The Best Remedy

I had a rough day at work this week. It was one of those days that when my wife asked me if I wanted to talk about it, my response was, “Not in front of the kids.” In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing major, but it upset me nonetheless. I also rode the bus home that day, so I had about an hour or stewing in my own anger before I opened the front door.

I got home and went into the kitchen area to put my lunch container in the sink. My wife was helping our daughter with her homework, so I decided not to bother them at the moment. Instead I went to the living room and sat down on the couch. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Maybe I would read a book. Maybe I would fire up the Playstation. Maybe I would just sit there and stare at the ceiling. Before I could really figure it out, I heard a knock come from the door. This is fairly unusual, so I checked to make sure that the kids were out of the room and then assumed the “chest puffed out, I will protect this house” stance. When I opened the door, however, there was no one there. Then I heard the knock again and realized it was coming from the bathroom which is on the other side of the wall right by the door.

It turns out that my mom was giving my 2 year old son a bath. He heard me come home and wanted to show me something. I walked in, and he flashed me his cloud-clearing smile and asked me to come closer. I knew he was up to something, but I couldn’t resist that smile. I got down on my knees and leaned in close. In that cute way that only 2 year olds can, he completely forgot what he was going to do. He just looked at me with a slightly puzzled look on his face. Then, my mom gave him a clue. “Squirt him with your fish!” The big smile came back, and out of nowhere, he brought a bath toy fish and squirted me full in the face with water.

I pretended that I was astonished by what just happened which brought out the trademark Little Dude giggle. Then, he said, “Daddy, come here closer.”

I told him, “No, you’re just going to squirt me again.”

With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “No, I need tell you somefing.”

I knew what was coming, but I leaned in anyway. Once again, the fish flies out and sprays me right in the face. We played this game a few more times until me and my mom were both pretty soaked. By the time I left the bathroom, I had to go change my shirt and wipe my face off. I did all of this with a smile on my face though.

I was still upset later on when I told my wife about work, and I still had to deal with it the next day, but for a good chunk of time, none of that mattered. Our son had managed to turn my mood around in less than 30 seconds. It’s moments like this that make you realize how awesome it is to be a father. There’s nothing like it, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Fabulous Film Fathers

With the snow and cold weather out, my boys and I have been taking advantage of Netflix and our local library to watch some movies.  I’ve noticed a couple that showed some good examples of fatherhood.  Just a warning: Spoilers Be Ahead.  If you haven’t seen Despicable me or Shrek Forever After yet, you might want to bookmark this article and come back later.  Otherwise, dive on in.

Despicable Me

The main character, Gru, is a villain.  He’s first introduced noticing a little boy crying over a dropped ice cream cone.  He cheers up the boy by crafting a balloon animal… and then shows his true colors as he pops it making the boy sadder than he was to begin with.  Not quite your ideal father figure, right?  Especially when his motive for adopting three girls is to gain access to another villains lair so he can steal a shrink ray that he plans on using to steal the Moon.

In flashbacks, we are shown Gru constantly trying to please his mother to no avail.  He says he’d like to go to the Moon.  She responds by telling him they stopped sending up monkeys.  He shows a spaceship design, she dismisses it.  Even a working model fails to impress her.  He hasn’t exactly grown up learning how to be a loving parent.

As his plans for stealing the Moon progress, the girls pry open Gru’s cold heart.  He supports them against a carnival worker who tries to cheat them out of a prize.  (In typical villain fashion, he trades the baseball to be thrown with a giant plasma cannon.)  He finds the girls becoming less of a chore and annoyance that get in the way of what he really wants (stealing the Moon) and more of an experience that he looks forward to.  The movie leaves open the question as to whether he has turned completely from his villainous ways and become a hero.  In any event, he is definitely a good father in the end, gladly giving up his stolen prize to save his girls and then risking his life to save them.

This movie shows how parents often find themselves at conflict between what they wanted to do before having children and what they want to do after having kids.  Your priorities shift and things that previously seemed like the most important things in the world fall to the wayside.  Other activities that would previously make you want to run away screaming turn out to be the happiest times of your life.

Shrek Forever After

Shrek has definitely undergone a lot of changes in the four movies he has appeared in.  In the first movie, he fell in love.  In the second, he learns to love himself.  In the third, he comes to grips with his impending fatherhood.  In the fourth film, Shrek is shown to be living the hectic life of a parent.  And a famous one no less.  Every day is the same routine over and over and over again.  Every quiet moment he gets to himself is interrupted by someone or something.  He can’t even go to the bathroom in peace without a local tour group pointing out his potty activities.

By the time the triplet’s’ first birthday party rolls around, he is a raw bundle of nerves.  (Not so good for any parent, even worse for an ogre parent.)  He blows up at the party and storms away.  At this moment, Rumpelstiltskin steps in.  He offers Shrek one day of freedom.  Just one day where he doesn’t need to worry about being a husband and father.  He can go back to his old life for 24 hours.  The offer sounds glorious but, even in his at-wit’s-end state, Shrek senses a catch.  The catch is that Rumpelstiltskin will take one day from Shrek’s past.  A day from his childhood that he wouldn’t even remember.  Shrek signs the contract.

Suddenly, his world is turned upside down.  Shrek finds himself a feared, single ogre again.  He’s able to terrify villagers and do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.  But his happy romp takes a terrifying turn when he sees his home deserted (in fact, it looks like it was never occupied at all) and he is captured.  Donkey doesn’t remember him at all.  It turns out that Rumpelstiltskin’s taken day was the day Shrek was born.  This means he never existed, never rescued Fiona and never became a father.  Once his 24 hours of freedom are up, Shrek will fade away and this topsy-turvy world (where Rumpelstiltskin rules instead of being a vagabond) will be cemented in place.  This only chance to get out of the contract is to find Fiona and share True Love’s Kiss before his time runs out.

What follows is a series of desperate attempts by Shrek to find Fiona and get her to fall in love with him.  At one point, she even kisses Shrek but it has no effect.  Shrek realizes that, in this reality, she never fell in love with him.  Simply being there isn’t enough.  He needs to take an interest in her and support her to get her to love him once more.

The lesson here is twofold.  First off, being a parent can be stressful.  Any parent who tells you that they never feel any stress at all as they raise their kids is lying.  There will be times when you wish that you could just run off for a day and forget about being married with children.  But even in these darkest times, a parent will still love their kids.  They might want some time for themselves, but they would never truly wish for their kids to vanish completely.

The key is small doses of “kid freedom.”  Go on a date night with your spouse while the kids are with a trusted friend/relative/babysitter.  Have your spouse watch the kids while you run some errands alone.  Or have your spouse run the errands while you stay home alone and enjoy some solitude.  These little breaks will help keep you from an ogre-sized blow up.

The second lesson here doesn’t involve the kids as much as it involves the parents.  You can’t simply just “show up” and expect that your spouse will stay in love with you because you are you.  You need to constantly work on making your spouse fall in love with you all over again.  This can be with a previously mentioned date night or kid-break-period.  It could also be simply listening to your spouse when they are talking about something that interests them even if your couldn’t care less.  The little things can build up and help to strengthen a marriage.  And a healthy, happy marriage can lead to healthy, happy parenting.

Balancing Work and Family at #BlogHer10

During BlogHer 2010, I attended some wonderful sessions.  One that stood out for me as a parent, though, was titled “Screw Work/Life Balance, We Need Work/Life POLICY!”  The session moderators Morra Aarons-Mele and Stephanie Wilchfort guided us through a discussion of how businesses in the United States currently treat workers with family issues and how we can improve the situation.

I’ll admit that I walked into the session half expecting the focus to be solely about moms.  A pretty fair assumption given that 90% of the BlogHer audience is women.  I was pleasantly surprised when someone mentioned that dads need time off from work to take care of family matters as well.  I even contributed my own viewpoints as the Dad in the Room.

Overall, it was a productive session and I figured that I would share some of my insights from it.

First of all, I went into the session thinking of this being a mom/dad issue.  It isn’t.  Whether or not you have a child, might have a parent who is still alive.  If that parent gets sick and needs your attention, you might have to make a tough choice.  Do you leave your job (thus putting your family’s livelihood at stake) to take care of your ill parent?  Or do you stay at your job and not help out when your parent needs you the most?  It’s an awful decision to have to make and yet people are forced to make this decision each and every day.  Some companies are supportive, but the only law that would cover this, FMLA, is woefully inadequate.

Secondly, the United States has fallen way behind other countries in Work/Life policies.  One attendee commented on how she had her first child in Italy.  She submitted the past 3 years’ worth of her income tax statements to a government office and was given 5 months of paid leave.  (If she wanted to stay out a few months longer, it would be reduced to 80% and then be reduced further the longer she stayed out.)

Years passed and she moved to the US.  When she got pregnant again, she gathered up her income tax statements and asked where to send them to.  She was in for a rude awakening when she found out that she would get 12 weeks of unpaid leave time.  Instead of 5 months paid, she would get 3 months without pay.

I found this out too when my first son was born.  At the time, I was our sole source of income.  I took a week off to help my wife get acclimated.  I would have liked to take more, but I was running low on vacation days.  If I ran out then I would need to go unpaid and we couldn’t afford to not have any income.  Not with a new baby in the house!

Finally, I realized that the reason this state of affairs continues is due to momentum and ignorance.  Momentum because workers in the US are used to it and don’t realize that the situation could be better.  Ignorance because people think that a) this is a “mommy” issue and doesn’t affect them (proven wrong, see above) and b) because people think companies would lose money if they instituted fair work/life balance rules.  This last point is incorrect as well.  Cali Williams Yost was at the session promised to upload some studies, and she did.

What can we do?  First of all, stop by the BlogHer website and read the LiveBlog of the session.  Also read some of Cali’s posted information.  Next, contact your representatives and tell them that we need policy changes to improve the work/life balance in the US to help us catch up to the rest of the world.  When you do this, be sure to stress that this isn’t just a mom or dad issue but that it affects elder care and others too.  Perhaps, together, we can improve the situation for everyone so that workers won’t need to choose between their family or their livelihood.

“No Leave!”

I sometimes wake from a deep slumber without any predisposed thought to my current place in life. Time in effect is meaningless. I’m not a husband, father, or any other descriptive label assigned to define my existence. I’m just simply me. The guy trying to figure out the big picture.

I sometimes wake from a deep slumber without any predisposed thought to my current place in life.  Time in effect is meaningless.  I’m not a husband, father, or any other descriptive label assigned to define my existence.  I’m just simply me.  The guy trying to figure out the big picture.  Then some sight or sound disrupts my stream of consciousness and much like a well oiled machine the disparate pieces of my existence click back into place forming the man I’ve become with all the inherent responsibilities as well as the joy of fatherhood.  Certainly I’ve evolved as a Dad but yet I wonder if the uninhibited man of the past which continues to resurface during my early waking state shouldn’t still have a say at the table.

The question of balance affects both parents.  My wife can melt my heart with a simple glance, her countenance still having the effect of quickening my pulse in her presence.  Her inner beauty shines through as well by way of comforting words and exceedingly generous nature.  A wonderful caring mother to our children, I’m fortunate to have been graced by her love.  And yet she too has encountered the growing pains of evolving into a parent.  I would imagine for many parents it’s the root of many contentious escalated battles over seemingly harmless subject matter.  So how does one meet the challenge without subordinating the man or woman that lies beneath the surface?

I think the answer lies in one’s determination to not quit.  The solution will come but only over time with sacrifice, compromise and dare I say enlightenment.  I draw upon this newfound knowledge not from some late night self help guru or online oracle but rather my one and a half year old daughter.  I was leaving my home a few nights ago to attend a martial arts class.  My daughter, aware of my imminent departure, raced to the door, positioned herself between the door and I, then looked me dead in the eyes and told me in no uncertain terms “No leave!”  As I bent down to gently pick her up to reassure her I’d return, she backed me up with a shove to my nose and told me once more emphatically, “No leave!”  My wife got a chuckle out of it and honestly so did I.  But I really admired my daughter’s gumption.  She made a stand and was not going to succumb to any drivel doled out by her parents designed to make her cave.

Too often as adults we waver to placate others including ourselves.  As we evolve as parents we also need to recognize the value of the foundations rooted in the days before we embarked on the journey of parenthood.  Seeing the world through the unfiltered eyes of a child can remind one of the importance of dreams, ambitions, and the strength of love for one another.

I still marvel at being a Dad.  Each day brings new beginnings as well as a chance for renewal.  Therein can be found the unspoken power of family, the door that’s always open for the dreamer within.

Honey, I’m home!

Most people I know do not really understand what is so hard about my day. Indeed, I am thankful, in many ways, that my daily routine does not entail the strains and rigors that others must endure. I go to work and then come home to a home cooked meal and some playtime with my son before he goes to bed and I settle in to watch some television. Sounds like one of those appliance ads from the 50’s and 60’s where the smiling dad steps into the foyer, puts his briefcase down in the hallway and hangs his hat on the coat rack as the children run to him and hug his legs and his loving wife pops her head out of the aroma filled kitchen and winks at him while asking, “How was your day, Dear?”

The reality is that my second and most demanding job starts the minute I drop my bag to the floor as I enter the apartment (actually, it’s more 24/7, but people without children never believe me when I tell them that). I am indeed lucky to have a wife who cooks divinely and who happens to be the best mother in the universe, but she also runs her own business (which is a heck of a lot tougher than my day job) and, therefore, despite the fact that she is super wife and mom all in one, time is always working against us on just about everything that we want or need to do with our son (and close to non-existent for things we would like to do as a couple). If I did not pitch in at home I would quite frankly be a total bastard – the kind that mothers always warn their daughters about. This is not to say that I am motivated to do so because of this feeling of guilt or of being labeled as a slacker. I do it, as I always say, because it is a reflexive survival instinct first and foremost as a parent and a very close second as a partner in a couple. My contribution is well defined and must be timed to perfection. I will not bore you with the details (you can read more about that in one of my blog posts: Divide and conquer or fall asleep trying… ), but I do it and do not for a moment think that what I do is more important. This is the only way for me to carve out the precious pockets of time during the daily rituals of work and parenting duties to actually enjoy some time as a father and husband – beyond the chores.

My work (my day job, that is) entails traveling and staying late at the office which used to be no problem at all. Without kids it’s all about you, really. What do you feel like doing or not doing at that moment. So work can take precedence over everything else and if you are in a relationship or married and the significant other does not object, then your career is what it’s all about. Late nights with clients, business trips, all nighters as long as the results are there then everyone is a winner. In the good old days of being a father that I described facetiously in the first paragraph, the arrival of Junior was just part of the setup. You wanted the Stepford wife and the trophy kids so that your desk at work had a nice framed family photo so the clients could knowingly clap you on the back. It was simply what you were supposed to do as a man and husband. Well times have changed or maybe TV back then took too many liberties in portraying the Norman Rockwell family and fatherhood is about balancing or maybe it is more correct to say it is about revisiting priorities.

Dual income households are more common today as is the centricity of the family over all else (in many cultures the latter has always been the case – my Italian half certainly feels that aspect weighing on my decisions). Often it is difficult to find the right formula because work is certainly a very tangible priority in the society I live in and conflicts with putting family first abound because of the many contradictions that pull parents in many directions, today. I certainly do not have the perfect solution nor would many parents out there find it useful if I shared it because mine is one of many categories of family-work-life balances and not everyone relates to it.

My daily struggle is to carefully dose each element and try to see if the formula works and then tinker with it day in and day out to try to find what works best. Life always decides to put its own spin on things so I doubt I will ever stop tinkering.

I give it my best shot, as the cliché goes, and I hope that my son, my wife, my work and any of my other loves and concerns will feel that I am giving them the right attention, as unquantifiable as that may be.