Firstly, and most important, you are amazing.
Now, before I get into the primary substance of this letter, let me go ahead and claim my privilege. I am not a single parent. I have a spouse with whom I share child-raising duties. I think we do a pretty good job of splitting responsibilities. Also, we have only one child. This means that, most of the time, our child is outnumbered by adults in our house. Except in the rare occasions of playdates, there is not an instance in which children outnumber adults. I also have grandparents nearby who are tremendously helpful. I need to be clear that I am fortunate to have resources in my life. And because of how difficult my own life gets even with these resources, I have reason to suspect that your life is as difficult if not more so. I could be wrong about that; I will claim my assumptions and admit that they might read as ignorant at best and patronizing at worst. It is possible that I am just really bad at parenting and therefore would squander every resource I have and experience parenting as terrible no matter what. Even if that’s the case, please give me the benefit of the doubt and hear my genuine admiration in this letter.
In the past few months, my spouse has traveled a lot. Two of the past three weekends she has been gone from Thursday through Sunday. A month ago, on my child’s first full week of kindergarten, my spouse was in another country for the whole week. So I have done a fair amount of single parenting recently. I found it to be, if I can put it indelicately, really fucking hard.
The most notable change in my life that I noticed about being in single parenting mode is how it elongated my days and shortened my rest. I had to get up earlier every morning because I was solely responsible for getting two people ready for the day. This was extra hectic because our schedule had just changed and we were now beholden to a very concrete time demand: not missing the bus. Stakes were higher than they’d been when I could drop her off at her preschool whenever I wanted and just be late to work. Every morning I would wake twenty to thirty minutes earlier than usual to spend every single minute of that morning attending to my own needs or to my child’s needs. Attending to my child’s needs requires twice the energy, because if I tell myself I need to put my shoes on, then I just put my shoes on. I don’t have to ask myself five times to put my shoes on and then plead with myself to put my shoes on and then threaten myself with losing screen time for not putting my shoes on. No, I just put my shoes on. That isn’t how it works with a five-year-old, however. So while I brush my teeth, I also shout two rooms over about how she should please for the love put her shoes on like I asked.
It’s not just the morning, of course. The evenings are much longer too. As soon as I get home from work, I have to start planning dinner. As with getting ready in the morning, this has to be multi-tasked along with managing a five-year-old. Instead of telling her to do something, however, that time is spent telling her to stop doing something. Stop whining; stop messing with the cat; stop whining; stop messing with the kitchen utensils; stop whining; stop playing with that thing that is not a toy and I ask you not to play with every night; for God’s sake please STOP WHINING. After dinner, which is its own struggle – Please eat the chicken I cooked just for you – then I am back in the kitchen cleaning. During this time, I am fending off constant requests to play with her while “Cat’s In the Cradle” runs through my head. If it’s a bath night, I immediately leave the kitchen for the bathroom, where bathing is followed by blowdrying hair, by brushing teeth, by getting dressed, by reading books and tucking in and then finally – I have time to myself, at roughly 8:30 or 9:00 PM. A good portion of that time is filled with more chores, like laundry, straightening the house, attending to my child’s cat, and preparing for the next day so my morning routine is a little quicker. If there is any time to do something pleasurable, like reading or listening to records, that doesn’t start until at least 10, and then I have to decide how much sleep I want to give up in order to do something simply because I like doing it.
This is what weeknights are like. Then there’s the weekend. Wake me up at 7:00 AM so I can get up and fix breakfast. And then it’s an entire day of entertainment. What are we doing today? When are we doing it? Why can’t we do this instead? And, of course, once we’ve decided to do whatever it is we’re doing, she will pitch a fit because it requires her to put on shoes she doesn’t like. The only break comes when she passes out for a nap, a precious ninety minute window of personal time in which I am too exhausted to do anything other than frantically watch the clock count down to when she wakes up and I’m off to the races again. Even when there is time to rest, the emotional cost feels so high that the time isn’t enough and the rest isn’t sufficient to adequately recover.
Now, having complained tremendously about all of this, I can say that I had help. Her grandparents ran a lot of interference and kept her one afternoon on a weekend. They had us over for dinner one night during the week. When I had an early morning meeting at work, they came and finished her morning routine and put her on the bus. What would I have done if I didn’t have them nearby? And what if I had part-time work with an inconsistent work schedule? Or I had to work multiple jobs? What if I had more than one child? What if my child had some special developmental or healthcare needs? I felt like I barely survived as it was; how would I have managed if I had had even one less source of help?
I realize that part of what made this so taxing for me is that I’m used to co-parenting with my spouse, whom I live with. I suppose that if this were my life and I did it every day, I would get used to it. I’d like to say I’d eventually stop complaining, but that’s probably not true. So that’s why I wanted to write this letter to all the full-time single parents out there. I imagine that most of you have figured out how to manage and are probably doing a pretty amazing job. But I don’t want you to forget how hard you are working just because you’re accustomed to it. What you are doing is really fucking hard. Being the sole parent for children every single day while also juggling a job, household chores, community responsibilities, etc. is really tough. Even if you have other family or friends helping – and probably most of you do – it is still a burden to be the primary sole responsible caregiver in the home. If you don’t have another person either helping you in the house in the daily tasks or taking the kids off your hands a few days a week to give you a break, then you are engaged in an exhausting nonstop circus of energy depletion. I cannot tell you how much I admire your dedication. I’ll try not to idealize you; I know you’re likely imperfect and that you’re just showing up to do what you have to do. I also trust that one day your children are going to grow up and respect how hard you worked to give them what they need, perhaps in deeper ways than my child will.
Parenting is crazy hard work. It definitely helps to have a village, and if that village involves two or more parents or step-parents or grandparents or caregivers, that is a great help. And it’s still hard. I’ll try not to idealize the typically assumed family pattern, either; having two parents in the same household is also really hard and can come with its own problems. My recent experiences parenting in the house by myself were exhausting and I was thrilled to have my spouse return to rejoin me in our co-parenting. For any of you who don’t have a reliable parenting partner, please hear me tell you that I am both impressed by and concerned for you. You are doing a job that is terribly difficult with any amount of resources, and you are doing it with less help than some of us. I hope that you can take a moment or two to offer yourself some grace, compassion, and admiration.
And maybe the next open letter I write is to all the people who aren’t single parents, calling on you – on us – to find ways of supporting those who are endeavoring to do the most precious work of raising children without a live-in parenting partner. Let us all be part of the village and not take our resources for granted.
Yesterday was our first Parent-Teacher Conference.
It was a routine conference; the teacher is meeting with all parents to update them on how their child is adjusting behaviorally and where they currently score on their core learning assessment. Overall, it was a very positive meeting. It seems her teacher finds our child “cute,” “adorable,” “smart,” and having “a very good foundation” for her learning. She told us we had clearly done “a lot of work” getting her ready. We were, as you might imagine, elated as parents to hear such wonderful things.
As we have watched our child grow, we have noticed all the ways that she resembles and mimics each of us. I understand how parents say to each other – indeed, I have said this to my spouse – “Your child.” You know, “Your child dumped the flowerpots out,” or “Your child is in time out again.” It’s not always a negative reference, I guess, although when one’s child does something positive, we want to claim credit for it: “My child cleaned the dishes,” or “My child is very polite.”
Sometimes, you just see the unique ways your child is like you or their other parent. She will pick up our mannerisms, our turns of speech, our habits and patterns. So it is a fascinating experience to have another person – say, her teacher – report back to you stories of her experiences of our child that seem to be reflections of each of us. Her teacher doesn’t know either of us, so she has no way of knowing she is telling us ways our child is just like us.
I’m pleased to say that when my child gets into trouble, it is because she is her mother’s child. Apparently her usual need for correction revolves around a single problem: she can’t keep her hands to herself. “It’s because she’s too friendly,” the teacher explained. “She’s so happy to see all her new friends!” She can’t seem to help herself, grabbing them or tapping them or hugging them. This is, without question, something she gets from her mother and not from me. (If you know me at all, you are knowingly laughing right now.) One day, after being corrected, she told her teacher, “But it’s so hard!” “It’s not hard,” her teacher said, “all you have to do is just keep your hands to yourself and not touch anyone else.” My child just sighed and repeated, “But that’s so hard.” I tend to identify with her teacher: this is not hard to do at all. However, having lived with my child’s mother for fourteen years, I also sympathize with my child. Being enthusiastic and excited about spending time with other people you enjoy, patting their backs, putting your arms around them, wanting their attention and engagement: these are all things her mother does. And if this is how she’s going to be getting into trouble, well, I’ll gladly take it.
However, she’s not always a raging friendly extrovert. When she gets focused on her task at hand, she turns into a studiously standoffish introvert who also, it seems, has an intuitive recognition of the behavioral dynamics of her peers. The boy who sits next to her – we’ll call him Tim – is an outgoing, curious, and talkative kid who engages the world by asking questions. The kid on the other side of him is an easygoing, cooperative girl – we’ll call her Suzanne. When they are assigned to work on their worksheets, my child will focus in. Tim, however, turns to my child and asks her questions. “Do you have a dog?” he’ll ask. Or, “Do you like Ninja Turtles?” My child, refusing to be deterred, but deftly deflecting without being rude, will answer, “Ask Suzanne.” Which he’ll then do, and then Suzanne will answer, and my child is free to work. Every question Tim asks my daughter, she will answer with, “Ask Suzanne.” Why not tell him to ask one of the other kids at the table? Maybe it’s because she knows Suzanne will answer. I was tickled by this story because it sounds completely like something I would do.
There were stories that both of us could happily claim. She likes to help other people clean up their messes, including even picking up trash in the bathroom. Although I wouldn’t say either of us like cleaning up messes, we have worked to instill in her the value of keeping things clean. She loves to read and shows enthusiasm about books, another trait that both her parents (and grandparents) have instilled in her. She even recognized several “sight words,” which put her ahead of the majority of her class (thank you Grammy, retired schoolteacher!). And she carries a bit of a perfectionist streak, which I regret to say both of her parents suffer with. When doing her number test, she got all of them, except for 5. She refused to draw a 5. She said every time she draws a 5, it always looks too much like an S. So she didn’t even draw one. I hate that we’ve given her a propensity towards perfectionism, particularly if it manifests in refusing to even try. But hey, we’re all flawed humans.
Both of us did pretty well in school, so it was wonderful to come out of that conference seeing the ways our child is like both of us. And somewhere along the way, she will no doubt defy our legacies and do something completely unique. When education is done right, new and wonderful things emerge. I’m just excited to continue nurturing my child’s curiosity as the gift of her self continues to unfold.
A week before school started, we got a postcard telling us where and when the school bus would pick up our child. 7:14 AM at a corner a block away. There are two other families that ride in the morning; two sets of siblings and their mothers join up at a stop sign and wait for the bus. The other mothers have done this before; they knew our bus driver, knew the routine, and knew what to say to a new parent like me to reassure me. “The kids love riding the bus,” their told me. “Their driver is great.”
First few days, no problems. My child does indeed love riding the bus; she hops right on alongside her neighbors, waving and smiling at me.
Then one day the bus pulled up right as we did at 7:04 AM. One of the mothers and her two kids hadn’t arrived yet. “You’re early!” the other mother said to the driver.
“I’ve got a new routine,” the driver told us. “So this is my new time.”
Learning that your new bus is going to come ten minutes early by having it come ten minutes early with no advance notice? Naturally. So sad for those other kids who didn’t arrive ten minutes early.
Then, of course, this week we were back to the 7:14 schedule. Again, no notice or explanation. Because that’s how we roll.
So then we get to this morning. We’ve all been arriving early, because who knows. The kids are a little punchy because it’s Friday. The ground is wet from a storm last night, so no one can sit. We wait for the bus.
It’s getting late. 7:20, no bus. “It’s not usually this late,” says one of the moms.
“Should we call someone?” I ask.
“It will be here,” the other mom reassures.
“What if we’re tardy?” a first grader asks.
“You’re not marked tardy if the bus is late,” his mom explains. “But if we take you and drop you off and you’re late, then they will
mark you tardy. So we’ll wait for the bus.”
7:30, no bus. “We should probably call someone,” a mom concedes.
I pull out my phone. “Who do I call?”
“Call the school.”
No one at the school answers. I leave a message: “The bus is fifteen minutes late. We were wondering what was going on, please call me back.”
“You had to leave a message?” the other mom asks. “I guess Ms. Sheila stepped away for a minute.”
7:40, no bus. I call again. No answer, I leave another message.
7:50, no bus. We’re ten minutes from the bell. One of the moms declares that she can take everyone to school in her Suburban. All five kids and both moms pile into the car and I blow a kiss to my child. “Thank you,” I say. “I’ll call again and see what’s going on.”
I call the school again. No answer, so I leave my third message. I can feel and hear the anger in my voice.
I call my boss to tell him I’m going to be late because the bus never came. Then the school calls me back.
“I have three different messages from you,” Ms. Sheila observes.
I confirm that I am also aware of this.
“You’re new to our school, aren’t you?” she says with a slick undertone of condescension. “You need to call the Transportation Department. We don’t know anything about the bus schedule.”
“Really? Because yesterday I got three texts from your parent info line telling me that one of the buses would be five minutes late leaving the school.”
“Well, we know what their schedule is in the afternoon.
But in the morning, we don’t know what their progress is. You’ll have to call Transportation.” In an attempt to be helpful, Ms. Sheila gives me Transportation’s phone number.
I call Transportation and another woman answers. “I’m calling because the bus never came to pick up my child.”
With what sounds like a carefully practiced disinterest, the woman asks, “What bus number?”
“Number?” I say. “I don’t know the number. It’s Bus A for our Elementary School.”
“That’s the Southeast District.”
Pause. “Uh, okay…” I finally say.
She sighs. “I’ll transfer you.”
Let me just pause this story for a moment and check in. At this point, my mood is definitely not improving. I’m late to work; I’m driving through Charlotte morning commute traffic, which is decidedly more congested thirty minutes later than I’m used to. I’m getting transferred to the third person in an attempt to find out why my child has been forgotten. This is perhaps what amazes me more than the endless Möbius strip of bureaucracy: that the system would silently abdicate its responsibility of five children, leaving them standing on a street corner.
Another woman answers. I repeat our situation. I am told to hold.
For the few minutes I am on hold, I hear this message: “Thank you for holding. This is Ann Clark, the Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. We are committed to seeing that every child in Charlotte has the same opportunities to learn and grow. Thank you for joining us in making the 2015-2016 school year an excellent year! Thank you for holding. This is Ann Clark, the superintendent of…”
Presently, a woman picks up the phone. It is clear she has been crying. Her voice is raspy and cracks, and she sniffles loudly. “Can I help you?” she half weeps.
“Uh, yes,” I hesitate. “The bus never arrived to pick up my child.”
“What’s the bus number?”
“I don’t know the number, but it’s Bus A for our Elementary School.”
I hear her typing into a computer; she lets out a sob and immediately excuses herself. It is all I can do to not say, “Are you okay?” But I remind myself that it is not my job to care for this woman; my job in this moment is to be a parent, a concerned and upset parent who is trying to get to the bottom of why his child has been forgotten. I am doing my job, I remind myself, because someone else somewhere isn’t.
“That bus is leaving to start its route right now,” the woman tells me.
I look at the clock; it is five minutes until 8:00, when the bell rings. “School starts in five minutes,” I nearly exclaim. “Why is the bus running so late?”
“We’re just so understaffed!” the woman whines. “We had to wait until a driver got back to run this route, we didn’t have anyone else to drive it, that’s how understaffed we are.” What I want to say is, That’s not my problem! Except, of course, that it is my problem. It’s everyone’s problem. Teachers fleeing North Carolina because the State Assembly eliminated tenure and cut teacher pay is everyone’s problem. Students in Charlotte being redistricted into 1950’s segregation is everyone’s problem. State representatives refusing to pass a budget for months on end is everyone’s problem. I guess we all just want to do our jobs; this poor woman on the other end of the phone was trying to do her job just like I was trying to do mine as a parent. And due to political forces outside both our control, we were equally frustrated in our abilities to do so. Sitting in my car in Charlotte traffic, wondering how many children on our bus route were being left behind at their stops, I felt like crying, too.
So now we have a kindergartener in our house.
Yep, big times.
All week, folks have been posting “first day of school” pictures of their kids on Facebook and Instagram. Sparkly new backpacks, squeaky new shoes, tentatively forced smiles – I’ve seen them all week of kids of all ages. (By the way, major props to those friends of ours who actually got their high school kids to pose for these pictures. I’m slow-clapping for you right now.) We have one, too.
When I ask my child how she’s feeling about starting at a new school, she tells me she’s jealous. The first conversation we have is that the word she means is “nervous” and that “jealous” means when you want what someone else has. Then the second conversation we have is what she is feeling nervous about. She usually says some variant of a) it’s all new and b) she doesn’t know what her teacher will be like. Makes sense to me, I tell her. Heck, I think kids get nervous at the start of every year of every level of education for wondering what their teachers will be like. It’s okay to be nervous, I tell her. Were you nervous when you started school? she asked. I sure was, I say.
What I’m not telling her is that I’m nervous now. Seriously, I have no idea what’s going on. When I went to kindergarten, life seemed pretty simple and straightforward. I was nervous about making friends and what my teacher would be like, but I don’t remember my parents having to deal with all the things that we’re having to deal with just to get our child into a school. Seriously, if Franz Kafka had children in today’s school system – and wouldn’t we all like to know what those kids would have made of themselves? – then The Trial would have been called The School and Josef K. would not have been summoned to an unexplained court date but rather an unexplained teacher-parent conference.
For instance, we went on the website and clicked on the “School Supplies List.” A detailed inventory came up with the instructions, “When you pick up your supply box, double check that each item is included.” There was a box of supplies specifically for kindergarteners, and the cost was listed as $66.32. Hmm, well that would be convenient, but where does one pick this up? So on the first day of class, I stopped a teacher.
“Is there a place where we can buy and pick up a box of supplies?”
“Yes, if you ordered one.”
“Oh, how do I do that?”
“Well, the orders are due by the end of the previous school year.”
When I signed her in on that first day, I was asked to fill out a contact information form. This would turn out to be the first of ten such forms. It asked for my name, my address, my phone number, the usual. Then underneath that, this question: “How will your child be going home?” Well, that seemed an odd question to ask on a contact information form. We had decided that she would ride the bus on some days, but on other days her grandparents would pick her up. So I simply wrote “bus / pick up.”
Two hours later, a teacher calls me. “We’re a little confused,” she said. “Are you picking her up today, or is she riding the bus?”
“Today?” I asked. “I’m picking her up.”
“Oh, we couldn’t tell since you put both ‘bus’ and ‘pick up.’”
When our child got home, she told us we had forgotten to pack her a snack.
“Were we supposed to pack you a snack?” we asked.
"Yes," she said. “But it’s okay that you forgot, the teacher let me have some of her crackers.”
“Forgot,” I grumbled through clenched teeth. “Yes, that’s what happened.”
Every question we asked came with far more complicated answers.
How much does lunch cost? “Well, it’s tough to say, everything is a la carte. But the easiest thing to do is to set up an account online that automatically drafts money to her account.” And how do I do that? “You’ll need to go to the school system website, open an account, and link it to her student ID number.” Okay…
If she is going to ride the bus home, what does she need to do? “If she’s listed as a car rider, she’ll need a written note from you to ride the bus. It should be emailed to the transportation account for the school. But if she doesn’t ride within a ten-day period, she’ll be dropped from the passenger list, and you’ll have to register her again.” Do I do that with the transportation account? “No, you’ll do that with the city bus account.” Of course…
I spent an hour last night just filling out forms – most of them requiring the same basic contact information – and surfing through dozens of layers of the website trying to create and link accounts and find basic information to what felt like frequently asked questions. Now, I’m an intelligent person. I’m an accomplished professional who manages and supervises close to a dozen other professionals. I have two degrees and three professional certifications. If I am having such a hard time navigating the school system, how much harder is it for parents who don’t have the same education? Or don’t have access to the internet? Or don’t speak English? Or don’t have the luxury of taking a day off from work to stand in the hallway on the first day of school asking what feels like stupid questions?
It worries me that a child’s experience in school is so dependent on his or her parents’ ability to navigate the system. I understand that this system is probably in place to protect and ensure each child’s safety, but that school officials would assure me it’s necessary. But no one is trying to make it any easier for us to understand.
I’m doing my best to shield my child from the stress and anxiety it is causing me just to get her into school. I’m having a little more sympathy for the stereotype of the over-involved and anxious PTA parent; it feels like the system lends itself to creating them. So I’m both nervous and jealous – jealous of those parents who’ve already had a child through the system, jealous of all the teachers and administrators for whom this is old news, jealous even of my child whose anxiety about kindergarten newness seems small in comparison to things I worry about for her. The Kafkaesque procedures of getting her enrolled notwithstanding, I so hope for her to have a positive school experience, and any ball that gets dropped feels like a small failure as a parent, even if no one has told me they were going to be throwing those balls at us in the first place.
I suppose that’s just more of the same when it comes to being a parent. Complete responsibility, complete powerlessness. Why should the school system be any easier or different? I don’t always understand why parenting has to be like this, but I’ve learned that it is a constant stream of things to worry over, stress about, pray for, laugh at, and shrug off.
When she got home after her first full day, she chattily told us bits and pieces of the day. “The teacher moved me to blue!” she announced proudly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes at my cluelessness. “Daddy, there’s red, then orange and yellow. Then green, blue, purple, and finally pink.”
“Oh,” I said, my eyes narrowing. “I still don’t understand.”
She sighed with exasperation. “It means I was listening, Daddy.”
“Oh right, of course. Well, good.”
We almost look like we're having fun.
My little girl turned five this summer, and you know what that means? The training wheels came off.
When she turned four, she got her own bike for her birthday. It’s pink, has Hello Kitty all over it, and had training wheels. She took to it right away, dragging me out into the street to watch her ride, showing off when she made it up a hill, proudly displaying her helmet and the flashing pink light on the front.
The other kids in the neighborhood, however, don’t have training wheels. They all bike faster than she does. (They’re also all older.) So she announced she was ready to take the training wheels off. I told her it would be harder, that she would need practice. Will I be able to go faster? she asked. Yes, I answered. I can keep up with the other kids? Yes, after you’re used to it. So it was decided, when she turned five, we would take the training wheels off.
A week after her birthday, I took her to a level parking lot of a church near our house, unscrewed the training wheels, and told her all she had to do was pedal.
I have never seen another human being so not able to ride a bike.
Any bystanders watching would be forgiven for guessing that my child had never before sat herself on a bicycle of any kind. She could barely bring herself to put her feet on the pedals. She couldn’t push herself forward like she had every other time she’d ever sat on it. She asked me to give her a push, which I did, but the pedals didn’t ever make it 180 degrees before she threw her feet down to the ground.
The tears started immediately. She never fell down; she didn’t try enough to even lose her balance. The tears were accompanied by exclamations of the impossibility of her ever biking and some implicit condemnations of herself for failing to ride.
I tried to reassure her that it took some time and practice. Keep at it! I encouraged her. You’ll get it, it takes practice.
Why can’t I ride it now? she wailed. What’s wrong with me? I’ll never do it! I never want to ride a bike again! When will I be able to do it?
Ten minutes of that, and I told her to pack it up, we were going home.
She was so impatient. Where on earth could she possibly get that from?
Once we’d both cooled down a little, she whimpered that she wanted me to put the wheels back on and that she would try again when she turned six. I told her that it took practice and patience. Remember when you were trying to learn to walk? I asked. She nodded. No you don’t, I said. But if you did, you would remember that you fell down. A lot. Because you weren’t born knowing how to walk; you had to learn it. No one is born knowing how to ride a bike; everyone has to learn.
She asked, When you were a kid, did you have to learn how to ride a bike?
Of course, I said. Everything I do I was once not good at. Playing guitar, cooking, driving a car – I had to learn all these things. You had to learn to walk – and to eat, and dress yourself, and use the potty. But you learned, because you did them over and over. No one does anything perfectly the first time, sweetie.
She nodded, but I don’t think she believed me. I can’t blame her; nobody believes that shit. We all expect to do it right the first time, and every time after that. Who among us is ever really a student? As an educator of adults, I feel like I spend more of my time trying to convince my students that it’s okay that they don’t know things than I do actually imparting any skills or knowledge. Perhaps that’s what education truly is at its heart: creating a safe space for a person to accept herself not knowing how to do something.
If so, I didn’t do a very good job of teaching my child to ride a bike. I was just as wrapped up as she was in seeing her do it perfectly the first time. Because, you know, riding a bike is easy for me. You just do it, right? Exactly like all the other things I learned to take for granted. Maybe the reason that none of us give ourselves permission to be learners – to truly not know something and still love ourselves – is because it is rare to be in the presence of someone who communicates that same kind of acceptance.
Subsequent bike rides have been a mix of different techniques on my part. Letting her practice without training wheels while I hold her up; putting the wheels back on but raised so that they don’t touch the ground; lots of positive affirmation when she does well; even more reassurances that she will get it one day. But the biggest change I made is working to let go of my own impatience. If I let my own ego as a parent get too tied up in how quickly my child learns to ride a bike, what will I do when she starts sports? Or brings home her first report cards? Or takes up a musical instrument?
More than anything, a child needs her parent to recognize her imperfections and still clearly love her. And to offer that to my child, I really need to offer it to myself. Which is still a work in a progress. Some days, when it comes to being patient with myself, I still need the training wheels on. But I will stick with it. I can’t parent perfectly, either, no matter how much I expect to do it just exactly right the first time and every time. I’ll stick with it, which sometimes means trying enough so I’ll lose my balance. That way I can give myself – and everyone else living in my household – the grace to not know what we’re doing all the time.
It’s been an emotional week to be an American. A lot has happened and I’m conflicted about my hopes for the future of the culture my child will grow up in.
First of all, let me state how excited I am that my child will be able to grow up in a country where equal rights are extended to all people who want to marry someone they love. Only a few years ago, I took my daughter with me when I went to the polls to vote against North Carolina’s Amendment One, which barred any legal recognition of a relationships that weren’t legally registered marriages between men and women. A man accosted me in the parking lot and told me I needed to vote in favor of the “marriage amendment” in order to “protect your little one’s future.” I threw some choice curse words at him. It was maybe not my finest moment, but I feel vindicated today. I also feel sad for that man, wherever he is, for believing that my child’s future might actually be affected by marriage equality in any way that isn’t positive. I posted a blog
during the Amendment One campaign about why I was against it. Although there were many reasons I opposed, my argument was that I would not vote for legislation that restricted love. Of course, my family has never needed protection from gay people; the idea is ridiculous and laughable. And yet the amendment passed, and I can remember how dismayed I felt that fear, misunderstanding, homophobia, and crass political grandstanding would carry the day. And here we are, only three years later, with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of equal marriage rights (nearly a year after our local circuit had already ruled such legislation unconstitutional). My child is still too young for any of us to know what her orientation and gender expression might look like, but I am less prone to worry now because I know that our unqualified support for who she grows to be is more likely to be reflected in the society around her.
My excitement and joy over this ruling does not, however, overcome my fear and anger over the most recent mass shooting in this country, which took place in Charleston last week. I am glad that the Confederate battle flag has come down in South Carolina. I suppose we can all slow clap for South Carolina’s decision to do something that is only 150 years overdue. The ongoing national conversation about our country’s deeply rooted racism continues, and although I am not always sure what to say, I am trying as hard as I can to listen closely so that I can raise a child who will be an agent of healing and change. I want to be intentional about bringing up a child who can notice her own social privileges and notice the disadvantages and struggles of those around her. I am hopeful in the promise that she will be smarter and kinder and more compassionate than I am and will be an enthusiastic ally for the cause of rooting out racism in our society.
However, our conversations about a flag and the racism it symbolizes have given the country an excuse to not talk about something scary and terrible: our nation’s obsession with guns. It seems this time around there has not even been an attempt to even pay lip service to the idea that the gun laws in this country need to change. I suppose this means I need to give up any hopes of there being gun control in this country. That is frightening to me because I don’t want my child or my family to be murdered. But more than the real fear that it might one day be my child who is senselessly gunned down by a psychopathic murderer is this stunning realization: America truly does not care
. Despite the pain being suffered by the families of victims of gun violence, despite my fear for my family, despite my own grief and anguish about how violent our culture is, our society is a place that simply does not care if innocent people are murdered. We’ve seen it recently with the countless cases of police officers killing unarmed black men with seemingly zero repercussions or accountability, and now we’re seeing it with the complete lack of any discussion regarding changing gun laws. Nine innocent churchgoers murdered during a prayer meeting, and nothing. Two years ago, it was twenty kindergarten children; nothing. So clearly, I must draw the conclusion that America does not give a shit
I have plenty of friends and family who are gun owners. I have heard all the reasons they give about why gun control is bad and gun ownership is good. I accept none of them. A gun is a tool whose sole purpose is to kill. That is why guns were invented and that is their only use. If you buy a gun, you are seeking to own the ability to easily kill. If you use your gun for hunting, then you are using your gun for killing. If you use your gun for protection, then you hope to scare off other people with your ability to kill. Apparently, America is so in love with possessing the ability to easily kill that it will gladly and willingly accept the periodic murder of innocent people as a result. That is the society we live in; that is the society my child will grow up in. Used to be after we had one of these shootings – in a church, or a school, or a movie theater – people would ask, Is nowhere safe? And the answer is no and we’re fine with that.
I can already anticipate the arguments that this post will elicit. Because, you know, Americans really fucking love their goddamned guns. It’s their guaranteed right under the Second Amendment! If anyone ever read my blog (which mostly they don’t), then I could expect my comments section to fill up with trolls telling me a) how stupid I am, b) what a pussy I am, and c) why I represent everything wrong with this country. Fine. Every time you talk to me about why you own a gun, what I hear is why you want to have the power to kill. And if not seeing the capacity to easily take another life as the primary achievement of humanity makes me stupid, then I am stupid. If valuing life over the ability to kill makes me a pussy in your eyes, then I gladly accept that. And yes, my anguish over gun violence definitely makes me wrong, because this is a country that loves gun violence.
I am befuddled, infuriated, and despondent that there is more investment and energy in this country in keeping marriage benefits away from gay people than there is in keeping guns out of the hands of psychopathic shitstains. That is seriously fucked up. What propels us to be so fearful of the wrong things? Gay people getting married doesn’t kill anyone.
I am glad that our society is coming around to accepting people of different sexual orientations and, hopefully, of different gender expressions. I am hopeful that my child will grow up in a culture that will not constrict her as she seeks to discover who she is and commit her life with whomever she finds love. I’m glad my child will be able to marry anyone she wants. That’s assuming she doesn’t get killed by someone’s gun. I’m glad we’re moving towards some measure of inclusion, but I deeply grieve the violence that undergirds the foundations of this country. I’m afraid for my child, I’m afraid for my family, and I’m afraid for the soul of my country. Not just because we are a violent culture, but because we have stopped pretending to care. Well, I still care and it’s breaking my heart.
A few weeks after our daughter was born, my mother-in-law said to us, “It will go by so fast. Before you know it, she’ll be starting kindergarten.”
A few weeks ago, we went to her kindergarten orientation.
Parents are all the time saying things like “It goes by so fast” and “Before you know it…” I heard it all the time, I usually just shrugged at it as if it were a given fact. As it turns out, “it goes by so fast” is, in my experience, not true. The past five years have not gone by fast. They feel like at least five years, possibly more. Parenting is a bit like Louis CK’s joke about divorce: it’s a time machine that travels forward at exactly the same pace as actual time. Because, although it does not feel as if it has gone by fast, it is true that it came before I knew it.
Why do we not know it before things are here? How come every new little milestone arrives before I know it? Suddenly she’s about to go to kindergarten and I think, we’re here already? And then I think, of course we’re here already; it’s been five years. It only feels fast because I let it sneak up on us, and I let it sneak up on us because I kind of didn’t want it to get here and so I tricked myself into thinking it would take more than five years. But it doesn’t. It takes exactly as long as it takes.
As adults, we can trick ourselves into not seeing ourselves age. Some of that is because we age slower than children do. I haven’t had a growth spurt in several decades. I measure advancing age these days mostly by the increased discovery of muscle pains and the hopes that my hairs go gray instead of disappearing altogether. Children, on the other hand, are impossible to ignore as they grow. We buy my daughter a new pair of shoes every six weeks. Every other day we have to redress her in the morning because something no longer fits her. American adults are in denial about getting older, but children force us to reckon with the unstoppable march of time by changing and growing in obvious, demonstrable, concrete ways all the time. It’s like when I get caught up in some task at work that consumes my time and energy and then I look up at the clock and think, it’s 4:30 already? Except that it’s been a long day and of course it’s time to go home.
I am not aging any slower or faster than my child. I’m getting older at the same pace as she is. Because God wanted to rub this in my face, my child was born on my birthday. Sharing a birthday with your child means a) you have to really work to get people to celebrate your birthday in adult ways; and b) you cannot forget that you and your child are getting older. It’s crazy: every year she gets older, but so do I! It happens before I even know it! Except that I should know it, because the math stays pretty consistent. I can’t catch up to her youth nor can my wisdom catch up to my earlier lack of knowledge. I look at my own baby pictures and think, my parents were younger in that picture than I am now. Which seems impossible for my younger self to have noticed, but you can’t go back to appreciate youthfulness before it’s gone.
Six years from now we’ll be preparing for middle school. It will take exactly six years. In that time I we will have six joint birthdays. It won’t be any faster than time has ever moved. I will be six years older and so will she. And it will be here before I know it. Not because it’s fast, but because I don’t want to know it. I’ll look up and think, Is it sixth grade already? Oh right, it’s been six years, but I’ve been too busy buying her new shoes and counting my gray hairs before I lose them. It’s so much more comforting to not know something is coming so that when it gets here it’s always before we know it. Sixth grade, ninth grade, college, graduation. And then I retire and then I die and all of it before I knew.
I suppose I could pay more attention to the future so I’ll be prepared. But truthfully, I like not knowing until it’s here. I’d prefer to enjoy the buying of shoes instead of focusing on where we’ll buy bigger sizes when she needs them. It doesn’t go by fast, it just goes by, but I like the surprise. Kindergarten already? Of course. And – it came before I knew it. My baby’s getting older, just like the rest of us.
Do you remember the first time you ever prayed? I don’t. Prayer seems to be one of those things that I’ve just always known about. I kind of regret this. Not that prayer is a part of my life, but that I don’t have a clear sense of before and after. There are certain prayers that I have prayed that stand out in my memory, most of them having to do with people who are sick or dying. I remember a few prayers of thanksgiving and joy, like when my daughter was born. Mostly, though, prayer feels like trees or sky: something that is always around me everywhere I go, often without me even noticing.
I can’t say I’m real clear on what prayer is or what it means or how it works. I do believe it makes a difference. Not in any kind of magical thinking, genie-in-a-bottle kind of way. I’ve heard too many prayers at the bedsides of dying people, including my own brother, to believe that prayer is a formula whose correct and thorough recitation triggers supernatural intervention in the course of world events. But I have seen it change the way people act or talk or feel. I’ve seen anger soften, tears flow, anguished frowns turn to smiles, voices lowered or raised, hands and arms joining, all during or after a prayer. A month ago, I prevented a patient from receiving a sedative injection because I prayed for her and her heart rate and blood pressure dropped to safe levels. I knew what I was doing; I have a calm, soft, soothing praying voice, and I was aware of the patient’s faithful belief that prayer is powerful. She and I might have had different beliefs about what makes prayer powerful, but in that moment, it definitely was.
My own prayer life is a little less certain. I rarely pray out loud by myself. Even silently, I don’t compose an inner monologue or speech. Prayer is more about awareness and mindfulness, of creating an inner space of connection with the larger world around me so that I might let myself be reassured of the sanctity of this life and my relationship with others. I suppose “meditation” might be a better word for it, but I can’t let go of the word “prayer.” In my cultural upbringing, that’s the word for it, and as much as it might have evolved from what I was taught in Sunday School, it still feels like an important spiritual practice for feeling grounded in my relationships: to my loved ones, to my self, to the larger community of humanity, to this creation I’m lucky enough to live in.
So of course I’ve tried to teach my child to pray. I’m not the only one, of course; she goes to church and Sunday School. Her preschool is run by a church, so she gets it during the week, too. She knows how to say “the blessing” before each meal. The common one, sung to “Frere Jacques,” goes:
God our Father, God our Father
Once again, once again
Thank you for our blessings, thank you for our blessings
It’s simple, easy to remember, and mostly I like the simple message. (Mostly; I have my typical liberal resistance to male imagery of the divine, but that is how Jesus prayed, and I still have some years to sneak in feminine imagery.) Some nights if she’s really hungry, she just prays, “Dear God, thank you for this food, amen.” Which is still pretty great.
We’ve also taught her to say prayers before bedtime. Not every night; bedtime is sometimes a delicate dance, and I am not going to disrupt it by praying. (Note to Jesus: Sorry, but that’s how it is. If you have a problem with it, then make my daughter fall asleep faster.) When we say prayers at bedtime, she usually speaks only thanks. “Dear God, thank you for Grammy and Pappy and Grandmom and Granddad and all the people in this city. Amen.”
I love that my child’s first prayers are prayers of thanksgiving. She hasn’t seen enough of the world yet to know how lovely her life really is, which is why I’m touched to hear her spontaneously give thanks for things like her new doll or butterflies and flowers. I’m thankful her life is good enough that she has the luxury to pick and choose so many things to give thanks for.
I want her prayers to start incorporating an awareness beyond her own good life to others who might not have it as good. She’s already starting to gain some sense that other people have it harder than she does, and it seems a good time to introduce prayer into this awareness. So my new practice with her is to have her say a prayer anytime an ambulance or fire truck races past us on the road.
“Someone is sick or hurt,” I say.
“Who is it?” she asks.
“I don’t know, but that fire truck / ambulance is rushing off to help them. Do you want to say a prayer for them?”
The first few times, of course, I did it for her, to model what it sounds like. Only a sentence or two, to ask God to help whoever is hurt. Just enough for her to practice thinking of other people in her prayers.
This past week, we had the luck of seeing the person we prayed for. A fire truck raced past, followed by an ambulance.
“Uh oh,” my daughter said from the backseat. “Someone is hurt.”
“Sounds like it. Should we pray for that person?”
“Dear God,” she said, “please go be with the person who needs help and make them feel better. Amen.”
Proud and touched, I said, “That was a very good prayer.”
“I know,” she said, nonchalant. “I’m a very good pray-er-upper.”
Of course this made me laugh at loud. Then we drove past the ambulance, which had stopped on the sidewalk. Apparently a runner had fallen or collapsed; he was sitting in the ambulance talking with the EMS tech, and the fire truck was driving away with its sirens off. “Look honey, that’s who you prayed for.”
“Who is he? Is he okay?”
“I don’t know for sure, but it looks like they’re taking care of him. Maybe he fell.”
A few moments of silence before she said, “I’m glad they’re taking care of him.”
To be glad that a stranger is getting care is prayer to me. If my five-year-old child can experience that, can allow herself to be concerned with another person’s suffering for a few moments, then she is indeed a good pray-er-upper. I hope I can continue to teach and learn alongside her the joys of connection and empathy, praying up her own spirit as we go. If prayer is about connection to those around us, I am grateful for the joy that comes in praying with my child.
Some weeks ago, my daughter asked me to tell her a joke. I told a knock-knock, which I quickly realized she didn’t understand. So I had to teach her. Which immediately struck me: the knock-knock joke is a cultural language that has to be learned. I don’t remember the first knock-knock joke I ever heard; I just remember it as an assumed structure of language and simple humor. But somewhere in my life, someone had to explain it to me.
Me: I say “Knock knock,” and you say, “Who’s there?”
Me: Like someone is at the door. I’m knocking on the door, and you want to know who it is. “Knock knock.”
Her: Come in.
Me: No, you ask “Who’s there?”
Her: Oh, okay. Do it again.
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who’s there?
Her: Come in, Harry!
Me: No, you say “Harry who?”
Me: Because you don’t know which Harry it is. You’re asking for Harry’s last name.
Her: Oh, okay. Do it again.
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Her: Harry, what’s your last name?
Me: No, just say “Harry who?”
Her: Oh. Harry who?
Me: Harry up and let me in!
Me: Maybe you’re not quite old enough for knock-knock jokes yet.
Her: No, do another one!
Me: Okay, we’ll practice with this one. Knock knock.
Me: Remember, ask me who it is.
Her: Oh yeah, oh yeah, sorry. Who is it?
Her: Banana? <breaks out into laughter> That’s funny!
Me: But that’s not the joke.
Her: <still laughing> A banana at the door!
Me: You’re supposed to say “Banana who?”
Her: Oh yeah, oh yeah, okay. “Banana who?”
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Me: <whispering> “Banana who?”
Her: <annoyed> I know! Banana who?
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Her: Banana who? I got it!
Me: Good job. Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Me: <opening my mouth to prompt her>
Her: I know! Orange who?
Me: Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?
Me: <smiling> See?
Her: Okay, my turn! Knock knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Her: Pootie tootie.
Me: Uh, okay. Pootie tootie who?
Her: Aren’t you glad I didn’t say wicky wicky? <wild belly laughter>
It went on like that, with her offering dozens of knock-knock jokes, all of which followed this pattern:
Her: Knock knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Her: (nonsense phrase 1)
Me: (nonsense phrase 1) who?
Her: Aren’t you glad I didn’t say (nonsense phrase 2)? <wild belly laughter>
Of course, the best knock-knock jokes are really puns, told with a particular set-up. Part of the humor is knowing the set-up and seeing how the pun fits. Puns, despite being considered by many as not the highest form of humor, are still a little too sophisticated for a five-year-old. Even after learning (mostly) the set-up of a knock-knock joke, her grasp of the English language is still too literal for her to grasp the structure of a pun.
However, obviously, this didn’t prevent her from finding humor. The key to humor is not just surprise; it’s subversion. And subversion is always at someone else’s expense. The pun is a subversion of linguistic expectations, implicitly at the expense of the listener who is expecting a typical use of the word “orange” and receives instead a sentence substituting “orange” in place of “aren’t you”. My child is still learning the language; she’s not familiar enough with it to appreciate sound-alike subversions.
But she’s not too young to appreciate the subversion of structure, which is why the more of her knock-knock jokes she told, the funnier they were. She learned the basic structure of the knock-knock joke; in fact, she learned the structure of a particular knock-knock joke. Then she continually subverted that structure – while adhering to it! – by inserting nonsense phrases she made up. These jokes were, implicitly, at my expense. After all, it was my expectation she would use the structure of the knock-knock joke appropriately. She took the structure that I, the authority figure, gave her and then repeatedly handed that structure back to me with nonsense inserted so as to thwart my expectations of following the appropriate structure.
Children are really, really good at this. They are exploring the world without pre-existing expectations, and when they bump against boundaries, their first impulse is to test them. Subverting language happens even as they are learning it – indeed, you might argue that subverting language is how they learn it. They also subvert social norms, which is why “poopie” jokes are always funny to a kid. A part of me really admires my child’s careless subversion of the norms and expectations around her, although I don’t love that it’s often at my expense. But the thing I’m most jealous of is how much fun she has doing it. Children are true jesters, cheerfully poking holes in everything they see. My child reminds me that transformation should be a strange, delightful, even fun endeavor. Humorless activism is missing something.
As best as I can, I want to continue to join my child’s absurdist perforations of the expectations and structures of this world. It’s called play, and it is serious business. It’s how we learn, grow, and transform. May all your knock-knocks be weird, absurd, and provoke you to belly laughs.
“Is she with you?”
I’ve never received a text message that sent such cold ripples through my body.
We were out of town a few weeks ago for a wedding. We stayed in a hotel – our daughter’s first time – and I had gone out to do some crate digging at local record stores while she and her mother took a nap before getting dressed and heading to the church. When I’d left them, they’d been each in their own double bed, sound asleep. Two hours later, across the town in a shop by myself, I received that text from my spouse.
“I hope yr kidding” I texted back. But the chills seeping into my body could not be mollified by a mere text, so I called.
“She was still asleep when I woke up,” she told me, “so I got in the shower. I heard the door open as I was getting out, I thought it was you. She’s not here, I was hoping you’d taken her somewhere.”
“I haven’t been back,” I said slowly.
“I don’t know what to do. Please get back here now.”
I knew it would take me fifteen or twenty minutes to get back to the hotel, and I had harshly practical realization that if things were not okay within that time, they would never be okay. She had to be in the hotel, right? I mean, where would she go? What bad things could happen to her in a hotel? Of course, someone could snatch her up and take her away, but honestly, what were the chances that there were child predators prowling the hallways of a mid-class family hotel hoping a child would wander out unattended?
But what if she wandered outside? What if she wandered into the street? What if this was actually the very day that a child predator really was staying in the Holiday Inn?
“Found her” came to me before I even started the car. Then: “In the lobby in her pjs” with a frowny face emoticon.
(There’s really no emoticon that adequately captures the overwhelming mixture of reassurace, irritation, dread, and thwarted proleptic grief that comes with finding your lost child. But the Germans probably have a word for it: meinKindGottseiDanknichtwidertun.)
When I got back to the hotel room, my spouse met me at the door. “Don’t scold her,” she said. The story she got from our child is that she woke up, thought we’d left her, and went down to the lobby to wait for us. Why didn’t she check the bathroom first? Who knows. But when my spouse rushed into the lobby in wet hair and dirty clothes, after frantically calling down the hallways of two floors, she saw our child by the window, and the two tearfully reunited, apparently with equal amounts of fear and relief. There she’d sat, in a chair by the window, in nothing but her pajama top and underwear, clutching her stuffed orange kitty and watching, forlorn, for a familiar car to pull up to the door.
Everyone who has heard us tell this story says something like, “Every parent has to have that experience when they lose their child. May this be your only one.” Amen and amen to both statements. Yes, dear Jesus, let that be the only time we feel that kind of gut-crushing panic. But also, yes, universe, thank you for giving me a taste of that feeling. It is humbling and grounding to be reminded of my mindlessly fierce love for my child. Scary as it was to face a few eternal moments of fearing the worst for her, it is a touchstone I can go back to in those moments when she is driving me crazy. Seriously: thank God for the luxury of her driving me crazy by splashing me at bathtime; for the beauty of her refusal to sit still and use her fork; even the maddening fits and tantrums become reasons for rejoicing – we found something we might have lost.
Jesus, the Christian religion’s perfect avatar of a lost child found again, tells a parable about a woman who loses a coin and turns her house upside down to find it. When she does, she throws a party with all her friends to celebrate. “Rejoice with me,” she says, “for I have found that which I lost.” Commentaries will attempt to explain what made that one coin so valuable (She was poor! It was her dowry! It’s just a story, lighten up!) , but Jesus explains the meaning by saying that heaven rejoices with equal measure over just one sinner who repents. Or, in other words, that God feels this way about all of God’s children when they are lost and then found.
I know there are times when I have felt left behind, times when I woke up and felt God – or Whoever – had gone away. And like my child, I didn’t stay put or check obvious places, because waking up alone in a strange place is disorienting and frightening. So I wandered to a place I thought I was likely to be found, looking out into a scary world, exposed, pitiful, deserted. The next time that happens, I will remember to take with me the knowledge that even in those lonely moments when I feel most forsaken, there is a divine and holy spirit frantically searching to find me.
I grew up in an evangelical community where I often heard the aphorism, “If you’re feeling distant from God, remember that you’re the one who moved away.” I suppose that might often be true; my child was the one who the left the hotel room, although her mother did get up to take a shower. But I have compassion and understanding toward my child who, in her confused and startled mind, made a decision she thought best. If we move away from God, it’s not because we’re wicked, wayward sinners; it’s usually because we’re bewildered and afraid and uncertain. And if we move away from God, it’s good to know that God will then be storming through the building with wet hair and dirty jeans, calling out to find us.