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
Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz,
CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax..
Killed by a Fashion Doll
Asleep in My
Boys will be
The Best Father
You Can Be
Biggest Stress In Today's Families
version of family
and out of Dreamland
Daddyman's Christmas list
The Dad I want
God bless you, Mary
Healing Our Way Through
Jesus's teachings at Christmas
Is it a
boy or a girl?
Just Go to Sleep
To Parent by Experience
House on the Central Coast"
The Meaning of
Suspicion of Child Abuse
My, She's Shy
Talks About Sex
The Playground and
Rights & Fatherhood
to your kids about sex
This Story Has
The Toll of
the Breadwinner Role
Until Mid-life Do We
Day - Acts of Love
What I Did On My Summer
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
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
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
"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
"Don't look back," I whispered to Amy. We walked
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Playground and the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
Until Mid-life Do We
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
Healing Our Way Through
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
To start with, divorce is really scary. Here are
some of the fears divorcing parents have
- 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
- I'm afraid other families will back away
from me and my children.
- I'm afraid my divorce will traumatize my
- 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
- I'm afraid my children will stop caring
- I'm afraid to surrender my children to the
care of my ex-spouse without me around to help
- I'm afraid my ex-spouse will spoil my
- 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
- 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
- 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
- I'm afraid I have to either fight or get
- I'm afraid of judges having control over my
- 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
We see the effect of the freedom of greed
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
If my daughter knows of my selfish motives, she
doesn't seem to mind.
"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
"No," she says firmly. "It was seven
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
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
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,
* * *
Your children need your presence more than your
presents. - Jesse Jackson
Menstuff® is a registered trademark of Gordon
©1996-2017, Gordon Clay