Peanut speaks in a special baby voice that Molly has given him. It is a voice sweet enough to bring out the maternal instinct in an All-star Wrestler.

Molly is peanut's adopted mother. She insists that I watch Peanut carefully for her while she is at school. When she spends the night at a friend's house, she will call home to make sure Peanut doesn't miss her too much. She becomes panicked when she thinks Peanut may be feeling neglected.

Her ability to take care of Peanut seems to be a kind of test to see if she will be a good mother when she grows up. Peanut came with us on a vacation in southern California. I knew it was a bad idea to take Peanut into the convenience store beside the freeway near San Luis Obispo. But Molly was excited to let Peanut pick out her treat for her. We returned to the car with ice cream in hand. It wasn't until we home and unpacking that we realized we were missing something.

I watched all the joy that had accumulated over the vacation vanish from the face of my child the instant she identified when she had last seen Peanut. Her body slumped into my arms as she whimpered, "Peanut's still sitting on the ice cream cooler. I forgot him!"

Molly was racked with grief. She felt like she had failed him. First, she wanted to drive back and get him. Then she wanted to know what would happen to him if someone found him. Would he be given to another kid? Would he be thrown in the trash? After an hour of calls to San Luis Obispo we tracked down the store, but no one there could find a stuffed monkey. Peanut was gone.

Unlike other losses, Molly did not recover after a good cry and a little time. Every night for the past week she is reminded of Peanut at bedtime, and she becomes sad. She reminds me of when I got dumped by my girlfriend in high school. I walked around in a daze. I couldn't study. I sold all my records, because they all extolled the virtues of romantic love. Life sucked.

Is it a good thing to be so attached to something? The Buddhist's might say no. These attachments are the source of our suffering. But Molly didn't decide to become attached to Peanut. She didn't weigh the pros and cons. Peanut and she just bonded. Will she guard her heart more carefully after this? When she losses her first love, will some of her tears be also for Peanut?

If you find a stuffed animal somewhere, like in a store, or a waiting room. And if it looks like maybe a child has mistakenly left him or her there... could you turn it in to the lost and found? And if no one claims it, could you give it to a kid that will take care of it? I know that there are more practical things to worry about. But at our house, right now, this is really important.

I Win!

I am driving down 41st Street, my eyes compulsively scanning the Capitola Mall parking lot. Traffic is heavy and I should be watching the road. Finally, I spot an old Volkswagen Beetle. "Slug bug yellow! That's two points." I quickly and proudly announce. But I'm alone in the car. I dropped off my daughter, Molly, at school ten minutes ago.

"How embarrassing," I think, "to be playing this stupid game by myself." Suddenly I notice traffic has stopped. I slam on the brakes and barely avoid crashing into the car in front of me. What if I had hit it? I imagine explaining to a police officer that I had been roundly trounced on the way to school by a seven year old who had spotted four slug bugs and two slug buses when all I came up with was a lone Karmen Ghia which Molly says doesn't count. Would there be any compassion for a dad that was just trying to catch up?

It makes me think about how I get hooked into competition. I had the pleasure of coaching Molly's soccer team this fall. We were undefeated until the last game. All the girls were really excited about winning this last match as well. Two of Molly's good friends were on the other team, which added to the tension. In the fourth quarter the score was still zero to zero. It looked like we were going to go home with a tie. "Maybe that's best," I thought to myself. "Then no one will feel bad."

Brushing that thought aside, I stacked the forward line with the team's most experienced players and pressed on toward victory. With one minute to go, we scored. Our whole team jumped in the air. Their whole team looked at the ground. Five minutes later we were all shaking hands, but one of Molly's friends was still crying on the sidelines. On the drive home Molly said, "I almost wish we hadn't scored."

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, I wanted to win, but I didn't want to make my friends feel sad." I reflect on the fact that this comment is coming from a girl who has already declared her intention to become a World Cup Women's Soccer champion. One of these two sentiments is going to have to give way sooner or later. I secretly hope she keeps her sensitivity and passes up the World Cup. I think the odds are in my favor. In every tournament there is one winner. And everyone else is a loser. I remember a time earlier in the season, when I watched a father yank his daughter by the arm, drag her behind the stands and scold her to tears for not hustling hard enough. There must be another way to get together and all have a good time. Perhaps we would be better off with non-competitive dancing, rather than sports.

But there is an excitement that draws me into a contest to determine who is "the best". And judging form my own experience as a soccer player, I seem to be willing to suffer a multitude of losses in pursuit of a win. On the way to pick Molly up in the afternoon, I find myself memorizing the locations of all parked Volkswagens between our house and school. But it is to no avail. Molly's vigilant eye still beats me.

"Slug Bug Blue, Convertible! That's four points!" she declares with great relish. I will never catch up now. But I find myself sharing her smile of self-satisfaction. She gets to win this round of Slug Bug sightings. But I get to be her dad.

The Playground and the World

When I got punched, as a kid on the playground, I punched right back. I felt a right to defend myself, and I wanted to make it clear that nobody was going to be able to pick on me and get away with it. Nonetheless, two bullies, Tony and Mark, developed a grudge against me. After school one day we picked a meeting spot where no adults would get in our way. Jon, a fourth kid joined us to fight on my side.

First we called each other whimps and faggots. Then we pushed each other. Tony and I squared off, while Jon and Mark went at it. In the brawl that ensued I managed to throw Tony off of me. He tripped on the curb and fell out into the street. A passing car screeched to a halt as this fifth grade enemy of mine slammed against the side of the car's front fender. It scared me to death. Jon, Mark, and I stood frozen watching Tony slowly get up. He was dazed, and his shoulder hurt. But otherwise, he was okay. We all decided to go home. We did not fight again.

I couldn't articulate it then, but the experience had taught me something. Previously I had thought that winning a fight might really prove something. After endangering Tony's life, I realized that though I didn't want to lose a fight, I also didn't want to win one, not if someone's really going to get hurt.

Now I tell my daughter that if she gets punched at school, she should tell an adult. The adult, I am hoping, will talk to both parties, find out what caused the conflict, and help to resolve it. The lesson I hope she learns is that hitting others is never okay, and that there are better ways to settle conflicts.

The wisdom to use better ways requires patience and inspiration. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ and Mahatma Ghandi had this wisdom. They accepted that they would suffer costs in their struggle against oppressors, but they remained committed to not using violence in response to the violence used against them. Each of them prevailed in ways that have changed the world.

When I lose faith in "better ways" I want to use our military forces to crush all the terrorists and dictators throughout the world. Even before September 11, I was wishing the US could topple the Taliban and free the women of Afghanistan from their cruel oppression. Now it looks like our country is attempting to do just that.

Yet I am uneasy with the rhetoric and the pace of our "war" on terrorism. I am wary of action, especially violence, that comes without serious listening to others and subsequent self-reflection. I feel like I am in the back seat of a car that is careening through a wildly dangerous intersection. Our president, probably scared for his own life as well as for our nation, is driving as fast as he can. But will our actions end terrorism, or pour more gas on the fire?

We are all scared. Personally, I have been very uncomfortable with the background state of fear I have felt since 9/11. As a nation, we are not used to this feeling. Fear can have a strong psychological effect.

Psychologists call it "splitting". The tendency, when scared, is to begin dividing your world into two camps, good people and bad people. We fantasize that if only the good people can conquer the bad people, then we will be safe once more. Children love to play games like this. Adults ike to see movies where good and evil are neatly separated and the good guys win. It helps us feel less scared.

Whenever our president refers to our "evil enemy" he is splitting, just as Islamic fundamentalists are splitting when they call for a "holy war" against us. The reality is that we are not "all good". The terrorist acts committed against us were horrible. But it is also horrible that my great great grandfather owned slaves, that my father in law bombed Cambodia, or that a friend I play music with once trained the Contras in the use of torture and nerve gas. He worked for the CIA in the world's largest terrorist camp, the "School of the Americas" in Florida.

Likewise, Islamic extremists are not all bad. They do not "hate our freedoms" as our president has incorrectly accused them. Rather, they want the oppression of their people to stop. Perhaps we need to listen to why they are so scared and so desperate. The individuals responsible for terrorist acts must be brought to justice. But if we hope to truly end terrorism, and create a safe world for our children, then the whole world must be made more just.

To this end, the US must stop supporting oppressive dictatorships even if they are economically friendly to our corporations. Secondly, we must reverse global trade and world bank policies which bypass democratic review and increase the suffering of the world's poor. And thirdly, we must strengthen our support for the United Nations and global treaties that seek to solve the world's problems with unified and cooperative proposals. With this in mind, I think the president is right. The war on terrorism will be a long one.

Just Go to Sleep

I thought she was asleep. She hadn't wiggled for about five minutes. Her breathing was slow and regular. I quietly slipped out of bed, pulled her covers up, and tiptoed to the door. "Good night," I heard her whisper.

I stopped in my tracks. The sound of her voice meant that I needed to go back, sing a few more lullabies and wait until she was really asleep. Since Molly was born, seven years ago, Sue (Molly's mother) or I have lain in bed with her every night until she falls asleep. Usually, it doesn't take very long. And it is a sweet time. I softly sing to her as she lets go of consciousness, trusting her dad to keep her safe. Some nights, however, have seriously tried my patience. Her legs will keep squirming or she will keep sucking on her fingers, refusing to close her eyes. My voice tense, I end up demanding, "Molly, just lie still and go to sleep already!" 

I hear about other families who send their children to bed and the kids go to sleep by themselves. Usually this takes some period of time where the parents do not respond to the child's cries. When parents can consistently ignore the cries, the child often learns to give up and fall asleep. When parents are inconsistent in responding to the child's cries, however, bedtime can become a terrible battle of wills that lasts for years.

In deciding how we wanted our bedtimes with Molly to go, Sue and I carefully considered our options. Staying with her until she falls asleep would require quite a commitment of time and energy. Neither time nor energy is an endless resource in our family. Yet we both felt strongly that we would not make Molly cry herself to sleep, not even for a single night.

Every parent must decide what are the key things they want to offer their children. Some are moved by the goal of imparting a love of Nature or of God. Some parents feel particularly called to teach their kids to respect others. Some feel it is vital that their child learn to be independent.

Of the many things Sue and I wanted for Molly, we felt particularly passionate about offering her a strong sense of emotional security. For us, this translated into "being there for her whenever she needed, until she doesn't need us any more".

We have been far from successful in living up to this ideal. Many times I dropped Molly off at daycare, knowing that she didn't want me to leave. sometimes I left her there in tears, wrenching myself away, and praying that when I returned the care-giver would reassure me that she had stopped crying and played happily since a minute or two after I left. I told myself that my job as a parent is to make sure she is in safe loving hands, even if she cannot always be in her parent's hands.

We chose to put Molly in daycare because we both had part time jobs, and because we knew that after about four hours of caring for her as a toddler, neither of us had the patience to continue giving her the quality of care she deserved. But we felt that if we could give her really good attention at the end of each day, it might help heal any of the traumas she suffered during the part of the day that we were not around.

So we have laid with her every night for seven years. At times we have wondered, "Exactly when will we not have to do this any more? Is there a danger here of Molly never learning to go to sleep by herself? Will we be doing this when she is a teenager? Are we raising a girl who will choose terrible adult relationships because she can't stand to sleep alone until she finds the right partner?" Without an answer to these questions we have continued to lay with Molly, trusting that one day we would know Molly didn't need it any more.

So there I was, on my way out the door when I heard her say, "Good night." It took a moment to realize that she was not saying, "Come back Daddy. Sing me another lullaby!" She was just saying, "Good night."

I said, "Good night, Molly" and closed the door behind me, knowing that she was still awake and choosing to be alone to fall asleep. I felt like I had finally finished the first chapter of a very wonderful book.


It was a case of bad planning. I had my heart set on building that retaining wall I have been envisioning for about two years now. Today, Sunday, was to be the day. I awoke to find my partner, Sue, getting ready for work. My face froze in panic. "You're not working today, are you?" I pleaded.

"Of course I am," she informed me, tossing her hair back and wrapping it up in a pony tail. "I'm doing Debbie's shift. It's been on the family calendar for weeks."

"But my wall...," I stammered. "Well, maybe you can get a start on it," she offered on her way out the door. "I gotta go. Good luck."

Her departure woke up my daughter, Molly. She bounded into my bedroom with a big smile, ready for a day of play. I had no child care or play dates with Molly's friends set up. I collapsed on the bed. My day was ruined before it began.

To my surprise, I was wrong. That shouldn't surprise me. I watched every episode of "Father Knows Best" as a kid. But in our house the motto is more like, "Isn't Dad dumb!" I'm wrong a lot, and today was no exception. I told Molly she had to play by herself because I would be mixing concrete. I felt terrible to hand her a day of boredom and loneliness, and I knew she would protest. To my astonishment, however, she said okay, and she then played by herself for the next six hours. I built the whole wall before her patience broke and she marched down to where I was cleaning up, demanding, "Are you finally done yet!" I wondered at this unprecedented feat of hers. Is her cup so full from the attention she has received in her first six years that now she can sip from it all day if need be? I was about to feel very proud, but quickly doubted if I could ever count on such cooperation to be repeated. "Then again," I began to plot, "If I can work all weekend instead of having to play with Molly anymore, I could build that bike shed, rebuild the fence, and maybe even do something about the drainage problem behind the house." It did not take long for my imaginary list to get out of control. Before I could write down any of my plans, it was time to make dinner, then time to read, and then bedtime. I fell asleep putting Molly to bed, dreaming of that perforated ABS pipe I've seen at the lumber yard that you can lay down in a ditch to channel ground water away from your foundation. Molly woke up grumpy. She did not want to go to school. This worried me. "But you love school," I reminded her. "Not today I don't," she whined.

"Why not? Did something bad happen at school last Friday?" "No," she pouted.

"What is it then?" I implored. "The weekend is gone and I didn't get to play with you." Her eyes were wet, but she didn't want me to see them. We had actually played together Saturday morning, but that wasn't the point. I scooped her up in my arms and rolled onto the bed with her. Dad was wrong again. Her cup is not as deep as I thought. And she still needs Mom and Dad to fill it for her every day. I thanked her for allowing me to build the wall. And we made plans to ride bikes together that afternoon.

Then we had breakfast and I dropped her off at school. I watched her skip from the car to the school door. She swung her foot out with each step to shake her ankles. "That's how I ring my bellbottoms," she had told me once. Then she disappeared inside. I looked around the parking lot to make sure no one could see me. Then I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and cried.

My Vasectomy

There was just a little pain, less than getting a vaccine. I felt a dull ache "down there" for about a day. I didn't even need the aspirin they gave me as I walked out of the doctor's office with my new vasectomy two years ago. I am still thrilled with the results. 

Every man must decide for himself if he wants a vasectomy. And every couple must make their own decision about how many children to have. I decided to stop at one. The values that led me to this decision are described below. I hope this will help readers reflect upon their own choices, whether or not they agree with my own.

My Callings in Life

I felt sure that I wanted to be a father, a hands on father. From the very beginning I felt committed to providing the daily primary care my daughter would need. I have shared this responsibility equally with my partner. But neither she nor I have felt that parenting was our sole calling. After about four hours of toddler care I would start getting anxious about not getting a chance to do anything I wanted to do. With one child I now have time to pursue other interests: my counseling practice, writing, music, dance, etc.. With two children, I could probably pursue one thing other than parenting. With three or more children, I imagine having to surrender to the fact that everything I did would revolve around the family. That could be a sweet life, but it is not my dream.

Focusing My Attention

My vision of parenting is to see what can happen if I give all the attention I can to helping my daughter, Molly grow. I can't be with her all the time, but I can try to make sure that she is getting good care all the time. And when she really needs me, and me alone, I want to be there. Since I am already so distracted by my work and other ambitions, I know that the energy and attention a second child would need would come right out of what I currently give to Molly. Who could blame her if she began to feel sibling rivalry, once she began to get only half the fathering she was accustomed to. And my heart would break to be stretched so thin that I could not give either child as much as I wanted to.

Too Many People

A few months ago the world population hit six billion. We simply can't go on multiplying our numbers without spoiling our home planet and edging out our fellow species. I would never want governments to prohibit people from having large families if that is their dream. It becomes important, therefore, that we all begin to accept personal responsibility for our contributions to the population crisis. The choice to have more than two children should carry with it the awareness that others must then choose smaller families if we are to stabilize our population. Some people resent and then avoid the responsibility of taking this larger picture into account in the planning of their own lives. I can understand that, but I also feel that accepting such responsibility deepens my sense of personal integrity and deepens the meaning I take from my role as a world citizen and fellow steward of the earth.

The most important step toward taking responsibility in this area is to try to prevent unplanned children. If we were more successful with this, there might be no need to discourage large families for those that want them. Too often though, the decision to have additional children is not made by choice, but by procrastination regarding that vasectomy or tubal ligation. Once they are here, of course, unplanned children always turn out as wonderful as all kids. They are no more responsible for the population crisis than the rest of us, and they deserve a hero's welcome.

Worry-free Sex

For many people there is a subtle anxiety about getting pregnant that affects their ability to fully release into making love. With my vasectomy, my partner and I are free to do as we please, anywhere, anytime!

Creating a Village

Only children, of course, do not have siblings. Some parents, who cherish their own siblings, have questioned the wisdom of "depriving" their single child of the chance to have a brother or sister. I too, recognize my daughter's need for close companions. Fortunately, there are many children around for Molly to grow close to. Many families suffer from the notion that we must all be self-sufficient, never needing to borrow anything from the neighbors. But necessity is the mother of both invention and community. Networking with the parents of Molly's friends, for instance, has brought me more new friends than I have made in years.

Faith in the Future

I am afraid of growing old. I fear finding myself feeble and alone. I have considered how having lots of children might protect me from isolation in my old age. I am not sure that really works, but I am sure that that is not sufficient reason for me to raise additional children. Rather, I would like to trust that there are other ways to avoid isolation. In my old age I hope to be continuing to build new relationships with the people around me, rather than relying on the sense of obligation my children may feel to pay back my investment in them. I hope that Molly will visit often when I am old, but I hope to have a life full of friends then as well. I have to trust that I can make that happen. 

Two years later, my vasectomy continues to suit me nicely. My sexual functioning has not changed at all. There's just no sperm in my semen any more. And my decision to stop at one feels right too. I smile at Molly's happy life, her confidence in her dad's attention, and I say to myself, "She's my one and only!"

Until Mid-life Do We Reconsider

I looked up my best friend, Charley, from high school on a recent visit to my parents. "How are you doing?" I asked. His reply was short and to the point. "Mid-life crisis." "Really?" I replied. "In spades!" he said, "Connie and I may split up."

I wondered how to support him. Do I remind him of the virtues of sticking it out? Or do I encourage him in his bid for freedom and the chance for a new and better relationship? Do I ask him how he thinks his choices will affect his kids, Eva and Corey? I decided to just listen to him as he tried to figure it all out.

I was struck by the agony of his dilemma. He would give anything for his kids. But what is better for them, to have their parents together and struggling, or separated and hopefully happier? Many couples come upon this question, and each must find their own answer. I have heard many wise but contradictory points of view articulated. Here are some of them: 

"The excitement of a new relationship is very seductive. But it always fades. That's how our nervous systems work. We stop getting excited about the things that are always there. I remember how excited I was when I fell in love with my wife, and I know that if I found someone new it would just be a matter of time before we would be right where my wife and I are now. Then what would I do?" 

"I keep growing and changing so much that it seems really unreasonable to expect that the partner I chose fifteen years ago would still be right for me. Maybe we shouldn't expect lifetime partnerships. Maybe we should actually plan on switching things around every ten years or so." 

"My parents split up and I hated it. I don't care how annoying Hal can be. He loves the kids. And raising them would be a lot harder if we separated. Maybe when they leave home I'll leave him. But not now." 

"I'm glad my parents split up. I couldn't stand their bickering. My mom modeled for me that I don't have to just settle for something that isn't right for me. And my dad finally found someone who accepts him the way he is, mostly."

"When the magic of being in love fades (the part of life movies always end prior to) we are left only with the sense of meaningfulness that we have created with our own choices. I love my wife, not because she thrills me after twenty years together, but because I am thrilled by my own choice to live my life with her. My adventure is to find all the wonders of the world right here, with her."

"I want to split up with my wife, but I don't want to leave my son. I wish I could just live next door and we could have barbecues together a lot."  

"I'm sorry, but my kids are not the most important thing in the world to me. I have to do what's right for me, even if I know it will be hard for them. I would rather trust that they can adjust to changes in our family than end up resenting them for a choice that I made supposedly on their behalf." 

"When I finally decided to stay with my husband I had to kiss my escape fantasy good-bye. It had comforted me a long time and I did not want to let it go. But when I did, something changed. I started listening to what he had been saying about me all these years. Like how I never let anyone in. You know what? He was right." 

"Kids need love. They need an abundance of good attention. It doesn't matter what constellation of family, friends or relatives give it to them. This "tragedy" of the broken family is a cultural fiction, a result of our attachment to a single image of how families are supposed to look. It doesn't matter if parents live together or not. What matters is how much time and energy we give to our children."

"I felt so guilty about wanting to get divorced. I dreaded telling my children and my parents. Then, during a fight with my husband, I realized that I had been letting the marriage deteriorate on purpose. I needed it to get so bad that no one in their right mind could tell me I should stay."  

When there are kids involved, the question of divorce becomes harder to answer. You can't just walk away without looking back. Even if you live separately, you will continue to have to reckon with your child's other parent. The only really clear conclusion from sociological research on families is that ongoing conflict between parents is painful for their children. For your children's sake, you simply have to find a way to stop fighting, whether you divorce or not.

It also clear that parenting from separate households can be very difficult. It is hard for both kids and parents to be apart. Kids aren't always good at telling you about themselves. An important part of parenting is simply watching your child, so you can understand and help them with the struggles they don't know how to talk about. Carefully observing your child becomes hard when you don't live with them full time. So before parents choose divorce, it makes sense to really consider if reconciliation within the marriage is possible. I recommend the following questions: 

1) Is the problem my spouse, or the stress of parenthood? Parenting can be really stressful. Some parents do not know what they are getting themselves in for when they conceive. Romantic notions of family can quickly fade when the enormous toll of parental exhaustion and lack of personal time become a daily reality. Stressed out parents can blame each other for not helping more, when in fact, both are overextended. 

2) Is there an crucial irreconcilable difference, or just a big pile of stuff we haven't dealt with? Keeping a relationship passionate requires ongoing exploration of each other, and a commitment to resolving differences as they arise. If you want a new partner because you haven't been taking out the garbage regularly in your present marriage, then you are likely to be disappointed once the initial glow of a new partner wears off. Many people divorce because they simply don't know how to deal with accumulated emotional baggage. 

3) Am I stuck in patterns from my past, and hoping a new relationship will free me? It is hard to know when you may be unconsciously fixed in dysfunctional patterns from the family you grew up in. By definition, the unconscious is unknown to the self. But all through our lives we get feedback about how others see us. Do we ignore this feedback, work around it, or use it to inspire self-exploration and change? New relationships can prove just as disappointing as old ones, but the journey of self-exploration is never boring, dispassionate, or complete. 

4) Have I been denying my truth to avoid the guilt or shame of getting a divorce? Dysfunctional patterns can keep us in a bad marriage as well as ruin a good one. Societal pressures against divorce can be very hurtful to people who really need to end their marriages. Sometimes the choice to separate is the right one. There is a voice within each of us that can give us this guidance once our self-awareness is clear enough to hear it. If divorce is the answer, the needs of the children involved can be carefully addressed. And a better life might be the result.

My, She's Shy

I took my daughter Molly with me to a party once. She didn't know anyone there. Everyone was very nice. They told Molly how nice she looked. They told her how much she had grown. They asked her questions. Molly said nothing. She turned her head. She clearly did not want to be there. A woman offered a well meaning explanation, "Oh, she's just shy." I could feel Molly shrink further inside herself. I shrank too. I was both embarrassed and angry, but I wasn't sure why. 

Since then I have observed this scenario frequently when children are introduced to adults. Often it is the child's own parent who, in embarrassment, labels the child shy. It makes me wince inside.

Some kids thrive on new attention and are amazingly gregarious. Recently a youngster I just met said "Hello" to me by launching himself onto my back and scrambling up my neck to ride on my shoulders. But the majority of children clam up when suddenly placed under the spotlight. The younger ones often look like they are trying to burrow into their parent's leg (if standing) or armpit (if being carried).

Isn't shyness normal? Personally, I usually feel reserved when I first meet new people, but I don't want my spouse explaining to everyone we meet that it is because I am shy! I want my self-consciousness to be implicitly understood. Given how strange some people can be, perhaps it is even wise to choose to observe for a while before you start to interact.  

I worry about the effect that being labeled "shy" has on Molly's, or any child's, self esteem. I worry about it enough that I am almost ready to punch the next person who calls Molly shy in her presence. 

I have to question the strength of my reaction. I don't think people mean harm when they call a child shy. I think I react strongly because I have bought into the notion that shy equals bad, and gregarious equals good. I learned this in my family. My oldest sister, Melissa, started a career of public service by getting elected to a large city school board when she was twenty-two years old. This was very, very good. "We can all feel proud," the family said.

My second sister, Cindy, didn't leave the house much after she got married. She either spent her time with her daughter or stayed in her art studio. This was not very impressive. "Did we do something wrong?" we wondered.  

Years ago they used to ask me, their little brother, who my favorite sister was. As a five year old I only knew about how they treated me. My favorite sister of the week was the one who let me stay up late when Mom and Dad were out.

But the world seemed to favor the extrovert. I watched as Melissa, who sought attention, got lots of it. She made Ms. Magazine's "Eighty Women to Watch in the Eighties" list, though that's about where she peaked. And I watched as Cindy, who was shy, was ignored. In high school people would meet her and say, "Oh, so you are Melissa Hartnett's sister. Melissa is quite a dynamic young woman! You must be proud of her." Cindy was not. She was sick with envy, and felt hopelessly upstaged. No wonder she began to prefer to stay home.

Now I find myself hoping Molly will be gregarious, and ashamed of her when she is not. But when I remember Cindy's pain I catch myself. I try to see her as she is: a fluid human being who responds to her surroundings in many different ways. When she is unsure of what is going on she is reserved, observant, and discerning,. When she feels safe, she is assertive, expressive, and engaging.

But please don't ever call her shy.

Heads Will Roll

I got out of bed to answer the phone. I had to get up anyway, because it was time to take my daughter, Molly, to school. She was having breakfast in the kitchen with our house mate Linda and her son, Tyler. Or so I thought. "Hello Dad," said the early morning caller. "Can I go to Tyler's school today?"

"No, Molly," I replied, figuring her call came from Linda's phone. "You have to go to your own school. And we have to leave soon, because I have an appointment with client right after I drop you off. When you're done with breakfast come get your shoes on." I knew she didn't have her shoes on because her shoes have never been on any morning this year until the last minute before we leave the house.

"Umm, Dad," she stammered, "I'm actually already at Tyler's school."

"WHAT!" I demanded. At first I couldn't decide if I should be more mad at my daughter or at Linda for taking Molly somewhere without checking with me. I quickly determined that Linda, the adult, was the more culpable. What could she have been thinking!

"Why did Linda take you to Tyler's school?" I implored, not imagining any excuse that could get her off the hook. Boy was I going to give Linda a stern message once I got her on the phone.

"Linda didn't know," Molly explained. "I hid in the back seat and Tyler put a blanket over me."

"You stowed away?" I asked, understanding now what had happened. Several times recently I have caught her trying to be a stowaway in a friend's car when I pick her up from school. We laugh after I pretend to be fooled, and then I howl at her to get in the right car. So this time she finally succeeded.

I talk with Linda. She's late for a meeting and can't bring Molly home. But Molly can stay at the school until I arrive. The problem is that Tyler's school is across town and I am never going to get there, then back to Molly's school, and then to my office, in time to meet my client. I try to call my client to say I'll be late, but there is no answer. He must be the last person in Santa Cruz that still doesn't have an answering machine. I throw on my clothes and jump in the car. I've had no breakfast, and I notice in the rear view mirror backing out of my driveway, I didn't shave. By a quick calculation I make based on the time shown on my car clock, I will arrive at my office a half hour late. The client will probably be gone. I feel sure he will think me either wildly incompetent or grossly disrespectful. He will have proof that I really have no business trying to be a professional. How I am going to explain that I, a family therapist, can't even get my daughter to the right school in the morning. I shake my head. "This is silly," I tell myself, "even therapists get to screw up sometimes." I shift from anxiety back to being mad.

"If I were King," I tell the windshield, "Heads would roll for his." I pick Molly up and she is delighted to see me. With her in my arms I explain that her little prank will make me half an hour late for a client. She knows how I feel about this and she is immediately apologetic.

"I'm sorry Daddy. I didn't know you had a client."

She's only six years old. She didn't know Tyler's school was so far. Tyler's in class. He didn't know this would cause a problem. Linda didn't even know Molly was in her car. It dawns on me that I am not a king. No heads are going to roll. Everyone already knows that they should never do this again. The innocence of children leaves me with no recourse for my anger. I kiss Molly on the forehead and drop her off at her school. I'm the one who will pay for her mistake. I guess that is part of being a father, paying for your children's mistakes.

By the time I got to my office, my client had gone. The note on the door said, "Waited twenty minutes. Where are you? Call me." My apology was accepted and we rescheduled the appointment for the following week. In the end, Molly's stowaway caper cost me just one hour of client fees and a frantic hour in morning traffic. I suspect there will be more mistakes in the future, with higher price tags

Healing Our Way Through Divorce

Last month's feature article by Richie Begin gave some good advice to parents going through a divorce. He asked us to prioritize the needs of out children over the impulse to keep fighting with an ex-spouse. Since reading it I have been reflecting on the many feelings I have heard expressed by divorcing parents. While anger is often what comes out toward each other, more vulnerable feelings often surface in the safety of a therapy session. Identifying these underlying feelings is important in the process of healing the pain of a divorce.

To start with, divorce is really scary. Here are some of the fears divorcing parents have expressed:

  • I'm afraid people will judge me as having failed in my relationship.
  • I'm afraid to tell my family.
  • I'm afraid my friends will side with my ex-spouse.
  • I'm afraid other families will back away from me and my children.
  • I'm afraid my divorce will traumatize my children.
  • I'm afraid my children will get divorced when they grow up, since that is what I'm modeling for them.
  • I'm afraid my children will miss me terribly when I'm not around.
  • I'm afraid my children will be mad at me for divorcing.
  • I'm afraid my children will stop caring about me.
  • I'm afraid to surrender my children to the care of my ex-spouse without me around to help them.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will spoil my children.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will neglect or abuse my children.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will try to stop me from seeing my children.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will try to turn my children against me.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse will desert us.
  • I'm afraid a step parent might get closer to my children than I am.
  • I'm afraid I won't be able to parent well on my own.
  •  I'm afraid no one else will want to be with me since I: already have children,
  • am older now, can't seem to be able to make a marriage work.
  • I'm afraid of dating.
  • I'm afraid of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • I'm afraid of not having enough money.
  • I'm afraid of having to get a job.
  • I'm afraid my ex-spouse won't pay the child support I need to raise these kids.
  • I'm afraid of having to work all the time to pay for a family I don't even live with.
  • I'm afraid of lawyer bills.
  • I'm afraid I'm not asserting myself enough to get what I really deserve in our settlement.
  • I'm afraid I have to either fight or get shafted
  • I'm afraid of judges having control over my life.
  • I'm afraid of having my gender determine what role I play in my family.

If you are divorced perhaps you can add to this list. Identifying which fears are most pertinent to you can help you begin to deal with them directly. Each of these potential problems can be faced and overcome. Some of them take a lot of courage, though. I guess that's true of life in general.

Under the fears lie even more vulnerable feelings, those of grief. Divorcing parents face the loss of whatever their dreams for their family were. This may involve grieving the loss of: our marriage, the promise of love for a lifetime. someone to sleep with.someone to make a home with. the vision of ourselves as old people looking back on our life together. the pride we felt about our marriage before we knew it would end. the respect others might have offered us had we stayed together. the chance to share the love we still feel for each other, even if we know it wouldn't work to get back together.

  • the picture of mom, dad, and children, all living together happily. the illusion that we might just be the perfect family. 
  • daily contact with our children.
  • knowing what our child's week or weekend away was really like for them.
  • talking about what we see in our children with someone we know is just as
  • interested in them as we are.
  • the house we all lived in.
  • the nest egg we were building.
  • the friends we had together.
  • someone who could step in if we really needed help.

Grieving isn't easy. You have to breathe deeply. You have to think about what it is you cherish that you are losing. You have to feel the energy in your belly, your chest, and your throat. You may have to cry or yawn. Maybe a lot. But grieving is not as hard as not grieving. Life gets too stuck and joyless when grieving is put off. The anger that covers our grief can consume us for years. It actually hurts more to hold the grief at bay, than to let it out. But sometimes it is hard to get started. I never cry at the low point of a movie, when everything is getting worse.

It is when something beautiful happens that my tears begin to flow, when there is some triumph of human spirit in the face of adversity. There is a reason for every divorce. And while the process may bring on a lot of fear and pain, there is also the hope that something better will arise. In every divorce there is some vision of life being better somehow than this marriage has been. Perhaps the vision is of freedom, or passion, or compassion, or respect. Perhaps the choice to divorce was not yours, and you have been rudely awakened without a plan for the new day. Still, as Joni Mitchell sang to me when I was a teenager, "Something's lost, but something's gained, in living every day." It seems to me the gain comes when I have the courage to feel my fear and grief, and find myself anew.

Freedom's Birthday

It's coming on the Fourth of July. I'm thinking about my country as I hang my laundry on the clothesline. The sun is hot on my back and I need a nap. It would be much easier to throw the clothes in the dryer. But my wife is making us all commit to using less electricity. I am complying with mixed feelings.

I love my country. And I plan on telling my daughter, Molly, what I love about it when we go watch the fireworks. I love the freedoms, especially the freedom of speech. I love the right we have to vote for our leaders. And I love the civil rights we enjoy, which hold the great diversity of our citizens as equal under the law.

As a child I felt great pride in being an American. I remember in grade school holding my hand over my heart and reciting the pledge of allegiance in unison. I felt that I was part of a nation that was a model for the world. I wish I could encourage that same sense of patriotism in my daughter. On the other hand, I do not want to set her up for the disillusionment I later suffered.

The first blow to my naive pride was the Viet Nam War. Since then, a long deepening awareness of our nation's politics have continued to sour my respect for our government.

As my attitude has grown more cynical it has been difficult to celebrate the fourth of July with sincerity. I have come to take our beloved freedoms for granted, without appreciating them fully, or adequately respecting our forebears for securing them.

Molly, at age eight, however, is too young to understand my sophisticated analysis of the demise of true democracy in the USA. She is just learning the basic principles of freedom, justice, and equality. So I am trying to keep my cynicism in check for now, as we celebrate the birthday of freedom in this country.

But there is one point I would like to make to those of you who share my ambivalence about being proud to be an American. It seems that in our love of our freedoms we have embraced a bad apple that is spoiling the whole bunch. I call it the "freedom of greed", the unbridled pursuit of wealth, without a sense of responsibility to the common good.

Our nation has sanctioned a huge concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The richest 1% of our population now control 40% of our nation's wealth. The top 10% control 71% of the wealth. This allows the very wealthy to determine which candidates can raise enough money to run for public office. The very wealthy have also consolidated ownership of almost all of the major media, undermining our access to alternative viewpoints. These are just two of the most basic ways that gross economic inequality threatens all our other freedoms.

We see the effect of the freedom of greed when:

  • The US refuses to follow the Kyoto agreement on global warming, claiming that expanding our own economy is more important than cooperating with other countries to manage the global ecosystem.
  • Congress fails again to pass meaningful campaign finance reform.
  • World trade laws written by corporate leaders subvert citizen's rights to protect workers and the environment.
  • President Bush allows power wholesalers to manipulate supply and overcharge California nine billion dollars before consenting to federal price caps that immediately solve the crisis. (Just think what that nine billion could have done for California schools!)

So as I save electricity by hanging my laundry on the line, I am thinking of bigger changes I would like to see in this country. Perhaps someday we will come to a consensus on the need to limit greed. Perhaps we will understand that no one is served by a system that allows individuals to become billionaires, and corporations to have more rights than communities of people.

Back in 1776 Thomas Jefferson wrote about the truths people then found to be self-evident. It's a good list. But maybe there are a few more truths we need to include.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Molly and I headed up to the mountains for four days of father-daughter time. I actually had six days off work, but I had things back home I also wanted to devote my time to: that retaining wall that I have been envisioning for two years now, replacing the mailbox some frustrated former tee-ball player took a bat to, writing that column for Growing Up, etc.... The list goes on. It is far more than I could fit in all six days, let alone the two I was reserving for my own projects. But after six years of parenthood you'd think I might be starting to get used to not having enough time for everything.

We stayed at a wonderful camp for families. Kids were everywhere, running through the woods, stubbing their toes, stepping on hornets nests, collecting poison oak leaves, dodging their parents' hands whenever they heard the splat from a bottle of sunscreen. I knew Molly would be in heaven here, except for the boys with the squirt guns. 

We looked around for girls her age. We found one named Moriah, who seemed friendly enough to me. But Molly was unimpressed. Moriah introduced us to Chelsea, a darling redhead. I thought for sure we had a match, but Chelsea and Molly turned and ran off in different directions. What did I know?

On our second day a new family arrived, and with them came Whitney. Her hair was the same shade of blonde as Molly's. She had a hair tie just like Molly always wants me to buy at K-mart. She had shoes with pretty bows, but still good for running. When Whitney and Molly saw each other for the first time I could swear I heard violin music coming from somewhere. It was true love on just the third try. I wondered why it's never that easy for any of my friends who are single. 

Molly and Whitney became inseparable. This meant that I often found myself in the company of Whitney's parents. They were nice enough folks. I did not hear violins, however, when we found ourselves side by side, each insisting that our respective daughters DO have to wear shoes, "and that means now." It was more like simple banjo music. We were just three parents watching our kids, who were having most of the fun. We swam in a swimming hole among big granite boulders. We went horseback riding. We roasted marshmallows at the campfire. 

On the night before we were supposed to leave Molly looked up at me from her bunk. "Daddy I really really really don't want to go tomorrow. I really really really want to stay another day." I knew that staying an extra day was actually a possibility, but I wasn't sure I wanted Molly to think it was negotiable until I had made up my mind myself. Then she whined, "Whitney doesn't live near us. I may never see her again!" I told her to talk about it without whining. She struggled to clear the pain out of her voice, "Please Daddy?!"

My heart was breaking for Molly, while her heart was breaking for Whitney. I was getting pretty bored and lonely myself, but that paled in comparison to how much fun they were having. "Okay," I said, "We can stay tomorrow, but we have to leave the next day before dinner, so we don't get back late at night." "Goody!" she said and snuggled up close to me. I turned off the cabin light and lay in the dark with her falling asleep and me thinking about that retaining wall I wasn't going to build after all. 

Forty hours later I was packing the car for our six p.m. departure. Molly had just found out about the camp carnival happening that evening. The fortune telling booth was already being set up. There was going to be face painting and the chance to throw water balloons at one of the dads. As Molly put it, "Everyone is going to have so much fun, except me! Daddy, why can't we stay?" 

"Because I don't want to get back late at night," I explained, though I felt my footing already beginning to slip. "But I thought you liked to drive at night because then I usually fall asleep," she whined. 'Damn, she's right about that,' I thought. But I said, "Molly, I don't discuss things when there is whining going on." 

Molly fell into a sulk. I continued to pack the car. Then I heard her sniffling, head in her lap, hands over her face. This is not how she usually tries to get me to change my mind. She knows she made a deal and now she is going to have to miss the carnival. Unknown to her, however, I had already lost my resolve. I was searching my brain for a reason to change my mind. I did not want to appear to be giving in to her sulking.  

"Molly," I asked, "Will you go up to the camp office and ask exactly what time the carnival begins? I want to recalculate what time we will get home if we stay for part of it." Molly trudges off, her mood in transition. When she returns she is panting. Whitney is with her. "It starts at seven-thirty," she says, as hopeful as can be. I act surprised. "Oh that's earlier than I thought," I lie. "We can stay for one hour of carnival time. But then we just get in the car and go. Okay?" Whitney and Molly start jumping up and down and spinning in circles shouting "Yipee!". Watching their delight in that moment, is my carnival.

We got home last night, long after midnight. Mom took over this morning. I slept in and never got to replacing that mailbox. I tell myself, "It still holds mail, even if the door won't close." As for that article on parenting I needed to write, I am almost done with it. I have been writing since I put her to bed. Now it is long after midnight again. I always feel terrible when I don't get eight hours of sleep. But Molly will come in to jump on my head tomorrow morning at about seven o'clock. "Wake up Daddy!" she will say. "I want to play with you."

The Meaning of Parenting

This past weekend I went to a retreat center, without the family. I got a chance to walk in the woods without having to stop and examine each and every banana slug I passed. I read all evening. I slept through breakfast. But what I most enjoyed was having long hours where my thoughts could wander freely. I kept imagining my daughter's voice calling, "C'mere Dad. Watch this!" But it was only the gurgling of the creek beside my cabin.

I read a book by Victor Frankl, a psychologist who survived world war II in a Nazi concentration camp. His tales of horror were interspersed with his ruminations on the meaning of life. Survival of great suffering, he concluded, depends upon a person having a strong sense that his or her life is uniquely meaningful. Although nothing could ensure against a sudden trip to the gas chamber, those prisoners who felt their survival was esstential to someone else were more likely to endure. For some, a special relationship to God gave them meaning. For others, it was the chance of reuniting with a loved one. For Frankl himself, the driving passion was to write a book that might offer hope to people in despair. Meaning is found, Frankl states, "when we have forgotten ourselves and become absorbed in someone or something outside of ourselves."

While parenting is full of trials, there is no comparing it with Frankl's concentration camp experience. Still, a clear sense of the meaning we hold for ourselves as parents may be helpful to us in enduring the tribulations inherent in our role. Parenting clearly requires that we forget ourselves and become absorbed in the needs of our children. I think of all the sleep I lost caring for a baby, the thousands of diapers I changed, the endless games of Crazy-Eights, and all the miles of cross-town traffic to and from this or that class or birthday party. There must be some meaning for me in all of this, or why would I put up with it?

Of course we all love our children. But what unique perspective does each of us have that gives us the energy to go on when we are past the end of our rope? Is there something special about your child that no one else understands like you do? Is there something you really want to teach them, some special wisdom you have to impart? Is there a dream you have of what your child may become? Are you hoping to correct a wrong you suffered from in your childhood? Where is your passion in being a parent?

My own passion is to be close to my child in a way that my father never could. His role as breadwinner separated him from his children, and his training as a man made him uncomfortable with emotions and closeness. From deep within me comes a desire to claim that as a father I can be as deeply bonded with my daughter as any parent and child can be. It is in my parenting that I am trying to become the kind of man I want to be. Part of all that I do for my daughter, I am really doing for myself. I am proving to myself that I can feel, that I can care, that I can love, that I am human.

If my daughter knows of my selfish motives, she doesn't seem to mind.

Piano Practice

"Plunk, plunk, plunk, plaaaat... plunk, plunk, plunk, plaaaat.... Darn this stupid key!" my daughter, Molly, yells as she pounds her fist on the offending black note. I turn from my desk, where I am paying bills, and remind her that the piano she is practicing on cost us eight hundred dollars. I do not want it to be mistreated.

"Seven hundred," she corrects me.

"Well... with tax it was eight hundred," I correct her.

"No," she says firmly. "It was seven hundred."

I wonder why she feels so certain, when to my memory, she is wrong. Then I realize that she is so frustrated with her piano skills that she needs to be right about something.

"Maybe you're right," I say. "Besides, tax is not really part of the actual price of the piano. Since it only cost seven hundred, feel free to abuse it however you'd like. There are hammers down in the basement."

Molly giggles. Soon, I start to hear the plunks again. I like the sound of those plunks. It is not that they carry much musical quality yet. In fact, after about twenty minutes they can become even more annoying than paying our utility bills. But the fact that Molly's fingers are pressing piano keys means that she is focusing well, and that she is learning to play music. I don't hear the notes she is actually playing. I hear the concert she will one day give to a grand audience in some large auditorium.

I am dreaming. Worse than that, I am displacing my dreams onto my child. Deep down, I dearly wish that I was a professional musician. But that will never be. As a child, I took piano lessons for about three months. When I stopped practicing, my mom stopped paying for lessons. So I went outside to play touch football. I had a lot of fun. But now my knees are too weak for football. And I regret not spending more time as child learning to play music.

Determined not to let this happen to Molly, I began to pay her a dollar for each time she practices a full half hour. I explained to her that until she is good enough to really enjoy her own playing, the extra motivation would be useful. After about a year, she told me that she didn't need the money any more. She wanted to practice in order to learn to play, not to get money. That was music to my ears. But I continued to pay her nonetheless. I wasn't taking any chances.

Now we are bombarded with possibilities for extra curricular activities: horseback riding, martial arts, drama, art, dance, gymnastics, etc. They all sound good to both Molly and me, but if we tried to do them all, we would go crazy. So I am very aware of the power I have in choosing which activities to pursue. I take my cues from the level of interest Molly expresses. But I must admit my own priorities are added to the mix as well. I won't drive through cross town traffic to get to the dance class. And there is something about the prissy way those gymnasts hold their hands that turns me off.

While pondering the rightness or the wrongness of my role in determining Molly's pursuits in life, I notice the sound of plunks has stopped. I turn from my desk to see her sitting listlessly, her forehead resting on the keyboard. She is mumbling, "I can't do this...I can't do this." Her dreams of mastering piano are flagging. The promise of money isn't cutting it either. I get up and move to the piano bench and sit beside her. "Together?" I suggest. She raises her head. I begin to count and on the down beat we begin to plunk in harmony, two octaves apart. She still makes mistakes. But not as many as I do. When the half our is over, she gets a big kiss and a bunch of compliments. If I am going to foist my dreams upon her, I am going to have to put in my time as well.

© 2008 Tim Hartnett

Other Relationship Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson


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