undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Karma Police

kismet10cSometimes I have no fun at all, and sometimes it’s my own damn fault.

Random groups of children and parents set the stage for some of my most frustrating experiences. For instance, this April vacation, my son and I had some alone time and planned a day around robots. A local museum was hosting free guided tour of its robotics exhibit for kids and families. The issue was that it was free and first-come-first-served to only 25 participants, which was a set-up for all sorts of anxiety.

My son and I made a day out of it. After taking the train early and having breakfast, we charged through the rain and stood outside of the still-closed museum under an awning. Eventually making it inside, we had to wait until 30 minutes prior to the tour to receive a free ticket. We scoped out the reception desk, and at exactly 10:30, they started giving tickets away. Someone’s dad cut in front of a line that included me and women with strollers. I was mildly annoyed, but got my tickets and we waited.

When the tour started, they cordoned off the entire wing, so that only tour participants could take part. We felt very special. The tour started well, with the curator giving the kids stickies to put on the exhibits they found most interesting and most scary. I noted that the tour seemed small, with only about 20 people. Finally, about 10 minutes late, another family of five, a mom and her 2 pre-teen girls and 2 teenage boys showed up. Her kids started on the periphery of the group, while she found a bench all to herself, staring at her cell phone.  It took about 5 minutes for her girls to stray from the group and wander the deserted hall, and after about 10 minutes her boys followed suit, until the entire family was doing their own thing and mom was staring at her phone.

I kept glaring at them. I kept thinking about how disrespectful it was to the tour guide. I kept thinking about all the other families in the museum who had the opportunity of a private tour stripped from them by these people who weren’t taking advantage of it.

About 30 minutes into the tour, that family left the exhibit, never to return. I was left up on my moral high horse, alone with my frustrations.

The issue with being up there on my moral high horse was that I wasn’t down in the tour with my son. It was hard for me to put away my anger and instead focus on the fun that was happening right in front of me. This happens to me a lot, especially around children and their parents. Inevitably there’s somebody that’s out of control or at least troublesome: the kid who runs around, or disturbs the group, or makes fun of the exhibits, or barrels over other kids. But that’s not the unnerving part; after all, they’re just kids. In most cases, these kids are chaperoned by parents who aren’t doing anything. They sit back on their phones, or appear oblivious, or throw their hands up with a “whatcha gonna do” face. This is the thing that drives me bonkers.

“We live in a society, people!” my inner George Costanza screams. The only way to enjoy the fruits of society is by sharing them. When parents don’t teach their kids to share space, time, and resources, then kids become self-serving, domineering adults. And so standing in that tour group, my mind wanders to the future; to these kids growing up and populating a world where my son has to share the highway with them as they swerve through traffic, or stand in line while they cut in front for their morning coffee, or work in an office where they steal his ideas and pawn them off as their own. I think of a million different scenarios about how the world is (and will) become a worse place because kids aren’t taught about how to respect others.

It all sounds very good as a write it. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to stop there. End of post. People suck.

But what I’m really trying to convey is the way I feel obligated to be the morality/karma police in these situations. Looking around the tour group, there were obviously children who were participating, and their parents appeared just as engaged. Even the curator seemed to be ignoring the wandering family and going about her business, touring the group. Why was I the one steaming? Why did I feel as though I had to hold the weight of other people’s decisions?

I think that is the hardest part for me. I don’t want to lose that part of me that discerns behaviors that I don’t want to cultivate in my son. I also don’t want to be so fixated on that discernment that it takes over my mind and disallows me from enjoying the moment in spite of others. I’m sure the other parents in the group noticed this wandering family. I’m sure some of them even made judgements about their behavior. But somehow, they were able to live and let live, or perhaps even forgive and forget. For me, it never feels easy.

 

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Chucking the iPad for 2014

noipadforyouI’m not big on resolutions, but find that the new year is always a time of reflection and hope.  As I look back on 2013, I feel like it’s a personal anomaly. Prior to this year, I hadn’t owned a smart device. I was limited to the non-texting dumb-phone that the salesperson made fun of me for buying back in 2011. But for all of 2013, I had access to an iPad, which changed my life, for the worse.

Here are the two things that are great/terrible about technology. One, it keeps me connected. Two, it allows me instant access to any information I need. On the first account, I became hyper-fascinated over the course of this year with my social media and communication possibilities, like facebook, twitter, email, and my blog. I would incessantly check for returned emails, blog responses, and new facebook posts. Aside from some very positive connections with bloggers over the past year, most of the time was wasted seeking fleeting personal validation. I think there’s a hunger in each of us for connection, recognition, and validation, which is why technology and social media are so addicting. They feed us what we need most as social beings. However, it’s a virtual or disconnected form of contact that isn’t quite as gratifying as coffee with a friend, a hug from a relative, or a kiss from my wife. So, it leaves me feeling manic and spent.

On the second account, devices give us instant access to any information we want. I think people are naturally curious, and we’re prone to asking questions. For instance, re-watching Silver Linings Playbook yesterday, I wanted to know whether Bradley Cooper’s nose scar was real, how far Baltimore is from Philly, what crabby snacks and homemades are, and what other movies the slimeball bookie friend had been in. Those questions all coursed through my mind in the span of one scene. I wanted to grab my iPad and check the answers to all of them. But if I had, I’d no longer be watching a movie with my wife, but instead trailing off into my own world of curiosity. Day to day I constantly want to know answers to my questions, and have lost the ability to ponder things on my own and to tolerate not knowing something.

I frequently think back to a picture my son had drawn of me about half a year ago, with me staring at my iPad. In some ways, this had been the picture that occupied his mind when thinking of me, and I hated it. Will my son remember me as the dad with his nose pressed up against a screen?

For 2014, I’m putting the iPad away. I don’t need to be militant. I don’t need to be extremist. But when I’m home and my family’s awake, that thing goes in a drawer or in a bag, and is out of reach. It’s too tempting to have it close, to have it accessible. Because in the end, what will be more important? How many likes my post receives? Jennifer Lawrence’s birthplace? Or that picture of me that resides in my son’s brain when he thinks about his dad?


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Shock and Awe

blizzard_trees102606Imagine driving home from work and getting a call that there’s a huge surprise party at your house, in your honor.  You hang up the phone.  You’re wicked excited (yes, you’re from New England so you’re wicked excited).  You imagine who might be there, what people might say.  Then your car breaks down.  You pick up your phone but its dead.  You put your head in your hands and you wait.

That’s what it’s like hearing you’re going to be Freshly Pressed, and then having a blizzard knock out your power for almost two days.

I don’t know if it’s taboo to discuss one’s Freshly-Pressedness, but I need to, because my experience this weekend made such an impact.  I got an email from the Word Press editor Friday afternoon and nearly fell down, amazed that my post had been chosen.  I was honored and gushing with gratitude.  I went downstairs and told my wife, who congratulated me in the midst of all our snow prep.  That day, schools had been cancelled and we were enjoying the day.  We stocked up on groceries in the morning, took a stroll through the new-fallen (then only 2″ deep) snow, and hunkered inside to watch the downpour.  What a great day overall.  Freshly Pressed and a snow day?  What could be better.

Things got a little hairy around mid-afternoon, when the wind started whipping our trees around and near-white-out conditions obscured our view of houses across the street.  The snow began sticking to every window, as though a freshly laundered sheet had been thrown over the house.  Around 9:00 pm the lights flickered and then the power went out.

Thus began my anguish.

No power meant no internet connection, meant no checking to see if I’d gone up on Freshly Pressed.  I was dying to know if my post would get a response.  Would I get likes?  Would folks comment?  Our family’s only internet connection was through my wife’s iPhone (I’m cheap and have a dumb-phone, no internet, no texts…I’m like a grandpa).  In the midst of checking National Grid’s outage map I just happened to pop over to Word Press and saw it had gone up!  How exciting.

“Look,” I turned to my wife, “it’s there!”

“That’s great, but we should probably save our battery for emergencies.”

Damn it.  She was right.  I’d feel terrible if I used up our battery checking my blog, and we needed the phone for some emergency.  I imagined a scene in the midst of the blizzard chaos: a pack of coyotes backing my family into a corner. Me fending them off with a fireplace poker and my wife shouting, “I’d call animal control, but we’re out of f**king batteries!”

So that was it. I went most of that time not checking, and yet being obsessed with checking. Although I knew it was a unique experience; I mean, I’d be incredibly lucky if anything like this happened again.  But at the same time, I felt badly.  Here was my family, stuck in the cold and snow, and I was obsessing about a post.  I think it all showed me how much my excitement can sometimes get ahead of me.  Of course getting excited is a good thing.  Hell, my family gets excited about a fresh episode of New Girl.  But sometimes the need to feed the excitement can be overwhelming.  I tend to latch onto my excitement and then run it into the ground.  I find that’s what so tempting and addictive about the ease of technology.  I get excited about switching my cable and so I do hours of research on providers that same night.  I get into Orson Scott Card and want to look up every on-line article about the Ender’s Game series.  There’s such instant gratification for our obsessions nowadays.  Being stripped of that easy access for one day leaves me without an outlet for my excitement.  It’s draining.  It was really hard for me to say to myself, “That’s great. Now put it down for a moment and focus on what’s in front of you.”

In time, I eventually did.  I packed our defrosting food in a cooler in the snow.  I strained coffee through a paper towel.  I picked up my shovel.

In the middle of the night on Saturday the power came back up, and I immediately shot out of bed and ran to the computer.  It was an amazing feeling.  Like missing 3 Christmases and getting all your presents at once.  I saw the incredible amount of views, and the generous heaping of comments.  I cannot begin to thank folks for their kind words, shared stories, and encouraging shout-outs.  It was a wonderful thing to see.  I went into hyper-checking mode for a couple of days.  I realized I needed to slow down.  I needed to let things run their course.  I hope to post today and not be so obsessive.  Put things down and go about my day, all the while thankful for the kindness bestowed upon me.

And, yes, I did shovel my own goddamn driveway.


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Confessions of a Reformed Blog Hater

blogging%20imageI have to admit that I’m a reformed blog-hater.  Three years ago, if you had asked me what I thought of folks blogging about their own lives, I would have told you I considered it the most narcissistic writing endeavor that our technological age had birthed.  I simply–and mistakenly–thought that bloggers were the most self-absorbed of all writers.

Many apologies to my fellow bloggers for these sentiments, and I assure you I’ve come to value blogging.  Let me explain how I turned that corner.

Admittedly, my initial motivations for starting a blog were opportunistic.  I completed the first draft of a book manuscript about two years ago, and then launched into a year of constant editing.  When I tried submitting to agents, I came up dry.  I stopped writing.  I didn’t know how I felt about it all.  I had read many things about blogging as a means for developing a platform, but was uncomfortable with the idea.  I was still holding onto my dislike for bloggers.  Even my wife asked me about possibly starting a blog, but I refused (she’s full of good ideas that are sometimes hard for me to accept).

But I kept hearing about blogging and its benefits for writers.  After one final push from a relative, I decided to bite the bullet.  I thought it would be a good way of getting back into writing.  I settled on the theme of mindful fatherhood, a topic with which I’d been struggling.

Then I started to write.  I enjoyed sitting down to put my thoughts into words and elaborate on the struggles I face each day, especially my challenges of feeling depleted or absent at home.  But here’s the thing: expressing my thoughts and feelings has never been easy for me.  When something bad happens, I usually try to make sense of the situation quickly, draw some conclusions, and then sweep it under the rug so I don’t have to deal with it any longer.  This is the case for a host of life’s struggles, but especially my losses and fears.  It’s a source of conflict for my relationships because I don’t process significant events or spark conversations about my feelings.  Instead, I’m happy to run away.  I’d rather compartmentalize my feelings, stow them away where I don’t have to look at them, and try to forget.

Yet I find that when I write, I have much more tolerance when it comes to conflicting emotions.  An issue will come to mind and I’ll start putting it down in words.  With time, my thoughts and feelings begin crystallizing and connecting in my consciousness. I’m sure this is what any devoted journal- or diary-keeper would tell you.  And yet, my previous attempts at journaling always fell flat.  Each time I’d start a journal, I felt like a fool, and put it down again.

But not with blogging.  I stuck with blogging.  But why?  After many posts about my daily struggles, I realized I wasn’t shying away.  I kept blogging and, in the process, tolerating my feelings long enough to allow them to evolve on the screen.  My thoughts felt more organized, and through that organization I was better able to sit with them.

And yet, when it came down to it, I still couldn’t voice my feelings one-to-one with others in my life.  On one occasion, my wife read a post of mine and pointed out that she’d never known how I’d felt about that post’s topic.  She hadn’t realized that I’d given the subject any thought.  It was really difficult for us both to understand at the time.  Why did I feel more comfortable posting my feelings rather than sitting down with my own wife to have a conversation about them?  Was a “like” from a fellow blogger more important to me than connecting with her?

I was racked with guilt.  I was the one who used to slam bloggers for being self-absorbed, and here I was, potentially being the biggest narcissistic idiot of them all.  Was on-line validation of my feelings more important than validation from my wife?  Was I so shallow that it took a disembodied audience to force me to look at my own feelings about things, when the support of one person wasn’t enough?

I beat myself up like that for quite a while, but it forced me to sit and look at my real motivations.  This is what I’ve come up with so far.  I am a guy who relies on deadlines and pressure to accomplish things.  I like to see a project completed and presented in a nice neat package.  There’s something about blogging that satisfies this need in me.  I set a schedule for how many posts I’ll get out per week, determine a few topics, write in my free time, tweak and revise, and send out a fully formed post in the end.  Although my readership is small, there’s something about the knowledge that I have “readers” that helps me stick to it.  I have no delusions that people are waiting on tenterhooks for my posts, but the very fact that I “manage” a blog makes me commit to a schedule in my head.  That’s what makes me actually stick to the writing routine.

When it comes to developing the thoughts themselves, it’s the writing process that helps me do that.  At times, I have set aside time just to think (without writing) about tender subjects, like the losses in my life, my relationship with my parents, or conflicts at home, but my mind inevitably wanders off.  I’ll turn off the radio in the car to think and gain some clarity, but I end up thinking about dinner or the driver in front of me, and before I know it the radio is back on and I’m pulling into the garage.  My mind won’t allow me to sustain a thought that’s too uncomfortable.

But with writing, the words on the screen tether me to the thought.  They make it hard to get distracted or leave loose ends hanging.  The words on the screen force me to complete my thoughts and link one sentence to the next.  It’s through blogging that I have been able to tolerate reflection.

So, who is it all for?  I’ve discovered it isn’t for the faceless on-line audience.  It isn’t for people in my life.  It isn’t even for my wife.  It’s for me.  I want to become better at sitting with things that are difficult.  I want to be able to make sense of my life, what I want from it, and the things I do to thwart my own development.  Only by investing in this process I can become a better person, a better father, a better husband.  Blogging has helped me open up to myself a bit more, and has given my thoughts some space to expand.

My new challenge is translating that voice.  I have been somewhat successful in putting these words on a screen, and now I have to move them into spoken word.  I have to be able to voice my thoughts and struggles with my wife and others in person, in order to grow my relationships and help others understand me.

I’m glad that blogging has helped spark this process in me, but I have to remember my priorities.  Although I love seeing a new “like” on the screen or a new person following my work, I have to remember that blogging is about giving my thoughts the chance to expand, and extending that process into my personal relationships.  That is where the heart of the growth lies.  I am forever indebted to readers with whom my words resonate, because they emphasize that this process of growth and learning is a valid one, and one that deserves further investment.

I would chance a guess that this process motivates the writing of many other bloggers.  Blogging is a chance to expand upon one’s thoughts in order to develop further as a person.  It gives the writer an opportunity to reflect on one’s self and perhaps carry those insights into other, more personal relationships.  For this reason I have a new appreciation and, dare I say, love for blogging.

I’d like to know others’ motivations for blogging.  Please post or add a comment. Why do you blog?


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Dawn of the Undead Dad

The dogs sense him on the opposite side of the door and come howling, alerting the family to the creature’s presence.  The mother looks up from her soup pot and the boy from his artwork, their senses enlivened by the scamper of paws.  The doorknob wiggles and turns. The door was left unlocked.

The creature stumbles in and pierces the air with a wail as the dogs dig their claws through his tattered work pants.  The family winces. Undead dad drops his bag at the door and removes his coat.  He grunts a hello to the mother and boy, before trudging upstairs.  He brings his ipad with him, and exchanges the deadening mess of work for the glowing screen of webpages and emails.  He gets stuck halfway up the stairs, engrossed in a facebook post by another member of the undead.  He eventually disentangles himself and rips off his clothes to replace them with a pair of ripped pajama pants and a t-shirt with holes in the armpits.  The creature staggers down the steps, in search of food.

The zombie’s head stoops toward his food bowl.  Silence pervades the dinner table as the mother and son eat quietly and exchange looks. After dinner, the mother picks up the son and puts on an old Beastie Boys song.  The two bounce around the kitchen as the song reverberates from the marble tile and stainless refrigerator.  Undead dad grunts out a chuckle, but remains on the chair, unable to muster the gusto to dance with the mom and her pop-locking five-year-old.  At the boy’s bedtime, the creature is in charge of reading to the boy.  He reads the first two pages like a normal human being, as though literature has sparked some memory of his old self, his old passions, and he is able to infuse the text with a multitude of voices and even a few sound effects.  In spite of his best efforts, he cannot sustain his radio play.  The reading drains him.  By the third pages his words slur and he stops abruptly, as though his neural pathways have shriveled mid-connection.  His son delivers an irritated jab and the creature is stirred, but the pattern is repeated across the many pages of bears, bunnies, and woods.

Later the undead man and his wife share the couch, watching some favorite reality show.  The cushions lull the undead dad and the cognitive blurring evidenced during the storybook is relived with the wife.  After several bouts of his snoring, she orders him to bed, and his brain pulls his body upstairs to a cold bed.

This is the undead dad. He is a zombie to the world at home.  He’s there, but not quite there.  His family is conflicted; they’re happy to have him home after a long absence at work, but annoyed by his stumbling, slurring, and sleeping.  Undead dad is me.  I wake up early most mornings so that I can get work done and come home before the early evening rush.  Even though I carve out the time to be home, I’m exhausted by the end of the day.  I feel as though work has culled every ounce of life from my body and brain, leaving nothing for my life at home.  I realize the pattern and fight it as best I can, but I feel like some creature whose brain isn’t under his control.  My mind searches out food and sleep without noticing the people around me or the effect I have on them.  When I wake up to the effect I have on my family, I’m too exhausted to do anything.  I see opportunities to laugh, to play, to dance, to be engaged, but my mind won’t let me go there.  It is clouded with a seemingly impenetrable haze of sleep and exhaustion and hunger.

I am sick of being this person.  My family is sick of me being this person.  This is the impetus for the blog.  Although I find it important to avoid defining oneself by the absence of some attribute or trait, it’s a starting point.  That’s where this blog begins.  I am sure my experience resonates with many dads.  They see what they’ve become, and know they don’t want to be that.  They see the potential for a more engaged life, but too much seems to get in the way.

This is where this blog begins.  It’s a discussion of the fight against the brainless, soul-sucking experience  of the undead dad.  The fight against the devastation taking place in his brain and body, and the fight against the haze he casts on those in his life.  This blog is an opportunity to talk about my particular fight against that person.  It’s a chance to talk about ways of engaging in mindful fatherhood.

I’m certain that many mothers out there might experience their lives in much the same way I do.  In many ways, this blog could be about mindful parenting.  My particular experience happens to be that of a father, and so I speak in particular to the dads out there, although it’s my hope that this blog can translate to parenting by anyone: fathers, mothers, grandparents, and guardians.

I will be writing about my own struggles to avoid becoming an undead dad, and the creation of opportunities to become a more engaged parent.  I will reflect on my own experiences of deadened parents, notice the times that the undead dad is taking over, expand on the times that I can learn to be mindful of my family, my son, my wife, and myself.  I’ll write about my frustration with technology: its benefits for connection and its alluring siren song of distraction and disconnection.  I will also write about mediation and mindfulness and its role in fighting against my undead status.

Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope this blog resonates with some.  I also hope that others will leave comments and post their own stories so that we can rise up together against the zombie scourge of deadness.