Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dubious advice about fatherhood...

Coelecanth said...

"My gift for this holiday season turned out to be news of a life changing sort. I'm going to be a father....You gave me some very good advice about marriage, any advice about fatherhood would be greatly appreciated. I don't mind saying I'm terrified, in a happy sort of way, about the whole prospect."

Seriously, being slightly terrified is a very good starting point! I wish I had some sage advice about fatherhood. I can relate some of my experiences and what I've learned from them, but I won't claim they're universally true. And if I really want to be truthful, I'll have Mary read this before I publish it. She never hesitates to set me straight, and though I don't like to admit it, that's sometimes necessary.

Children change our lives in ways we can never imagine. Before the kids were born, Mary and I had a routine we followed on weekends. We'd eat out and go to the movies. When the babies arrived, all that ended. Now that they're teenagers, we're beginning to realize that our lives will change yet again when they leave, and we can't imagine what it will be like.


My father, a wise and thoughtful man, said that husbands should be able to walk on water, and the husbands of pregnant women should be able to walk about three feet ABOVE the water. We have to consult that inner compass, the one that directs us toward love. When she's getting whipsawed by hormones - a common occurrence in pregnancy - check that compass often! The mood swings will pass just like a summer storm, and that 'love compass' keeps us headed in the right direction. It's best to take a long-term view of our relationship because it helps weather those storms. Actually, this is good advice long after the pregnancy is over.

Babies arrive without operating manuals or instructions. In the absence of those instructions we pattern ourselves on our parents for good or bad. I know people who hated some things about their parents, yet they repeat the same behaviors. In my life, I've deliberately tried to avoid some of the things my parents did, yet now and then, I hear my father's voice coming out of my own mouth! It's eerie.

That lovely bride, the woman you married because you love her above all else, suddenly has her attention fixed on a squalling little baby that interrupts your sleep, your meals, and nearly every other aspect of your life. Let's just say that when the situation is becoming amorous one evening, and the crying starts down the hall, she won't hesitate to leave you in an instant. Try to become accustomed to slipping to the number two position in her life, consult that inner compass, and be thankful that you're still ahead of the cats and dogs (maybe).

When the kids were little, I thought it would last forever. It certainly seemed to be forever at the time. But looking back on it now, I can appreciate what my mother said, "They grow up too fast!" They believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. It's a magical time that passes quickly.


When my own kids were babies, I managed to get eight hours of sleep every day - about 2 hours at a time. I worked rotating shifts back then. I'd arrive home after midnight, so I could stay up until 5AM or so when Mary would take over and let me sleep through the morning. Caring for babies was definitely a team effort, but in all honesty, I can say that I was the junior member. Moms carry the bulk of the load. I think that's why Mother's Day arrives before Father's Day. It's only right.

The racing cyclist's maxim, to eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty, and rest before you're tired is good advice for a new parent too. You'll discover that kids offer a wealth of interruptions. There have been times when I've finished reading the Sunday paper on Tuesday, for instance. Meals may be irregular, just like sleep will be at a premium.

You learn to be flexible about time. We'd decide to leave the house to go somewhere and actually leave 4 or 5 hours later - after something involving the kids intervened.

It's important to know where you can obtain disposable diapers, formula, ipecac, and infant Tylenol at 3AM. It only seems like you're wrapping their butts in dollar bills, until you run out of diapers in the middle of the night. Then you'll give some consideration to actually wrapping their butts in dollar bills as you trudge off to a convenience store in the rain.

Colic can be cured with voodoo. Jordan had colic. It results from the build-up of stomach gas the baby can't belch out. You'd think this wouldn't be a problem because they vomit everything else out. It causes pain, and if your kid has colic, he'll scream and scream and scream and scream, sometimes for hours. This makes parents go crazy. We found that walking with him helped, but he still screamed. I wore hearing protectors as I walked him around in the house. I walked outdoors for miles. He'd be quiet when the cool night air hit his face, but as soon as we returned to the house, the screaming resumed. Sometimes vibration and white noise will quiet a colicky baby. Riding in a car didn't help. Putting him in a car seat atop the drier didn't help. (As an aside, laundry is a daily chore with newborns and small children, so the drier runs constantly.) Finally, Mary discovered that if he was in his car seat and she ran the vacuum cleaner - ominously named "Jaws" - around him, he'd quiet down and fall asleep. Now, you may not believe any of this, but if your nerves are totally frazzled by a screaming baby some evening, you'll consider voodoo. Trust me.


Everything breakable in the house migrates upward, out of reach of small hands. One couple I met said that they'd teach their child the meaning of 'No!' rather than moving all the breakables. Guess what? Everything moved. You'll find yourself paying attention to all those strange childproof gadgets and elderly women will suddenly become valuable information resources.

A three-year-old child is basically a wild animal cleverly disguised as a human being. They bite. They throw temper tantrums. And sometimes they really need a quick swat on the Pampers. Political correctness and Dr. Seuss be damned.

Regardless, your language improves. A friend's daughter was visiting grandma, and when the little girl dropped her plate over the side of the high chair, she peered after it. "Dammit!" she yelled. Granny gave Karl a stony look and asked, "Where did she learn THAT, I wonder?"

School-age children

You'll realize that professional educators share some of your goals regarding your children, yet they differ in others. Allow them to make recommendations. You make the decisions.

Eventually, every parent hears, "You’re not being FAIR!" My reply was, "I don't have to be fair. I have to do what's right." You're his father, not his best friend. Set firm limits and don't hesitate to explain your decisions. On the other hand, there are times a child cannot understand the reasoning process or the more complicated decisions. For instance, you'll teach them that telling lies is a bad thing. Then they'll want to know why it's OK to tell Mrs. So-and-so that she looks wonderful when in reality she weighs as much as a Buick. Tiptoeing through this minefield is difficult for both parents and children. One thing I've learned is to be able to admit when I've been wrong and apologize to them for it. Sure, the kids will get angry at you, and you'll get angry at them. It's time to consult that inner compass again.


At this point, as a friend put it, you realize you're just along for the ride. Whatever character traits you instilled in then at an early age are the traits that will carry them through adolescence. You can try to change them, but for the most part, their values and character are set in stone. My son, that same boy who cannot clean up his room, works continuously at his fast-food job, emptying garbage cans, cleaning tables, and generally keeping busy. His supervisors noticed. I call him the pod Jordan; because the one who lives with us would have someone else breathe for him if he could. We must have done something right, but for the life of me, I can’t explain what it was. Other parents tell us he’s very polite, and says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. But at home we get one word responses at best.

“As the twig is bent the tree inclines” can clearly be applied to teenagers.

Somewhere between infancy and adolescence, you'll teach them to ride a bike. They'll learn to balance and brake. There will be some skinned knees and gashed hands. You'll fret and fuss when they accompany you on their first road ride in traffic. Then there will come a day your heart will be in your mouth as they ride off alone for the first time. Keep this in mind if you have a daughter, because that heart-in-your-mouth feeling will come back when they start talking about weddings and marriage, but it will be amplified a hundredfold.

Finally, as I've said before, there's no one of us as smart as the whole bunch put together. I'm certainly not an expert on the subject of raising children, but I'm willing to tell you what I've learned, much of it the hard way. Those of you reading this who already have children are cordially invited to post your thoughts in comments.

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Blogger Jeffrey28 said...

I love both the question here, and the thoughtful response. The piece I would like to add has to do with taking some time to really get in touch with what is most important to you and what you want your legacy to be. In the work I do with Executive Dads, I stress that every father needs to become very clear on what his definition of success is, and what a fulfilling life is, to him. And I believe that this is more than an intellectual exercise - the definitions need to feel right. Otherwise, it is so easy to get overwhelmed with all the day-to-day concerns - the diapers, the mess, the challenges, the job, the pressure. The way out of that, the way to stay on course, is to actually have a course. All the best, this is a wonderful time for you.

12:58 AM  
Blogger Ed W said...

Jeffrey...I think we could add to this endlessly and wind up with a book full of dubious advice. I used 'dubious' because all of it should be taken with a grain of salt and filtered through our individual experiences.

Having goals is important, but it's tempting to substitute our own goals for those of our children. For instance, I know one young man whose parents told him that he will be a orthodontist - no ifs ands or buts. That's what they want for him, and if his goal doesn't coincide with their goal, too bad.

For my kids, the goal is somewhat different. I want them to be good, honest, hard-working people, but most importantly, I want them to be well-adjusted and happy. Youth is the time to pursue your dreams. Middle age arrives all too quickly.
My daughter may pass up going to college by investigating some opportunities in ministry. I've told her that college will always be there if she wants to go. And my son has a dream of playing professional football. Realistically, we know the chances are slim, but it's had an enormous impact on his grades.

My family does not encourage these choices. I've been under some pressure to have the kids make more career-oriented decisions. Like I said, sometimes we repeat our parent's behavior patterns, and at other times we deliberately diverge from them. I'm definitely diverging!

8:56 AM  
Blogger Coelecanth said...

Beautiful, in every sense of the word.

I realize that my request was a little broad and presumptuous. I was mostly just expessing my wonder and fear at this turn in my life. Your response was more than an internet stranger could hope for. Thank you. I can see why your children have turned out well.

I take all advice with a cow-lick sized grain. I've found that advice is like a tool box. You reach in grab the wrench that looks right and sometimes it fits, sometimes it doesn't. You have to try it out and watch carefully to make sure you're not rounding out the bolt head.

Jeffrey: yah goals. I can see that. If nothing else it will set a good example.

6:56 PM  

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