“Daddy has a purple shirt,” she said, pointing to me.  Then she pointed at her mother and said, “Mommy has black.”
     I witnessed this with my own eyes and ears this morning at breakfast.  The vocabulary explosion I predicted a few months ago has arrived (albeit a little later than I first supposed).  She is speaking in complete sentences and they are appropriate to the context of whatever is going on in her world.  “I want to watch Elmo,” she says to me, plopping down on the sofa in front of the TV.  (Netflix streams Sesame Street, for those of you who might be interested.)  “I have a boo-boo,” she said as she pointed to the scrape on her knee.  Then the day after I had a lump cut off of my back, when I walked into the kitchen after a shower with my shirt off, she pointed and said, “Daddy has a boo-boo on his back.”
     So okay, her enunciation still needs lots of work.  “I want to watch Elmo” sounds like “I wuh watch Elmo.”  “Daddy has a boo-boo on his back” was more like “Daddy boo-boo on back.”  So fine, my daughter’s not an oratorical genius at the age of two.  But whatever; I’m still impressed.  Like all parents, I’m overwhelmed when my child displays her intelligence and growth.  And since she’s the only child I’m around on a regular basis, I’m predisposed to believe she’s the smartest child ever.
     For decades, I have been making fun of parents who think their children are the best at everything.  I’ve copped to this before.  But now that I’ve kind of become one of those parents, I do have a more full understanding of how and why parents get like this.  You see, I remember when my little girl couldn’t talk.  It wasn’t terribly long ago.  And then – almost overnight, it sometimes seems – she is talking.  It’s the same with, well, everything she does.  I don’t have to think that far back to remember a time when she could only eat, cry, and poop.  Now she put her own shoes on.  And feed herself.  And name her colors and animals.  And talk in complete sentences.  She’s learned to do more in the past two years than I have learned in the past twenty – and I have two degrees and several professional certifications.  Granted, my daughter can’t give you a historical exegesis of developmental theory.  But which do you think is more important: Freud, or feeding yourself?  Yeah, I think my daughter’s recent learning is a little more useful than my recent learning.
     People expect me to speak in (mostly) complete sentences.  But when a toddler does it, it’s mind-blowing.  No one thinks I’m smart when I say, “I want to watch Elmo.”  But to hear a two-year-old express herself this clearly and directly is another thing.  Language, particularly the English language, is a complex, difficult, nuanced system of understanding and processing.  And she’s doing it at two!  And she’s the only two-year-old I see do it on such a regular basis.  Her buddies at daycare can do this too, I know.  But I haven’t watched them develop the skills.
     Here’s a story that illustrates the whole reason parents think their children rule the universe (other than the obvious reason that a child does, in most ways, rule her parents’ universe).  The other night I was feeding my daughter dinner.  She was eating a few crackers, her “dessert” that she gets when she’s eaten the other foods on her plate.  I was having a snack as well, scooping out hummus onto wheat wafers.  She pointed to the bowl of hummus and said, “I want some.”  Nothing terribly unusual here; she often wants whatever we have, even if she already has it.  So I took one of her crackers and scooped it in the bowl, a dollop of hummus on its edge, and I handed it back to her.  With her other hand, she pointed at the hummus on the cracker and said, “Name?”
     It took me a moment to realize what she’d asked me.
     “It’s called ‘hummus,’” I said.
     “Hummus,” she repeated, and then took a bite.
     That right there is the learning process in action.  Not only did she encounter a new thing and speak its name out loud, she did this intentionally, seeking to know the name of the experience even before she experienced it.  I didn’t just watch her learn; I watched her want to learn.  I’m sure it won’t be too many years before we hit the “why” stage of childhood.  As comically obnoxious as this is to most parents, it is a child’s way of seeking to understand her world, of wanting to learn and comprehend.
     Why is that so amazing?  Well, when is the last time that you truly wanted to learn something new?  When is the last time you deliberately and intentionally sought out an experience you’ve never had before?  I must confess that I’m not nearly as curious about the world as my daughter is.  We parents have the incredible blessing of watching the learning process at ground zero: this is how development takes place at its most basic, fundamental level, and it is powerfully humbling and exciting to be reminded of the life-changing power of curiosity.  When I keep saying about my daughter, “She’s so smart!” what I really mean is, “She’s so curious and she’s doing something about it!”
     When she shows me what she’s done with her curiosity, it blows my mind.  I already knew I was wearing a purple shirt before I went in for breakfast this morning.  But when she said, “Daddy has a purple shirt,” I saw myself differently. 
 
 
     It was not a pretty morning.  For reasons I don’t need to share on the internets, I was already in a bad mood.  Work problems, some physical infirmities, the gradual accumulation of dozens of small annoying things stupid people do: you know, typical adult crap.  And then came the odd mix of toddler behavior that bounces between ridiculously adorable cheerfulness to obnoxiously inexplicable whining.  Kicking while trying to put her shoes on.  Jerking us around by telling us she needs to poop and then running bare-assed around the bathroom.  Saying she wants a banana and then throwing it on the floor.  Clinging to her babydoll at the cost of every other activity.  Then trying to run out the door before we’re ready to go.  As I tried to hold her back from running outside, attempting to listen to whatever her mother was saying to me, she broke free and made a run for it, only to have her feet meet my much larger, heavier foot which was quite obviously planted on the ground underneath my legs, which is where my feet tend to be when I’m standing in a doorway.  But she wasn’t thinking about how there might be things in her way, she needed to be in the garage for something.  So she hit my feet and tripped, landing on the linoleum with a loud thump.  Then with the crying and wailing and big fat tears tumbling down her face and the outstretched arms crying for Mama because, obviously, it was Daddy’s fault that she fell in the first place.
     And you know what, dear readers?  I did not care.  I did not feel bad for her.  I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that she deserved it, but that’s because I’ve had a little time to decompress.  If you went back in time to this morning and asked the version of me that was standing in the doorway watching her trip over my foot and hit the floor, that version of me, a much less nice version of this current version of me (which is still struggling to feel nice), that version of me would definitely have said she deserved it.  Actually, now that I’m writing this down, my current version of me has changed his mind and has decided he will actually go so far as to say she really did deserve it, because I told her to wait a moment until we were all ready to go to the car, I made myself clear, and she disobeyed and defied me and there are reasons I do the things I do as a parent, damn it.  So yeah: that’s what you get.
     I drove her to daycare in silence.  She quit crying by the time the car was backed out, and when we got to daycare, she seemed to have completely forgotten about it.  But I hadn’t; I was still pissed.  So when she tried to run out into the parking lot, I grabbed her arm and snapped at her.  When she dropped her bag several times walking to the front door, I had no patience.  And then when she clung to my leg in her classroom, even though I was now running late for work, I did not have the kindness and compassion to hug her goodbye.  I handed her to her teacher and left.  And it’s been rough ever since.
      Man, what an ugly place to be.  But I don’t think it’s that unusual as a parent to be in this place.  I named this blog “Shaken Parent Syndrome” because in my very first post I found myself wrestling with the ways I feel shaken and unsettled by my own fears of being emotionally absent or abusive to my child.  It started when she was an infant and just cried nonstop for no reason.  But now it’s a different concern: she’s willful and determined and will hurt herself.  Let me be clear: regardless of my terrible mood this morning, I was a responsible, appropriate parent.  I didn’t feel like hitting her and I didn’t yell at her.  But inside, it feels like I might as well have.
     It’s both frighteningly new and terribly familiar terrain.  This is one of the many burdens of being a parent.  Some mornings just suck.  Some evenings just suck.  I’ve noticed that I have far less patience in the morning than my spouse does, but in the evenings, it’s her mother that loses patience far quicker.  And then there are the moments we both run out of patience, with her and with each other.  Thankfully, our two-year-old daughter has a far faster reset button than we do, and I find myself jealous of her emotional resilience in bouncing back from a bad mood.
     I’m just barely good enough some days.  You know how some days you wake up ready to face the world, full of optimism and determination and gratitude for being so blessed as to participate in the great sacred endeavors of life in this world?  Yeah, I am not having that day today.  Some days, the only reason I get out of bed is so I can drink some coffee.  But I suppose that as long as I get out of bed in enough time to get everyone where they need to go, then that is good enough.  As in, barely good enough is still good enough.  Thank goodness for that, because it’s all I got right now.
     When I finally find the time to step back from this foul mood and get into a better headspace, I will remind myself that being good enough is actually more than just good enough; it is exactly what is called for.  No child needs (or even always wants, I believe) to have a perfect parent.  Never mind that the perfect parent does not exist.  If he did exist, he would do damage to his child.  Children need parents who are only good enough.  Children need to see that their parents are flawed, that mommies and daddies lose their patience and have bad days and then recover and still love their children.  Bad moods will not destroy us or our love for our children.  Bad moods can be inhabited without resorting to abuse or violence while still feeling yucky and crummy.  It’s okay to have bad days and it’s okay to fail a little every now and then.  I can still cling to “good enough,” even if I’m barely dangling on the edge with a few desperate fingers.  This is all part of learning to live life in this world.
     That’s what I’ll tell myself when I’m in a better headspace: good for you for being good enough.  But right now, all I can think is: I’m trying to do my best, damn it.
 

Amen

06/14/2012

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     Last night, our little girl said her first prayer.
     Well, that may not necessarily be true.  As far as I know, we might consider the cry she made in the birthing suite its own kind of prayer.  So I should clarify: last night, our little girl said her first corporate prayer of her own initiative.
     And another confession: we prompted her.  We’ve started eating meals together as a family, feeding her the same thing that we eat, sitting at the table together.  This is taking a great deal of coordination and planning; our schedules as two full-time working parents makes it much easier to tag-team feeding her in her high chair while putting off our own meal until after she’s gone to bed.  But she’s far old enough for us to start modeling social eating habits, plus it frees up a good bit of time in the evening for us as well.  So when we sit down to eat together, we hold hands and I say this blessing: “Dear God, thank you for this day.  Thank you for this food.  And thank you for my family.  Amen.”  It’s simple while still covering the bases of what I was taught a mealtime blessing should cover: gratitude for being able to live and eat with a loving family.
     When we were done, she repeated loudly, “Amen!”  This was adorable, so we laughed and generally affirmed her.  But then, a few minutes into our meal, she held out her hands to both of us.
     “Do you want to pray?” my spouse asked her.
     “Yeah.”
     So we held her hands.  She looked at me expectantly, so I said, “Dear God.”  A moment.  “Will you say it with me?” I asked.  “Dear God.”
     “Dee Gaw.”
     “Thank you for this day.”
     “Tankoo fo day.”
     “Thank you for this food.”
     “Tankoo fo foo.”
     “Thank you for my family.”
     “Tankoo fo fammee.”
     “Amen.”
     “Amen!”
     Then as our little girl dove into her spinach tortellini, my spouse and I cried a little.
     Clearly, this prayer was a function of our two-year-old’s penchant for copying and repeating everything she sees.  (Seriously. Ev. Ree. Thing.)  Prayer is a ritualized process for most of us, and you could argue that she was simply repeating the ritual without understanding the meaning behind it.  I’d agree with that.  I would also say that this in no way diminishes or subtracts from the meaning and power of what happened in that moment and what our little girl learned about prayer.
     Prayer is a difficult thing to define.  The Bible has far less how-to instructions on prayer than one might think, although there is plenty in it that pertains to the concept.  As a Christian, the most often cited and helpful directive in the New Testament may be the Lord’s Prayer.  (Although as a hospital chaplain, I can’t help but notice that the Lord’s Prayer does not ask for healing or comfort for other people who are sick.)  The Lord’s Prayer was Jesus’ own instruction to his disciples about how and what to pray: Praise God’s sovereignty, a desire for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in this world, a simple request for this day’s physical needs, our own forgiveness  from God and the capacity for us to forgive others, and a plea for protection and salvation.  It’s a great guide, really.  I memorized it as a child even if I wasn’t raised in a tradition that recited it word-for-word with ritualized regularity.
     Although there are plenty of other passages in the New Testament (not to mention beautifully poetic and powerful prayers all throughout the Old Testament), but I tend to return myself to Lord’s Prayer when wondering about what prayer is and what it does.  As a person who has spent a large portion of his career praying with people in situations of dire physical need, I have long ago given up the belief that prayer is some kind of magical spell that, if we speak correctly or sincerely or frequently, will result in things happening our way.  I have had enough experience praying with families who have lost loved ones in the most tragic of circumstances to believe that God is not a genie in a bottle who, if rubbed the right way, will grant us wishes by altering the course of the natural world.  I’ve seen people who I believed unquestionably deserved to live die despite the earnest and sincere prayers of literally hundreds of people.  That’s not to say God can’t or doesn’t intervene in the world.  But God is not a vending machine that dispenses things we want after we’ve entered the correct amount of holy change, and to treat our relationship to the divine as such is arrogant and ignorant.
     What does prayer do, then?  Well, I’ll tell you what it does for me: it connects me.  It connects me to the holy presence that I believe is everywhere but of which I am often woefully unaware.  It connects me to myself in moments of anxiety and confusion.  And, perhaps most importantly for me, it connects me to other people, which reminds me that I am not alone.  I don’t believe that my prayers change God, but I know unequivocally that my prayers change me.  And perhaps, just maybe, they might occasionally effect change in another person.
     Which brings me back to my lovely little girl’s heartbreakingly beautiful moment at the dinner table last night.  Do you know what I love so much about the Lord’s Prayer, what brings me back to it over and over again?  It’s all in the plural.  Our Father.  Give us, forgive us, as we forgive.  Deliver us.  None of this “me” stuff.  None of this “I come to the garden alone” stuff.  No, we pray together.  Even when I am physically alone, I am reminded that I have a community that surrounds me with love and a similar investment in the divine endeavors of this corporeal existence.  The love I believe I have been called to demonstrate in the world is not something I can do on my own.  It requires me to connect with others, both within my community and outside my community.  For me, prayer is meaningful because it connects me with other people, and through that I am open to experience the love of God.
     So last night, our little girl was acting out what she saw.  Maybe she understood that we were invoking the divine presence with gratitude and humility; maybe not.  But here is what she clearly did understand: that she is loved and that she is not alone.  Most immediately, of course, are her parents whose love for her is fierce and wild.  She reached for us, took our hands to hold in that sacred moment.  But beyond us, of course, she has her grandparents and aunt and uncle and cousin.  She has her church family, a congregation so devoted to loving its children that it brings tears to our eyes.  And she has friends and peers she’s still meeting; teachers who devote energy and patience to helping her grow; and occasional strangers who will offer unbidden statements of affection.  And, of course, she has a wonderful and loving Creator who delights in her and has wonderful and amazing things planned for her.
     If the only thing she demonstrated in her act of repeating our prayer last night was that she knows she is loved and not alone, then I am proud to have taught her the meaning of prayer.  And I am humbled and enlightened to have her teaching me its beauty and simplicity all over again.  Amen, indeed.

 
 
     A few months ago, I reflected on my struggles with how we might be encouraging stereotypical gender roles and expectations through the clothes we buy our daughter.  We dress her in a lot of pink.  As I concluded then, there are a few good reasons for this: 1) This is what is available.  Children’s clothing is wildly gender-stereotyped, and shopping for strictly gender-neutral clothing is near to impossible.  2) She likes pink.  In fact, she likes a lot of the more “girly” styles we buy her.  She also likes some of the neutral t-shirts we’ve gotten her, particularly the blue Elmo shirt that says “Give peas a chance.”
     Her birthday, as you may have read last week, was this weekend.  She turned two.  We threw her a party, and it was awesome.  Of course, she raked in quite the haul of toys and goodies.  But her most favorite gift was a toy that her mother bought for her.  It’s a baby doll that comes with a stroller.
     That baby has already traveled the neighborhood, up and down the sidewalks, in and out of the house.  She’s been in nearly every room in our home, and her stroller’s wheels are already brown from rolling the ground.  Our daughter has even named her baby: Abby.  (This also corresponds with the name she gave her favorite teddy bear and, as it turns out, a friend from school.)  She asks for the baby when she gets home and she wants to sleep with it at night.  She parts with it in hesitation when we go to school in the morning, waving goodbye to it with a mixture of distress and concern.  She loves her baby doll.
     So once again, I am revisiting the ways we might be reinforcing gender stereotypes.
     Now, my spouse decided to buy her the baby doll for one reason and one reason only: she knew our daughter would love it.  How?  Because our daughter plays with every baby doll she sees.  At least once a week, her activity sheet from school has written on it “She enjoyed playing with the babies.”  At church there is a raggedy doll in a stroller that she happily pushes up and down the hall.  This was my spouse’s only cue in giving her her own baby doll for her birthday.  And, quite frankly, that’s the only cue we need: we want to give her things she likes and interest her.
     So the question is: who taught her to like baby dolls?  Was it us?  And if not us, then who?  I’ve come up with a selection of possible answers.
A)     It was not us.  We don’t have any baby dolls in our house (well, we do now, but we didn’t before).  She didn’t see us playing with dolls and we didn’t ever explicitly encourage her to play with dolls.  So she must have learned it from someone else.
B)      She learned it from her peers at daycare.  The other girls in her class play with baby dolls.  Perhaps their parents are much more comfortable actively promoting traditional gender roles, and so our girl sees these other girls playing with dolls and mimics them to belong.
C)      She may also have learned it from the teachers at daycare.  I suspect they have reinforced the assumption that girls play with baby dolls, if not by explicitly discouraging her interest in traditionally “boy” toys (which I doubt this daycare would do), then by encouraging play with dolls and perhaps not offering trucks.
D)     But then again, she likes trucks.  She regularly points out “big trucks” when I’m driving her in the car.  She gets excited about them.  She points them out in her books, too.  Truth is, she likes trucks, too.  Maybe not as much as baby dolls, but I can’t say she shuns trucks.
E)      So maybe she did learn to like baby dolls from us.  We didn’t play with dolls in our house, but we played with her.  We pushed her in a stroller.  Maybe her play with baby dolls is mirroring the nurturing and care we’ve given her.  But if this is true, then wouldn’t it follow that little boys also want to play with dolls?  Does a little boy’s disinterest in dolls mean that boys are not wired to nurture the way girls are?  Maybe, except that I imagine a lot of parents out there might tell me that your boys went through a doll phase at some point.
F)      And perhaps there’s a correlation I’m completely missing.  Maybe she just likes things that are pink.  Maybe her love of the color pink has absolutely nothing to do with her being a girl.  Then she loves baby dolls more than trucks because baby dolls tend to be pink more often than toy trucks.  Maybe she’s drawn to soft fluffy things and not hard plastic things.  Perhaps we should buy her a pink plush truck.
     Of course, what does any of this matter?  So she loves her baby doll.  Why do I stress over such a thing?  Is this just mushy-headed liberal fretting, born of a need for my white guilt to find its place in my parenting?  There’s nothing inherently wrong with traditional gender roles, is there?  So what if my daughter wants to dress in pink and play with dolls, right?
     I suppose that’s my concern: I want her to want to be what she is.  I want her to dress in pink because she likes pink and not because she thinks she has to wear pink.  I want her to play with baby dolls because that’s fun to her, and not because she thinks that playing with trucks is wrong or somehow less acceptable than dolls.
     I chafe at the idea of gender predisposition.  As tempting as it is to see her delight in her baby doll and conclude that there is a coded response to nurture within females of our species, I reject this for fear that it might be used to reinforce harmful and oppressive structures against women.  It doesn’t take many steps to move from the statement that women are biologically suited for nurturing to the statement that women should not have jobs and should stay home to raise children.  But there is definitely a biological factor in this.  For instance, it doesn’t matter how much one argues that men can nurture as much as women when it comes to breastfeeding.  I consider myself a pretty sensitive and nurturing man, but that didn’t give me the power to breastfeed.  Or carry my child in my womb for nine months.  There’s just a separation there and biology determines parenting roles right from the moment of conception.  It’s just an inescapable fact.
     So who knows.  I think this is probably a rather academic exercise right now, anyway.  After all, she’s two years old.  It would be foolish to say she isn’t affected by the preferences and expectations of those around her, but she’s pretty clear when she doesn’t want to play with something.  And if she didn’t like dolls, she wouldn’t play with them no matter how explicitly we encouraged it.  She does what makes her happy.  Certainly, she doesn’t live in a vacuum.  All the invisible forces of others’ social expectations exist and influence her (and her mother and myself) in ways we can’t comprehend.  I suppose my mushy-headed liberal leanings really come into play as she gets older and can articulate her thoughts and feelings.  But then again, she’s already doing that.  And she’s made it remarkably clear that she loves her baby doll.  So if she wants to be a cutesy girly girl, I’m good with that.  And when she points to Abby in her stroller and says, “Push, Daddy,” I will push, because I’m not about to reinforce the notion that men can’t play with dolls, either.
     That, and maybe I love playing with dolls, too.  I certainly love making my little girl happy.

 

 
 
     A year ago today, I wrote a blog about what birthdays mean to me now.  Today, on my thirty-fourth birthday and my daughter’s second birthday, I revisited this post.  I’m not sure there is much more that I could add to the sentiments I posted last year, other than to give thanks for all the adventures that have occurred between ages one and two.
     For footsteps, slow and uncertain, then speedy and steady, I am thankful.
     For the blissfully beautiful moments when she discovered something new about her body, I am thankful.
     For each friend she has found in the little people around her, I am thankful.
     For every single word of praise and encouragement I’ve heard from the adults in her life – and ours – I am thankful.
     For new games invented and shared, I am thankful.
     For the ever-improving ability to express anger and disappointment with dramatic flair and volume, I am thankful.
     For the opportunity to once again become a little child and enter the kingdom of heaven and truth, I am so thankful.
     For the challenge, revolution and transformation that has taken place in my partnership with my spouse, I am thankful.
     For the magnificently out-of-tune warbling of joyous sing-alongs, I am thankful.
     For pink ribbons and pigtails and glittery shoes and the smile that accompanies her glimpse in the mirror, I am thankful.
     For the unbelievably rich blessing of comforting my child in the dark of night, I am thankful.
     For the simplicity of earnest words formed by an innocent tongue, I am thankful.
     Last year, I wrote: “It’s ridiculous how thankful I am for her life.  Her life has made my life infinitely richer, and I could not be more grateful… I praise God for her life and I am thankful that my life could give to hers.  And I will never fail to give thanks for each year that I have with her – for each day.  May she always know that her daddy is thankful for her life.”  This is even more true today.  The only way that I can imagine a father being more grateful for his daughter’s life is to imagine what I will have to say next year.