Posts Tagged ‘Parenting’

The Thinker

Value reprogramming our children

So many of us are raising our children mostly the way our parents raised us. It’s unclear why we do this. Perhaps we assume they did a great job, considering how awesome we turned out. Since we’re so awesome, we figure we’ll simply follow their formula and we’ll have awesome children too.

Or it could be we don’t want to suffer their wrath or disappointment. Parents can hurt us, even when we are in our middle years. Most likely, we don’t analyze our approach to parenting too much; we just do it reflexively. If we were raised Catholic, junior and his sister are raised Catholic. If we played Little League, our sons play in the Little League. If we went to Girl Scouts, our daughter goes to Girl Scouts.

Raising your kid differently than you were raised takes a certain amount of courage. Obviously, it takes less courage if you realize that you were raised wrong. If Dad beat you regularly with a belt, hopefully you won’t do that to your child, although chances are you will. Value programming seems to work this way. Both the good stuff and the bad stuff tend to get passed down from generation to generation. If your father beat up your mother, there’s a good chance if you are a male that you will beat your wife. Stranger still, if you were the daughter, there is a good chance you will be in a marriage where your spouse will beat you up. It’s unclear why this is, but it may be because we unconsciously seek out spouses that have characteristics of our parents. It happened to me: I married a gal from a poor family in Michigan, just like my father. At the time, this coincidence never occurred to me, but it was probably more than coincidence, particularly since my mother and I had issues.

Parenting comes with no rewind button. Instead, parenting is a continuous stream of events and choices applied to situations at the moment. From our children’s birth to our deaths it never really ends, but there is an unofficial end when our adult children finally move out of the house. (There is a good chance they will move back in some years later.) In retrospect, all of us parents wish we could have done some things differently. You do the best you can and try to forgive yourself for your parenting mistakes.

Parenting differently than the way you were parented takes reflection and mindfulness. My parents were not particularly physically affectionate. We got little in the way of hugs and kisses. They weren’t wholly absent; just that they were the exception rather than the rule. Unsurprisingly, I grew up feeling somewhat touch deprived. Also, my parents, although I am sure they loved each other, weren’t great at demonstrating affection with each other or really doing much together, other than dutifully raising us. Since I had about a decade as a bachelor, I had time to reflect on these concerns. I made up my mind that I would not replicate them with my daughter.

So I made a point to be lavish with hugs and kisses. I told her sincerely, and often, that I loved her. When near her I made sure to put an arm over her shoulder or around her waist. I wanted her to know that healthy human relationships should be naturally intimate, and that meant touching liberally. In short, I did not want to transmit what I considered to be a poor way of being raised. I wanted her to feel connection and intimacy. This meant more than words; it meant the constant pleasure and communication of touch. It’s delightful to see her as an adult being still so physically demonstrative with us.

My parents picked up something of a Puritan ethos common from their era. It meant the father made most of the major decisions, the mother’s role was to be supportive and children were supposed to quickly learn their place. It was generally understood that as children we were inexperienced and thus our parents knew best. We were told not just from them, but also from society in general, that our parents were our ultimate guides in life and to trust them implicitly. In general, the boys in our family learned that most emotions were better left bottled up, because we never saw dad cry or even get very upset.

Of course, society is a lot different now compared to then. The United States has more than doubled its population in my lifetime. Values have changed quite a bit as well. In the 1960s I did not know homosexuals existed. Today they have civil rights that were denied them including, increasingly, the right to marry. My country is much more ethnic in general too. I had to figure out how to put all this together in my parenting. It was not always easy and often it was lonely.

I had virtually no sex education, as was true of most of us Baby Boomers. I had to depend on factual books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex to get some rudimentary education. Reading about sex as opposed to experiencing it, of course, is quite different. Schools now generally teach sex education, but it is largely superficial. Certain topics are frequently off limits. Parents can teach their children sex education, but it is generally an awkward experience. It is better to come from an authoritative but independent source. Mostly, I didn’t want my daughter to start her sex life sexually ignorant. She needed a real grounding, both on the biological facts but on the physical and emotional issues of being a sexual person. I found such a program at my Unitarian Universalist Church: Our Whole Lives, wherein all these topics were discussed candidly but with trained facilitators. There is no question about it: sex is a big, complex and icky topic. But better to make sure she started with a firm foundation than to be ignorant and make the stupid mistakes I did when I became sexually awake.

Sex education is just one area where I deviated from the values I was taught. While many were the same (love, compassion, neighborliness, the importance of education) many were also different. I taught respect for people regardless of sex, race, religion or (the hard one) because they have different beliefs than me. I told her that I was a human being, not a god, and thus I make mistakes. I encouraged those values that helped me succeed, some that worked (reading, debate) and some that did not stick (striving for excellence, exercise and diet). In the end, like me, my daughter had a lot to absorb, analyze and figure out what was right for her.

At least she appreciates the complexity of our modern world. It is far more complex than it was when I was her age. No wonder then that today adolescence seems to extend well into their twenties. It’s quite a brain dump we give our children, and harder than ever for them to structure it in a way that will help them deal with their reality.

At the same time, my daring experience at value reprogramming has been satisfying. My parents did the best they could to set my values with the skills they had at the time. I did my best as well. I am glad I did not simply parrot the way I was raised, but trusted my own judgment instead. I used values that seemed to work (thriftiness, for example) and discarded what did not seem to work (religious orthodoxy).

My daughter says she won’t have a child, but she is toying with the idea of adopting a child when she is self sufficient enough. If that time comes, I hope she is smart enough to do what I did: and discard those things about the way we raised her that did not work, and substitute her own judgment of the modern world as she perceives it.

 
The Thinker

Leap of faith

This blog scratches my writing itch, but most of us writers would rather be published than place our writings in a blog. Being published still means something. Today it means one or more authorities singled you out as worthy of being published, usually on paper. Publishers are not in the business of wasting money. They only publish content they believe will earn them a profit. Coincidentally, published authors earn actual money.

Being a published writer is hard and breaking into the ranks is the hardest part, which is probably why I blog. I may be a good writer, but I am not a great writer and probably will never be. I write because I must. In retirement I may have the leisure to pick up electronic pen and try writing a great novel. But I have little illusions that after it is done that it will be published.

This is because potential authors are a dime a dozen. Publishers are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts, many of them quite good, but most of them trash. At best, an author’s unsolicited manuscript will get a cursory read of the first couple pages by some low level staffer and if it doesn’t meet a niche or market or a quality standard, it is quickly rejected. Even if it meets all of these criteria, the odds are still that it will get rejected, mainly just because. Authors send out their manuscripts anyhow. A few rejection letters will crush the egos of most authors. They will assume they don’t have the “write” stuff and shuffle along disheartened toward more productive but less enthralling careers.

Writers that take the time to research what it takes to get published usually discover it’s a waste of time to send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Instead, they try to find a literary agent to represent them. It’s the difference between getting an automated response from a firm and talking to a human being. A literary agent is a trusted broker. If a true literary agent accepts you as a client then your manuscript is virtually certain to get published.

This means that both book publishers and literary agents get inundated with manuscripts. In both venues there are the flakes out there. Vanity publishers are glad to print your book as long as you are willing to pay for it and market it yourself. Similarly, there are literary agents that probably don’t deserve the title but may be interested in critiquing your work, for a fee, or passing it on to an editor who, for a fee, will be glad to edit it, but with little likelihood that it can actually be marketed. A real literary agent is on a first name basis with editors at key publishers and knows what they are looking for. You are not charged any fees at all until a work is published. The agent typically collects fifteen percent of the royalties.

So getting a real agent is a hard bar to reach. I did have a literary agent briefly out of college. I set my expectations low for breaking into the field. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was on the air in the 1970s. I asked an agent to submit a couple of scripts for them. She agreed but they were quickly bounced back. Apparently staff wrote all their scripts. I gave up the idea of writing a great novel or screenplay and went to work instead because I was broke.

My wife, actually a better writer than I am, also wrote all sorts of stories in the science fiction, children and fantasy genres. She sent them out to various publications to see if they might publish them. Her heart was broken time and again. She too gave up. When she chooses to write today, it is for a genre called slash that appeals to the fan fiction community. Needless to say there is no money in it, but there is the occasional fan mail and recognition at a convention.

Our daughter (almost 24 years old) took up the pen naturally. Arguably, if a budding writer had to be born anywhere, she picked good parents. We provided a nutrient-rich literary soup for her. Our house is full of books. There is a newspaper on the kitchen table every morning, and various magazines to read. In addition, we exposed her early to the arts. Just last night we took her to see Miss Saigon at Signature Theater (review to come). She saw her first musical at age six but by now has seen more theater than most people do in several lifetimes. We encouraged her writing but warned her that, like us, she probably couldn’t earn a living at it. I encouraged her toward journalism, which at least pays something resembling a living wage. But no, she set her mark impossibly high. She wanted to write fiction. Worse, she chose fantasy novels, which with the exception of J.K. Rowling is a pretty limited market. We warned her that she had set herself up for a bigger failure because it was a highly saturated but limited market. It was best, we counseled, to do it on nights and weekends. You are going to need a full time job at a desk somewhere to get by.

But still she plugged away, while we fretted over her grades and her slow but measured progress in college. She did earn her bachelor’s degree in English this spring. She is still looking for a job. We did give her credit for doggedness. She finished her book, first of a trilogy, and kept shopping it around to literary agents that seemed interested in this stuff. She endured lots of rejection, crushed spirits but also occasional notes of encouragement. And somehow she kept plunging ahead. We cheered her on while grimacing privately at the probability of the brick wall she was about to hit. It was our experience that life was unfair, and no matter how good you were, most of us writers were fated to be unpublished. We certainly were. We just gave up.

Spring turned to summer, summer headed toward autumn. She seemed doomed to the fate of Sisyphus. It hurt to watch and it felt counterproductive sometimes to encourage her perseverance but gosh, she sure was good. Both my wife and I agree her writing was far better than anything we ever wrote. Meanwhile she went on job interviews far beneath her talents and wrote into the wee hours.

On Wednesday, Lowenstein Associates, a New York literary agency, sent her a contract to sign. Look for her book, Godbinder, first part of a trilogy to be published by some lucky publisher in 2014 under the pen name of J. M. Saint.

J.K. Rowling had better watch out.

 
The Thinker

Cutting the apron strings

She took her final exam today, the very last exam for her very last class in a journey that consumed five years (two in community college) and three at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She” would be my daughter, age 23, who now merely needs to wait for the mail to get her diploma for a bachelor’s degree in English. Despite some prodding, she doesn’t want to attend her own graduation.

Which means she is mostly home now and we will continue to pay the rent on what will likely be her empty room in Richmond through the end of July. She needs to find a job but if her experience is like mine it may be a year or two before she finds a “real” job, assuming there are real jobs for people with English degrees. There are a few of them out there, and I am not talking about “do you want fries with that” jobs at the local Burger King. A real job for a while though might be working at a Costco or Wegmans, where they pay a living wage, which would be great because I don’t want her to get too attached to her old bedroom. Rather, it’s time for her to move out once and for all.

It’s hard to say how long that will take but I’ll lay odds somehow a year from now she will still be inhabiting her bedroom. Young adults today are painfully aware of the true cost of living, which is much higher than it was when I was a youth. This may be because so many things are assumed: the car, the smartphone, health insurance, high speed Internet and they are used to mom and dad paying for them. I don’t care if $12 an hour really is a living wage these days; that probably won’t buy you all of the above, even with a roommate or two.

What she wants to do is goof off, sleep late, stay up all night and when not distracted by things on the Internet write the great novel that probably won’t get sold, at least not without a whole lot more pain and suffering. Fortunately she is a bit more realistic now and is sending out random resumes, which suggests intent to find a job but not necessarily serious commitment. She could live a lot cheaper, assuming she lived alone, by settling in Richmond where she just finished her degree. But the jobs would pay a lot less and she seems happy to be home on a more or less full time basis. She actually cleaned her room and removed heaps of trash off her desk the other day. Either she is trying to get her life in order or she is planning to start a new burrow. Time will tell.

We’ve suggested some employers that might hire English majors. A friend at my church works for Motley Fool, and they hire English majors. Except she knows nothing about personal finance other than living on our money and making her allowance stretch until the end of the month. She wants to learn less, although I have provided a couple books on personal finance as a “gift”. The headquarters of Learning Tree in nearby Reston is near us. They teach mostly leading edge technology courses to people whose employers have deep pockets. They need people to write content for their web pages and course curriculum. And I have another friend whose office is always willing to hire college graduates, providing they want to learn the business of making specialized contact lenses. She worked there briefly out of high school and found it didn’t agree with her. I doubt she would want to give it another try.

Still, it is an accomplishment having a degree of any kind, and getting a degree in English is more interesting than it seems. She wrote a thesis on arguably the world’s worst English poet, William McGonagall. She learned a lot about Old English, and obscure Scottish literature. She interned at a Richmond publishing house and worked with female prisoners at a local jail teaching creative writing. Mainly she had the university experience, such as it is today, minus the fun stuff like sororities. She is not social enough for that stuff. She had the usual mixture of brilliant and mediocre professors, ate in the dining halls, learned that parking tickets cost real money, and that you can have really crappy roommates.

We learned that college education today is very expensive. Once we entertained the idea that, as parents with one child, we could send her to a private university. What a crazy idea! Her bachelor’s degree took a year longer than we budgeted. We paid for two cars, only because she wrecked the first one driving home with a homeless kitten. The expenses added up quickly. The nearly final total according to Quicken:  $116,238.05, or $36,238.05 more than the $80,000 I thought we were going to spend. And these are just the direct costs. It’s amazing anyone can afford to get any kind of degree these days. At least she graduates debt free. We were her scholarship fund.

Parenting is not over. Now comes the coaching phase, followed by the nagging and heaping on the guilt phase if necessary. The job hunting is still poor, and bad in particular for English majors with lackluster GPAs. At least here in Northern Virginia the unemployment rate is relatively low, but the mere hassle of commuting around here will probably ensure that she calls someplace far away from here home eventually.

A new adventure called real life awaits her. “What’s it like, dad?” she asked me some weeks ago. “Well, it’s not a lot of fun. But you get used to it.” And really, that’s about the most honest thing you can say about adulthood. I wish you the best, kid, but it’s time for you to cut the apron strings and fully direct your own life. Hopefully, we gave you enough of the tools to make your life meaningful but for the most part the rest will be up to you.

 
The Thinker

She is more like me than I thought

There are children that are a chip off the old block, and then there is my daughter. Physically she has many of the attributes of her father (me). She tends toward being tall, with bigger feet and the proud Roman/English nose sported by my side of the family. However, she has never seemed to take after her dear old dad. Her room and car are usually a mess. Whereas I put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher and clean the kitchen counters after a meal, the best I can hope for is that she washes a pan or two and her plate and silverware end up at the bottom of the sink. Whereas I spend my leisure time reading news online or various political blogs, she is reading reddit.com and LOL Cats. If she shares interests in common with a parent, they seemed to be my wife’s, who is also looking at LOL Cats. My daughter likes most of the same TV shows my wife does. That is because my wife introduced her to them.

But lately there have been some weird signs from daughter-land. The other day I heard the theme music from the TV Series The West Wing emanating from her laptop computer. “Hey Dad! Guess what? I am on Season 1 of The West Wing!” she exclaimed. “And I really like it!” This got us into a deep fan discussion. Who is her favorite character? What episode does she like the best? When she got to the famous Christmas episode in Season 1, perhaps the best show in its entire seven seasons, she was crying at the end, just like me.

All this may have something to do with the fact that she is 23 now, and on the cusp of graduating from her interminably long quest to complete a bachelor’s degree. I was hoping her degree might be in engineering, like her father, but it’s in English. However, in retrospect, maybe she takes after her father here too. My bachelor’s degree was in communications. It wasn’t until the 1990s after ten years of doing IT work that I got a masters degree in engineering like my father.

My daughter and I are both creative writers, as evidenced in me by nearly ten years of writing this blog, and evidenced by her in various stories, none of which have yet been published. But just as I had (for a brief time anyhow) a literary agent about the time I graduated, she has one already, and her agent is reviewing her novel. It may suffer the same fate as my attempts to sell fiction did, but maybe not. For one thing, she is a better writer than I am. Her dream of making a living from writing fiction just might be realized. She promises her mother and I a chalet in Switzerland when she hits the big time, like JK Rowling. Meanwhile, of course, we subsidize her modest lifestyle, which includes tuition at a state university, her rent, her car and her living expenses. She dreams of an apartment and a cat of her own. Right now she has roommates.

Her interest in The West Wing truly surprised me, but it should not have. This is because she has become a politically active creature, just like me. She has not joined the Young Democrats or anything, but she did make a point to vote this year, to the extent that she drove home from Richmond to make sure her vote was cast. She is passionate about gay marriage, health care for all, and most issues of concern to liberal Democrats like me. Of course, her mother is as well. So she gets that from both of us. But my wife will largely ignore the front pages of newspapers. She is delving into the details of current political issues, albeit via reddit.com rather than The Washington Post.

Most surprising of all is her new interest in classical music. Four years ago we took our last family vacation to New England. One night we ended up at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony. It was the first time she had been to a classical music concert. She hated it. Her eyes rolled toward the heavens and could not wait to leave. At university however she is enrolled in a music appreciation course, and has been studying composers even I have not dabbled into, like Bedrich Smetana. However, even before her music appreciation course, she had been online downloading classical music. Maybe she took up my suggestion that it facilitates studying, since there are not usually any lyrics to distract you. I find that we are getting into rather deep conversations about classical music composers and their strengths and weaknesses. I am astounded by how quickly she is mastering this genre. For example, we can contrast Beethoven’s influence on artists like Brahms and Wagner. A couple of weeks ago she even joined us for a concert by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, in part because her class required going to a live performance.

For a girl who rarely got A’s in school, we were often frustrated that her natural intelligence rarely translated into high grades. I still have no idea what kind of grades she is getting, but I do see evidence that her natural intelligence is coming out. I see it in her writing, in our conversations, in her term papers, in her ability to handle complex reasoning and exercise critical thinking. In this sense she is more like her mother. She picks up knowledge more indirectly than through studying, and most of it gets filed away for later use.

Her cautious nature may have come from me. Her friendships tend to be relatively few but deep. She mostly keeps her mouth shut in crowds but expounds at length in small groups. She tends to be firm in her opinions and can justify them at length.

On the cusp (we hope) of surviving independently, I still hope that she will embrace financial prudence. So far there is little sign that she will, but I do think it is getting observed and perhaps filed away for future use. She seems to be aware that her education is not just chance, but involved a great deal of planning, mostly by me. The one course she never got, and which is not even required in either school or college, is financial literacy. Trying to engage her on the topic usually leads to rolled eyes. Soon as she tries to make her income as an English major cover her life’s expenses she will have no choice. Toward that end she will find a couple of books under the Christmas tree on financial literacy that might help her. I’m not sure whether she will take the time to read them, but I am hopeful that she will.

Overall, I find myself warming to her more as an adult than I did as a child. I have always loved her of course, but she rarely seemed a person that I could relate to. More recently I am seeing that there is far more of me in her than I suspected, and it is mostly (I hope) the good stuff. I hope it rubs off. Life is far more complicated for her generation than for mine, and she will likely need every bit of her wits and her intelligence to thrive in this resource-competitive 21st century. Maybe I am guilty of wishful thinking, but I think that she eventually will. In time, I expect that I will learn some new tricks from lessons that she will teach me.

 
The Thinker

Moving day

The carpet in the lobby may be stained, and I may have had to wait twenty minutes for the truck to actually arrive, but the rental price was right. The Budget truck started well and drove smoothly, but with nothing in its cargo bed, any minor perturbation on the payment made the cargo hold rattle and my teeth grate. Happily, once the 10-foot truck was loaded with cargo, and with our GPS moving me southward toward Richmond, the rattling ceased.

If only I could say the same for the signals coming from my bladder. Loading the truck largely by myself was hot and sweaty work. I kept drinking glasses of water to quench my thirst, but on the two plus hour trip to Richmond, it all decided to come out, requiring frequent pit stops. While my wife and daughter sailed ahead in our daughter’s Honda, I ended up spending time at places like a Virginia Welcome Center on I-95 instead. At least I got to park in the truck lane for a change.

The truck’s cigarette lighter apparently wasn’t working, so the GPS was running on its battery. As I approached Richmond, it warned me of its low battery. I turned it off and followed signs. Once fully downtown I turned it back on and hoped it had enough juice to get me to the townhouse on West Marshall Street where my college bound daughter was to take up residence. I made it just barely. My wife accidentally left her cell phone at home, and I hadn’t written the address down elsewhere. Whew!

My wife and daughter were waving at me from down the street; I went too far and had to double back. Richmond doesn’t believe in many two way streets, so there was some jockeying and red lights to deal with before I parked the truck in front of my daughter’s new abode. Two young men, her new roommates, were ready to greet me and to help haul her stuff inside.

I was nervous about my daughter rooming with guys, but I shouldn’t have been. Mark prefers to spend most of his time in his room with the door shut. Occasionally you can hear his dog yapping and scampering through the floorboards. David was genuinely glad to see Rosie. They got along when first introduced the month before, and I knew he was safe because he was the son of a friend of my wife’s from work. Both seemed impossibly young (did I look so young when I was 21?), but David was a bit on the scruffy side. Both were quiet types, which meant this parent didn’t have to worry about loud boozy parties and drugs from the residents of this house.

Boxes were unloaded, torn open and in many cases their innards were assembled into things resembling furniture: a sort of a desk, steel shelving that would also act as something of a room divider (since my daughter got part of a large living room for her “bedroom”), and something to go behind the loo to hold toiletries. There was also a bed frame to assemble, a foundation encased in plastic and large plastic containers full of the accoutrements of living. Walling off the living room violated the rental agreement, but we were allowed to put a pole across the width of the room, some eleven feet, to provide some semblance of privacy for our daughter. This required some innovative amateur engineering. The steel shelves provided some privacy and storage space. Two long PVC pipes held together with a pipe connector had to be carefully cut, lowered into place and held level with a rope connected to a ceiling hook. Black sheets stitched together with a needles and thread went over these low-tech curtain rods, providing a virtual wall. Eventually the boxes were disposed of, the floor was vacuumed and our nearly twenty one year old daughter tried to settle into her first new bedroom in more than seventeen years.

A few blocks away is her real destination: Virginia Commonwealth University. Her townhouse and neighborhood turned out to be in better shape than I anticipated, given my exposure to too much substandard campus housing. The kitchen looked nearly new. The neighborhood was full of townhouses, most of which were rented by fellow students. However, turn the corner and there is a rougher looking commercial neighborhood. Turn onto Broad Street and you find more than a few scruffy homeless types smiling nicely while begging for spare change.

The sun was steadily sinking when we finished. Before leaving, we made time for a last supper of sorts. Bringing David along, we found a local pizza joint. It had Formica-topped tables and a counter where food was ordered. We ate greasy pizzas and chatted. Over dinner, our daughter’s parents (me being one of them) expressed our nervous worries in a seemingly endless series of nags and reminders, while David smiled and remarked how familiar it all seemed to him.

With dinner beginning to digest, we were back at her new townhouse and giving her hugs goodbye. We took deep breaths and started the engine of our rental truck. As we left, we watched her through the front window of the townhouse. David was already chatting with her, easing her nervousness. David, we could tell, was a good young man. He would find a way to take her gently under his wing, but as a peer, not an authority figure. David, we could see, was her bridge into the next phase of her life.

It was hard not to reflect and fret a little as we drove back north on I-95 to Northern Virginia. Speaking of fretting, our cat Arthur was not happy to be left alone all day. He stared at the door waiting for Rosie to come in. We let him sit on our lap and talked to him, but he seemed to know that his well-ordered world had been disturbed too. To bring some predictability to his life, he went back and sat on his special spot on the living room carpet. Wearily I returned the rental truck to a dark rental lot, putting nearly $50 in gas in it and dropping the keys in its after hours box.

Before bed, a shower was required, no matter how tired I was. I was returning to something that used to be normal: a house where the lights went off when we went to bed and where our daughter naturally fell asleep when we tucked her in. It felt momentarily weird, then gratefully normal.

Each day since we moved her in on Monday, we have fretted a bit about her. We have checked up on her on occasion with an email, but we are also feeling more settled ourselves in our new empty nest. For the truth about childrearing is that if you love them, at some point you have to send them packing. We did, with a lot of love, some stifled tears and great gobs of money.

The house is definitely quieter, and we will treasure those weekend and semester breaks when our daughter deigns to visit us. Nevertheless, we will also be appreciative to have our own couple space again. For the truth is that no matter how much you love your children, you don’t own them. At best, you only rent them. The rent is very high, and the work to raise them is often hectic and at times overwhelming. You know you won’t have turned out a perfect young adult, but perhaps on reflection you can say you did pretty well. You realize, it’s okay to have this loved, cherished and sometimes annoying person spend a couple decades with you and then let them go. It may feel more traumatic than natural, but it is natural.

The parenting role is never entirely over, but a transition is underway which is ultimately good for both parent and offspring. It is as it should be. The new silence in our house is a bit peculiar, but it feels sort of welcoming and well deserved.

I plan to sleep in very late on Saturday.

 
The Thinker

Fathers are necessary

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe the word “marriage” should be reserved for a legal covenant between two people of opposite sexes only. Curiously, polls also show a majority of Americans are comfortable with two same sex partners having all the privileges of marriage as long as they don’t call it marriage. What is the difference anyhow?

As best I can figure out, same sex couples figure the difference is like having “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites. Calling a legal relationship a different name when it is the same in every other way but the sex of the participants in their eyes suggests that their relationship is not as worthy of sanction as those between two people of opposite sexes. It’s like getting a silver medal when you earned the gold. For many heterosexuals, I think what really makes “marriage” a special word is that traditional marriages come with the potential of parenthood and this is special enough to make the distinction unique.

Not any more, obviously. My wife is a friend of a lesbian couple and one of the wives is pregnant. Naturally, she did not invite a male to have intercourse with her; a willing donor provided semen, which she obtained from her local sperm bank. Most kids get only one mother. This one will have two, which is twice as much of a blessing, I guess. What is noticeably absent though is the father. Does the absence of a father deprive the child of something important? For that matter, does the absence of a mother also deprive the child of something important? Do two mothers equal one mother and one father? Do two fathers equal one mother and one father?

These were questions I didn’t know I was struggling with until last night. After our traditional Thanksgiving Dinner featuring a potpourri of friends and family, the topic of two same sex parents came up. At our table were many of my wife’s friends from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I was washing dishes and minding my own business but listening to their conversation. As it turns out, I am perfectly okay with gay marriage. I think any two people of legal age who want to get married should have the privilege. They can have “I’m married” stamped on their foreheads if they want to and I would have no problem calling them Mrs. and Mrs. Jones or Mr. And Mr. Smith. Where I have some hesitation is when it comes to two people of the same sex raising their own children together. Is it a good or a bad idea?

Before I knew it, I had joined the conversation and stated an opinion that for me seemed almost right wing. Since the topic was in the context of two women, I said I thought the presence of a strong father figure was important for raising a healthy child. The same is true with a mother, of course. As proof, I pointed to the District of Columbia where black fathers living at home are almost an extinct species. Single mothers are raising the vast majority of black children in D.C., sometimes with the assistance of their grandmothers because the fathers long ago abandoned the mother. In D.C., a black child is lucky to see his real father on occasion, and even luckier if he is actually providing child support. Many of these youth have no idea who their father is, or if they do, their only memory of him is a distant one.

What is the impact of being nurtured without a strong father figure? Arguably, at least in D.C., it is devastating. How many of these youths who are currently doing drugs and getting involved in gangs would be doing so if they had a father in the household? It is hard to say for sure because I doubt there is much clinical research. I do think it is reasonable to assume that the incidence would be much lower.

I have not had the privilege of having a son, but I do have a daughter. I do know there are plenty of studies that suggest the presence of a strong father figure is a critical factor among those girls who grow into leadership roles as adults. I am not entirely sure how much of my daughter was shaped by my presence and nurturing these last twenty years, but it must be a large amount. How could it not? How would my daughter be different if my wife had been a lesbian instead, had been in a gay marriage, had been artificially inseminated and raised her with her loving partner of the same sex? Would something important be missing from my daughter as a result? Perhaps I overvalue my role as a father, but my guts says yes: a good father is necessary in raising happy and healthy children of any gender, as just as it is important for a child to also have a nurturing mother.

Obviously there are many bad marriages out there. There is no guarantee when two people get married and have babies that they will have the right stuff to raise their children into healthy, sane and productive adults. My suspicion is that children raised in dysfunctional marriages are probably healthier without that stress. With roughly half of marriages dissolving, one would have to assume the odds for children in traditional marriages are at best 50/50. Many, many factors influence children throughout childhood and adolescence, but it would seem obvious that parents are their primary influences. The health of the marital relationship should correlate closely to the likelihood of raising mentally healthy and fully functional children. That seems to be true on my block, where I spent the last sixteen years. The adult children who are now doing best tend to be from families with strong and nurturing parents. The struggling children seem to be from those that were rife with marital discord.

Like it or not, children will inculcate behavior modeled by their parents. My question: is there is something critical about having parents of the opposite sex to raising healthy children? Today, gay and lesbian couples no longer have to feel like parenting is off limits to them. What we do not really understand yet is what the long-term effects of children being raised by same sex couples will be. A correlation is made harder because there are so many bad traditional marriages out there too. It appears that even though I have some concerns that children raised by same sex couples may be missing something important (although I am not entirely sure what it is) it is happening nonetheless, and social scientists over the coming decades will have an opportunity to study its effects.

It could be that a child is raised by two people of the same sex will do just fine if both are positive and nurturing influences in their lives. They may grow up to be more tolerant people than they otherwise would be, which sounds like a good thing. Sons though may need to observe and pick up crucial male bonding behaviors from their fathers. It may be that the absence of this factor makes them less functional in society compared with others raised in traditional marriages. The problem is less acute for girls, since the number of men in gay marriages raising girls is much smaller.

I do know that in the District of Columbia, we seem to be raising an angry and dysfunctional generation of young men and women. There may be many factors causing this horrendous outcome, and poverty is certainly one factor, but the lack of strong and healthy male authority figures in these households is obvious. The problems in these communities were not nearly as bad when there were more intact marriages among African Americans. To me it seems reasonable to infer that if this can happen among African Americans, it can happen within any ethnic community.

The example in D.C. suggests to me that when it comes to parenting, we should proceed with caution. Our children should not necessarily become victims of a vast social experiment because newly liberated gay and lesbian couples also want to raise their own biological children. We do not fully understand the nature of nurturing, but I strongly suspect is not solely a feminine or a masculine thing. The masculine element exhibited in the role of a father seems to also be critical, for both boys and girls.

The cry to save the word “marriage” may at its root be nothing more than an inchoate feeling among many of us that we are playing with dynamite. The lessons in D.C. and many inner city communities ought to be red flags for us to think through the consequences of our actions before plunging headlong into them.

 
The Thinker

You and your kids need flu shots

According to recent polls, more than a third of parents say they are unlikely to have their children vaccinated against the H1N1 (Swine) flu, which is now raging across the United States. This news comes despite other polls where fully three quarters of Americans agree this flu is a serious national health problem.

As a parent, I have to shake my head. These parents are either wacked out, dreadfully misinformed or simply don’t give a damn about their children’s health. I will go with the assumption that most parents love their children, so I will assume most fall into the “dreadfully misinformed” category. Who knows what paranoid fantasies these parents are conjuring up about this shot? Perhaps they are thinking their kid will be like that 14-year old girl in England who died after getting vaccination for the HPV virus. They might have missed the evidence that her death was wholly unrelated to the vaccination. Or maybe these parents are just paranoid tea-baggers, convinced that the government is intent on killing their kids. This may be a sizeable crowd but I would still have to lump these into the “wacked out” category.

Some others may have heard that you can catch the flu from getting a flu shot. Now this is possible, though unlikely. You are only at risk if you opt for the nasal spray rather than an injection. To work, the nasal spray must use a live (but mutated) virus. It is unlikely you will notice anything, but if you do, you are most likely to get mild cold symptoms. On the other hand, it could also be that you just happened to contract some other flu or cold at the same time.

However, if you get the flu shot in your arm, you will be injected with a dead virus, which means there is no possible way it could give you the flu. Nor can it happen to your children. They may not like the momentary sting of the injection but that is a silly excuse not to get them a shot, and borders on child abuse.

What we do know is that H1N1 flu affects children and young adults disproportionately. They are much more likely to get it, and they are much more likely to have a more severe case than the rest of us. I have had two cases of it in the class I teach at a local community college, and in both cases, the student was out for more than a week. I know a few adults who have had H1N1 and they reported mild fevers and a quick recovery. It is believed that this is because the virus is similar to one that went around three decades ago, so they have a partial resistance. In any event, this flu is now definitely in the pandemic stage. It exists in most communities of any significant size. In many communities, hospitals are setting up triage tents outside the hospital to deal with the deluge of cases. It is expected to peak over the next month or so and then slowly taper off. The only real question is whether the flu will get to you before you can get the shot. That depends on your carefulness and how fast (or whether you choose) to avail yourself of a flu shot.

I have a good reason to delay getting a flu shot. Because I am middle aged, if I do contract it, it is likely to be mild for me. Although I hate the flu, I would be happy to let young adults, children, pregnant women and other highest-risk groups get their shot before me. (At 52, I have reached the age where I am at some risk of death from the flu, so an annual flu shot is recommended.) What I do know is that there is a shot available for every man, woman and child in the United States. It’s already paid for. If you get the shot from your local doctor or drug store they may charge you a small administrative fee, but it won’t be for the shot itself. They will receive it for free. If you are bothered by an administrative fee, assuming it is charged at all, make an appointment with a local public health clinic and get it free there instead.

There are other specious worries about this flu shot. For example, some worry that because it was manufactured outside the United States the quality control will be bad. This is not a problem. The FDA has a long established process of rigorously monitoring vaccine production. The vaccine is outsourced mainly because our drug companies say it’s not profitable enough for them to manufacture it. Frankly, you have a much higher likelihood of being hit by lightning than being the victim of a badly manufactured flu shot. I wish our food supply were as well regulated as our flu shots. We’d never have to worry about getting sick from E. coli or other nasty bugs.

Others simply trust to luck. They figure they won’t get it, so why get a shot? And if they are lucky, surely it must rub off on their kids too! The problem with this philosophy is that it is stupid. Just because you don’t get it this year doesn’t mean you won’t get it, or a variant of it, in the future. Moreover, flu shots help you build up a natural resistance to these and other common bugs. As I found out, the flu typically puts you out of commission for a week or so. In many cases, it also puts you in the hospital (and leaves you responsible for hefty hospital bills). In extreme cases, it can kill you. Ordinary influenzas kill about 20,000 Americans a year, or about 55 people a day. Through October 3rd, the Centers for Disease Control reports 147 pediatric deaths from the flu, most attributable to the H1N1 virus. Are you willing to let your child be another victim when you can prevent it at no or little cost?

I already have scheduled my annual flu shot for next Thursday. Fortunately, my employer provides it free of charge at our convenient clinic. It makes sense for them to do so; this way I am more likely to stay productive. As soon as I can get a H1N1 flu shot without impacting those who need it more, I will get it as well.

Once upon a time, I was childless and stupid too. I trusted to luck until the flu took me out of commission for a week. When it did, I vowed if I could get a flu shot once a year, I would. Not only was the experience humbling and scary, it had a huge impact on my life. Not only did my work suffer, but many others had to pick up my slack while I was down. Not all influenzas are preventable but many are. Prevention requires mindfulness that to a virus you are no one special, just another host to breed baby viruses. If you can get the shot, be proactive and schedule it every year. Also, do common sense things like wash your hands regularly.

Of course, our precious children should not be allowed to opt out of the shot. They are supposed to be guided by loving and responsible parents. If the polls are right, at least where it comes to their children’s health, more than a third of America’s parents are being irresponsible.

Don’t let your kids or yourself be one of the statistics, dead or suffering pain needlessly when it is cheap, convenient and wholly preventable to avoid it. Get the whole family immunized. Perhaps you can do it all at the same time, so when your children become adults they will see the flu shot as an ordinary and important part of raising a healthy family.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 9: So you want to be a parent

This is the ninth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Young adult, you may think that it would be fun and inspiring to have a little baby of your very own bouncing on your knee. There is no question that little babies can be awfully darn cute and that parenting can be a very fulfilling role. Arguably, there is no calling nobler or more daunting than being a parent. The survival of our species literally depends on the willingness of people like you to procreate.

Parenting though is far more than procreating. You should be willing to hang in there for eighteen years, but the reality is that eighteen years is just a start. You need to be able to make a lifelong commitment to your child. You may ditch your spouse at some point but you must never ditch your child. Your child will always need you on some level, even when they are middle aged like me and carry a paunch around their waist.

Being a father or mother is not that hard. It can take as little time as thirty seconds to start the process. Being a parent on the other hand is the ultimate roller coaster ride, and to succeed in parenting you have to hold on until you are dead. My father is age 81 and he is still teaching me lessons. Granted when your child is age thirty or so the work tends to go down quite a bit, but do not assume that at some point you will be all done. Parenting is a lifelong commitment based on a unique and unselfish bond of love.

It is understood that these days parenting is optional. This means you do not have to be a parent, but if you choose to have sex then you better use protection or be sterilized. Do not depend on the rhythm method. Many of those parents who did try it found out, like mine, that it did not work all that great. I am the fifth of eight Catholic children. No form of contraception is foolproof. Even vasectomies have been known to reverse themselves all on their own. Here are the only ways known to guarantee you will not be a parent:

  • Women can have their ovaries and uterus removed
  • Men can have their testes removed
  • Celibacy

A prerequisite for parenting should be to first have your own cat or dog. It does not matter which, but if you cannot make a ten or fifteen year commitment to an animal that only needs you part time, you should not be a parent. If after a couple months or years you find yourself taking Fido or Mittens to the animal shelter, it is time to be sterilized. You should not be a parent.

Assuming you pass the first test, there are two things to think about before getting into the parenting business. The first you will hear at your local Planned Parenthood and is absolutely true: every child should be a wanted child. If you do not really really want to be a parent, you just should just say no. The second is a corollary of the first: you must have a realistic capability to raise your child to at least the same standard of living as you now enjoy. The consequence of the latter point means that your life and job needs to be reasonably settled and you have the means to care for the child. This also means you must have a job that has health insurance.

Here is how the parenting experience will be for you: I haven’t a clue. Parenting is life’s ultimate crapshoot and it can explode all over your face. If you think about it logically, no one would ever be a parent because the odds that you will screw up your child are too large. Moreover, you will screw up your child. The only question is the degree that you will screw them up. You will screw them up for two reasons: you are not perfect and your child will not be perfect either. Actually there is a third reason: you have never been a parent before. You can and should get parenting education before you have a child, but each parenting experience is unique. Just as you can improve the odds that you can drive a car by reading the instruction manual first, parenting education will tell you what you need to do. It will not do much to help you deal with the stresses and feelings that come with being a parent. Some things cannot be taught but can only be experienced.

Parenting can be simulated. I applaud those schools that simulate parenting by giving you a simulated baby to carry around for a few days. They are programmed to wake you up at inconvenient times around the clock and you have to do certain things to make it happy. A few days of this makes most teenagers want to defer parenthood for years. Of course, this kind of inconvenience is the easy part, because you also have to attend to the costs of having a child. If I were dictator, as a requirement for a high school diploma I would require the successful completion of a parenting course. It would include a week spent in a day care center changing poopie diapers and dealing with children going through their terrible twos.

I am probably making parenting sound like a real bummer. It can be. As I said, parenting is a roller coaster ride, full of many extremes. There are awful bone-crushing lows. There are also exhilarating highs. Strangely enough, there are also placid periods. Things rarely stay the same for long though. Children grow too quickly. Most parents have zero time for reflection because they are too busy dealing with the reality of life with children. That is why I am helping you out by giving you time to reflect now.

I am almost nineteen years into my parenting experience. In two days, my daughter sits down for her first college course. My parenting journey is not over yet by any means, but I have come to some tentative conclusions. It has been said many times before but it is true: parenting can be (but is not necessarily) the most rewarding and selfless thing you can do in life. I can guarantee one thing: it will be the biggest learning experience of your life. After experiencing it first hand, you should feel something like awe at your own parents. Maybe they screwed you up a bit but as you will experience just hanging in there at all borders on the miraculous.

You will never know for sure if you are cut out at the parenting business, but once you have started there is no going back. A child will pull you in more directions than you can possibly imagine. Most parents though adapt with time. You may find it easier to go with the flow. Be pragmatic and just accept that your universe is being fundamentally reordered. A relaxed attitude with your children, if you can manage it with all the inevitable chaos, is probably healthy for you and the child. Children know when they are loved, and if so they will respect you and accommodate you.

When the bulk of parenting is behind you, if you are lucky, the experience becomes somewhat nostalgic. I love my nearly nineteen-year-old daughter very much, but I cherish my memories of her at certain ages more than others. In my opinion, age four was my best year of parenting. There are times when I wish children could be like pets that stay at the ideal age forever. For better or for worse, they keep maturing. Therefore, I cherish those memories of our 4 AM feedings alone in the library while I watched the fog roll in out the window. I cherish reading Dr. Seuss to her as a child and feeling her snuggle close in my arms and her eyes light up with the story. I cherish seeing her perform in her first school play. As a parent, you have a unique privilege: to witness first hand the development of a child from birth to adulthood. They will not remember most of it, particularly the early years, but you will. With luck near the end of the experience, you will say with satisfaction, “I wasn’t a perfect parent, but I did a good job, and I consistently loved my child.” It should be that and “Whew! What a ride!”

 
The Thinker

Advice I dare not utter

I will be as discreet and obscure as possible in this post. It is possible but extremely unlikely that its subjects will read this post. I am willing to take that risk because I feel better saying my peace at last somewhere. If I cannot utter it aloud, then I can at least write it somewhere. A blog is probably the appropriate place. Moreover, by publishing it here perhaps some will see themselves and do a midcourse correction.

I acknowledge that I, like most people, have huge blind spots. Particularly when it comes to parenting, my experience has been mixed, as has been documented in blog posts like this one. Every child is unique and no one style of parenting will fit all children. I like to think I have been a good father but I can hardly be objective. There is no real measure of successful parenting, but our daughter, age 18, seems reasonably well adjusted. As best I can tell, she harbors no particular grudges toward either my wife or I. We get along well and still do things as a family. We talk freely and exchange regular hugs. Our daughter does not smoke, do drugs or hang around with bikers named Thor. While it is too early to say for sure, I suspect we are doing better than most parents are. Our daughter is unlikely to be an Ivy League scholar, but I see nothing that would lead me to believe she will not eventually find her way into a successful, meaningful and independent life. I am sure she will have challenges and slip-ups on her own path. After all, as I once noted, failure is extremely useful, providing you learn from the experience.

Having given all the requisite disclaimers, both my wife and I knew this girl was going to have issues from the start. It was not because she was a particularly unusual child; it was because her parents had adopted parenting styles that left us both alarmed. A few years after their daughter was born they paid us a visit. We prepared a nice meal for their family only to find out that, well, C would not eat it. You see, C only likes X and Y, and not just any X and Y but X made with brand Q and Y made with brand R, which meant that Mom had to run to the local Giant and stock up on C’s special food. Moreover, it had to be prepared by Mom is a certain way and cut just so. Then she would eat it. She might even finish it.

She was not beyond getting the occasional timeout, but she was allowed unusual freedom for a young girl. For example, it was okay for her to use crayons on the walls, provided they were washable crayons. Her Mom would simply come by with a sponge every once in a while and remove her markings.

As for affection, the good news is that her parents loved her. The bad news is that her parents loved her. Gosh, how they loved her, devoting their complete attention to her whenever she made the smallest request, always in a cheerful voice, always in a tone that sounded like half baby talk and always with lots of hugs and kisses. As for praising her, they excelled in that. She was nurtured with the finest children’s toys that they could find. She had every childhood opportunity to explore her creative side. Hand me downs were not for her. God forbid she should wear clothes from a Wal-Mart. They shopped in stores like Baby Gap instead. She was trained by her mother to be a clotheshorse.

She is a naturally brilliant person, perhaps helped by her parents’ genetics. Her father has a PhD. Throughout school she excelled and routinely brought home all A’s. Mom and Dad were thrilled. She was lavished with praise and privileges.

Eventually she reached her teenage years and expressed the usual interest in the opposite sex. Suddenly, Mom and Dad who had been so encouraging were watching her like a hawk instead. She was kept out of the dating pool until she reached what she felt was an advanced age. They made sure she was closely chaperoned and were very strict with her curfews. She did not seem to mind too much. She filled her bedroom to overflowing with stuffed animals and furry cats and lived in what seemed like an extended childhood, if not infancy. Thanks to her excellent scholastics, she earned a full scholarship to a state university. Her parents bought her a brand new car so she could commute to class.

C is now twenty. She lives in her own apartment that she shares with a longhaired boy about her age. This longhaired boy though is a step up from the last one, a true bad boy James Dean type. Perhaps that is some small sign of progress. She still has her scholarship but since her parents did not approve of her lifestyle choices, they repossessed her car and ended all financial assistance. She gets by on her scholarship and a part time job. She works as a waitress in a restaurant that features nearly naked women who poll dance. Her mother and father spend much of their waking hours distressed over their daughter’s choices and hoping she will see the light. She showed up briefly in their house for Thanksgiving and Christmas but her estrangement is obvious.

They have not asked for my advice so I have given them none except for one small suggestion: if her daughter would consent to it, they might want to try family therapy. I have no idea if this will happen or not. Other than that, I simply offered them a shoulder to cry on should they need it and bite my tongue.

Here is what I would tell them if it were my place. There is a reason that your daughter is hanging out with men you do not approve of. There is a reason she is working as a waitress in a topless joint instead of at a Burger King. There is a reason she seems to go for bad men. It is because the two of you modeled the plastic parenting of Ward and June Cleaver combined with the 1960s “freedom to be the person you want to be”. The result was toxic. Mostly you smothered and micromanaged her. You wanted her to grow up to be like you and emulate your values. You were directing strong parental rays at her that said, “You must grow up to be a syrupy and surreal adults just like us.” Only, she could not utter her horror at the idea aloud. She did not know how and you were so nice all the time that she would feel like a heel if she did.

She is a young adult now. She can do what she wants and what she really wants to do is make you feel the pain she repressed because she was smothered, overly praised and micromanaged through her childhood and adolescence. Moreover, her actions, no matter how much they appall you, are necessary for her to find out who she is. She is finding herself by trying on a lifestyle that bears little resemblance to the one she knew. That is why she is attracted to bad boys.

How long will this go on? It will go on probably until you treat her as a human being who has dignity and not just the right, but your permission to make her own choices. It is obvious you do not agree with her choices. She is feeding off your energy and anxiety. Her life will probably look a lot like it currently is until you come to grips with a few things. You cannot change the way you raised her. However, you can love her.

You can love her by neither condemning nor approving of her behavior. You can love her by loving her in a way that will be meaningful to her: expressing unqualified and compassionate love for her and by acknowledging that despite the best intentions, you probably made some major mistakes raising her. Right now, your love has all sorts of strings, implicit and explicit, attached to it. She is discovering what it is like to not be like you, but she still does not know who she really is. To find her real self, you can help by lowering the voltage. You do this by both letting her make her own choices and turning off the parental guilt rays. If asked, express confidence that while her adult life may not be as you modeled it for her, she will always be okay and loved in your eyes.

My belief is that after a couple years of this she will likely lose her attraction to bad boys. She will move from rebellion into true personhood. You need to give up the role of being her parent. If you are lucky though and can win back her respect then there may come a time when you can be her coach. A coach does not make choices for someone, but helps them think through various alternatives and encourages them to be their best. This is the proper role for a parent of a 20-year-old young woman. When you decide you care more about your daughter as a person than that she model your values, that is when your relationship will truly begin to heal.

 
The Thinker

A birth experience (1989)

This blog entry was written before there were blogs, or even a web browser. In fact, the Internet was largely unknown when this was written. Its closest equivalent at the time was an entity called Compuserve. It was written in January 1990, approximately four months after my daughter Rosie was born, when I was still very sleep deprived from all her midnight feedings. Somehow, I found the time to write down the story of her birth, with the intention of making sure she finally read it by the time she became an adult. It existed on my home page but like most children, she never bothered to look at my home page, so she never read it. I wanted to make sure that she did read it eventually, so I slightly revised it and presented it to her last Friday on the occasion of her entry into adulthood, her 18th birthday. Here it is.

Our daughter Rosalind was born on Thursday, September 28th, 1989. I wanted to capture my own memories of her birth while the images were still fresh in my mind. I am doing this as a gift for Rosie. I hope someday when Rosie is old enough she will appreciate reading about her birth. So, Rosie, this is my gift to you, though it may not be read for fifteen or twenty years.

Pregnancy

First, I want to tell you how I felt about you, your mother and the whole pregnancy process. You were conceived, we think, on January 9th, 1989. You were certainly conceived in love. Our original plans for 1989 were to consider having you sometime the following year. Your mother did not want to be pregnant during a typical hot Washington summer. We wanted a final memorable year as a couple. We had plans for a driving tour of New England for the summer. Neither of us regrets having you. We both were ready to have you. I was 32. Your mother was 29. We had been together for more than five years, and had been married for more than three years.

We discovered your mother was pregnant in late January. A home pregnancy test kit showed that she was not just a little pregnant with you, but very pregnant. Any shade of blue in the test tube would have indicated pregnancy. Your presence was a deep, dark shade of blue.

For your mother pregnancy was a nuisance, a pain, a joy and more, all at once. I managed to stay fairly cerebral through the entire pregnancy. I found myself treating your arrival in rather abstract terms. My main concerns were financial. I was not sure how we were ever going to be able to afford you and a house at the same time. I had just changed jobs a few weeks before you were conceived and I was not at all sure I liked the job. Now suddenly my wife was pregnant and I had to make sure we had the resources to afford you when you came. We did without a lot of our usual luxuries in 1989. We saved our money. A lot of pet projects never got done. The built in bookcases in the library never materialized. A new vanity in our bathroom also suffered under the budget ax. But by the time you were born we had several thousand dollars in a baby fund to make sure we did have the money we needed to care for you.

We also busied ourselves lining up childcare for you. There was never much of a question of whether or not we would have to send you to day care. Your mother would have to go back to work since it took two salaries just to keep up payments on the house and car. In the Washington area at that time the general wisdom was it was never too early to sign up for childcare. Childcare was difficult to find, and very expensive if it could be found at all. And it was particularly hard to find someone who would take an infant. After a babysitter across the street moved out of town, we decided to put you in PALS Early Learning Center, where you started in day care. To give you some idea of how difficult it was to find day care we had to put a deposit for you at PALS back in May, more than 4 months before you were born.

We also both were careful to monitor your mother’s diet. I nagged your mother constantly to eat healthier foods and I made sure she got several large glasses of milk a day. It worked. You came out a big, healthy baby. In a way, we were busy parenting you long before you were born.

You should also know that while you were in the womb you were a very active baby. Many times during the day, you would continue kicking spells that would drive your mother to distraction. She enjoyed entertaining her friends by showing them the ripples from your kicks on her belly.

Toward the end of her pregnancy, things became very difficult. Your mother was hospitalized twice before you were born. The first time was in late August. She was sent to Fairfax Hospital to be monitored because she was contracting every two minutes. She had to take medicine every six hours for several weeks to stop the contractions. Although only in the hospital for several hours, it was a fright to both of us. Because of the rest, the doctor ordered for your mother, she was forced to stay home from work from that point on.

On another occasion, about two and a half weeks before you were born, the doctors were so concerned about your mother’s swelled ankles (an indication of possible toxemia) that they sent her to the hospital again. This time she spent a whole weekend there. For a while, it looked like she was in labor. The labor turned out to be false. A sonogram did reveal that you were a girl. Both of us were pleased at the thought.

Labor

Your mother’s labor did not start in earnest until shortly before three in the morning on your birthday. The night before your mother said she felt “funny”. I was very skeptical that this was the real thing, even while she sat in the bathroom passing large amounts of cervical mucus. You were still a week early and we had been through false labors before. And your mother had passed mucus before too. But your mother had little doubt. The contractions she was feeling were not only powerful, but painful, radiating down the sides of her body.

By four a.m. we were both concerned enough to call our Health Maintenance Organization, Kaiser Permanente. Your mother was experiencing contractions three to four minutes apart, but their duration did not usually exceed 45 seconds. Kaiser told us to call back when the duration lasted a minute. They never got that long. By the time they reached 50 seconds I called Kaiser again. Fifteen minutes later, they called back and told us to get her to the hospital. We were both feeling scared and relieved. Both of us were anxious for you to come into the world. Nine months seemed like forever; it was hard to believe that you would shortly be in our arms and we would have a family.

We left the house around 5:25 in the morning. There was a hint of the winter to come in the air. The windows to the Sprint were covered in a cold, heavy dew. A couple of more degrees and I would have had to scrape off a layer of ice off the car windows. We had little packing to do. The labor kit and hospital clothes were in separate bags. With the car primed with quarters for the toll plaza, we hurried down the beltway to Fairfax Hospital, where you were born. I remember being surprised to find so much traffic well before six in the morning.

We arrived at the hospital’s Emergency entrance just before six a.m. It was a fairly quiet at the hospital. I had imagined things were always hopping in Fairfax Hospital’s emergency room, but there were only a couple of people there. Leaving the car your mother discovered that her waters really had broken; her jeans were soaked. By six a.m., the wheelchair had arrived and she had been moved to the Maternity Ward. She was placed in Labor Room 2. Our excitement was tempered by having been through this twice before. Your mother joked with the nurses that this time she was really here to deliver a baby.

In the labor room, your mother was quickly immobilized. A fetal heart monitor was placed over her abdomen to monitor your heartbeat. But it seemed impossible for Fairfax Hospital to leave it at that. All sorts of tubes and needles went in and out of her body. There was an IV in one arm to keep up her blood sugar. A catheter. A strap across her abdomen to measure uterine contractions. An armband to automatically measure her blood pressure.

Your mother’s contractions became more difficult and closer together. Every hour a physician or nurse would come by to see how dilated she was. This is a measure of how wide her cervix was open. For a while, things went very well. Your mother was three centimeters dilated when she came in, and by noon had made it to five centimeters.

Around ten in the morning, the contractions got to be very hard and very painful. Your mother really wanted to have you using natural childbirth techniques we learned in Lamaze class. As her coach, it was my responsibility to work her through a series of breathing exercises that were supposed to lessen the pain. Even with all the practice, it was tough to use these techniques during actual labor. Contractions continued every three to four minutes. It was hard for her to sustain that level, especially since she had not been allowed to eat at all. Her obstetrician, Dr. Henry Grimm, recommended that she be given an anesthesia and your mother finally agreed. She was given an epidural. This is administered with a needle that was placed near the bottom of the spine. The relief was nearly instantly apparent. Instead of an exhausted wife with a pained look on her face, your mother seemed very normal, almost as if she wasn’t it labor. I was glad to see her out of pain. She read the paper and worked on crossword puzzles.

Still, there was reason for concern. As the afternoon began, Dr. Grimm became concerned because your mother was “stalling”. Thanks to a new internal fetal monitor (attached directly to your head through the birth canal) and internal uterine contraction device we discovered that labor was no longer progressing. Your mother had stalled at 5 centimeters dilation and her contractions didn’t look like they were going to be powerful enough to push you out. To complicate matters your temperature and heart rate were going up too, since you had lost all the amniotic fluid when your mother’s waters broke. By three p.m., it became clear that labor would have to be induced. We conferred with Dr. Grimm who recommended that you be delivered by Cesarean Section. This meant that you would be delivered through the abdomen rather than the birth canal. We were both upset with the idea because we both wanted you to be born naturally. By four p.m., we agreed that a C-section was the way that you would have to come into the world. In one way, I was relieved. I knew that this long pregnancy process would soon be over, and that we would have you in our arms. At that point I think even your mother was relieved that labor would come to an end.

Delivery

It didn’t take too long to prepare. There was a short wait since someone else was ahead of your mother in the operating room. I was instructed to get my “scrubs” from the nursing station. I ran back to the Father’s dressing room and put on my outfit. The mask seemed to fog up my glasses every time I exhaled. By five p.m. your mother was being wheeled into the delivery room.

I had to sit out in the cold hallway for some time while your mother was prepared. She had to be given more anesthesia. Now she could feel no sensation at all below her waist. After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only ten minutes, I was allowed into the operating room. I found her just about ready to be opened, and in good spirits. Your mother was joking with the nurses and anesthetist.

It turned out that I had a much better view of your birth than your mother did. They put up a little border that kept her from seeing pretty much of anything. I took my station by her head and gave running commentary. I expected to perhaps be a little sick but never even got lightheaded.

The room was bright, but cold. The air conditioner was down way too low. It felt like it was sixty degrees. There was a machine that made an annoying squeak every couple of seconds. The doctors and nurses worked quickly. I made a point of not trying to see too much, but I watched as they cut into your mother, first on her outer skin, and then into the uterine muscle itself. They used a clamp to pull her skin apart. I remember being surprised at how tough her skin was. They were pulling her apart with the force of two people having a taffy pull. There followed more cutting and more pulling and more clamping and more annoying sounds from the squawking machine. The nurse called out your heart rate and your mother’s blood pressure.

For a moment, they could not even find you. “She’s much further down than I expected,” I remember Doctor Grimm saying and I watched his gloved hand go deep into your mother’s abdomen. I tried to report what I saw to your mother but there wasn’t much to see. The hand went in and out a few times and I could see blood on the doctor’s glove. The machine with the squawk still made its annoying sound.

“She’s a big kid,” the doctor said and he now worked rather quickly. He pulled up with both his hands suddenly and there you were, or rather, your head. All I could see was a head covered with a lot of hair. So far, you were silent, but you seemed very pissed.

“I can see the head,” I told your mother. “Black hair.”

And then, quickly, with a loud squish and you were out. You almost seemed like an albino you were so white, which made your black hair all the more starting. “The baby’s out,” I told your mother. My own heart was racing and I found myself suddenly on the edge of tears.

I watched as they clamped the umbilical cord and then severed it. You spoke; you cried. “You have a little girl,” the nurse said. Somehow, I snapped a picture. In an instant before even your mother could see you they had pulled you over to a side table. They gave you an APGAR test (to measure your physical strength) and put you on the scale. Somehow, I took another picture as they weighed you. “Nine pounds and one ounce the nurse said.” You were crying. Your irregular but persistent little shrieks filled the room. Instantly a lump formed in my throat and I found tears in my eyes.

It’s hard to describe the power of those few minutes. Nothing really prepared me. Perhaps it is so powerful because it is nature’s way of preparing the father for the considerable work ahead. There is this overwhelming feeling of joy, such as I’ve never known and have never experienced since. At the same time I felt such a pity for you, being newborn, and the pain and difficult times that were ahead. And I felt more than a little terror, for neither of us were certain we were up to the challenge of parenthood. From a biological point of view, this was a climax, for we had succeeded in reproducing ourselves. Maybe it was this primal release I felt. All I wanted to do was to hold you in my arms and tell you I love you. But for the moment I could not do that. Instead, they wrapped you tightly in a receiving blanket and you were brought down next to your mother. There were tears in her eyes too as she saw you for the first time. “Oh, she is so beautiful,” your mother kept saying. And then, it could hardly have been a moment, mother and baby were moved away from each other.

The doctors were already working hard stitching your mother back together. There were certain things that had to be done first, such as removing the placenta and any remaining amniotic fluid. There was no place for your mother to go, but they were about ready to take you into the post labor room. “I’ve got to go with the child.” I told your mother. “One of us should be with her.” Your mother understood and I hurried as I followed you into the nursery just down the hall. You cried all the way.

Recovery

A nurse immediately took over. You were not happy at all about what was happening to you, but they took excellent care of you. There was so much that you needed to have done so quickly. You were cleaned up, not well enough to remove all of the cheesy material that was on you, but enough to get the amniotic fluid off. They put a vitamin cream in your eyes. Using a razor blade, they made a small cut in the heel of your right foot and got some blood samples. They also put a thin tube down your windpipe and removed an impressive amount of fluids from your lungs. You could hardly breathe without coughing. You screamed at the indignity of it, but within minutes, you seemed far better.

Finally, gratefully, you calmed down. You had the warmth of a heat lamp above you to bring your body temperature up to normal. And your eyes were open, but just a sliver. Perhaps you could tell there was light out there; I doubt you could see much else even if all that cream hadn’t been in your eyes.

Me? I was making a blathering idiot out of myself. After being instructed to wash my hands with a special soap, I was allowed to touch you. I touched your hand, gingerly at first and you instinctively grabbed it. I kept saying, through my tears, “It’s all right, Rosie” and “There’s nothing to worry about. Daddy’s here and Daddy love’s you.” The nurse asked if I was all right. I told her I would eventually calm down.

After being stitched up, your mother was moved into the recovery room, which was just across the hall from the nursery. I kept running back and forth between you and her, hoping that your body temperature would get high enough so that you could come across the hall and be with your mother. Eventually they wheeled you across the hall for a visit. You were very quiet and taking in your new environment with a very intense look on your face. Your mother got to see you for a good long time. We could not believe how beautiful and small you were. Your mother made some phone calls: collect to her Mom, to Jane, to Aunt Sharon. The word went out that we had a new Rosie in the family.

Your First Days

You were born on a Thursday but your mother was not released from the hospital until Monday morning. You spent most each day next to your mother in her hospital room, and spent the night in the nursery down the hall. We learned how to feed you and how to change you. Your mother offered you her breast, which you took, but it was still too soon for her to produce milk. Within a day, a flush had come over your face; for about a day you looked like a sunburned Indian. But by Sunday the flush was gone and you were a happy, healthy pink little baby again. You came home from the hospital Monday morning. Grandpa and Busia arrived that night and stayed for a week while we settled into our new roles as parents.

That is your story, as I recall it. It is now nearly four months after your birth. You have kept us so incredibly busy that I have tried to finish this many times and have not been able to. But you are growing sweeter and more gentle every day. You see the world with exploratory eyes now, and you smile and love as if it were instinctive. We have endured many sleepless nights, but you are worth it. Now you are becoming a bit more controllable. You feel a part of the family. It makes me feel so happy that you feel this way. We love you Rosie. Happy birthday!

Love,

Dad

 

Switch to our mobile site