WMCLP

This last entry under “lessons learned” covers a topic that extends well beyond parenthood. But like many things in my life, it took parenthood to teach me the lesson. So here goes …

It was one of “those days”: On top of the usual routine of work/chauffeur/cook/etc., this one included volunteering at the kids’ elementary school, grocery shopping, and—why not—a trip to the vet. Not to mention needing to get it all done in a few hours to be home in time for a conference call. Which meant that—of course—the SUV in front of me was trying to set a new slow-speed record, and the (I’m sure very nice) fellow shopper insisted on walking with her cart directly in the center of the aisle, and was apparently very concerned with getting exactly the right brand of toothpaste. Which involved careful study of the 50 brands on the side of the aisle she was blocking.

Being the wise, gentle, calm Bay Area dude I am, I wanted to ram her cart, ram the SUV, and probably holler at a few puppies for good measure. Because, you know, MY DAY SUCKED.

And these, dear readers, are my white middle-class lady problems.

A few years ago, my friend Pete told this story: He was a trainer at a large credit card bank on the East Coast, and he was training a bunch of 20-somethings in, you know, credit card bank stuff. The training was not going well. Pete’s stress level, heart rate, and voice were rising, and then he thought:

You know, this is annoying, but at least I am not suffering in war-torn Bosnia. And I’ll bet that right now there is no one in war-torn Bosnia who’s thinking:

You know, this is annoying, but at least I don’t have to teach credit basics to a bunch of 20-year-olds.

That, my friends, is called perspective. It also explains why I love Pete so much.

In any case: So I’m in my car, and the SUV speeds up at the last minute to make the last tenth-second of the yellow light, which means I get stuck at the red. And I can already see that the train crossing is coming down that’s going to block me. And—of course—it’s one of those two-mile long freight trains, not the speedy Amtrak—and …

Wow. If these are my problems, my life is pretty good. I’m in the car I own, having just left the awesome school where my kids—who are also awesome—attend. And I just left a grocery store where they have 50 kinds of toothpaste because that’s the world I am fortunate enough to live in. And when—very long train aside—I get home, it will be to the house I own, from which I am able to work and support myself and my family. And oh by the way, Oakland and the Bay Area are really pretty and have great weather.

Given this as the backdrop, my “problems” are, as I now like to call them, white middle-class lady problems. Which, hey—no knock on white people, or middle-class people, or ladies—I’m in most of those groups. (There’s a term that’s since come up to describe the same phenomenon: “first world problems.” But I think mine is funnier.) And problems are problems—or, at least, annoying. That’s real, and there’s no sense trying to deny or it. But perspective helps. And when my brain is actually working in perspective, we have it pretty good.

Next: The Village: Coaches, Mentors, and Other Parental Stand-Ins

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Communication

I know what you’re thinking: He’s writing a book about raising two boys, and he includes a section on communication? I thought this was supposed to be nonfiction.

Hey: Just because something is important to our story as a family, doesn’t mean we’re necessarily good at it.

This certainly isn’t for lack of effort. I have tried every which way from Sunday to stress communication with my kids:

  • Ask for what you want.
  • Let other people know how you’re feeling.
  • If somebody’s doing something that bothers you, tell them (preferably nicely).
  • If you do something wrong, admit it.

I’ve used all the tricks: If you keep saying, “Gee those just-baked cookies smell good,” you can dream about them all you want, but they’re getting wrapped for the school fundraiser. If you directly ASK for one—assuming we didn’t just come back from ice cream—it’s yours.

It makes sense that the kids would have trouble asking for what they want. Their early experiences taught them two contradictory lessons:

  1. You can’t have what you want (in that context, safety and stability).
  2. Adults are not to be trusted, so if you want something, you have to figure out how to get it on your own.

We’ve spent a lot of time on this last one—in the first year, Daveon regularly raided the refrigerator rather than just telling me he was hungry—and I think we’ve chipped away at at least a few layers. If you end up in relationship with one of my kids in the future, drop me a line and let me know how they do with the asking thing.

Communication rule #2: If you are sick, or tired, or stressed, or whatever: SPEAK UP. If you act like a nut, you will get busted for acting like a nut—that’s just how we roll. But if there’s stuff going on that’s making it hard for you to avoid nuttiness—a headache or an exam tomorrow or a couple nights of poor sleep—I will cut you a good deal of slack. But I can do that only if you tell me what’s going on.

As I like to say: Of the million jobs I signed up for when I became a parent, mind-reader was not one of them.

Which brings me to the most challenging—and maybe most important—aspect of communication I have tried to get across to the kids: If you mess up, admit it. I know this is hard for all kids—but for kids who got bounced around a lot, I think it brings up a particular terror. Messing up = moving out, another separation, another loss. This is what the “kid mind” believes, even though the moves had nothing to do with their behavior. So it becomes even more difficult to get the point across that everybody messes up, it’s normal and OK, and the best thing to do is just let someone know what happened.

To encourage this kind of communication, I try to do two things: One, when I myself mess up with the kids (shocking, I know): Come clean quickly and simply. Walk the walk. And two: Adjust consequences for behavior that’s reported honestly. If you come clean about something that would normally be a level 5 crime—say, the time one kid filched a few dollars out of the petty cash stash—because of your honesty, we’ll move the consequences down to a level 2 or 3. Or even, as in this particular case, drop all consequences entirely.

There’s another aspect to our communication life. I have and continue to regularly check in about—and ask the kids to talk to me about—where their heads are about alcohol, other drugs, and sex. I really encourage them to let me know if/when they feel they want to explore any of the above—and certainly if they already have. I try to explain that the goal is not to then punish them, but to see where the thoughts/behaviors are coming from and decide what the next steps might be, to best ensure that they continue to move forward in a healthy way physically, mentally, and emotionally.

We’ll see how this all plays out. Hopefully our communication story won’t turn out to be fiction in the end.

Next: WMCLP

Diversity in Schools

Memo to elite private schools: I don’t care how good it looks on your calendar, or on the cover of your annual report—if you’re not able to handle a diverse population, please stop trying to pretend that you are.

Not that I have any strong feelings about this.

I will describe our specific school experiences in detail elsewhere, but for now let’s just say that where school choice was concerned, there were some amazing successes—and some notable fails. Said fails boiled down to one thing: My kids have particular needs and issues, and the schools were unable or unwilling to deal with them. This, in and of itself, is not a problem—there are many days where I struggle to address my kids’ needs and issues, and I live with them. And of course, a private school can define itself however it wants, and can put together a student body that embodies that definition. But man—and I write this with the best of intentions—these schools could really do us all a favor by not accepting kids who don’t meet that definition.

In case you don’t know, elite private schools require an extensive amount of parent writing on the application—you’d think I was the one who was enrolling. Being me, I tried to be as honest and detailed as possible in my responses, figuring that the school should know who they were getting. I made—or tried to make—it clear that each kid experienced particular background circumstances, and because of these circumstances, there are issues. And just like in any relationship, if you’re going to take the person, you get the whole package.

Either I wasn’t honest enough, or someone didn’t read carefully enough, or other factors were at play. In any case, on more than one occasion, the school accepted my kid, who accepted the offer to attend, and—the relationship didn’t work out.

Which brings me to: The Bay Area is a wonderful blend of races and colors—that’s a big part of the area’s appeal, for some of us at least. Private schools here make a great show of incorporating that blend into their student bodies. I think they are sincere in their intentions, but they may not always be super-sensitive regarding what they are really looking for. From where I sit, there’s a certain student profile—in terms of background, family structure, personality, behavior patterns, academic ability and approach, etc.—and for most of these schools, they’re pretty much equipped to deal only with kids who fit, or at least come close to, this profile. The good news is, you can find those kids across the racial/ethnic—and, to a lesser extent, socioeconomic—spectrum, so a school can still have its calendar and have a functional relationship with all of its students.

For those kids outside the profile, trying to fit in at these schools is a futile exercise in “square peg, round hole.” And, at the risk of sounding defensive, it’s not just us: I’ve talked to other parents of private school kids who are just “outside the profile,” and everyone shares similar stories of struggle and frustration—with the students, staff, administration. In some cases, we have left, voluntarily or otherwise. In others, we have chosen to stay. But it’s a lose-lose either way, and this takes me back to: You can slice and dice diversity a number of ways—where big chunks of a kid’s life are involved, I humbly submit that an organization should have a very clear concept of how its slicer works. And then not try to pretend otherwise.

This is probably mean, but I have to close this section with a story about our visit to one school that, fortunately—in my opinion, anyway—my son chose notto attend. During the open house, the very white school made a great show of their embrace of diversity. The admissions director kept mentioning how “we” love “our” diverse students—without seeming to realize that if there is a “we” that’s doing the embracing, clearly the “diverse students” are something else—a “you” or a “them” or, who knows, an “it”? Not clever.

This was followed by a student who told the story of a peer, an Italian exchange student who loved soccer. After some big victory, said student rushed onto the field and kissed the team captain. And while this was “a little weird,” it showed how much the school embraced diversity.

Second memo to elite private schools: If your open house audience includes any gay members—and remember, this is the Bay Area we’re talking about—calling a kiss between men “a little weird” may not be the smartest PR strategy. Not to mention the diss on Italians. If you had told any of the (straight, married, usually old) Italian guys I grew up with that kissing each other was weird, they would have introduced you to a concept we affectionately called “break-a you face.”

Next: Communication

Papi

This is a hard one to write, because it involves the biggest mistake I have ever made with regard to my kids.

At least, I certainly hope I haven’t made a bigger one.

I met my ex about six months after the kids moved in. I had—and still do, though less and less often—met a fair number of guys over the years. In most cases, there was no reason to bother with a second date. But something about this guy …

It turns out he felt the same way, because after about two months he asked me if I ever thought about moving beyond “casual” status into something more. I had, so we did. So far, so … OK.

We were together about four months before we decided to take the next step: telling the kids. I was—and continue to be—extremely fortunate that my kids are as open-minded about my sexuality as they are. Their basic philosophy is, “So what?”

My ex and I decided I should tell the kids alone, and we would figure out what to do from there based on the reaction. I was driving the kids home from school—it was mid-January, I remember for no particular reason—and the conversation went something like this:

Me: OK you guys, you know [name], right?

Kids: Yeah.

Me: So, he and I have been hanging out for a while, and now we decided to be boyfriends. What do you think?

Daveon: Great! I always thought you should have a boyfriend.

Mark: OK. What’s for dinner?

(These were their actual responses. I’m pretty sure Daveon made his up. I’m entirely sure Mark was sincere.)

They called my guy from the car and let him know I told them, and that it was great—or, in Mark’s case, that it was just a random piece of news between now and pork chops. So far, so … better.

And then came the mistake.

About two, three months after this announcement, and after us spending most of that time together as a group—often with my ex’s handful of nieces and nephew, who were roughly my kids’ ages—he said he wanted a parental role, a change in status with regard to the kids.

This would be a good place to mention that when we weren’t doing family things, my ex and I were usually fighting, threatening to break up, or actually breaking up. Without getting into too much detail, the bottom line is that we were a terrible match. You can take two perfectly fine people, put them together, and have disaster if they are not a fit. We were not a fit. You can see now why I am such a stickler for fit.

So of course when he asked about this “second parent” thing, I did what any in-over-his-head person in a troubled relationship would do: I said yes.

The next task was to introduce the kids to the idea, and see how they responded. As before, he and I decided I should do this solo.

Me: So, you guys, what would you think about [name] becoming your other dad?

Daveon: That’s great! I’ve always wanted two dads! (Probably not much higher on the sincerity scale than his first response.)

Mark: OK. (We must have already eaten.)

And then:

Me: OK, so just like I went from “Joe” to “Daddy,” he would need a new name. Any suggestions?

Daveon: Hmmm. How about “Edgar”?

Believe it or not, Edgar didn’t take. Instead, we went with “Papi,” which my guy liked.

So he was Papi, until he wasn’t. After continuing the cycle of argue/break up/make up/argue/repeat on endless loop for about two years, we finally called it quits. This was complicated by the fact that he had moved into our home about six months prior—as I mentioned, as mistakes go, I went in whole hog on this one. But we muddled through the break-up and the move-out as best we could. I left it up to him about how to continue his relationship with the kids, which turned out to be sporadic, unpredictable, and ultimately nonexistent.

So I had to eat it, and tell the kids I made a mistake. I let “boyfriend” become “Papi” too quick, and now that he had gradually disappeared from their lives, I wanted them to throw at me any anger, hurt, resentment, grief, they felt.

They, in their unshakable loyalty, did not.

Telling that news to two kids whose early life history was abandonment by adults was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I haven’t been involved with anyone since.

Next: Diversity in Schools

Love vs. Like

Here are some “truths” you hear a lot about parenthood:

  • You love your kids, but you should not expect to like them equally.
  • “Liking” one or the other will go through natural cycles where at one point you might prefer one, and then at a different point favor another.
  • And the famous, “I love you, but I don’t like what you are doing.”

As truths go, I think these are pretty true. It’s definitely clear is that loving your kids is different from liking them. You love them just … because. You kind of need to—it’s your job. Even on your worst day, in your worst mood, when they have exhibited their worst behavior, you drop everything and rush in if they are really in need. I’ve never spent any time with any parent and his or her kid(s) and not come away with a deep sense that, however many layers you might need to unpeel, at base the parent loved the kid.

Meanwhile, back to like. As I write this, I realize that this is a challenge I have and am continuing to put for myself. So let me stop pretending to write about “parents” and reel it in under my family’s own little roof.

I don’t know why—actually I think I do know why, but we’ll save that for the blog about my own childhood—but I think it’s really important to like my kids. More specifically, I think it’s important for them to feel like I like them—which would be hard to do if I weren’t communicating that. I want my kids to feel that, if I weren’t their dad, I would still think they were cool kids, would want to hang out with them, would be interested in what they had to say. So the job for me becomes to actually choose to like them.

Over the years this has not always been easy, especially on the days when I wanted to strangle one, or the other, or both. I had to tackle the challenge from a couple of angles: one mental/emotional, the other behavioral. On the mental/emotional side, I would try oto take a few minutes every couple of days to think about the things I like about my kids—maybe a particular memory, a personality quirk, an accomplishment. Even writing about our 12+ years has helped remind me that, on top of that “given” base level of love, we have had a heck of a lot of “like” moments scattered among the school mornings, and rides to practice, and checking homework, and such.

On the behavioral side, I have tried as often as I can to push myself to act like I like my kids. This might sound dumb, but it falls into the “fake it till you make it” category. Usually this would take place in 5-minute bursts, with some activities I’ve written about previously. It could be a school morning, when it was too dark and too cold and everyone was too grumpy. I would just start doing some kind of silly/weird dance or wrestling move or whatever goofy thing came to mind. It was less about shifting the mood—although it helped with that as well—as sending the signal that I liked giving my kids a few minutes of no-agenda face time, just because. Another example was, during a dinner conversation, sitting back and letting one or both lead with whatever teenage-y topic was on their mind—and remembering that for them, Katy Perry vs. Lady Gaga wasn’t silly or shallow, but an issue of actual concern (hey, I was a teen once). And instead of being all parental with my “Well, you know …” voice, treating this topic like it actually mattered—remembering that for them, it did.

This may be overstating the case, but I think giving my kid the sense that they are liked is just as important as giving them the knowledge that they are loved. And if I’m wrong, at least we’ve had a few more chuckles on school mornings than we might have otherwise. And I’m way more up on my Lady Gaga than I would ever be, which must get me some points somewhere.

Next: Papi

Job

One thing I have struggled with over the years is remembering that parenting is partly a job, and partly just being with your kids. Actually, the “struggle” applies to only half of the equation: As you might have figured out by now, the “job” part of parenting comes pretty naturally to me. Dinner on the table every night? Doctor’s appointment? Driving? I’m on it. Even more subtle forms of the job: “What was your biggest feeling today?” “Let’s to to the bakery so you can pick out the cake you want for your birthday party.” I’m so there.

It was only after the first few years of “doing the job” that I realized, “Wait a minute, there’s another piece here that I’m missing.” And even that happened only after I had dozens, hundreds, thousands of experiences around parents who could just “be” with their kids—laughing, goofing off, being together doing a whole lot of nothing. It took a lot before the light bulb finally went off.

Of course, lighting the light bulb, and acting on the light bulb, are two different things. Even something as simple as dinner. In one of our beautiful realities, for most of our years together the boys and I sat down to dinner as a family almost every night of the week—no small accomplishment for a threesome that included two active teens. But pretty much from the time I picked up my fork, my head—and mout—went straight to: “What did you get done today? What do you still need to do? Any homework? Anything you need my help with? Whose dish night is it?” The job-me kicked in—or should I say, stayed kicked in—without my even thinking about it.

I think our movie nights were a good “just being” tradition while they lasted—even though, to be quite frank, the job-me decided that movie nights were “important” as a way to create a family ritual. Even when I’m not in job mode, it’s because of job mode. (I’ll talk about our family movie nights—one of our loveliest and longest-lasting traditions—in more detail later.)

I do think—a little bit—as we got closer to being a one-kid-under-the-roof family, looking ahead to an empty nest—that something clicked in my brain that let me shift into just-be mode at least a little more often. It was often as simple as goofing with the kids for a few minutes in the morning before they headed out to school (for some reason, this generally involved putting them in a headlock). It was—sometimes—letting dinner conversation, or lack thereof, flow naturally from whatever the kids brought up, instead of the laundry list of “topics we need to cover.” When I was really on my game about not being so on my game, it was “What do you guys want to do for dinner tonight?” and then heading out for a meal that most likely involved french fries—spontaneously, even!

I am guessing that any parents who fall more on the “just be” side of the spectrum are reading this going, “Wow, what a nut.” Point taken. In a meager defense, I do think that we job-centered parents do get a lot done, and we probably provide a lot of benefit to kids who need a lot of structure. I’ve seen plenty of non-jobber parents whose kids run pretty wild pretty much all of the time, and I can’t say I’ve ever thought, “Gee, I wish my kids were more like that.”

I’ve also seen parenting couples where one is the “job” parent and the other is the “just be” (translation: “fun”) parent. Based on a small sample size, I have a pretty good idea how well that turns out: not very.

So as with most things, the single parent has to find ways to balance good cop/bad cop, enforcer/nurturer, and all the other dialectic roles involved in parenting. This in turn means learning one’s natural predispositions and working to incorporate the opposing side. All while being yourself. Piece of cake.

Next: Love vs. Like

Warm, Cool

A friend of mine once described the way a person walked into a room as projecting either “round” or “square” energy. Round energy was embracing and open to connection, while square energy set up clear boundaries and was more concerned with announcing, “I’m here!” Perhaps not surprisingly, this friend’s experience was the women more often entered a room with round energy, men with square.

I’ve come to believe that there is something of an analog in parenting. Any parent—at least, any parent I’ve ever met—has a combination of what I call “warm” energy and “cool” energy. It’s not that hard to figure out what they mean: “Warm energy” is the nurturing, huggy, caretaking side of the parent. “Cool energy” is the structuring, disciplining, motivating toward self-sufficiency side. And similar to my friend’s categories, it would be easy to assign these energies based on gender. But my (admittedly limited) experience tells me otherwise: I know a ton of dads who have way more warm energy than the other kind, and vice versa for a lot of moms.

Examples:

  • If your kid gets hurt on the playground, warm energy puts the kid in your lap, gives kid a hug, asks if it hurts, and kisses it. Cool energy asks how it happened, makes sure the scrape is clean, and helps to put the band-aid on correctly.
  • If you’re going out for a grown-up dinner, warm energy makes sure that there is food prepared for the kids, leaves a list of instructions and contact numbers for the sitter, and calls to check in a few times to make sure everything is OK. Cool energy reminds the kids what they can and cannot do while the parent is out, tells them to clean up after eating, and instructs them to “work it out” if any problems come up, unless it is an emergency. An emergency consists of robbery, fire, and little else.

Being—I thought—a pretty touchy-feely California guy, I have been surprised to learn that where my kids are concerned, I have way more cool energy than warm energy. Over the years I have certainly hugged them a lot, but as often as not it has been in the context of a wrestling match. Our time together is more “fun” and “goofy” than “warm” or “emotional.” I remember a friend once telling me that his wife related better to their daughters when they were younger and needed her more (warm energy loves to be needed); he related better to the girls when they were older and needed him less (cool energy loves to be pals). Guess which stage is working better for me with my two?

I sometimes feel a little—guilty isn’t the right word—maybe “concerned” that I haven’t given my guys everything they need by my lack of warm-ness. I haven’t done much in the “Aww, you have an ow-ee, wet me kiss it” department. I’ve kissed plenty of scraped knees, but as likely as not I did it in character as Scooby-Doo and made it a big sloppy dog tongue kiss. Which, if nothing else, at least got everybody giggling.

I hope giggling counts. I also hope that if my kids ever need me to turn down the fun and games and just give them a legit hug and a smooch, that they won’t hesitate to ask.

Next: Job