There are occasions, the frequency of which falls somewhere between “rare” and “commonplace,” when my child wants to be helpful. I believe she enjoys the feeling of contributing the household welfare, not to mention the ways it makes her feel a little more grown-up. Mostly, though, I think it gives her a sense of belonging in a household of two parents and no siblings. If Mommy and Daddy are cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes, the easiest way to participate without being trampled underfoot and subsequently scolded is to join in. Sometimes she washes dishes in the sink, or runs the vacuum, or, in the weirdest but most delightful instances, cleans up her room to a nearly immaculate state.
The new chores of living in a new house have provided novel helping tasks heretofore unexplored. For instance, she has become and enthusiastic mailer of letters, particularly in the raising of mailbox flags. She has also expressed interest in taking the trash cans to and from the house and the street on trash day. Last week, she rolled a city-sized trash can up our driveway – a forty degree incline of twenty-five feet – all by herself. It was empty, of course, but still. I was impressed.
This week, trash day was also recycle day. This meant two city-sized trash cans at the curb. I was eager to let her help me, since this would mean only one trip up and down the hill. When I announced the need to bring the trash cans in, she cheerfully asked to help, thrilling to belong to a very grown-up level of helper. We marched down the driveway, her chatting away happily about how helpful she was going to be to me in bringing a trash can up the driveway.
After reflecting upon this incident, it has occurred to me that my child is likely still younger than the age that my ancestors were put to work by their parents on the farm. I was perhaps too blinded by the thrill that having a child was finally starting to pay off to realize that letting her help is still not about actually receiving help. So when she grabbed the first trash can and said, “Help me, Daddy,” I merely tipped it on its wheels towards her and turned back to the other trash can.
Have I mentioned that our street is also on a hill? Meaning that our driveway slopes down to the street, which then slopes back up about as steeply along our yard. So that my child is now standing between a tilted city-size trash can and a downward concrete slope.
“Help me!” she shouted as the trash can rolled and pushed her back. I realized the folly of entrusting her balance to such weight and incline and began to move towards her just as she lost her balance. Fortunately, this meant she let go of the trash can, which then tipped back away from her, righting itself and stopping still. She threw a foot back and caught herself, too, free of the force of weight and balanced. Disaster averted, I thought with a sigh of relief.
But it wasn’t. The true disaster, the emotional disaster, had already occurred. She burst into tears. “I can’t do it!” she screamed.
I was fixated on the fact that she hadn’t fallen, hadn’t hurt herself. “That’s okay, honey,” I said in what I thought was reassurance, “I can get it.” I grabbed it and started pulling it up the driveway.
She followed, howling, “I couldn’t get it! I couldn’t get it!”
“Honey, it’s fine, I can get it.”
She wailed all the way to the top of the driveway, me lugging the trash can, her circling my legs shouting “I can’t do it!” About that time, Mommy pulled into the driveway. When she stepped out, she immediately stooped to our child and asked what was wrong.
“Daddy made me get the trash can and it fell on me!”
As my spouse looked up me, a look of puzzlement (or was that accusation?) on her face, I wanted to shout, “No one made her do anything! She asked me to help! And nothing fell on her! She’s talking nonsense!” I didn’t say those things, though. I just shrugged and said, “She’s not hurt.”
That wasn’t strictly true, of course. She had gotten quite a scare. I can only imagine how it had felt in that split-second when it seemed like the trash can really was going to topple over her – that thing is nearly a foot taller than she is, and four times as wide. That flood of cortisol and adrenaline might not be the most familiar sensation to her four-year-old body, and I should be more forgiving towards her propensity to project blame onto me instead of the cruel and uncontrollable fact that she isn’t older and bigger yet.
More than that, though, her pride was hurt. Scraped up good, blood seeping through the raw pink wound of her tiny tender ego. She’d wanted to help me but couldn’t. She was nearly crushed under the weight of it. The cheer and joy of being useful and productive snatched away from her in a panicky moment of threatening imbalance. The promise of belonging cruelly supplanted by limitation and failure.
I couldn’t see any of this in the moment; I just wanted to get the trash cans up. It wasn’t a big deal. And of course, Mommy’s soothing misdirection (“Come inside and tell me about your day…”) dried her eyes in just minutes and it seemed as if the whole thing had passed, another strange moment in the life of a four-year-old. Yet I couldn’t shake the suddenness of her distress, the intense power with which she became so distraught. Maybe my attention was caught with the incongruity of her reaction at not getting hurt, but looking down into her eyes as she howled at me, I saw something deeply and primordially afraid. I assumed in the moment it was just the shock of almost falling over, but I realize now it was more than the threat of scrapes and bruises. As she followed me up the driveway shouting, “I couldn’t get it,” what she really was saying to me, with guttural and slightly pre-verbal intensity, was: I can’t do what you want me to do; am I still yours?
It’s the image of her, trying to cling to my leg as I pulled the trash can up, that kept coming back to me as I pondered this incident. I didn’t give her the answer she needed in that moment, although to be gracious to myself, I had no idea what she was feeling right then. Now I can see it, the need for reassurance not only that the trash can will still find its place, but that she still has her place as my child. After all, I can easily remember all the times in my life when I have asked, and still ask: I can’t do what you want me to do; am I still yours?
Part of why I didn’t see it is because I so naturally assume that she belongs to me, that she will always belong to me in some form or another, that she will always be my beloved child, that nothing she could do or fail will preclude that. Of course I don’t need her to carry the trash can up the driveway to love her, for her to stay my beloved child; it’s so obvious to me that I wasn’t able to think of it until later. But maybe it’s not always so obvious to her. My first reaction to that is to wonder what I’m doing wrong as a parent to cause her to suspect that this simple failure might result in losing my love. But it’s not about my parenting; it’s about her finding a basic sense of trust and place in the world. That’s her developmental job at this age, and it in no way reflects on my parenting. Every child needs this explicit reassurance. In fact, so do adults, from time to time.
My second thought was wondering how I am already communicating that belonging comes in meeting another’s wants. This feels like a dangerous message for a little girl to be internalizing. But it’s a message we’ve all internalized. Try as I might, I’m not sure I can prevent this introjected value from embedding itself in her soul. After all, it’s embedded in my soul.
I may have missed the opportunity in the moment to assure her of her core existential need in that moment, that her belonging in my heart has nothing to do with her utility or performance. I have lots more chances, though. I can’t overcome the message completely. It’s a broken world based where value is determined by usefulness and there’s no way to escape it. I know my own wounds in fearing rejection from failure. They’re more subtle than hauling in a trash can, but they no doubt throw me off balance just as quickly and powerfully as that trash bin loomed over her. I also know how blessed it is to have someone love me like a quirky piece of art: not for the purpose I serve, but simply for being unique and beautiful. It is, at heart, how my own parents loved me; how my spouse loves me; how the divine spirit loves me. I love my child this way because I, first, was loved this way. Those small but potent places where I have belonged in the universe are reinforced and celebrated every time I tell my child that she is mine, no matter what anyone wants or does.
A few months ago, we instituted “Movie Night” at our house. Movie Night takes place on Friday nights that we are not otherwise engaged, and it consists of the three of us – wait for it – watching a movie together. Naturally, we choose movies with our four-year-old daughter in mind. Disney and Dreamworks have supplied the bulk of these films, delivered by Netflix and Amazon Instant.
Now that we are in our house and everything from storage has been unpacked, we have been reunited with our DVD collection. This means that last week’s Movie Night brought a genuinely thrilling event for our family: my daughter watched Star Wars
for the first time.
This was a long-anticipated event for daughter and father (and, to a lesser degree, mother). If you haven’t read about my Star Wars story time with her, click here
. In short, I’ve told her the plots of the three original films in little chunks for bedtime. She knows the story and characters in the ways that children remember stories: vaguely correct themes punctuated by brief incidents of unbelievably accurate detail. (“One robot got lost so Luke took his floating car into the sand mountains to look for him.”) The prospect of watching a “Star Wars movie” was immensely exciting to her, particularly if it had Princess Leia in it.
The initial battle scenes on the Corellian corvette blockade runner (yes, I’m that
dorky, you scruffy-looking nerf-herder) had her asking, “What is happening?” and “What are they doing?” But the confusion ended the moment the airlock door blew open and my daughter threw her arms up and hissed with excitement and awe: “Darth Vader!” She cowered back into the sofa while R2-D2 was stalked by the Jawas, and she threw her hands up over her eyes when Luke was attacked by the Sand People. She gazed with admiration at the Mos Eisley street scenes (Lucas’ revisionist edits are impressive in those moments), and she cheered with the Millenium Falcon escaped Tatooine. “Chewbacca is a big dog,” she explained to her mother. The trash compactor scene again had her covering her eyes in fear, and she laughed with us as C-3PO mistook their relieved shouts for death screams.
At moments throughout the movie, she would turn to me and say, “Remember this part? You told me about this!” Perhaps the best moment in the whole experience came when she whispered to me, “When you told me this story, Princess Leia looked different.” <pause> “I mean, in my mind
. She looked more like Snow White.”
I worried, back when I was recounting the tale to her, that watching the film might squash the imaginative processes of her mind. People argue that movies don’t leave as much to the imagination, not like books and the spoken word do. I think that’s true for adults; I’m not so sure with kids. Their brains seem to be taking in so much new, unprocessed and unfiltered data that their imaginations never stop working, even when we give them the pictures and structures to order them.
Adults think, “This is what Princess Leia looks like.” Kids mash it up and even slightly question it when they actually see her on the screen.
Tonight’s Movie Night is, of course, The Empire Strikes Back
. I can’t wait for her to see Yoda on the screen. She knows what he looks like because she found an old Yoda action figure of mine. She’s heard my approximation of his speech. But I’m eager to see the ways that her imagination takes him in, partly because he’s such a kid-friendly part of the Star Wars universe. Also because, well, Yoda was my favorite when I was a kid. My own imagination was filled with stories and ideas about Yoda. Watching her experience these stories for the first time invites me into my own childhood recollections, but also reminds me not to hold on to them so tightly.
(Again, see my analysis
as to why people my age hate – hate
– the Star Wars prequels.) Stories shape us and form who we are, but we do not own them; they are not ours to keep. They belong to families, communities, cultures; they slip out of our hands and take on larger significance and meanings as new people encounter and live them. They are, quite literally, alive in their capacity to grow and change and adapt and touch each individual in different ways.
I love watching my child imagine the stories I tell her: Star Wars, Grimm’s fairy tales, someday it will be Lord of the Rings
. Or the way she engages the stories of the Bible, or the stories I tell her of when I was a kid. All these things are alive in her in new ways, ways I can’t see or predict, but that bring me back to the mystery of discovery that is narrative. It’s exciting to watch and to know that I have years ahead of her hearing, discovering, and reinterpreting my stories back to me.
Last week, I wrote about my daughter not understanding her new room. This week, it has become very clear to us: she is regressing.
Mostly, it’s the tantrums. They are loud, wild, and uncontainable. These are the things she has thrown tantrums over just this week:
· Wearing shoes
· Not being able to wear Mommy’s shoes
· Having eggs for breakfast
· Having quiche for dinner
· Having pizza for dinner
· Having spaghetti for dinner (what a lucky kid! Pizza and spaghetti, I mean, come on!)
· Not getting a fourth helping of watermelon for dinner
· Getting only six minutes of playtime instead of ten
· Not getting to stay up late and watch TV (and she’s only four!)
· Getting her hair combed
· Getting her hair put up in a ponytail
· Getting a bath
· Going to the potty
· Wetting her pants because she didn’t go to the potty
· Going to school
· Going home from school
· And, my personal favorite reason for her to throw a tantrum: because Mommy and Daddy are mad at her.
I know that these things are regressive symptoms of her new surroundings. How do I know? Other than the other regressive symptoms – she gets up in the middle of the night, she’s had more potty accidents – these are things she wasn’t doing a month ago. At least, not with the same frequency and intensity. She has become an emotional two-year-old, but with the physical agency of a four-year-old. She’s hit us, scratched us, thrown things, and in one inspired moment, spit on the floor after declaring, “I’m going to spit on the floor!”
And always with the constant wailing. She’s invented a new way to sob. It’s far more guttural and rumbling than it used to be. It’s as if in having a larger home, she knows she needs to work harder to completely fill the space with the volume of her voice.
It’s maddening. The only consolation we can find – and it’s small – is that we know what’s going on. The remedy, besides trying to marshal the kind of patience reserved for caricatures of saints, is to stick firm to both our routines. Stories at bedtime are non-negotiable; so are bath nights, morning dress procedures, and clean-up rituals. She is hyper-sensitive to routine. I’m still trying to find the best route for my commute home, and she notices every time I go a different way. She will become accustomed to the new surroundings, but the quicker we can establish a firm, predictable existence in the new home, the better.
And, of course, the love. Regression is, in simply Freudian terms, a coping response to feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. Her ultimate concern in all of this is to simply be reassured that we love her, we’re taking care of her, and she can depend on us. This isn’t helped when we lose our patience and temper at her terrible, terrible behavior. It’s a real bind. When I can marshal the patience, it’s because I keep reminding her that this terrible behavior is a cry for reassurance. At the heart of it all, she needs to know that our love for her is as unbendable as we know it really is.
There are other concrete approaches we’re trying. I’m going to give her a tour of her bedroom this weekend: where her clothes, toys, books are being kept. My therapist even suggested I let her name her new furniture. Anything to help her feel more in control.
We went through this a year ago when we moved to Charlotte. You’d think we’d have learned some things after that experience. But as anyone caring for children knows, it’s one thing to think and talk about parenting from a removed theoretical standpoint; it’s another to put it into practice with an actual child in the middle of a meltdown. We’re doing our best, I suppose. And even if we keep failing, we can trust that, just like last fall, she will adapt and settle down. Let’s all just pray that we can make it until then before I start regressing too much.
It’s been several weeks since I posted anything. I have a good reason: we moved into a new house. After a year of dismal apartment living – cramped space, dilapidated appliances, ignored noise complaints, and lots and lots of bugs – we are now in our own home. Except for crickets in the woods, it is blissfully quiet. We have lots and lots of space. The appliances are new and very fancy. (Our refrigerator beeps if it’s left open.) We’ve even been reunited with the 40% of our stuff that was stashed in a storage unit. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was last night for me to open up boxes of books, feel them in my hands, then place them on shelves. I’m not planning on reading any of them, but after having them stuffed into boxes in the back of a dim storage garage for a year, it was nice to bring them home.
Our daughter, however, seems to be a little on the fence. She’s not explicit about it; if you were to ask her if she liked her new house, she’d probably say yes. There’s a tree swing in the yard that she loves. Her bedroom is pink, and she’s now sleeping in a “big girl bed.” Her books are all unpacked and her daddy’s set up the Netflix so she can watch Curious George when she earns screen time. She likes our neighbor next door and last night we found a collection of quartz geodes the previous owners seemed to have dumped out in the flowerbeds.
But it’s the fourth room she’s had in a little over a year. It’s all new. And, just like last year when we moved into the apartment in a brand new city, she’s acting out. I’d like to think it’s not as bad. After all, her teachers and friends and school and church are all the same. But she goes to sleep in a new bed at night and the car pulls into a different space and the faces of the neighbors are different. Some of her toys are still in boxes. And as she shouted at us in a moment of frustration the other night, “I don’t understand my room!”
I’m not entirely clear what that means, but it seems appropriate. There’s a lot in this world for a four-year-old to not understand. What she did understand, at least until last week, was what her room looked like and where her toys were and how bath time proceeded and even what roads we drove on. Once again, all of that is up in the air, and she is starting over to establish routines and familiarity.
We don’t plan on moving again for a very long time. Maybe ever. My child will hopefully move out eventually, but we plan on her spending a good fourteen years in this house. So I know she’ll get used to it, and when she’s an adult, she will no doubt think of this house in those moments when her memories turn wistfully to her childhood. I wish I could speed up her getting used to the house or, better yet, infect her with the same sense of relief and excitement that her parents feel to be living in such a wonderful place. Transition is hard for anyone, and for a little person, transition is experienced as five or ten times bigger than it is for adults. We’re employing every tactic we know of to reassure her that we are with her, that she is safe, that she can depend on us, that new routines are forming. But a four-year-old lives in a world of emotions and reactions, and she is going to feel out loud whatever she feels.
There’s something to be said about just living out your uncertainty. I wish it was taking more obedient, manageable forms. But I’m trying to admire her emotional honesty. Sometimes I don’t understand the world I live in, either, and that’s scary, particularly when it includes the one place you need to feel safe and familiar. As her parent, I think my job here is twofold. First, I’m trying to make room for her that she can understand. Not rationally, but in her heart. Secondly, I think I just have to keep loving her no matter how maddening her acting out becomes. Come to think of it, those are every parent’s jobs.
As the boxes continue to become unpacked, we will find our home, and so will our daughter. May you also continue to find room in your life that you understand, and find the space to feel your frustration when you don’t understand it.
Last week, The Cut
, the online fashion blog of New York Magazine
, published a piece
by Kat Stoeffel entitled “It Shouldn’t Take Having a Daughter For Men To Care About Feminism.” The hyperlink title was “Stop It, Dad Feminism, You’re Embarrassing Me.” Slate
, my all-time favorite magazine in any print medium, republished this article under the title “The Problem With Dad Feminism” with the hyperlink title “Dad Feminism: Why Having a Daughter Shouldn’t Make Men Care About Feminism.”
If I understand Stoeffel’s complaint, it’s that “dad feminism” – at least as it tends to live on the internet in the form of blogs, tweets, and other online ephemera – is condescending and patronizing. Her primary example is a recent post from the owner of an online hip-hop site who scolded pop star Nicki Minaj for the provocative cover of her latest single. I’m not going to wade into the issues of sexualized pop culture or the vast complexities of society’s objectification of women’s bodies right now. It’s a complex, difficult issue and I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on it. Stoeffel’s problem with this tsk-tsking is that it presents as a “fatherly” attempt to control Minaj’s use of her own body and image in the guise of all that he has learned since having a young daughter. The original title of the post makes the clearest statement of Stoeffel’s complaint, and she restates the thesis in the first paragraph: “[O]ften the writer-dad’s newfound sensitivity is overshadowed by his prior obliviousness: He was apparently unable to empathize with women before one sprung from his loins. Did he take nothing from his other encounters with half of humanity?”
This is dead on. Suddenly deciding that women are people because you want to protect your daughter from other men does not make you a feminist.
One would assume that before you had a daughter, you had a wife or girlfriend. Not to mention a mother. And, one would hope, female friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I completely get this. Talking down to women because you have a daughter is not “Dad Feminism,” it’s “Paternalism.”
(And I think it's fair to say moms do this, too.)
As a man who considers himself a feminist – at least to the degree that it is possible for someone who does not have the lived experience of being a woman to claim the title – I can say that my feminist leanings did not start the day my daughter was born. I’d like to think that I was not previously oblivious to the struggles of women in our culture and whatever sensitivity I have is not completely new. However. Whatever is meant by the term “Dad Feminism,” I can’t help but feel defensive. When I read the term in the article titles, I immediately identified with it, only to be offended to have it suggested that Dad Feminism is an embarrassing problem.
I certainly don’t understand why having a daughter shouldn’t make men care about feminism (although, to be fair, I don’t think Stoeffel suggested this). There are, of course, lots and lots of other things besides having a daughter that should make men care about feminism.
You know, like a desire for justice and equity in the world. Or basic sensitivity to the needs of other human beings. Or, at the least, the selfish recognition that patriarchy is also oppressive to men. But having a daughter should make men more interested in feminism.
Here is where I want to take my stand in defining what I think “Dad Feminism” should be. Having a daughter should make men interested in feminism. So, too, should having a son.
I considered myself a feminist (again, with the caveat that I can only claim that title to a certain degree) before having my daughter, but I consider myself more
feminist now because I am a parent.
I think – I could be wrong, it’s hard to tell for sure – but I think it’s safe to say that I am more of a feminist because I had a child. Caring for and about my child made me more of a feminist. It also made me more of an environmentalist. And more of a pacifist. And more of an LGBTQ ally. And more concerned about racial equality. And economic parity. And educational access.
In short, becoming a parent – having the responsibility of bringing up a young life in this society – has made me more sensitive and concerned about the struggles of all people. It starts with my love for my child who, as genetic chance should have it, was born a girl. And from there it opens up my heart even more to others. Because yes: I see suffering in the world and think, “What if that were my child?” When I read about rape victims dismissed by universities and police, I become incensed. It starts by realizing connecting to that person as someone’s child, then telegraphs to how I would feel if it were my
child, then opens me up to paying attention to the full personhood of human beings who suffer rape, humiliation, and other sexual abuse. The same thing happens when I read about Palestinian children killed when their school is bombed. Or when I hear the dire predictions of climate change on this planet. Or see the abuse heaped on people who are transgendered, or the vast injustices that face non-white Americans, or the impossible burdens of being poor. I don’t want these things for my child, and I don’t want them for anyone’s child. The crazy protective love I have for my child has broken open wider the empathy I feel for other people's suffering.
Yes, it runs the risk of paternalism. I accept that. I will work to keep from being patronizing, of treating people who aren’t my child as if they were my child. But I will not renounce my indebtedness to my daughter for making me more deeply sensitive to the suffering in the world.
You certainly don’t have to be a parent to start caring about injustice; I agree that you should have started that long ago. But for this writer, I wholeheartedly claim that becoming a father has intensified my heart for other people. One day I will turn my child loose into this world and it terrifies me. I am not ashamed to be a Dad Activist in the hopes that this world might be a slightly better place for everyone's children. So please tell me if I am clueless, patronizing, or patriarchal. I’ve never wanted that for myself. But do not scold or patronize me for having my heart opened more deeply because of the fierce love I have for my child. My role as a dad has an awful lot to do with my newfound dedication to bringing change to the world, clumsy as I might sometimes be at it. The work of healing and reconciliation is difficult and I care a great deal about it. I will not be silent when my efforts to engage in this work are dismissed because they come out of my identity as a father.
We bought our daughter her first Bible.
It’s actually kind of not really a Bible. It’s a translation put out by the American Bible Society that is heavy on illustrations and selective on stories, with occasionally heavy-handed theological interpretations at times. (Did God really have a plan for Joseph the whole time? Or did Joseph just think God had a plan?) Whole chunks of the actual Bible are skipped completely. Want to guess how much of Leviticus and Numbers are illustrated for your child? That’s right: zero percent. (Which, honestly, is probably a good call.) So it’s not a real Bible. But it feels like a good start. And we found it used for fifty cents, so there’s the savings to consider.
She is the one who asked for a Bible. We’ve been reading books to her literally since we brought her home from the hospital, so books are a familiar and exciting experience for her. She’s also been going to church and Sunday School for almost the same amount of time. She’s four, and she’s old enough to notice that her church lessons all come from a book called the Bible. So she wanted one for us to read at home.
Our purchase of a Bible, along with intentional reading from it – every night, we read three or four stories to her – coincides with a recent study
published in the journal Cognitive Science
suggesting that kids “from a religious background” have a harder time differentiating between fact and fiction. Three types of stories were told to children: 1) obviously real stories, 2) religiously themed stories featuring divine intervention, and 3) stories without religious themes but still featuring some magically impossible event. “Secular” children distinguished the second and third stories to be fiction, whereas children who “went to church or were enrolled in parochial school” were less likely to describe the second or third stories to be fictional.
The age range of these kids was five- and six-year olds. Which is an odd range to choose from, given that it’s exactly the cusp at which children move from preoperational thinking into concrete operational thought. Or, put another way, this is exactly the age in which children start to question whether Santa Claus is real. The authors of the study seem to think that religion encourages magical thinking among children. Which, each night that I’m reading the Bible to my four-year-old, leads me to a couple of thoughts: A) What is the context in which we tell our children biblical stories? B) Aren’t children magical thinkers anyway? C) Is magical thinking such a terrible thing?
My guess is that “religious” kids means kids who are taught that stories of faith – hell, who am I kidding, if this study took place in America, then we mean stories from the Bible – are literally true. Drawing a strict line in the ground about the factual bases of certain biblical stories probably does get confusing to children. If we teach our children that Jonah was a real person who was actually swallowed by a real whale, then I don’t suppose it would be much more of a leap for that child to believe that Santa Claus really fits in the chimney, or that a prince was actually turned into a frog. Children really aren’t developed enough to distinguish between different types of magical thinking like adults are.
This is because children are magical thinkers by their developmental nature.
If the researchers really wanted to alarm me, they should have done their study with nine- and ten-year-olds. You know why they didn’t? Because kids that age, even kids who believe that the Bible is literally true, know how to distinguish between reality and fantasy. I dare you to go to the most conservative church you can find and ask the ten-year-olds there if real people can do impossible magical things, and they will probably say no. Perhaps a literal biblical education might delay the transition into concrete operational thought, but I hardly believe that the strictest of churches is raising children who cannot differentiate reality from fantasy.
Last of all, I find myself circling back to the question: what’s so bad about magical thinking? Because, let’s face it, we never grow out of that.
I don’t just mean adults who believe the Bible is literal; I mean everyone
relies on some kind of magical thinking. You remember that relationship where you were sure if you worked hard enough you could change the other person? Magical thinking. Do you eat “super foods” in order to cleanse unseen toxins from your system? Magical thinking. Do you ever talk out loud to a loved one who has died? Or think that you have control over what happens to you? Or that your life on this earth has a purpose? Magical thinking, all of it. Do you believe in the power of love? Because, folks, thinking doesn’t get more magical than that.
I could spend a lot of energy parsing the ways that magical thinking could be both negative and positive. There are lots of ways that magical thinking has contributed to pain and suffering; just look at the anti-vaccine movement. There are also ways that magical thinking makes a difference for the better. I daresay that not a little bit of magical thinking inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to believe that a hatefully segregated country could change for the better.
Instead of trying to categorize magical thinking into good and bad types, I’d rather just sit with my daughter in her magical worlds. She isn’t quite old enough to be asking if the stories we read are real. She doesn’t care; they’re books
. She loves the stories and it doesn’t matter to her if they are factual or not; they’re real
in the sense that they are stories she loves. She is old enough to ask about things that happen to us
are real. If I tell her I saw a dragon at work, she’ll ask, “For real?” And I’ll say, “Not for real.” And we’ll laugh. But she doesn’t point to the dragons in her books and say, “Are these real?” They’re real to her in that moment.
This is why I love the Bible. The stories of the Bible are real to me. Not literally, factually real. But real in a deeper, more powerful sense. Yes, even a magical
sense. The ways I find myself in the biblical narratives have changed over and over throughout the years of my life, depending on who I am and how I’m growing and changing. That’s why I’ve learned to call the Bible the “living word.” If it were just a book of facts, it wouldn’t be alive. If I have to choose between inanimate data and a little bit of lively magic to determine the meaning in my life, I will choose the magic. Because, come on – who wants to live a life deprived of magic?
It won’t be long before my daughter does start asking of the books we read, “Is this real?” That will include the Bible. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll say, but it will probably be something like, “What do you think?” That’s not a dodge; it’s an invitation to soak in the stories. I don’t fret about the day she questions whether or not the Cat in the Hat exists, and I’m not going to fret about the day she questions whether or not Adam and Eve are real. It’s not that I think these stories are equally important in my life. I haven’t shaped my life around the stories of Dr. Seuss (although that would probably be a life well lived). We all choose the narratives that inform our lives, and there’s a very real communal power in joining together with narratives that are ancient and have informed centuries of people’s lives and movements, for better or worse. I’m glad to pass down the narratives that have informed my life, but if those stories are going to enrich my child’s life, I have to let go of my need to control them. That’s how she reads stories – as beautiful living things that invite her into new and magical worlds, not sets of files to be manipulated and monitored. I consider myself a scientific person. I’m not one for superstition or illusion. I am, however, one for imagination. I’m all for dreaming, for being visionary that extend beyond what I can touch, for embracing whimsy and creativity. These things don’t conflict; most scientists are deeply imaginative, curious people who look high up at the stars or deep into the atoms and wonder. This is the magic invitation of stories: to wonder. Peace, hope, love – these things are magic. When I sit down each night to read with my daughter, whether it’s about taco-loving dragons, or Max sailing in and out of days, or Moses parting the Red Sea, I join my child in wondering about and over the world. I join her in living a magic-filled life.
Here in the Queen City, the thirteenth largest city in America, traffic can sometimes be a problem. All it takes is for one car to stop working properly in a congested area, and it takes thirty minutes to drive to the end of the block. It comes with the territory of living here. Still, it sucks. It also sucks when you’re stuck with your kid in the back after a particularly terrible day at work while it is pouring down the rain. With people honking at you because you happen to be in front of them or beside them. Also, you’re only fifty yards from your home.
This happened a few nights ago. My child weathered it pretty well. She didn’t fuss or cry. She did repeat many, many times, “I want to be home.” But my frustration wasn’t due to her behavior. For once, a four-year-old behaved better than every adult surrounding her.
No one enjoys being stuck in rush hour traffic that is further convoluted due to a fender bender that shuts down two lanes. I get that it’s no fun for anyone. I don’t get taking it out on all the drivers who are not responsible. Why are you honking and yelling at me? Why don’t you pull up next to the drivers of the wrecked cars and the police officers who blocked the lane and yell at them? This ridiculous, terrible behavior does not, I hate to say, bring out the best in me. At one point I lost my temper such that I yelled back at a fellow motorist a terribly profane phrase. Nothing original, but pretty high up there on the obscenity scale.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted it. Stupid, I thought. That motorist couldn’t hear me; I had my windows rolled up. But you know who could hear me? The four-year-old in the backseat. I immediately bit my lip and prayed in the pregnant paused that followed that she hadn’t heard it.
“Daddy?” she said after a moment. “Why did you say that?”
“Say what?” Adolescent denial.
Then she repeated it back to me. With impeccable enunciation.
“I didn’t say that,” I said.
“What did you say then?” she asked. A perfectly reasonable question.
My mind raced to try to come up with a sound-alike phrase that would fit the situation. Shucks, fool? Duck poo? Stuck, too? (Why didn’t I just say “Forget you”? Why can’t I hear Cee-Lo when it’s helpful?)
I couldn’t come with anything other than, “Something else.” Something else. Desperately grasping at any way to downplay the situation, suck it dry of any significance that would keep the phrase memorable in her impressionable young mind.
“Why did you say that?” she asked again.
“Daddy is really frustrated and is saying nonsense things,” I managed.
This seemed to satisfy her, and she went back to singing a song about wanting to be home.
Now, along with my fury at being stuck in traffic within eyesight of both other motorists with displaced rage and my own living room, self-loathing crept in. I am a terrible father. I have now taught my four-year-old daughter one of the few remaining phrases in vernacular English that can still elicit gasps of horror and shock. I flashed forward to the day that I would pick her up at daycare – daycare! – and her teacher would say to me softly, “We heard her say something troubling…” and I would have to admit it was all my fault, she learned it from me, because I am a terrible father and it’s only a matter of time before my daughter becomes a stripper in a biker gang.
After some minutes of us idling on the road, her singing a cheerful song about wanting to be home while I stewed in my shame and remorse, traffic began to move. Of course, I was in the lane that was blocked. I put on my signal and attempted to merge, but of course several cars ignored me and passed me. Infuriated again, I opened my mouth to curse. Thankfully, my sense of dishonorable parental failure was overwhelming, and so instead of profanity, I growled at these cars, “You are not kind!”
“Who’s not kind, Daddy?” she asked.
“These cars are not kind because they didn’t let me over,” I explained.
Then a car did let me over. I waved in relief.
“What about that car behind us?” she asked.
“Yes, that car was kind to me.”
Finally, we pulled inside our apartment complex. I stopped by the mailboxes to pick up our mail, rushing out into the rain while my daughter waited in the car. As I gathered up the mail and headed back to the car, several packages stuck under my arm, the rain still pouring down, some guy stopped me.
“Excuse me,” he said, “can you help me open my mailbox?”
I stopped, rain coming down, my annoyance barely contained. Seriously? All I wanted was to get home in out of the rain, get my child inside, and give her some coloring books and toys that would help cover over any imprint of my terrible parenting.
“I can’t get the door open,” the guy said again. It seemed like the quickest way to get him to leave me alone was to open his mailbox for him. He handed his key to me and showed me his mailbox. I put the key in and snapped it open. I had no idea what would be keeping him from doing this task for himself – if he’d been putting the key in the wrong way or turning it the wrong way or not holding his mouth right – but the ease in which it took to open his box just angered me more. You couldn’t figure this out on your own? I thought. You need help opening a damn mailbox? What are you gonna do when you get your mail tomorrow, come to my apartment and knock on the door and ask me to open it again?
“Thank you!” he said. “Have a good night!”
I mumbled a “you’re welcome” and ran back to the car, rain dripping down behind my ears. I jumped in and shut the door, started the car, trying hard to keep my frustration from bubbling over.
“Daddy,” my daughter said in the back, “you were kind to that man.”
My hands froze on the steering wheel. “Was I?”
“Yes. You helped him. That was kind of you.”
Tears of shame and disappointment filled my eyes. I hadn’t been feeling any kindness towards that poor man. I helped him, but I was as begrudging as I could be about it. I’ve no doubt that man felt my irritation, as if he were just one more inconvenience to me. I hadn’t been any more kind or compassionate than those cars honking and zipping past me.
I have a lot of shame about my failings as a father. I lose my temper far more than I want. I say things I shouldn’t ever say. Sometimes I’m inconsistent in how I affirm or discipline my child. I let my irritation get the better of me. None of this is helped when my child can ironically, if unintentionally, point out to me how much I’m failing to be the kind of person that I want to teach my child to become. It is a particularly painful humbling when children behave better than the adults around them.
When we finally got inside the apartment, Mommy was there to greet us. The first thing my child told her was that Daddy was kind. “Really?” Mommy said, smiling at me without any knowledge of the darkness that had been brewing in me for the past half hour. She recounted the story of how I had helped a man at the mailbox. She didn’t tell my spouse anything about how angry I was. She didn’t mention the strange word Daddy had used. She didn’t talk about the traffic or the rain or the unkind cars or the simmering rage in Daddy’s hunched shoulders and scowling eyes.
If you know me at all, then you know I’m not going to let myself off the hook for the ways I fall short as a parent. Thankfully, my child seems to be much more gracious than I am. Thirty minutes of watching her father at his worst, and what does she remember? The one nice thing I did for someone else. Perhaps I am too pessimistic about the world, jaded from the years of violent news headlines and fickle friends and the disappointments of an arbitrary universe. Perhaps I am too quick to assume that my child will only absorb the bad things because I have let myself become saturated with bad things. Perhaps I should stop underestimating the durability of kindness.
My child can be unkind. She gets mean sometimes. I still need to be vigilant in keeping her from picking up new ways of being cruel to others. But I should probably give her more credit for her graciousness, kindness, and optimism about other people. I should also probably give myself a little more credit for the small ways I uphold and encourage her to be the sort of person I value. And maybe along the way I will get imprinted to be more kind and gracious and forgiving.
I took my daughter to see her uncle’s grave. She is named after my brother, who died of cancer when he was fifteen. In the last week of his life, he made me promise that I would tell my children about him
. Of course I’ve told my daughter about her uncle, about how she is named after him, about how he died long before she was born. We were in my hometown for the holiday weekend and it just seemed like perhaps she might be old enough now to understand a little better what all of this meant.
I told her we were going to visit the uncle she’d heard about. We pulled into the cemetery, admiring the fountain and duck pond by the entrance. When we got out of the car and she looked around, she asked, “Where are we?” I suppose that being surrounded by gravestones on a hot July afternoon is a striking sight if you’ve never experienced it before.
“This is a graveyard,” I told her. “It’s where we bury people after they die. Their bodies come here and we put them in the ground.” She has asked about death. I think she vaguely understands that dying means you are gone and you don’t come back, but I don’t think she comprehends the concreteness of this. To her, death is what happens in a story when bad guys are removed from the narrative. She does not understand death to be the crushingly final nothingness of loss that all of us one day face.
We walked to my brother’s headstone, a modest flat slab in the ground. She was distracted by the hundreds of flowers all around, picking up a pink plastic petal that had blown off of a display. I pointed to the stone and said, “Your uncle is buried here.” We knelt down and I pointed to the letters of his first name, which nearly match the letters of hers. I started pulling grass back from around the edges of the stone, and she eagerly chipped in. My tears came easily, as they do when I visit his grave, but I had on sunglasses and my daughter didn’t notice. After a minute or two, she ran off to look at flowers. She picked some wild dandelions and brought them to me and her mother.
“Do you want to leave these for your uncle?” I said, laying my dandelion down on the headstone.
This made her upset. “I picked it for you,” she insisted.
“Well, can I leave it here?”
“But it’s yours!”
With some cajoling we convinced her to let us arrange the dandelions on her uncle’s grave, but she seemed hurt that we didn’t want to carry the flowers back to the car with us. She had a point.
I’ve always been really clear that the grave of my brother is not where my brother is. It marks the place where his bones are, but a padded box filled with the bones that once gave his body structure is not my brother. I go to his grave every year (or less) not to visit my brother, but rather to visit some geographical location that is symbolic of all the memories I carry of him. My brother isn’t his grave any more than Jesus is any particular crucifix.
Just driving to the grave evokes memories – “That’s where our friend Matt used to live; that’s where my high school girlfriend lived; there’s our old church; we used to eat at that restaurant all the time.” Before we went to the grave, we met two of my high school friends and their families for lunch at an old landmark deli. In a clever (or perhaps cruel) twist of fate, the deli had some 90’s pop hit station playing music: Counting Crows, 10,000 Maniacs, the Cranberries, Blind Melon. All the music my brother loved.
The recollections of him aren’t really him, either. Of course, what is really him is gone. That’s what death does to us, it erases the essence of who we are from this plane of existence. It removes us from our own narrative. From our loved ones’ narratives, too; but those narratives continue. The cruelest truth of death may be that the narrative doesn’t end with us. It keeps going and we are forced to revise a narrative without someone we love. That is where my brother is: in the ongoing narrative of my life, of the lives of others who loved him. My brother is in the work I do with others, in the ways I love my parents and my spouse, in the hopes I have for my daughter. Clearly, for she carries his name, even though I am under no illusion that she is anything other than her own unique person.
I was reminded of this in her insistence that we take the dandelions with us. Her uncle isn’t at the grave for her any more than he is for me. To her, my brother is with me. Particularly in the stories I tell of him. She knows that is where her name comes from, she knows that I once had a brother. It gives her a little practice at playing with the idea of emptiness and want. She knows what a brother is, but, like me, does not have one. Training wheels for grief: she can roll around the idea that there is something in the world she doesn’t have, watching me carry that burden with (hopefully) some grace and gratitude.
Maybe we shouldn’t have left the dandelions on the headstone. We could have honored my daughter’s gift to us as her parents, as the source of stories and growth and protection. Those of us who have suffered loss certainly want to honor our predecessors who taught us how to live. I want to pass these things down to my child, and to her children after her. But I don’t think those who went before us are the only ones who teach us to live. After all, the narrative doesn’t end with us.
Our daughter is spending all of this week with her Grammy and Pappy in Tennessee. Last night, while we Facetimed with her, she gave us this sweet little interaction:
(sad face) Mommy, Daddy, I miss you. Are you coming soon? I have to go play! Bye-bye! (runs off)
Typical crazy schizoid toddler reaction? Maybe. Or maybe it’s one of the most adult things she’s done. I contend that maturity means being able to hold two or more conflicting feelings, attitudes, or experiences without the need to resolve or explain them. Comfort and familiarity with ambiguity is a rather grown-up trait, being able to affirm “yes” and “no” at the same time. I appreciate that my child can, to some degree, hold the mixed feelings of both missing her parents and being delighted that she has so much time to play with her grandparents (and without us).
If parenthood has taught me anything, it’s how to similarly hold conflicting, contradictory attitudes at the same time. For instance, I have had basically the exact same reaction to her being in Tennessee: Wow, I really miss my daughter! Also, I am so thrilled that I have the entire night to myself! I wish that she were here with us and I am so glad she is not here with us. All adults find their way to embracing the various paradoxes of this life; you certainly don’t have to have children. But that sure has helped me develop this trait.
Other contradictions I have learned to embrace as a parent:
I wish my child had a sibling so she could experience those parts of life that only come with having another playmate/enemy living with you. And absolutely none percent of me wants there to be another baby in my home.
I really want her to learn to play by herself and not need my attention all the time. I also love it when she wants my attention.
I hate Curious George, but I love reading and/or watching Curious George with my daughter.
I can’t stand the thought of being one of those parents who is too invested in his child, but I kind of am that parent and am pretty much fine with it.
Other parents annoy the hell out of me when they talk on and on about their child, but I don’t want to hang out with them if they don’t.
I love every single thing about my child, except all those things that drive me nuts.
For instance, I’m thrilled that we are raising an independent, strong-willed girl. And also it is completely infuriating when she is independent and strong-willed.
Not a day goes by that I don’t want my old childless life back, but I would never in a million years want my life to be different than it is now.
Come to think of it, maybe living comfortably within contradictions isn’t something you have to grow into. Maybe we’re born with that; maybe my child’s simultaneous feelings of homesickness and joy at being away are the more natural state of being. Maybe we struggle to get rid of that as we age, desperately trying to land on a single thing and stick with it in the name of consistency, or safety, or clarity, or integration. Maybe maturity means reclaiming our comfort with paradox, of returning to a more innocent, fluid approach to the world. Maybe mental health is about saying yes and no at the same time. Maybe a strict adherence to singularity is what ultimately makes us crazy.
Or maybe it’s children that make us crazy. Whetevs. Sanity is great and I sure work for it, but I also love the craziness of having a four-year-old run roughshod over my life.
Last night, I witnessed a tragedy in our kitchen. Spoonman. May a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.
For her birthday several weeks ago, she received a “Souper Action Figure Spoon” from one of my colleagues. She reported that her children loved to eat with it and, sure enough, so did my child. We affectionately named him Spoonman, partly in honor of the Soundgarden song, but also partly because he is a man with a spoon for a head. In the past few weeks, my child has usually asked at breakfast or dinner if Spoonman was clean so that she could use him to eat.
Yesterday, Spoonman went missing. He could not be found at breakfast, and there was no time to search for him. By dinner time, we had forgotten about him. (We had spaghetti, which is more of a fork meal, at least for a four-year-old.) Cleaning up and washing the dishes, I dumped uneaten noodles down the garbage disposal and flipped the switch. A terrible sound of grinding and cracking filled the room, and I quickly turned off the disposal and water to see what had gotten caught. I reached in and pulled out a single purple arm.
“Uh oh,” I said.
“What is it?” my spouse asked. She and my daughter were looking at me from the dinner table with concern.
Looking tenderly at Curly Fries, I said, “I’m so sorry.”
She hopped down from her chair, came rushing into the kitchen, and saw the single arm lying on the kitchen counter. For just a sliver of a second I saw a quiet look of recognition slip over her face. And then in an instant she exploded into weeping, her fingers flying up to her face, her body bent over with the force of her wails. “No no no!” she sobbed, tears pouring from her eyes, her face scrunched into a grimace. “He was brand new! He was just brand new!”
Her mother came over, knelt beside her, held her close. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Fix him, Daddy!” she beseeched me. “Please, just fix him! Put him back together!”
I dug another few pieces out of the disposal. A split torso, a severed black foot, the head of a spoon. “I can’t fix him,” I said softly.
At the gruesome sight of these pieces spread out on the counter, she fell to the floor. “Brand new!” she kept crying. “He was brand new!”
As a hospital chaplain, this was a familiar scene. I’ve seen many a family frantically rushing into the emergency department, following up a vague and ominous call from the hospital. Standing in the doorway, they see me, then look past me and catch just a single glimpse of the loved one’s lifeless form. They collapse into tears, wailing and pleading and weeping as I try to provide them support and care. Granted, the stakes in my kitchen last night were undeniably much lower than those hospital scenes of heartbreak and loss. But the reaction was identical.
It was such a familiar emotional display to me, in fact, that I started to cry, too. Of course, like all parents do when their child has a toy break, we began to promise that we’d get another one. But that statement was as efficacious to her as if I’d suggested to a shocked and grieving widow that she could find a new husband. She only cried harder.
I’ve seen my child cry about a lot of things. I’ve seen her cry over broken and lost toys before. But this scene was viscerally painful for me. I’ve walked with a lot of bereaved families in some of the most tragic circumstances that they had ever faced. I’ve seen a lot of people break down at the inexorably terrible news that their lives have been forever changed. I’ve heard the heartrending howls of lovers and children and parents suddenly pushed into the deep end of loss. Every one of those families’ losses has affected me. I carry their grief with tenderness and care and I count myself as blessed to help them hold the love and loss as the one who found himself in a position of showing them a small piece of love and care.
Last night I got just the tiniest glimpse of what it would look like if it were my own child. It was terrifying. I know it was just a spoon and it was just our kitchen, but for a moment it felt to me much bigger and scarier and awful. I don’t mean to suggest that my child experienced a similar loss as those families grieving loved ones. I do, however, mean to suggest that she had a similar emotional reaction. On a much smaller scale, my child experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of something she loved, and her emotional response mirrored the typical patterns of human loss that I’ve witnessed so many times. In that moment, I was telegraphed forward to some tragic possible future, when my own child might be one of those families in the hospital, responding to the loss of a friend, a lover, or perhaps even me.
I know, this is some heavy shit to get into over a spoon. But I do think this is the kind of heartbreak we open ourselves up to as parents. Or, for that matter, as people who love other people. We worry and we hurt and we fear for those we love. We get these flashes sometimes of how much we love someone through the flashing realization that if something happened to them it would devastate us. We feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, and the stronger our love, the more overwhelming the sharing of their suffering.
I believe, as a chaplain and a caregiver and person who wants to maximize the output of love in the universe, that this empathy to suffering makes us better at loving other people. As I stood over her, trying to reassure her to no avail that we could easily buy another Spoonman, I let the crazy association with a grieving family take over. Fighting back my own tears, I knelt down beside her, the crushed pieces of her beloved spoon action figure in my hand. “Do you want to say goodbye?” I said, my other arm around her, holding her tight.
“He was brand new,” she whimpered.
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry this happened. I wish I could fix him for you. I can see how sad you feel.”
I kissed her and let her cry until she said, “Goodbye, Spoonman.”
Of course, a replacement Spoonman is already on its way. (And thanks to Amazon Prime shipping, his miraculous resurrection will be faster than the three-day standard.) What loving parent wouldn’t instantly fix his child’s suffering? If the disposal hadn’t mangled and broken the plastic into pieces, I’d have glued him back together for an even quicker fix. I’m already looking forward to her reaction when she gets Spoonman 2 in the mail. One day, however, I know I won’t be able to fix it for her. My fierce love for her will fight that day tooth and nail. But when it comes, I want to be there for her to hold her suffering with her, to kiss her and wish with her that the world could be a little different. And when the day comes that I can’t be there for her, when she suffers losing me, then I want her to have learned that grief is the privilege that accompanies love. I’m so grateful that I am the person entrusted to love and care for her, no matter how much it may one day hurt.