Fatherhood never fails to disappoint when it comes to new trials and tribulations (and opportunities for greatness). Case in point, in this year of firsts, my eight-month-old son and I are going to experience yet another first together:
Several days of just me and him. And a plane trip to boot. All without the wife-mother.
Should I be worried? Will my boy immediately freak out once his mother fades from the taxi’s rear-view mirror? Without my wife’s calming influence, will I be the one who loses it when she slips out of view?
There are so many things that I rely on her for when it comes to child-rearing. Pretty much everything, actually. On a typical night when my wife goes out, I get all flummoxed and forget everything I ever knew about how to take care of the kid. I think: what will i feed him? If he cries, is it his diaper that needs changing? It’s clear that I need to be a bit more confident about my care-taking abilities.
I have to admit, fatherhood can stress me out at times. But as my wife keeps reminding me, our boy didn’t make the choice to land on our doorstep…we invited him here. So even though I sometimes view all the baby-stuff as, well, “work”, perhaps going mano-a-mano with the lad over a few days will form an even deeper bond between us
Or drive me absolutely stark-raving.
What was your first baby-trip like sans significant other? Did you lose it? Or did you come back an all-knowing sage?
by contributor Chris Belden, a new addition to the Band of Fathers. Chris is a recent graduate of the Fairfield University MFA program. He lives, teaches & writes in Connecticut.
My daughter Francesca (aka Frankie) started ballet lessons at age two, and was enthusiastic for two solid years, but over the past few months she’s resisted going to her lessons because they’re “too boring.” This presents one of those confounding challenges that plague my wife and I on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. Do we force Frankie to go to ballet, which means we’ll have to endure her crying and pleas to do something else, or do we allow her to make the choice herself? Which choice is better for her? For us?
By now–unless you’ve been in that cave everyone alludes to when discussing cultural phenomena–you have heard of Amy Chua and her controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which the Chinese-American author chronicles her pathologically strict parenting style, which includes such rules as no sleepovers, no play dates, no grade lower than an A on report cards, no choosing of extracurricular activities, and no ranking lower than #1 in any subject. Chua is ruthlessly honest in her account of how Chinese mothers differ from western moms. When one of her two daughters hand-makes a birthday card for her, Chua throws it back in her face and says, “I want a better one.” She calls her other daughter “garbage” when she doesn’t live up to her extraordinarily high expectations. This treatment, she claims, has made her kids smarter, stronger and more resilient than their sissy western peers.
Like most parents, I cringe at the cruelty depicted in the book. How many years of intense therapy will it require for Chua’s daughters to recover? But, also like most parents, I’ve been trying to figure out whether Amy Chua is an unforgivably selfish parent, or a merciless but uniquely unselfish one.
Since becoming a father, I’ve wrestled with the natural selfishness left over from my many years of being a non-parent—without a child to care for, after all, we’re able to do our own thing most of the time. When that old selfishness rears its ugly head, it can sometimes be obvious, as when I let Frankie watch a DVD while I check my emails. But what about when she’s resisting ballet class (or swim class, or pre-school, or taking a walk, etc.), and I force her to go, as Amy Chua would? Is that selfish on my part? Or is giving in to Frankie’s demands the selfish act—choosing the easier path, and avoiding emotional outbursts that make me uneasy and afraid? It’s easy to disguise giving in as being indulgent, or as doing something kind for my daughter, when really I’m doing it for myself.
Where is the line of selfishness for Amy Chua? Clearly she wants her kids to line up exactly the way she wants them to line up—they are fulfilling her expectations more than their own. This strikes me as flagrantly selfish. At the same time, Chua makes an enormous effort to oversee her children’s progress, to pay attention to their schoolwork, their behavior. She doesn’t give them a DVD to watch while she catches up on her emails. She doesn’t give in just to make things easier for her. In this way, she is impressively unselfish.
After critics attacked her mother’s book, Chua’s older daughter published an open letter to her mother in the New York Post entitled “Why I Love My Strict Chinese Mom,” in which she writes, “I think your strict parenting forced me to be more independent.” Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, at 18, appears ready to leave the “tiger den” and go out into the world a smart, ambitious young woman.
I’m still wrestling with whether or not to let my child quit ballet. Ooh, maybe she should try wrestling…
Is Amy Chua completely wrong about how to raise a child? Is there a satisfying and healthy medium?
When we were a childless couple, a four-day ski weekend in Vermont would certainly be classified as a “getaway.” We were leaving responsibility, jobs, and the city far behind. But now, with children, there’s no “getting away.”
We’ve been going on a ski weekend somewhere in New England each February for years. It’s a great opportunity to spend time together with friends, and to sit in a hot tub for far longer than is recommended.
These days, all four couples have at least one kid, and it has changed everything. It’s a virtual kidsplosion in our ski rental home…from little bodies to high chairs to toys and other gear (none of it ski-related, yet). No more late nights for us–now we’re asleep by 10pm from the physical exhaustion of not just skiing, but keeping up with our kids. So strange that we can pine for the days of late nights and crippling hangovers.
How has your vacation life changed with the onslaught of kids?
When it comes to feeding time, my child can hardly contain himself. He makes a noise that is one part scared-as-hell, and one part delighted-as-all-getout. It’s the kind of noise you make in your nightmares when you need to scream to warn someone of impending danger, but can’t even get your mouth open. Just curious if anyone else is hearing these kinds of things.
As a high school student, my daughter talked some big talk about getting out of this small town and moving to New York City. With nothing stopping her now, my wife and I are surprised that she’s still living at home, commuting to college in Brooklyn two days a week and treading water the other five. Bigger than her bravado, it seems, is the sum of her fear and laziness.
I’m glad she is the kid who errs on the side of caution. Her teenage years could have been much harder on me! Unlike my dad, I never had to deal with her puking vodka out her bedroom window, sneaking home at 4am, or calling me from the local police station. But she is definitely erring at this point: it’s time to walk the talk.
Kicking your kid out of the house is a recipe for sixty years of dysfunctional relationships, but how do you avoid the increasingly popular “parasite single” phenomenon? In our case, there is hope. She knows what’s expected of her (a job, a relocation plan) and she pays lip service to cooperation, but there’s little follow-through. Inertia trumps ambition.
I never expected to quote Ann Landers, but she sums it up well, “It is not what you do for your children but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” So, my wife and I are pushing her out on that tightrope of adult responsibility. We are providing coaching and a net, and we expect her to fall a few times, but she needs to log hours walking that high wire in order to develop courage and learn to balance. Find a job, track your spending, recruit some roommates, find an apartment. It doesn’t get any easier; you just get better at it.
What are some of the tough lessons you’ve had to teach your kids?
When it came time for science experiments (or anything involving math), most of our dads were useless. But here’s one dad who didn’t just create a science experiment with his kid, he started a space program.
My father, Skip Curtis, passed away four weeks ago at the age of 64 due to the ravaging effects of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He had dedicated his last 4-5 years to numerous studies at Boston University’s Alzheimer’s Research Center to help any way he could so millions of others won’t have to face this disease.
In remembrance, and in honor of him, I’m proud to announce our upcoming “Hike to Remember” in support of all those that have lost someone to Alzheimer’s Disease. My twin brother Jamie and myself are set to hike the 51 miles of the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway starting on Saturday, October 9th.
If there is not a cure within 5 years the number of people affected will rise from 5 million to 15 million. This hike is not only in memory of our Dad but to create further awareness of the disease and raise money for the Skip Curtis Fund at BU’s Alzheimer’s Research Center.
I will be blogging along the way at my site, BostonOutdoor, and hope you will follow us along our journey. Our friend Kristen will also be hiking with us and blogging for the SELF magazine fitness blog. We welcome anyone that would like to join us at any point during our hike.
That headline, by the way, is a joke. Well, sort of a joke. My father said more often than once that he wanted me to be “better” than he was. I always wondered about what he meant by “better”? I guess the point was that he wanted me to find out.
You’re familiar with the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, well, I’ve embarked on a “What Would My Dad NOT Do?” journey. This is certainly not to say that he did so many things wrong, it’s just that I can certainly make a conscious effort to improve on the example he set.
Some bullet points:
Be More Emotional: Not in the bad way, but in the gushy way. Too often, our dads were so consumed with work (and had no idea of a work/life balance), that they saved all that emotion until they retired. (Have you noticed this trend? There are SO many spoiled grand-babies because grand-dads can finally be affectionate). Anyway, I hope to embarrass my son by hugging/kissing him well into his teens as I drop him off at school.
Road Rage: I’m attempting to consider the feelings of the passengers in the car I’m driving, so if they’re uncomfortable with my road rage, then so am I, and I ratchet it down.
Physical Flexibility: My dad would probably never have done yoga, so I am committed to doing on a regular basis.
Dietary Awareness: I’m not some kind of macrobiotic dude, far from it, but I am trying to not eat a bag of potato chips at a time. I’m also drinking green tea instead of coffee.
Work: My dad was not the biggest fan of his chosen profession. So early on, I made a conscious choice to avoid the legal profession. I’m attempting to enjoy what I do and look for other ways to express myself creatively outside of work.
There are hundreds of things I’m doing VERY similarly to how my dad did them—after all, he set a great example. But there are a few things yet to tweak.
What things did your dad do that you are actively trying to do differently?
My last post described how my twelve year old son was ejected from the town park when some roughhousing went too far. Sadly, that sit-com episode’s happy ending was not the end, after all.
During a recent game of Capture the Flag, Logan (illegally) reached across the boundary line to shake hands with a younger kid, then pulled him over, arresting him “as a joke.” The irate prisoner swung wild, so Logan wrestled him to the ground. He got ejected from the park for the remaining summer weeks, and his undersized opponent got first-aid.
Before Logan even got home from the town park, the Rec director called me to explain the event and his decision to exile Logan. I assured him of my hard-assed support and expressed my embarrassment. I had some time to stew while Logan pedaled home.
I considered a “go to your room” greeting, but decided to hear him out first. He walked in and I told him to spill it. Again, he pleaded self-defense; he was reacting to a punch. I explained the obvious: getting mugged on the street is not the same as getting smacked by a little kid during a supervised game at the town park. Self defense sounds good, but look who got kicked out. What might you do next time so you don’t get kicked out? Back off, tell an adult.
His redeeming attribute is that he can be reasoned with after the fact. He can see his errors in retrospect and admit them. He feels broken, fated to make the wrong choices. I remind him of the Othello game we played the night before, each move another fork in the decision tree. When he was losing, we swapped colors. The losing color ended up eking out a win. The moves were not foregone conclusions; the outcome was not predestined. The same is true in real life – one’s choices add up to end results. And the only way to get better at picking that higher path is to pay your tuition at the school of hard-knocks.
Now go to your room; you’re grounded.
What do you do about discipline? Take the “scorched earth” approach, or hear your kids out?
At our house growing up, the Tuesday after Labor day didn’t exactly mean “Back to School.” The summer was over and to my dad’s way of thinking, it was time for my brother and I to go “back to work”, in this case, to school. And guess who reveled in our irritation more than anyone? Our father.
He loved to rub it in. To the point where he printed out, on his dot-matrix printer, the phrase: “Back to the Salt Mines. Back to ‘em!” He’d put these banners up for my brother and me year after year. In the bathroom. In the kitchen. On the garage door. It was the one school morning he’d actually get up early for in order to take pictures of our unamusement.
As my father has passed away, I turned to another source that could help explain how this phrase came to be part of his vernacular. My uncle said that at the end of the summer, his grandfather (my great grandfather) would ring a loud bell and yell that very same thing: “Back to the Salt Mines” (perhaps in reference to Josef Stalin’s Siberian salt mines where he sent those who disagreed with him…like everybody). Interesting how that is, when someone does something irritating to you (like your grandfather ringing a loud bell and yelling at you) that you make a concerted effort to pass it on.
Would I do the same thing to my son? You’re damn right I will. But probably with larger, more elaborately printed signs–you know, for maximum torment.
Did you have any back-to-school traditions that you loved/hated?