Me: What would happen?
Son: Well, he’d kill a lot of people.
Ted is the father of my son’s best friend. The friend with whom my son shares a 3rd grade class, a soccer team, and (previously) a fencing class, and so we see this kid and his family a lot. Over time, our families began inviting each other over for get-togethers, and a family friendship started to form. However, aside from the family functions, Ted was nowhere to be found while his harried wife toted their three kids to every imaginable after-school activity. “Where’s Ted?” became a mantra of sorts when we’d see the family.
Although both parents worked, Ted didn’t appear to take any interest in his kids, whether for mundane practices or bigger school events. One weekend Ted’s wife asked if my wife and I could bring their boy home from a game because she had to buzz off to some other kids’ event. We agreed, and when we finally pulled up to the kid’s house, Ted answered the door in his slippers and thanked us for dropping off his son. Where the hell were you, Ted, when your kid had a soccer game 7 blocks away?!? My perception of Ted took a nose-dive.
Over the years I’ve found that when I became a husband and a parent, my friendship standards shifted so that I evaluate others’ viability as a friend not only on their personalities, likes, and interests, but also on their attitudes toward marriage and parenting roles.
Throughout my 20’s, I judged whether a friendship would work based on how that person treated me and our mutual friends. First of all, did we click? If so, then could you be counted on? Were you reliable? Did you care about the same people and causes I cared about? These questions about friendship all centered around how that person treated me and our mutual friends.
When I got married, my focus began to shift. Dedicating my life to making my wife happy and building a life for us became the most important thing to me, and so I wanted to connect with others who had similar investments in their relationships. Are you dedicated to your wife or partner? Do you work hard in your relationships? Do you work to find balance in your responsibilities as a couple (i.e., do you cook, dude, or do the laundry, or clean the bathrooms)?
As the years went by and kids enter the picture, my focus shifted again. Being a candidate for friendship didn’t only mean how well we clicked and how well you treated your wife or significant other, it became about how well you treated your kids, your family. Are you an involved dad? Do you accept parenting responsibilities? Do you dedicate time with your child(ren) and honor their pursuits?
In this way, finding friends has become a multi-layered process. In retrospect, finding friends that I clicked with in my early 20s was pretty easy. Are you a cool guy? Great, then let’s hang out. Now I find that there are many more factors involved in figuring out whether a guy is “like me” and someone I can trust and invest in as a friend. It becomes a bit exhausting, and I find that it’s hard to do.
Here’s an example. I had a good friend several years back who was making some tough decisions. He was married with an infant, and he had decided to make a career change based on his principals (he wanted to do more socially-conscious union work) and by changing jobs he sunk his family’s income below the poverty line. Once in his new job, the family qualified for section 8 housing, which they pursued. After the move, he started donating his time to a political campaign (though his union work) that led him to canvass for votes several states away from home for weeks on end, leaving his wife at home to care for their toddler.
If I had known this guy when he was single, I’d probably have admired him. He was dedicated to social justice and willing to make difficult, moral-based decisions even if they resulted in personal loss. But because of where we were in our lives, his actions caused me to look at him through a different lens. I could understand feeling conflicted with his job, but I couldn’t understand threatening the well-being of your family based on principals alone. I also couldn’t stomach the fact that he opted to spend weeks away from his young daughter to volunteer his time. At the time, our family was close with his wife as well, so we heard directly from her how his decisions negatively impacted the family, which put me in a further bind. Eventually, the friendship ended abruptly, in many regards because of my change of attitude toward him.
The trickiest part of all this is that I didn’t feel as though I had the right to address the things about him that impacted our friendship. His decisions about his career, his family, and his child had nothing to do with me, and I knew I’d overstep my bounds by addressing his decisions. At the same time, these decisions were diminishing my respect for him and eroding our friendship.
So this is now where things stand with Ted, and yet I don’t know the guy enough to say, “So, you don’t spend much time with your kids, huh?” To do so would sound judgmental and presumptuous. It’s not my business how he decides to spend his time, but it certainly affects how I see him and whether I’d choose to pursue a friendship with him. This relationship, the entire family relationship, is slowly eroding because of value difference. As someone who already struggles with friends, these examples underscore just how tricky these relationships can get.
And yet, as I review my history of attitudes towards friends, I realize that no matter what stage of life, my priority has always been focused on how the other person treats the people in his life. How does he treat me, our mutual friends, his wife or partner, or his kids? Perhaps children are simply the most salient relationships in which to see whether someone cares about others. The job of a dad is so well-defined for me that it’s the easiest means to see whether someone is focused on the most important relationships in their lives.
To me, that is a true test of friendship.
“I’m a father, with a wife and son, and I don’t have much time that isn’t already dedicated to my work or family,” I explained to him. “What do I do about my practice and making time to come to the Zen center?”
“Your family is your priority and your practice,” he responded immediately, with great confidence. He went on to explain that being a father is the situation I am in, and that dictates how I use my time. I should dedicate myself to my family, he explained, and by fully engaging in every action with them, I am practicing Zen.
That did it for me. Up until that time, I had been half-halfheartedly searching for a Buddhist community, but had little faith in the process. I had been biased against American Buddhists for most of my life. I had met too many old White male Buddhists who were more interested in wearing beads and touting their belief system than being engaged and compassionate with those around them. But I’d come to a point in my life where I had to admit to Buddhism’s hold on me, and I wanted to give up my trepidation and stereotypes, and find what might be out there for me. The abbot’s response caught my attention, and I’ve been part of the community ever since.
But this has been the problem: even after I found a faith to embrace, the integration of my family life was a challenge. Most American Buddhist communities are very individualistic in their practice traditions. Most communities offer meditation, retreats, and interviews for the individual practitioner. They may also hold talks, community meals, or discussion groups but, for the most part, these events cater to the individual practitioners in the community. And who are these individual practitioners? Typically, they are the people who have time to go, by themselves, to a center or temple for meditation. In my journeys, this typically translates to young adults (folks in their early 20’s) or retirees, who have the time to dedicate to individualized practice.
So what about people my age? What about folks with kids? Where are the families?
From my experience, parents can’t make the time to go. Who will watch there kids? Plus it feels rather self-indulgent to go sit in meditation, when there’s a family dinner you’re missing or a soccer practice that the kids need to get to.
But is this what a faith community is supposed to be about? Faith communities are composed of two essential elements: faith and community. Ever religion has its believe system, comprised of world-view, ethics, story tradition, practices, etc. But in order for it to be a religion, it must have a community: that group of people who come together around a particular belief system. Most of these communities culminate naturally around a church, synagogue, or mosque, where there’s an expectation that the family commune regularly with other families of that faith. In some cases everyone in the family comes together for a service or practice, or kids head out for religious education or activity while the parents worship or practice. Regardless, most faith communities are inclusive and embrace families and family life. But few American Buddhist communities feel this way.
As for me, I’d much rather say, “Let’s get in the car and all go to church!” than “Have fun at dinner while dad goes off to sit quietly for an hour.” This was the impetus for me to start a kids group at my local Zen center. I knew that if I wanted a community of Buddhist families, I might just have to help create one. So my wife and I were instrumental in getting a children’s group off the ground. It’s had its ups and downs, but for a while it was quite special, and gave the kids and families an opportunity to come together to learn about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism.
But four years later, the two elements never connected up: faith and community. Here’s what I mean. We overlaid our kids group onto a functioning Zen community, comprised mostly of the practitioners I mentioned above, young adults and retirees. In some ways, they enjoyed having kids around, but they didn’t know what to do with us. Although our group grew, it grew on the periphery. The second issue was that the parents coming for the kids programming weren’t really part of the Zen center community. They were interested in mindfulness classes for their kids, but they weren’t necessarily Buddhist or practitioners. Plus, most didn’t have the time or interest in connecting with the rest of the community because, although it’s fun to come to a kids class, they don’t have additional time to practice with the broader community. Therefore, we grew this community of kids and families, but it was segmented from the rest of the faith tradition.
At this point, the family community is transient. If you’re coming for a mindfulness “class” it’s much different from, say, going to church. The “class” mentality doesn’t keep parents dedicated to the group. Therefore, folks come and go, and there isn’t a consistent group attending. There isn’t much connection to the rest of the center. Everything feels disjointed.
My wife has more recently been going to a Unitarian Universalist church for services, and I’ve been coming along. UU’s are experts at children’s religious education. It’s a hallmark of the faith community, and I find it to be inclusive, respectful of difference, and amazingly varied across the lifespan. When I see this, I feel an emptiness in my heart. This emptiness comes from my strong desire to force something that isn’t easy. It comes from this a desire to be a part of a Zen faith community that also honors, engages, and loves families and kids. But this isn’t the case within most Zen centers. Even if there is a recognition of the importance of family, there is no outlet to foster and care for parents and kids.
I’m trying to come to peace with where things are for me now. I realize that forcing a community based on my own desire isn’t very Buddhist, isn’t very “Zen”. All my disappointment and grief are a product of that desire, and of seeing what I “can’t have” from the UU community in my own Zen center. I find that I need to remind myself of the teaching I received was from my initial interview with that abbot. My family is my priority and my practice. As an Zen practitioner, I engage fully with the situation I am faced with, whether it’s sitting down for a meal with my family, going to a kids group at the Zen center, or listening to a sermon at the Unitarian church. It will be a process letting go of my grief for the community that never was, but that grief is what holds me back from fully engaging, fully seeing the glory or the community I have right in front of me: my own family.
With Santa prepping to deliver millions of toys to good boys and girls tonight, I thought I’d take a moment to consider McKenna Pope and her quest for a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven. McKenna Pope is an eighth grade student who composed and advertised a petition to Hasbro that garnered more than 44,000 signatures on Change.org’s website. According to McKenna, her 4-year-old brother loves to bake, but Hasbro’s Easy Bake Ovens are pink and purple, which leads him to believe that they are only for girls. She feels this is unfair to boys with an interest in the culinary arts. Many male celebrity chefs rallied around her cause. Hasbro eventually invited McKenna to their headquarters in Pawtucket, RI, and unveiled a new gender-neutral version of the oven in black and silver.
McKenna’s youtube post received comments ranging from whole-hearted support to enraged anti-gay sentiments. One point of contention between McKenna’s respondents was whether Hasbro and other companies should shift their marketing approach toward more gender-neutral marketing or if parents should look past the gendered colors of pink and purple and, by doing so, embrace pink products for boys. I’d like to think that both approaches are valid and both should have some momentum thrown behind them by this Easy Bake Oven movement.
Looking back on my previous posts, I’ve obviously a proponent of interests that could be considered hyper-male: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Legos, Ninjago, and zombies to name a few. Of course all of these things can (and are) loved by girls (awesome girls), but if we’re speaking in generalities, I’d have to say they’re pretty boy-biased. Yet in many ways, my family tries to practice flexibility with gender roles. While I hold those interests, I’m not much of a sports fan, and I cut my son’s hair because I used to be a cosmetologist. My wife is very athletic and could probably kick my ass. My son, for all his love of Star Wars and Ninjago, has also taken ballet and is a My Little Pony fan (more on that later).
I believe one of the easiest ways of practicing mindless parenting, or being an undead dad, is going with the flow of conventionality and refusing to question and evaluate one’s own stereotypes. I know many people, some of whom are in my family, who do things because “that’s just the way things are,” or “boys like X and girls like Y”. I’ve had nephews who have been clad in Chicago Bears paraphernalia before they could hold their heads up straight, and the same for nieces with princess gear. I think it’s fine for boys to like football and girls to play princess, but it’s the automaticity that I have a hard time with. These kids haven’t had a chance to express their own interests before their children were molded in a certain direction.
To be mindful as a parent means understanding your own biases and intents and making conscious decisions about them.
This point being established, I too have found myself uneasy with certain of my son’s interests, based completely on my own biases. About a month and a half ago, we were at the house of family friends. Our son has grown up with their little girl. The two were playing with her My Little Ponies (MLPs), and my son fell in love. He was fascinated with brushing the ponies’ manes and tails. I thought this was just a fleeting interest, but in the days that followed, he kept asking for one. Eventually, we visited Target, and we looked for the MLP aisle. I knew the MLPs would be in the pink-clad aisles, along with the Barbies and other “girly” things; the aisles that my son never gravitated toward in the store. Part of me thought (hoped?) that when he saw the aisle he’d probably abandon the interest, but that wasn’t the case. My son wasn’t deterred and searched diligently for an Apple Jack pony.
What was my deal? I always supported his interests regardless of how gendered they were, but couldn’t get behind this one. I think there’s a part of me that remembers my sisters playing with My Little Ponies, and back then I was a hardcore GI Joe kid with strong anti-MLP sentiments. Perhaps I was just riding that wave of childhood rejection. Also, my son’s gender-flexible or gender-neutral interests up until that point had not been ultra-commerical. This was the first commercial, super-pink interest he’d had. I’ve always had a problem with uber-gendered marketing, and maybe that was the reason for my discomfort. Regardless, by showing any sort of rejection of his gender-unconvenional interest, I could have sent the wrong message: for him to like things that girls like, or things that are pink and purple, was wrong.
This is why I like McKenna Pope’s plea. Boys and girls can like the same things, whether they’re toy ovens, plastic ponies, or metal cars. I do think that companies aggressively market to one gender and therefore squeeze out the opposite sex to the point of it appearing problematic for boys to show any interest in these hyper-feminine products and vice versa. Moving toward marketing that is more gender-neurtral might prompt more boys to consider Easy Bake Ovens or more girls to pick up lightsabers. But on the family front, we as parents have to look at our own biases so that we’re mindful of why and how we push our own interests on our children.
I’ll conclude by writing this: I don’t think that mindful parenting equals gender-neutral parenting. I can respect parents with strong conviction about maintaining conventional stereotypes so long as they have explored why they find these gender roles helpful and think about how they want to encourage them in their children. Mindful parenting means exploring one’s beliefs and consciously enacting them.