explorations of mindful fatherhood


Fatherhood: A Surgeon General’s Warning

Twisted spine, X-raySurgeon’s General Warning:  Fatherhood may cause backaches, weight gain, spinal disfigurement, and contribute to general feelings of shittyness.

I’ve never been the most limber person.  During the presidential fitness challenge in middle school, I wasn’t bad with pull-ups or running the mile, but it was the sit-and-reach that kicked my ass.  I could never really touch my toes, even as a kid.  I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be a dancer, martial artist, acrobat, or yogi.  Someone who can twist and contort his body with the greatest of ease.  Someone who can embody fluidity and grace in his movements.  But that’s never been me.  I’m like a wound-up ball of rubber bands, tightening with each passing year.

In the past dozen years, since entering the workforce and having a child, the dilemma of how to maintain my physical health has been a tough one.  Early on, I tried to do the same things I always did to keep myself healthy.  I worked out at the gym a few times a week, mostly with weight training, along with some light (reluctant) cardio.  Work got harder, and it became more of a challenge to keep in shape, especially living in a city with bad parking and convoluted public transportation.  Getting to the YMCA felt like an insurmountable ordeal.  My light, infrequent workouts maintained the facade of fitness.  Sure, I still couldn’t touch my toes, but I could still grunt and sweat, and lift some weights, so I felt okay.

Then we had our child, and general health went out the window.  Having a baby is about survival.  Making it through the night alive and not collapsing at work the next day is a triumph in itself, so there’s little time for anything as frivolous as working out.  Over that time period, I–like any new parent–was on automatic pilot, with very little sleep.  I could feel my entire body tightening up.  When getting out of bed, I grunted and wheezed like an old man.  I sat like a miser at work, hunched over my computer.  I went to a doctor to complain about the way I felt and he showed me a BMI chart, pointing out that I was now in the overweight category and should shed a few pounds.

This realization, and time, helped me get back to the gym.  As my son got older, I was able to make some time for working out, typically very early before work.  This meant getting up and out of the house super early, to the point that I felt completely drained by the end of the work day. Plus, I don’t think it really ever got me in shape.  I just added a bit of activity to my day.

Then about three years ago, writing happened.  I got serious about my writing.  If I was going to see my writing though, it meant taking every second of free time and pouring it into my writing (see my previous tortured post).   I dropped my gym membership and traded the treadmill for the coffee house chair.  I might go on a walk or even a run every now and then, but I totally neglected my body.

That’s when the back pain hit hard.  I’ve always had back problems, but they crept up on me a lot more frequently as my lethargy tightened the knot of rubber bands in my back.  It came to the point where I actually seized up at work….twice.  At one in-service training, someone made me laugh and I collapsed on the ground, unable to get up without the help of two bulky guys who carried me into an office.  The second time was less dramatic, with my back slowly seizing up over the course of the day, trapping me in my office chair, until the school secretary had to pull my car up to the side door so that I could exit without falling down.  I finally went to see a chiropractor who ordered x-rays of my spine.  The frontal shots looked as though I was standing sideways, with my hips shifted and my back curved.  Somehow, my complete disregard for my own health had contorted my spine so that it doesn’t straighten naturally.

Here I am, in my late 30’s trying to rescue my health. It’s unfair of me to pin this all on fatherhood.  It’s not fatherhood, but the general pains of life: work, time, responsibility, etc.  Fatherhood may not be the definitive cause, but it’s definitely the casualty.  When your son wants to engage you in lightsabre battle and you’d rather watch his moves from the front porch, your fatherhood suffers.  When your wife and son have a race outside and you opt to film it instead of competing, your fatherhood suffers.  When your weekend is shot because you’re slumped over a therapy ball moaning in pain, your fatherhood suffers.

I’m still trying to strike that balance.  I’d like to be able to feel fulfilled in my work, take pride in my health and body, engage in my spiritual practice, improve upon my writing.  But ultimately, I want to be around for a long time to see my son grow up, and engage in the moment.  It’s up to me to take the time to get healthy.


Triumphs and Traumas of a Buddhist Egg Hunt

BuddhasEasterEggI did a terrible thing: In my quest for fairness, I overlooked my own son.  And I feel just terrible about it.

Here’s the scenario: My son belongs to a Buddhist children’s group, for which I volunteer from time to time.  Just recently, the entire sangha (or community) celebrated Buddha’s Birthday. The ceremony occurs in the Spring, so it incorporates themes similar to Easter, such as new life, hope, and joy.  The kids take part in the first part of ceremony before heading outside for some fun activities.

This year, running with the theme of Spring, we held an egg hunt on the grounds of the Zen center.  However, we try avoiding the competitive aspects of tradition egg hunts.  I bet many of us (with Christian backgrounds) have been there before as kids: our bodies quaking with anticipation at the start line, baskets in hand, waiting for the signal to rush forth and scavenge as many eggs as we can (or at least more eggs than that damn kid next to you).  And in some cases, there’s a coveted “golden egg” that’s used to declare the “winner” of the egg hunt.  The entire scenario elicits a competitive, cut-throat spirit, leading to elbows in the gut, head-on collisions, and tears.  All in the name of (re)birth and celebration.

The way we’ve done these hunts for the past two years is to hide eggs and then put a group basket in the middle of the field.  When the parents call “Go,” the kids rush for the eggs, but are only allowed to pick up one at a time.  They then rush back to the group basket where they deposit their egg before heading out for another one.  In the end, we divvy up all the eggs, so that everyone gets an equal share.  We’ve found that this has helped emphasize cooperation and has tempered kids’ competitive streaks.

Our egg hunt was going splendidly.  The only controversy stemmed from those damned golden eggs. The packages I’d bought contained golden eggs, which I should have tossed aside, but added to the mix nonetheless.  Hunting for the golden eggs brought out the competitive spirit, regardless of their eventual destination in the group basket.  When the oldest girls saw them, they barreled past one another, leaving some very disappointed.

After the flurry of excitement, we went back inside to divvy up the eggs.  But what to do with those damned golden eggs?  There were only 4 and we had about 12 kids.  My wife had an epiphany: we’d allow kids to offer them to the Buddha.  It was a great lesson on giving away something precious.  I asked volunteers to come up to make offerings.  Unavoidably, more than 4 kids presented themselves.  Luckily, I had set aside a few bigger eggs, so we had about 7 eggs to offer.  And yet, there were 9 kids opting to make offerings.  In the midst of my handing out the offering eggs, many eager hands delved into the basket without permission.  Kids had eggs in hand, waiting for me to send them up to the altar.  I looked around and two kids were without eggs, one of them being my own son.  In that moment, I didn’t think I could ripped an egg from another child’s hands to give it to my own son.  In the rush of confusion, I allowed the kids to keep the eggs they’d nabbed from my basket and started looking for two extra eggs to give to the egg-less kids.  Just then another very kind girl holding a golden egg asked my son if he’d like to offer it with her.  He agreed, and I found another empty egg for the last child.  We seemed fine. Whew!  I’d avoided a mess.  Not so.

After the class, when the kids went downstairs with the adults, my son was nearly in tears.  I held him close, because I thought I knew what it was about.  He felt badly that he didn’t get a golden egg for the offering.  I told him it was okay, because we were secretly going to bring the golden eggs home to use for next year, and he could keep some of them in his room.  I thought it was about the eggs.  I thought I’d solved the problem.  It wasn’t and I hadn’t.

My wife pulled me aside later and told me my son was a sobbing mess because dad had overlooked him.  It wasn’t about the eggs.  It wasn’t about the competition.  It was about dad not keeping him in mind when orchestrating the class.  And it was true, I hadn’t, and I felt deeply saddened.

When I help run this group, I’m acutely aware that my son is in the mix.  In running the class (just like the egg hunt), I try to be fair to all.  I never want my son to feel as though I’m singling him out because I have higher expectations for him than the others, and on the flip side, I never want him to feel as though he gets special privileges just because he’s the teacher’s son.  And yet, in my quest for equanimity, I actually treat him differently from the rest.  In that moment when I was presented with the conundrum of 9 kids holding 7 offering eggs, the first thought that came to mind was that I couldn’t just take away other kids’ eggs to appease my son.  When in fact, I should have taken his feelings into account.  I should have seen that my son’s potential disappointment was valid and needed to be addressed by me, not only as his father, but as the teacher.  If it hadn’t been my son who was egg-less, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as clouded by the potential of perceived favoritism.  I might have asked all the kids to put down their eggs, so that we could find enough eggs to go around, and then divvy up the offerings.  But no, I didn’t.  I prioritized the other kids first, and then figured I’d patch things up with my son and the other egg-less kid.

In my attempt at treating everyone the same, I was actually treating my son differently.  It really took me aback, and I had to reflect long and hard on the subject to avoid becoming defensive or self-righteous.  When I came home, I offered a big apology.  I said I was sorry that I overlooked him and his feelings, and that I would do my best to keep him in mind, just like I keep all the other kids in mind.

Sometimes in our quest for fairness, we can overlook those right under our noses, even our own kids.


Sick Day: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Good Pillow Fort (and TV and Star Wars II)

pillow fortSick days are sacred.  They’re about taking care of yourself, sitting on your butt, and doing whatever the hell you want. We had a sick day recently, and I recommitted to this idea, while getting the chance to reflect on my everyday (non-sick?) life.

You know your child is having a hard time sleeping when you roll over in the middle of the night to find him staring straight at you as he says “Hi Dad,” with absolute lucidity.  That’s what happened the other night when my son couldn’t sleep, plagued by terrible fits of coughing that thwarted his attempts at rest.  He eventually made it across the hallway into his parents’ bed, keeping us all marginally awake for most of the night.

Needless to say, he was a mess the next morning and had to take the day off of school. I opted to stay home with him so my wife could go to work, and after firing off a few work-related emails, I was free the rest of the day to relax and enjoy.  But at first, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him.  I tend to be a “let’s get out of here” sort of dad.  On the days that my son and I have had together without his mom, we tend to go to the park, hike, visit museums, enjoy street fairs, that sort of thing.  I tend to be pretty active.  I’m not as good sitting at home coming up with activities.

That’s why this sick day posed a certain challenge for me.  What was I to do with my son for the day, stuck at home?  And here was the fear: We’d only watch TV.  I’m kind of a TV addict.  That’s one of the reasons why we got rid of cable recently.  And yet, without cable, there’s still hulu, amazon streaming, youtube, blu-rays, and a host of other non-cable media options.  When I’m kind of stuck, parenting-wise, I tend to rely on TV as my old fall-back.  We’re tired after dinner: How about an episode of AFV?  Groggy at breakfast: Why not watch an episode of Ninjago?  Mom’s on a work call: Did you see they’re streaming episodes of Ultraman on hulu?

So, a day stuck at home with a sick kid was just screaming out for non-stop television/movie time.  And what did I do?  I turned on the TV of course.  We had breakfast on the couch, watching America’s Funniest Home Videos, but the whole time I was wracking my brain for things to do.  My son’s been learning chess…no, I’m crap at that.  He has reading to do….no, it seemed unreasonable to make him do homework while he’s sick.  We could do some math….no, for the same reason as the reading.

Then I realized the conundrum I was in. I truly believe that sick days are  sacred, and that in this age of achievement and ambition, our bodies sometimes put on the breaks.  When we get sick, I firmly believe that we need to take cues from our bodies and slow down.  So, on a sick day we’re supposed to sit around all day.  We’re supposed to do the things we want to do.  We’re supposed to put everything else down.  The tricky part was that I’m a little too quick to sit around watching TV on days when my family and I are healthy!  I tend to use TV to numb us out on a daily basis.  My sick-day anxiety was due to this push and pull: feeling the need to honor what my son wanted to do on his special sick day (TV) and fighting the laziness that I tend to embody daily (TV).  So what was the answer?  TV.

I had to prioritize the fact that it was his sick day, so we were going to do what he wanted to do in order to feel rested and rejuvenated.  I realized I couldn’t make up for my laziness on that day, of all days.  I would have to start embodying more conscientious ways of unwinding when he or I weren’t sick.  That way, when we’re truly sick or truly exhausted, television can be a special treat.

For that particular sick day, I just needed to be a little savvy and break up the day, because 8 hours of the tube wasn’t going to do anyone any good.  When AFV concluded, I suggested, “Hey, why don’t we build a pillow fort?”  Within a few minutes we had a fort of pillows and blankets scaffolding the couch.  Dad’s fat ass nearly pulled the thing down getting in, but it survived.  Then I suggested I read him a book inside the fort.  He said I could pick the book.  “Even the Hobbit?” I asked hopefully (I’ve been pushing Middle-earth on him for months).  He said yes!  So we cuddled up for nearly an hour under the almost-too-hot blankets, enjoying Bilbo’s unexpected gathering together.

And in the end, more TV.  When I asked him what he wanted to do next, it was to watch Star Wars.  Yes, there is one word that describes both my son and I: Nerds.  He settled on  Attack of the Clones, and I tried not to laugh too hard when Anakin and Padme frolicked in the meadows of Naboo.

In the end, we had a great time.  Sometimes it takes an sick a day to realize you need some rest, but it may also take a sick day to realize the ways in which you spend your everyday life.