Menstuff® has compiled information and books
on the issue of Fathering. This section is an
archive Tim Hartnett 's weekly column featured
daily on our homepage. 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
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Crossing into and out of
The Dad I want to
God bless you, Mary
Healing Our Way Through
Just Go to Sleep
The Meaning of
My, She's Shy
Until Mid-life Do We
We're NOT Number
One! (And we don't wanna be.)
What I Did On My Summer
On Dad's and Love
I remember consoling a woman friend of mine many
years ago. She was crying about her difficulty in
establishing a career. Between her tears she said,
"My dad kept telling me that all I needed to do was
love someone really well, and I would be taken care
of." The message she got was that her job as a
woman was to focus on relationships, and that the
man she finds will do everything else (presumably
better than she could have). This kind of sexism
had left her with great doubts about her ability to
be successful on her own.
I, on the other hand, found this message very
intriguing. No one had ever suggested to me that
the most important thing I had to offer the world
was my love. I was taught that fathers are
important because they earn money, provide
discipline, teach right from wrong, protect their
families, and model manhood. Love wasn't even on
the list. It was mothers who were the experts on
In truth, a father's love is his greatest gift.
But our culture has not reflected back to us the
importance of our love. The loving part of our
natures is largely unattended to in our upbringing.
Consequently most men feel insecure about their
love. We wonder if we love enough or love well
enough. One dad I know spent most of his first
pregnancy worrying how he could possibly bond with
his baby on anywhere near the level he expected his
No one would claim that men are universally
skilled in showing their love. Rather, we have had
extensive training in how not to show our feelings.
Hence, many fathers struggle with expressing their
affection. Sometimes they lose this struggle, they
never take down their walls, and they die with
words unsaid. I often hear adults say that they
never knew if their father loved them. I can feel
both the pain of these grown-up children and the
pain of their fathers who never knew how important
their love was.
In the face of our culture's gender steriotypes
it is helpful to keep affirming what we know to be
true. I know my father loved me, though I don't
remember him ever saying it. I know my woman friend
was very competant in her field, though she
struggled to feel confident. As a parent I know
that what I reflect back to my child (about what I
see in her) becomes built into her developing image
of herself. And now I find that I have not outgrown
the need to have the undervalued aspects of my
humanity reflected back to me.
So let us honor the great love within the hearts
of fathers. And let us never mistake a man's
conditioning to avoid his feelings as an actual
lack of love. All men love deeply. How nice it
would be to wake up one morning and hear our loved
ones say, "All you have to do this morning is feel
how much you love us. And thank you so much for
loving us so well."
We're NOT Number
One! (And we don't wanna be.)
On the way to the "end of the season" soccer party,
my daughter, Molly confidently announces, "When I
grow up I want to be on the Women's World Cup
Soccer team." Molly is six years old. I do not have
to take this as a final decision. "That's a good
goal," I reply, allowing her to dream about what
that would be like. I have more to say, but it can
When I was young I too dreamed of being the best
in the world at something. Then, I thought, maybe
everyone would admire me. I did not want to be lost
in the masses of people who are pretty good, but
not the best. So much attention goes to the star,
that I felt nothing short of fame would suffice. At
my audition, I told the director of my high school
play to cast me in the lead role, or not to cast me
at all. He paused, then asked if I would like to be
on the stage crew.
What I will eventually tell Molly is that there
is a price for being the best at something. Sure,
she can try to make the World Cup team, but to
actually do so, she must make soccer her entire
life. That means that as a teenager she won't have
time to do much else, like piano, homework
journalism, drama, dance, art, aikido, volunteering
to help others, or even dating boys and hanging out
with friends. She will have to go to bed early
every weekend night in preparation for tomorrow's
game. To be the best at something that millions
compete for requires a single focus and results in
a very unbalanced life.
Still, there are many who are willing to
sacrifice everything else in pursuit of being
number one. Most who make the sacrifices don't ever
get to claim the reward. Perhaps you remember Mark
Spitz, who won seven gold medals swimming in the
1976 Olympics. But does anyone remember the guy who
came in second in those seven races? He practiced
the same long hours, shaved all the hair off his
body, and thought of nothing else. And then he
And what about the winners? Mark Spitz
sacrificed his childhood and adolescence for his
goal. Who cares about him now? I imagine just his
friends and family. Just like you and me.
We must be careful about what we sacrifice in
pursuit of being number one. Sometimes parents push
their children really hard to win. It is with the
best intentions that we want our children to
succeed. But parental pride may also spring from
our own sense of inadequacy. We may want our
children to succeed where we have failed.
When we push our kids hard we sacrifice their
sense of themselves as being unconditionally loved.
This sets them up for a life where they always need
to be achieving something, never content and
relaxed with who they are.
I was pushed to succeed as a child. Now when I
get some "free time" I run to my list of things to
do. I live for the fleeting satisfaction of
crossing something off that list. I need the touch
of a hand on my shoulder and a whispered reminder
that "free time" is time I can just be free.
The recent push in our schools for standardized
testing has given parents and schools a new avenue
in which to compete. State-wide and county-wide
scores are posted on the internet and everyone can
look to see whose school is number one.
The purpose of the statewide testing is to
ensure that students are getting the academic
education they need to be successful in life. The
testing is helpful in identifying which schools and
which students are testing below grade level and
need extra help.
This purpose is distorted, however, if schools
compete to see who can churn out the very highest
scores. To be the best, most students must perform
well beyond their grade level. Accomplishing this
developmentally inappropriate task requires so much
focus on academics that the rest of our children's
education and quality of life may be getting
Specifically, many schools are attempting to
boost their scores by: cutting physical education,
music, drama and art programs, standardizing all
curriculum (which limits teacher's creativity and
passion); focusing teaching on the topics covered
in the SAT9 test (replacing poetry projects with
spelling contests), strictly limiting field trips,
and other measures to focus students solely on
That's not what I want. When Molly is in fourth
grade I don't want her to read like a sixth grader,
if it means that she will not know how to dance, or
draw, or sing, or juggle. I want her to feel like
school is fun. I want her to play with her friends
after school, not hurry home to do her homework. If
she is meeting grade level expectations, that is
good enough for me.
So I am opting out of this competition. I trust
that Molly will be successful in her future career
because of her passion and interest in her chosen
field. I hope she does not feel driven by the need
to be number one. It is a trap I hope we all can
Is it a boy or a girl?
When my child was born the midwife and I caught the
baby and wrapped it up in a blanket. I held the
bundle to it's mother's breast. None of us had
noticed if it was a boy or a girl. We wanted to
look, but we decided to give this child a few hours
of life without any gender conditioning. And give
ourselves time to fall in love with this person
before we knew how to picture it's future. My
wife's sister was outraged when we told her over
the phone that the baby was born but that we
couldn't answer her question, "Well... what is
it?!" Most people will not directly interact with a
child until they know it's gender. If not
identified with the telltale pink or blue, an
admirer will ask an infant's parents if it is a boy
or a girl.
The answer to this one question allows them to
begin speaking to the child. Now they know what
tone of voice to use and what compliments would be
appropriate. Gender conditioning begins at birth.
It is important for all of us to try to counter
this conditioning. It is hurtful to both girls and
boys to be boxed into roles that limit the full
expression of their humanity. Sexism is not just
men telling women to stay in their role. It is all
of us telling each other how we are allowed to feel
and behave, based on our gender. Children base
their identity on what we tell them we observe in
them. Consciously or unconsciously we all
predominantly reflect boy-like qualities to boys
and girl-like qualities to girls. We generally
ignore behaviors that do not match the child's
gender. Then we wonder why our children are already
firmly identified with their gender role by age
Many parents try to avoid gender steriotyping
their children. They let the children pick their
own clothes and toys. Then, when their three year
old throws his body at full speed into the back of
my knees, they explain within earshot of the child,
"He's such a boy!" Parents unable to explain why
their own efforts have not blocked the tide of
sexism from washing over their child give up the
fight and stand back in awe of the power of
biology. As they watch their kids line up more and
more with our society's gender roles they usually
feel pretty powerless to do anything about it. Its
not that biology doesn't play it's part. I'm sure
our children's hormones have their effect. We have
no way of determining, however, how much of the
gender differences we notice in children are due to
Nature and how much to nurture. So let us just
agree that both forces are important. If we seek to
protect our children from being gender steriotyped,
it is the cultural forces we must continually try
to counter, even when it seems hopeless.
My daughter (it was a girl) wears only pink
tights and lacy dresses. She could care less about
a bat and a ball. What she has learned from her
culture and peers, despite her parent's best
intentions, makes me cringe in embarrasment over my
inability to influence her. On the other hand, she
also throws herself into my knees at full speed.
(Is that because she's a girl? Maybe its something
about my knees.) And the most rambunctious child at
her school is a girl, not a boy.
Instead of making comments that reinforce
steriotypes whenever you see children comply with
them, try looking for the exceptions and commenting
on them. Notice when boys are focused,
compassionate or communicative. Notice when girls
are physical, strong, or outspoken. Let your
children know that these qualities come at no
surprise to you, in either gender. Several hundred
people have told Molly that she is pretty. No
wonder she only wears dresses. I can't change that.
But I can make sure when we wrestle everyday that
someone is also feeling her biceps and exclaiming
how strong she is, and how powerfully she holds
Almost Killed by a Fashion
It started at one of Molly's friend's birthday
party. Lying wrapped up in the stack of presents
was a secret gift from the grandmother. Before the
parents could do anything about it BARBIE had
emerged. Molly's eyes were wide as she struggled to
get a turn holding this new doll and changing her
clothes. I felt a sense of impending
On the ride home from the party Molly popped the
question. "Can I get a BARBIE for my birthday?" I
tried to explain: "Well you see Molly, BARBIE's
body is not shaped like regular people's bodies.
It's shaped like how some people think women are
supposed to look. And if people grow up thinking
they are supposed to look like BARBIE they won't
feel proud of the way they do look." Molly didn't
nod. I could tell she didn't have the slightest
idea what I was talking about.
As her birthday approached she repeated her
question with increasing frequency. None of my
responses had any effect. Finally, my wife Sue and
I decided that we can't protect her from
everything, and off we went in search of BARBIE. As
we entered Toys R Us I was immediately overwhelmed
at the size. Sue began studying the store
directory. My brain sort of fogged over. There was
a swing set display in front of me. Was I supposed
to buy the $199 one with the five foot slide or the
really spiffy one with the 7.5 foot slide for $499.
"How good a dad am I?" I started to
Sue tugged on my arm, which felt limp. BARBIE
was not hard to find. More than half the doll
section at Toys R Us is her exclusive showcase. I
walked down several aisles of BARBIE wearing this
and BARBIE wearing that. I thought of how much
Molly might spend on clothes as a teenager. My ears
started to buzz and I felt a little dizzy. "Sue," I
said, "maybe there is a dress up doll that is not
BARBIE." We looked at the alternatives. There was
one row of dolls that all looked like prostitutes.
Little girls were supposed to dress these dolls up.
Why was I fantasizing about undressing them? Then
there were the Disney dolls. A chance to be the
pawn of both the movie and retail industries at the
I staggered back to BARBIE, a headache building
rapidly. "It's not just her body and her clothes,"
I said to Sue, "It's her whole lifestyle. BARBIE's
favorite pastime is shopping. And flirting with
ultraviolet overexposed bodybuilders who must work
double shifts to afford their sports cars. Does
BARBIE ever question authority? Does BARBIE think
for herself? Will BARBIE help Molly think for
I could feel my pulse pounding in my head and my
stomach ache was so tight I was leaning forward.
Sue said I looked very pale. She brought me
SKIPPER. SKIPPER is better than BARBIE she said
because SKIPPER has flat feet and won't develop low
back pain from always wearing high heels. Also,
SKIPPER is more politically correct because she is
black. "Great," I thought, "Soon every girl in the
world will be playing with the same set of dolls
and learning the same set of values, defined by our
captains of industry."
That's all I remember. Sue said my eyes rolled
back and my legs just gave out. Luckily she was
standing right there and caught me. She carried me
out to the car. When I came to I was lying in the
grass at a nearby park. At first I just heard the
wind in the trees above me. Then I felt Sue holding
my hand and placing a wet cloth on my forehead.
"It's okay," she was saying, "we don't have to buy
a BARBIE." I repeated her words slowly to myself,
"We don't have to buy a BARBIE." Sue said she had
bought some clay and we could make our own dolls.
"But I don't know how to make a doll, I whined.
"We'll learn," she said. "We'll all learn
The Dad I want to Be
"Wake up, you're the DaddyMan now!" It was my
wife's voice on the morning after our daughter's
birth. And with these words began the first day of
the rest of my life. I was very excited, and
already completely exhausted.
Like many men these days, I wanted to be a
different kind of dad than the model of my father's
generation. I didn't want to be just the
breadwinner. I wanted to be a "hands on" dad, and
be closer to my child than my dad knew how to be
But how would I fare in this realm so long
designated to women? Can dads bond with babies
without the benefit of breasts? Would I try, but
soon feel woefully inadequate compared to mom.
Would I retreat to other things I knew I could do
well, ike paid work? Would there be any support for
me? Or would I be the only man at every play
And what of all the other things I'd spent my
youth dreaming I might like to do with my life? As
a boy I had been very encouraged to strive for
ambitious career goals. No one ever said I would
command great respect by just earning a passable
income and spending a lot of time fathering. So my
head was packed with a very full slate: getting a
doctorate, creating a counseling practice full of
workshops and topical support groups, building a
house, writing a book, recording a album, etc. I
always figured I'd slip having a child in there
somewhere. But I never thought about exactly
Then suddenly, with my daughter Molly's birth,
there was no time for anything but parenting. So
the onset of fatherhood meant, for me, the need to
grieve all the things I could no longer find time
for. I had to unpack my head of dreams and goals
that kept pulling me away from time on the floor,
playing with Molly. Lying with her at nap time,
impatiently waiting for sleep to take her, I would
sigh, a tear rolling down into my ear. My break was
almost here, but all I would really have time for
is the dishes and the floor. Doing this grieving
has been my biggest challenge as a father
And what is the payoff? Fatherhood has taught me
many things. Some of them are answers to my early
questions, such as: men are natural nurturers of
children, the father-child relationship can be as
rich and deep as any human pairing, no other work
is more important than giving loving attention to a
child. But the main thing fatherhood is teaching me
is who my daughter is. "Who are you today, Molly?"
There is no question that intrigues me more. In it
lies all the complexity and nuance of human
intelligence and personality. And Molly's unfolding
is my unique privilege to witness. Her answer
changes every day. And unless I'm there, I'll never
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
Crossing into and out of
"Daddy?" asks a small, sleepy voice at my bedroom
door. "Yes, Molly?" I reply, not knowing that I was
even awake. Someone used to have to shake me by the
shoulders or pour water on my head to wake me up.
Now that gentle wisp of a voice has me up on one
elbow with just one word. "Can I sleep in your
bed?" I melt at her innocence. Almost every night
she wakes up at some point and comes to cuddle back
to sleep with me. I always let her. But still she
asks. Is it that she wants not only to cuddle, but
to know that she is wanted?
"Did you pee?" I ask. This means both: "Did you
wet your bed?" and/or "Did you go to the toilet
before coming in here so I know you won't wet MY
"No," she says, honestly.
"Go to the toilet, and then come back and climb
in with me."
She scampers away. I have a moment to adjust to
the fact that my bed will soon be more crowded.
(The problem is that sometimes Molly fidgets in her
sleep. This I cannot bear. Usually, after about
twenty minutes of me hoping she will settle down, I
will pick her up in exasperation and carry her back
to her bed. If she wakes up in the process I will
lie down with her there until she falls asleep
again. Then I will steal away, back to my bed.)
When Molly returns from the bathroom we have a
moment of exquisite sweetness. This is what makes
me willing to take the risk of being kept awake by
her fidgeting. Her little body burrows into the
warmth of my chest and belly. Her hand reaches up
in the dark to find my face. Delicate fingers light
on the stubble of my cheeks. My arm around her tiny
frame must feel huge to her. She believes her
daddy's strong arms will forever keep her safe from
all the scary things in this world. Feeling her
complete trust in me, I almost believe it
"I love you, Molly" I whisper. In the daytime I
will say this and she will sometimes mock me,
annoyed by my redundancy. "I wuv you Mauwee, I wuv
you Mauwee." she will sneer. "You are always saying
that!" I flash on my own childhood and think,
"Better always than never."
But just before she crosses into sleep she
eagerly soaks in my affection. "I love you too,
Daddy,...really, really love you." Then in a
moment, she is gone, safely back in the land of
It can be scary crossing the gap between waking
and sleeping. You go from conscious awareness and
control of your life to surrendering everything,
including your own mind. It takes faith to believe
that you can let it all go and still be safe. Maybe
that's why we say our prayers at bedtime. Even if
you are not afraid of robbers or ghosts, you never
know what upsets your dreams may bring forth.
It can be scary coming back to waking too.
Peaceful sleep must give way to endless demands:
the rush of getting ready for school, the scary
teachers waiting there, the older kids, the
bullies, the shifting alliances of best friends,
the ever-present danger of ridicule.
When Molly wakes up in the morning she needs me
to help her transition into the day, just as she
needed me to help her get to sleep at night. Her
body insists on being next to mine. She starts by
sitting on me in bed and refusing to let me rise.
We wrestle. She feels powerful against my waking
body that doesn't really want to get up anyway.
Walking downstairs by herself is intolerable agony.
She believes that her place is on my back. To her I
am a school bus that she hops like a freight train.
When we get to the kitchen I set her on the counter
so that I can make the oatmeal. She leans out
toward me trying to hop on as I pass by to get some
salt. When I need to fill her lunch box I have to
steer clear of her like I would a pond full of
leaches. Her seat at breakfast is always in my lap.
In my pick up truck she sits right beside me,
trying to get her fill of body contact before we
arrive at school. When we arrive in the parking lot
the agenda is obvious to us both, but she pauses
and I always have to say, "Time to get out now.
Don't forget your lunch."
When I pick her up in the afternoon. Everything
has changed. There is not even a hello. It's just
"Dad, please can I go to April's house? Please? Her
mom says it's okay." I agree and drive back home
alone. I'll pick her up at April's later, but even
then she won't want to come with me. We will eat
dinner with Mom, read stories with Mom and turn out
the light. Molly will be faced with crossing that
bridge into sleep once more. But with Dad on one
side and Mom on the other she will release her day,
like a sky diver stepping off a plane. Buoyed not
by a parachute, but by the warmth of her parent's
bodies and the soft sounds of her mother's
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.
The Daddyman's Dad
I wondered why he had never once been promoted.
I was eight years old, lying on a grassy hill
half a block from my house. It was an unusually
pensive moment for a young boy. My gaze was on the
clouds, vivid white surrounded by a deep blue
August sky. But my mind was on the future. Next
month school would start, and these days of freedom
would be over. Next year I would turn nine. The
only kid in our neighborhood who was nine was fat.
Would I get fat when I turned nine? Does everyone
get fat when they are nine, and then most thin out
again at ten? No, that couldn't be right.
Usually my Mom would call from our porch when it
was time for me to come in. Maybe she did and I
just didn't hear her, so intrigued I was with my
own thoughts. When my Dad came to find me he sat
beside me and asked me what I was thinking about. I
said, "Dad, what should I do when I grow up?" He
spoke in a tone that made me think that he had been
wanting to talk to me about this for some time.
What he said was more important to him than the
rules of our household, or what I was learning in
school, or even what the priests said at Mass. My
dad did not think of himself as a fountain of
wisdom, and he doubted whether kids ever did what
their parents advised anyway. Still, he hoped maybe
this would be an exception. If he could get this
message across now, maybe it would guide me for the
rest of my life. "Whatever you want, Tim," he
"But really make sure that it is something you
enjoy. You may be doing it for a long time." That
was it, the whole lecture. His timing was perfect.
At that moment, I was listening. I had thought I
should grow up to be someone important, or famous.
Now I could just pick something I liked. What a
Its another August, nine years later, and I am
about to start my senior year at a prep school I
loathe, but my mother loves. I'm looking around for
a sledge hammer big enough to knock down every
pillar of this worthless, hypocritical society. My
parents meet with the headmaster who plans to
further mold my mind in preparation for success in
the Ivy League. This school year is going to be a
nine month disaster. My dad is the only one who
sees the writing on the wall. He tells me in
private, "You don't have to go. You can choose a
I am stunned by his offer. Everyone else seemed
convinced that graduating from this school is
essential to becoming successful in life. Still, I
can't turn my back on the impending fight. I've got
a chip on my shoulder and I want the headmaster to
try to knock it off. I go back. I have the worst
year of my life. I almost get expelled. But through
it all I keep inside me the knowledge that my dad
gave me the choice. I have this feeling that he is
on my side.
My dad's office was in our house in Minneapolis.
For twenty five years he was a regional salesperson
for Corning Glass Works. He won awards for his
sales every year. I was proud of the many framed
certificates he had mounted on the wall, one for
each year, signed by the president of the company.
It wasn't until recently that I wondered why he had
never once been promoted. Were the awards all a
I asked my mother. She said, "No, he was offered
promotions may times, but he always turned them
down. He didn't want to uproot us all and make us
move to Chicago. And he didn't want the stress of
more responsibility. He liked working from home. He
liked being around you kids." Sometimes when you
get a gift, you know the giver expects something in
return. If I didn't send a Christmas present thank
you card to my grandmother by mid January, I was in
big trouble. But my dad based his whole career on
the being able to be around his children, and I
never knew. I guess he wasn't looking to be
acknowledged by us. He was just doing what he
And now in my life I balance my career with the
time I spend raising my daughter. I lecture about
new possibilities for men in their role as father.
Suddenly, after this talk with my mom, I realise
that I am making the same kinds of choices my dad
made years ago. I'm just talking about it more. And
I thought I was so original.
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.
© 2002 Tim Hartnett
Other Relationship Issues,
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