fatherhood

Mister Rogers And Parental Anger


“I received a letter from a parent who wrote:

‘Mister Rogers, how do you do it? I wish I were like you. I want to be patient and quiet and even-tempered, and always speak respectfully to my children. But that just isn’t my personality. I often lose my patience and even scream at my children. I want to change from an impatient person to a patient one, from an angry person into a gentle one.’

Just as it takes time for children to understand what real love is, it takes time for parents to understand that being always patient, quiet, even-tempered, and respectful isn’t necessarily what “good” parents are. In fact, parents help children by expressing a wide range of feelings–including appropriate anger. All children need to see that the adults in their lives can feel anger and not hurt themselves or anyone else when they feel that way.”

– Fred Rogers, excerpt from the text of The World According To Mister Rogers: Important Things To Remember

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Living in a world where parents are constantly placing themselves and one another under a microscope, it’s refreshing to think on these words from the greatest of child (and parent) advocates. The most valuable asset we can impart to our children is the first-hand impression of a vulnerable adult facing their own inadequacies and growing through all sorts of positive and negative experiences.

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Further Reading

Wanna Change The World?

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, and the Importance Of Play

The Tragedy Of Having A Baby

How To Get Rid Of Faith

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Where Wendell Berry Finds Peace


When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things
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It is a thing of awe to consider how much more dangerous are the lives of wild animals, yet how void of fear they remain. Of course we understand that, biologically-speaking, the ability to plan our futures and the resulting tendency toward worry is a product of the superior functionality of the human mind. Yes, of course, worry is a small price to pay for mental capacity toward so many other higher skills.

Yet, when we desire calm and peace, we venture out into the simple and violent natural world, where nothing is safe and peace pervades.

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Further Reading

What Mary Berry Expects Of Her Father

Dave Eggers On Author Fear

C.S. Lewis On Helping Children Cope With A Scary World

Two Year Olds Are Not Terrible


My second daughter (who is now a middle child!) turned two a couple of months ago. While she is extremely different from her older sister, there is one similarity between them that has struck me. Being a two year old is tough work for everyone, but it is emphatically NOT terrible.

Her older sister is a three-and-a-half-year-old dreamer. She’s barely aware of her physical surroundings; easily engrossed in cartoon worlds; always coming up with bizarre, creative ideas; and constantly singing, dancing, or talking about dragons, ghosts, and castles. She always forces me to be the princess and deems herself the king.

My newly established two-year-old is intensely opposite. She loves singing and dancing as well, but she is hyper aware of her physical surroundings and other people’s emotions, she would rather take a nap than watch Gummi Bears with us, and she gets great joy out of putting trash in the garbage or trying to help sweep the dining room floor.

When my older daughter got to be about two, we saw what people often see. An easily satisfied temperment gave way to something newly challenging, which people frequently call “terrible”. Our older daughter would become easily enraged. She had a difficult time learning to engage in communication about any point in contest. Any hint at disrupting her fun, even accidental, would provide kindling for a quick melt-down. In helping her grow, we had to learn to temper our discipline and patience with intentional efforts to create communication and dialogue, both in and out of trouble situations.

My younger daughter is, of course, proving to be a very different person. When she gets in trouble, it’s often drastically different trouble from her older sister’s. She does not respond to interruption or correction by freaking out, but with a cold, hard stare of defiance. She seems to feel that she has been watching the world and adults long enough to understand how things should be done and she will not be easily dissuaded. She often gets bent out of shape when we attempt to help her with simple tasks like putting her shoes on the right feet. She wants to contribute and she wants to do so on her own terms.

Something in a child changes when they get to be about that age, and that something is developing personal desires for ideal outcomes. Children near the two year mark are becoming more fully human in that they are developing intuitions, tastes, preferences, and goals. They are learning to choose their emotions. They are beginning to do what everyone else ahead of them does every day until they die. They are making conscious decisions and gauging consequences.

Is a two year old terrible? No more than any adult. The transition that happens around two years is more drastic even than the transitions of puberty. A child is learning to have preferences, to plan ahead, and to believe in and build into their own identity and identities of others. Along with these stunningly beautiful core elements of being human comes a whole slew of misused emotional responses and improper judgements.

We parents are actually still learning what they have just begun. As a dad, I am still trying to learn to guide my children to make good decisions without making poor, emotionally-driven decisions myself. At nearly 28 years old, I still have a tendency I picked up around two years old, a tendency to get so emotionally overwhelmed by the behaviors I can’t control in others that I act out of anger or exasperation. I try to be louder or prove I’m stronger-willed.

My kids are just starting to come to grips with the hopes, fears, dreams, and discouragements of being a human in this world. My older daughter isn’t even four yet and she’s gaining tons of ground in learning to communicate better, even with so many poor examples on our part. Recognizing these things helps me focus on who I’m led to be and leading others from that identity instead of focusing on forcing the appropriate responses of a two-year-old who is trying to learn not to be terrible at living.

I think that sums it up. Two-year-olds seem like a lot of work because they are becoming more like the rest of us. My two-year-old just woke up from her nap and brought me a couple of misplaced coat hangers that she expects me to put away appropriately, so I’m signing off!

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Further Reading

What Daughters Should Expect From Fathers

The Tragedy Of Childbirth

A Poem On War And Children

A Woman Is Not A Sex Machine: Modesty Is Built On Lies


I have a lot of friends who are really into modesty.

To be perfectly honest, I guess I err toward being pro-modesty myself. Ultimately, however, I think the concept is built on lies.

This blog post is supposedly about the stigma surrounding breastfeeding. That’s how it started out. My wife thought I should call it something like “Boobs Are For Babies: A Father’s Perspective On Breastfeeding.” I really like that idea (enough to include it here), but this issue has a far deeper root than being about comfort levels around someone exposed to nourishing a child. The only reason breastfeeding is an issue we need to talk about is that we have all accepted a much larger lie: the human body is meant for sexual use.

The human body obviously has a valuable sexual function; we can’t abandon that even when we think we should. The problem is that we have all bought into a hyper-sexualization of the human form. The pro-modesty crew are often some of the biggest proponents of the hyper-sexualization myth. I’m talking about those who get nervous about marble statues because they think any nude form must have been designed by ancients to insight mass arousal. Those of us who want to protect sexuality as a special thing while going along with the assumption that it is the main purpose of the human form are actually buying into a falsehood sold to us by both sides of generations of culture wars. Those who scream for sexual liberation make life out to be all about sex. Those who have screamed for censorship have agreed that human bodies are there to be used and we must lock them up for the appropriate context.

I’m telling you that there are thousands of non-sexual purposes for the human body, but that the human body is never a valid source for building an identity.

Whether we fight for sexual liberation or modesty, we actually accept the idea that everything always comes back to sex; it doesn’t. It might seem like it does in a photoshopped, air-brushed, sensory-overloading culture that is constantly pitch vague siren-songs on how to become perfectly satisfied. Even the most conservative among us tend to think of a marriage existing mainly for sex.

Public breastfeeding is awkward. It’s okay that we find it awkward. But our question at that point becomes “does this awkwardness mean that we should discourage the practice or that we should be very intentional about recognizing the valid purpose of the practice?” I would argue wholeheartedly that we should take this awkwardness as an opportunity to recognize that a breast is mainly a tool that gives a mother the opportunity to give life and strength from her own body into the body of her child. The greatest strength and beauty of a breast does not pull from sexual sources. Myth broken.

Loving other people’s physical bodies is really hard work, and it rarely has anything to do with sex. Changing thousands of diapers, bathing an elderly loved one, and helping a sickly spouse use the bathroom are all tasks that are a stronger form of physical love than sex. A form of cherishing a person’s form in their immense vulnerability. Becoming comfortable around breastfeeding is just one such task.

New mothers have a serious load of stress building up on their shoulders. Weird hormones, little sleep, milk supply issues, and who knows what else is keeping them at their wit’s end and ready to throw in the towel. In case you don’t realize it, breastfeeding is often very hard work. It taxes the body physically and doesn’t usually work without a great deal of struggle. Breastfeeding moms rarely desire to showcase their breast publicly, but they’re attempting to care for someone who is utterly defenseless and solely reliant on them.

Am I saying people should get comfortable staring at breastfeeders? Obviously not. Am I suggesting that moms shouldn’t show some sort of decorum according to their location? No.

Am I suggesting that things like lust and rape should be ignored or that they can simply be idealized away? No, we can’t avoid sexual deviations and we should stand against them. We should stand against them by seeing and valuing the body on a vastly wider spectrum.

Sex is a sacred thing, but the human body is more sacred than sex. We should be willing and able to become Good Samaritans regardless of the nakedness of those in need.

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Further Reading

What Daughters Should Expect From Fathers

The Tragedy Of Having A Baby

How My Wife Transformed From A Weak, Doubtful Girl Into A Nurturing Momma

The Tragedy Of Childbirth: If It Hurts, Embrace It


This morning, around 5:30, my wife gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy. This baby ended up coming 15 days after his original due date and was born at home, my wife’s first VBAC. Mother and child are both in absolutely wonderful, if exhausted, shape.

The 14 hours or so of labor were utterly depleting, surreal, and some of the most emotionally moving experiences I’ve partaken in. There are a few human experiences which draw out our character and beliefs through situational responses and participating in the birth of a child is one of the most moving and least discussed of these experiences.

I think we often shrug away from this sort of experience because of the amount of hope investment and lack of control available through such a trying time. People can argue statistics day and night about the safety and ethics of homebirth v. hospital birth or vaginal v. C-section, but in the end I think our prefered stance really comes out of our capability to accept life-threatening and potentially tragic situations without attempting to control them. No one wants to stand by and watch tragedy befall their loved ones, but it is a constant and real possibilty. While we understand a lot about the human body and how to “successfully” modify its efforts at the birthing process, the truth is that it knows what it’s up to and often our attempts to improve upon its effects can just as easily thwart an ideal outcome.

So why do we insist upon an ever more informed and proactive approach? I would agrue that it is generally out of a fear of experiencing the emotional gravity of a situation out of our own control. We would rather trust a professional and work to create the outcome than trust fate or nature, though the professional always knows less than what the natural body is capable of.

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As we slowly labored through the evening and the night, we experienced all available emotions. My wife was eager then scared, prayerful and penitent, cursing her existence and submissive to God’s will. She prayed for strength at time and at other times she prayed to die. She accused us of lying to her and of not trying to help her. She was a wreck and then she was utterly calm. She kept believing that she was incapable of birthing and it would never happen. Overall and through this, she was like a warrior whose battle was within her own mind and body.

I was there to help her as best I could through every contraction. Even though I didn’t experience any on the birthing pain, I got a front row seat to see the physical aspects of the pain. I shared in all her emotional fears and more. The sheer exhaustion of physically fighting a body as it tries to work a baby out creates insanity. Mostly I assumed that all the midwives thought I was a terrible husband. At times I thought of telling my wife to suck it up. I wanted to run away because I knew I wasn’t good enough. I sat in awe of her resolve. I decided that she should have tried to deal with the pain more efficiently. I knew at some point that my muscles would literally give out. Overall, we both went back and forth between having hope and losing faith. We had times of trusting each other, the birthing process in her body, the midwives, and God. We also separately experienced times of condemning one another, the entire experience, the people we had chosen to rely on, and the will of God.

Human beings need these definitive experiences. We need to run marathons that we have invested our very lives in, completely draining and testing our commitments and our trust. We tend toward shallowness and half-hearted relations. We don’t want to experience hardships that test our true merits and expose out faults. Hardships might provide solid feedback and consequences.

Pushing ourselves to emotional, physical, and spiritual brinks provides us with increased strength and knowledge of the reality of our current beliefs and what we are fit to accomplish. My wife did more than either of us originally wanted her to or expected her capable of, and she showed herself to be a hero of mine. Our son’s life is the memorial of his mother’s strength.

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I’ll leave you with this transcript of a comment from comedian Louis C.K. on the value of experiencing emotions to their fullness instead of living in distraction.

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…

That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard. . .

(After hearing a song that brought back sad memories.)

And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’

And I let it come, and I just started to feel ‘oh my God,’and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.

And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.

The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die.”

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Related reading

How To Get Rid Of Faith

Our Decisions Make Lives

What Daughters Should Expect From Their Fathers

“II” by Wendell Berry


The poignancy of this poem is palpable. Alliteration.

Go check out jrbenjamin.com, ASAP.

The Bully Pulpit

Leaves

When my father was an old man, 
past eighty years, we sat together
on the porch in silence
in the dark. Finally he said, 
“Well, I have had a wonderful life,” 
adding after a long pause, 
“and I have had nothing
to do with it!” We were silent
for a while again. And then I asked, 
“Well, do you believe in the
‘informed decision’?” He thought
some more, and at last said
out of the darkness: “Naw!” 
He was right, for when we choose
the way by which our only life
is lived, we choose and do not know
what we have chosen, for this
is the heart’s choice, not the mind’s; 
to be true to the heart’s one choice
is the long labor of the mind. 
He chose, imperfectly as we must, 
the rule of love, and learned
through years of light what darkly
he had chosen: his life…

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The Tragedy Of Having A Baby


UPDATE!!!

My wife is 41+ weeks pregnant with our third child. Even though we’ve done this (twice) before, we are attempting a VBAC home-birth and we’ve both been running the full gamut of stressful and nervous emotions. All signs point toward a healthy and comfortable baby who just doesn’t want to come out yet(who can blame them?), but expecting to go into labor every hour for 3 weeks is exhausting.

The other day, after a solid cry session, my wife expressed again her current emotions in the constant waiting and said “I just feel like something bad has happened and I have to convince myself to be okay and bear it.” The truth is that anything we put significant hope in is a tragedy until it is fulfilled. It’s not tragic because we don’t want this baby, its tragic because we really, REALLY want this baby and we can’t do anything to get at it.

From a storytelling perspective, this makes a lot of sense. The goals that any characters hope toward and how their actions and fate play together are the plot of a strong story. The only difference between a traditional comedy and a tragedy is whether the hopes of the protagonist were eventually fulfilled. In a comedy he gets the girl and the happily-ever-after. In a tragedy he dies alone. Either way, the plot along the way is tinged with some level of fear that his hope is misplaced.

I think life should be full of these experiences. They suck pretty badly, but if we want to cultivate things like faith and hopefulness then we have to pour a lot of them out before we start seeing them rewarded. We live in a world that mostly let’s us down. Whether its the people we care for or the general negativity of circumstances, cultures, or political structures, we have more reasons to stop hoping and cut off faith in beauty and love and truth-acted-upon. But there is reason to hope, though we only do so in weakness now.

We’re pushing in to this idea. We’re recognizing the confusion and frustration and are choosing actively to have hope that we will look back in joy and laugh at what becomes a comedy in hindsight. We want ever stronger and stronger muscles of faith, persevering to trust in the truth regardless of attacks or whispers against it. As a farmer plants his seeds in the spring and watches the seasons change in eagerness, we have hoped and prayed toward this child’s birth and will continue to seek and find rest in the future healthy delivery of a son or daughter (we don’t know which!)

UPDATE!!!

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Further reading

What Daughters Should Expect From Their Fathers

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

What Christians Can Learn From Atheists

Mary Berry and What She Expects From Her Father


“It is hard to imagine now that until coming back to live permanently in Henry County in 1964 we had lived in Europe, California and New York City, with stays in Kentucky between those moves. We moved to Lanes Landing, where my parents live now, when I was 7 and my brother, Den, was 3. . .

Daddy was encouraged to seek his fame and fortune elsewhere; in fact, he was told that coming home would ruin his career. I don’t have to imagine, however, the great happiness that was his when he knew that he could come home because I experienced that. When I was away at school, for instance, I don’t think anyone was thinking that I was blowing a shot at a brilliant career by returning home. Coming home was not encouraged by any influential person in my life except my family. And this is where my unending debt begins in my heart and in my memory. . .

I was asked once what it was like to be a Berry child. I answered that it was fine except for the constant humiliation. I believe that I went along with my father’s plans for us very agreeably until I was 12 or 13, the age when I think many children realize that their parents need guidance.

Daddy had come home to live and farm. He bought a rocky hillside farm overlooking the Kentucky River. He and my mother have added some acreage over the years and the place has been their home and their fascination ever since. . .

I went right along with all of this until I was old enough to have a reputation to protect. That coincided with the addition of a composting privy to the rest of an ever-more-embarrassing way of life.

Unfortunately for me, my father didn’t understand at all that he should. . .never mention the composting privy to a journalist. I was in a difficult predicament. I never really thought that my father was wrong about anything. In fact, the reasons for the things we did at home were talked about all of the time, and I understood and even honored those reasons. But, to have details about your composting privy reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal was just too much to be borne. . .

The very public privy opened the floodgates and suddenly I knew how abused I was: no television, no junk food, no trips to amusement parks, and I had to WORK outside in the dirt. And, my father was always protesting something: wars, dams, strip-mining, airports, etc.

Well, to make a long story short, I expect that by the time I left for college there must have been a general sigh of relief. Some of the freshman English classes at the college I attended were reading The Memory of Old Jack, a novel written by my father. I had not read it before I left home. In fact, I had read almost nothing of Daddy’s by then. He read things to us that he was working on and I guess I thought that was plenty. I suppose I experienced positive peer pressure at school because girls in my dorm were reading The Memory of Old Jack. So I read The Memory of Old Jack, myself. That book gave me back my home and it gave me the chance to make amends with my father and then to find out that no amends were necessary. . .

A heartbreaking part of Old Jack’s story is his estrangement from his daughter Clara, who, like me, had wanted something else, something better. I called my father when I finished the book and asked, “Am I Clara?” I remember being reassured by the phone call. I still have the letter he wrote me a few days after we talked. He said that he was moved by my question and told me that of course I was not Clara. The letter is long and beautiful and I treasure it because of its kindness, its good sense, its understanding of a flawed young girl. . .

Trouble has come to me in my life as it does to all and I have made mistakes. The gift that my father gave me so many years ago was the knowledge that I live in his love, and if forgiveness is needed it has already been given. What greater gift could a parent give a child? Daddy has kept alive in my head — even in the worst of times and in the face of awful news — that if we actively choose it over and over everyday, we can indeed live in the world of affection and membership that he honors in his life and his stories.”

 

– Mary Berry-Smith, from Wendell And Me, published in the May/June 2013 issue of Edible Louisville Magazine (emphasis mine).

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I find so many details about this story life-giving, but the real solidifying agent for my respect of Wendell Berry is that his child knows and can articulate why she respects him so greatly as to devote her adult life and the family she started to following in his footsteps. Many great leaders of men have inspired the masses while leaving wreckage at home, but those devoted eternally to their families carry a certain weight that should not be overlooked.

As a parent myself, the greatest impact of this story is the fact that above all else in their relationship, Berry’s daughter has been moved by a realization that she has always existed in her father’s love, affection, and forgiveness. She came to realize that, whether she knew it or not, he cherished her, delighted in her personality, and was always ready to pardoned her missteps.

Things like obedience are valuable. Social skills and a drive to learn are developmentally key. But after about 18 years, obedience becomes completely obsolete in the parenting relationship. Social skills and learning generally fall out of our influence range. So when my daughter it 25 or 30, what is my deepest desire for our relationship? The answer is intimacy.

More than I want my daughters to make great decisions and live to the fullest, I want them to know that any failures or tragedies that befall them can be safely confided in me, without any negative repercussions. The deepest, underpinning goal is that the relationship may always be authentic, open, and capable of enduring all things.

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From the text of The Memory Of Old Jack.

“In all their minds his voice lies beneath a silence. And in the hush of it they are aware of something that passed from them and now returns: his stubborn biding with them to the end, his keeping of faith with them who would live after him, and what perhaps none of them has yet thought to call his gentleness, his long gentleness toward them and toward this place where they are at work, they know that his memory holds them in common knowledge and common loss, the like of him will not soon live again in this world, and they will not forget him.”