Crisis

It took drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, curled into the surf as if he were sleeping, to finally incite us.

This past week was the week that the European refugee crisis, driven by conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea, finally hit its disturbing critical mass.

Both CNN.com and the BBC have had growing and more extensive photo and journalistic coverage, but it was Kurdi’s body, washed ashore after a tragic nighttime crossing that claimed 11 other lives, including the boy’s mother Rehen and brother Galip, that appears to have (finally) engaged the European community. Even the Pope has involved himself.

Images of the boy first appeared last week in my Facebook feed (of all places) – a video from a Turkish news-site that showed rescue workers photographing and collecting the boy’s body. The video played immediately (fucking Facebook), and as I watched the surf lap closer and closer to Aylan’s face, my first irrational thought was that whomever was taping this needed to move the boy before he drowned.

Then it became clear he already had.

I’ve responded in various ways to the Syrian crisis, but the most visceral reaction I’ve had is as a father of two boys. A father who wants to see my children flourish and, ultimately, survive me. Like most parents, the nightmare that I won’t be able to provide for or protect my kids is an anxiety I live with daily. And I'm not living this fear in a war-torn country.

I put myself in the father’s position. How he gambled on the opportunity to take a boat across the Mediterranean because to stay was to condemn his wife and children to certain death. The ones who make it face no certainty that they will actually improve their quality of life. They have nowhere to go once they make the crossing, certainly nowhere that promises food or shelter or sanctity. But even an uncertain future is bliss compared to losing one’s family to the sea.

However we got here--whether we've been following the European refugee crisis for months or whether it was Aylan Kurdi's body that finally did it--many of us are now asking ourselves what we can do, how we can help. I've seen several extensive lists, but perhaps start with Neil Gaiman's excellent coverage here

I ache for these families. Now that they have our attention, let’s not turn away again. 

 

Father (verb) First

I’ve been reflecting on an intriguing comment about parenthood in general, and fatherhood in particular, which I heard during a recent Fresh Air interview with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette about the making of the movie ‘Boyhood.’

It isn’t in the linked transcript summary here, but Hawke reflected on the realities of being a divorced father of two (in the movie and in his life) and remarked that for dads ‘…without meeting your responsibilities, there is no happiness.’

He was speaking about fathers who had abandoned their duties, who had left the raising of the children to the mothers. He reflected on how men can often position at diametrically conflicted angles their familial obligations against their lifestyle pursuits (women abandon their families too, of course, but he was speaking in relation to his male character).

As Hawke puts it, ‘family is the dream.’

It’s just that men often realize—or more likely, admit to themselves—too late that they share this dream.

Or perhaps I’m projecting. 

My wife and I both have fathers who—in one way or another—followed their own paths away from their children, away from their familial obligations. We were both kids during the late 1970s and early 1980s when divorcing parents were, anecdotally speaking, more the norm than the exception, and many of these Baby Boomer men left the children to be raised by our mothers and whatever men happened to be around.

But then, at a juncture years later, these same men have returned from wherever they’ve been—usually, it seems, raising other families—making claims on our time, our attention, our loyalty even. The pain in these men—our fathers—is palpable, a tangible weight of missed opportunity that presses hard upon shoulder, head and chest.

They ask us to lift that weight, to appease them, to forgive them, and even when or if we do, nothing changes for them.

The men in the lives of my wife and me would never—could never—acknowledge or admit this, but what we can’t do for them is give them back the satisfaction of fulfilling the responsibilities that they shirked off. They missed their (many) chances to fulfill a fundamental obligation within themselves, and no amount of effort on the part of the children alleviates the consequences born from the choices made by the fathers.

If this sounds harsh, it’s not exactly intended to. My wife and I have both worked to improve our relationships with our respective fathers, even if the results of those efforts are mixed at best (we children shoulder our own burdens of missed opportunity).

But I have to acknowledge reality, too, and the reality is this: when you have children, the time to put in the work and to be present and to establish a foundation of trust is brutally short.

However undeveloped they may be, kids know from betrayal. They know when someone is hanging in, doing his or her best, making themselves available. And they know when someone has left, physically or emotionally or both.

I'm, of course, reminded of my own behavior and my own habits as, now, a parent myself. I have to work at my own instinctive, selfish impulses and remember to father (verb) first.  Even when it's sloppy and poorly executed (which--come on--it usually is). I've seen the consequences of not doing this, and I want more for myself, not just for my own happiness, but for the happiness of my kids. 

Become Beautiful Butterflies: A Love Note

THREE YEARS BEFORE

The doctor sets out the scenario, and despite yourself, you focus on random details while he talks -- the rubbing-alcohol scent of the Purell, the slate gray hue of the examination table where your wife sits and absorbs the news.

She’s going on bed rest for three months—or until the baby is born—and you are going to be caring for her, for your first toddler son, and in addition to keeping your full-time job, as a bonus, you’ll be administering to your wife's glutes weekly progesterone shots even though needles freak you out, and even though you’ve never stuck a needle into anything alive, let alone anything resembling a human being.

But you set aside the shrill-shrieking doubts, and you focus on what the doctor is telling you.

Twenty-eight weeks, you decide. Your wife and your unborn child need to make it to twenty-eight weeks.

You know this because you’ve been through this before. Your first son was premature, but his early arrival was a shock. That pregnancy had been cruising along just fine until the thirty-second week when it came to a full-stop. You did your time in the NICU. You saw the other parents and the other stories, some easier than yours, some so much harder.

These are the children you and your wife make. These are the nutty and eager little beings who can’t seem to wait to enter the world. And this second one—if he survives—will be your last. You’re never going to fucking do this again. It’s not fair to anyone, least of all your wife.

“Are you committed to this?” The doctor asks, testing your resolve, if this should go wrong and the baby is born before week twenty-four. Do you really believe you have the capacity to deal?

You don’t. You know you don’t. But that’s not what you say.

“Absolutely.”

You are now at twenty weeks. A birth any time between now and the next four weeks will be tragedy—there is no other word—the child that you are somehow already bonding with on an ephemeral level, that unconscious and I’ll just call it mystical/biological process that knits you to your kid before he emerges, will cease before he takes a single breath.

So you begin counting. You count hours and you count days and, when you can count off a week, it’s a celebration. You don’t tell your wife that you’re doing this. You don’t confess to her that you are obsessing, that you are preparing mentally for a child born so early the hospital won’t resuscitate him.

You keep this to yourself.

Your wife loses valuable, essential muscle while she lies through the days, incubating, holding in. She tries not to read online about the other women in her situation—especially the other women on bed rest who lose their babies—and she distracts herself by reading, napping, watching whole seasons of Lost. You know if it were you, you’d go crazy, you’d, well, lose your shit. She doesn’t. She’s busy bonding. She and your unborn son are communing, connecting. They’re going to make it, they decide. They’re both going to see this through. Together.

Meanwhile, you spend through your wife’s short-term disability before your son is even born. You spend thousands of dollars before she even gives birth because your healthcare coverage has an out-of-pocket expense that didn’t seem that large until you charge thousands of dollars on your credit card. And when your son is finally born at thirty-one weeks, when he and your wife finally make it, your wife has to quit her job because she has already burned through her maternity leave, and she doesn’t want to cede the care of a one-month old premature baby to the hands of anyone else.

But the point is that the kid makes it to thirty one weeks. There are details you’ll never forget (like ‘cerclage’), there are the amazing doctors and surgeons who just happened to be brilliant, and there are those long days and nights spent in the NICU that will be with you forever because the nurses were so phenomenal. There are your friends and family who stepped up and kept you fed, kept you sane. There are the people you didn’t realize you needed so much.

The kid is here. Your wife did it.

NOW

Your second son is going to be three years old next weekend. Your wife has gained back her health. Finally.

This isn’t your story. This is your wife’s story. This has been her journey and this has been her struggle. You can only guess at how difficult these years have been for her. The heavy-lifting of caring for an infant and a toddler. The turning away from the world, the turning inward, the bringing together of the four of you. She did all of it.

This is the time of her re-emergence. This is her time.

Just like the story that your three-year-old loves so much, mother and son are casting off the chrysalis and taking to the air. Butterflies. Beautiful butterflies.  

You watch them both, and you marvel.

Back and There Again: If You're a Hobbit and You Know It, Clap Your Hands

Traveling with children sucks. Traveling by car with children sucks more. Traveling over two thousand miles by car with children sucks the most.

The above is mostly tongue-in-cheek because, of course, how could driving through five states in a week’s time with a two-year-old and a six-year-old not be a grueling challenge? And all told, both kids did a solid job of keeping their shit together for what turned out to be a hell of a lot of hours staring out the minivan’s windows.

Unlike my wife, who has a traveler’s spirit and is invigorated by the life-disruption, I journey roughly. My comfort zone demands that I remain in one spot long enough to seep around the edges until I feel I've learned the character of the place. This slow accretion approach doesn’t lend itself well to travel, where you blast past and through locations, glimpsing only the briefest of exposures to an elsewhere life blurred by a spectrum of sensory stimuli.

I want to be a better traveler. I want to give myself over to the present and now-ness of it. Much like my wife does.  

Observing my children adapt to the demands of travel—to go from barely being able to endure a half hour car ride to managing a six hour driving day—encourages me. If their high maintenance needs can stretch and flex, than perhaps mine can, as well. 

The Rodent and the Shadow: The Groundhog Day-Like Curse of Parenting

Mid-week I had one of those parenting days that, with a surgeon’s-like slash of a scalpel, undid my fragile belief that I’m not the worst parent in the Universe.

It was the hottest day of the week, and I had just returned from work. My eldest son wanted to ride his bike with his friend, I reluctantly agreed to monitor, and then my son’s friend offered him a popsicle. We hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I issued the unequivocal ‘No.’ Then came my kid’s rejoinder ‘But.’ Then came a repeat of my same answer. Then came the kid’s whining. Then came the third repeat of the same answer. Then came the kid’s freak-out complete with bike-tipping and helmet-throwing. Then came my decision to end outside play time because I was hot, I was irritated, and I was sick of saying the same negative thing multiple times.

Once our children evolve out of toddler-hood, the act of parenting consists mostly of scenarios like the above. In fact, what wears most of us beleaguered parents down is the sheer repetition of this same script amid its varied backdrops. It’s the same struggle—hence the comparison to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’—and I often fail: one or both of my kids does or says something that frustrates me and before I can check my immediate reaction to snap or yell I, well, snap or yell.

Among the many humbling lessons of parenting is that you usually do most or all of the things you promised yourself you wouldn’t do when you first became a mother or a father. And among the most difficult and painful rituals is the one where you learn to forgive yourself for being just as inept and fallible as everyone else who has been a parent.

Contrary to what you believe, (and contrary to appearances) no parent knows what he or she is doing.

Still and even so, my goal is to remember to recognize that while my child—this exhausting dervish of willful initiative—is often challenging my rules, he is not (necessarily) just trying to piss me off. His goal is to discover and push against the boundaries, in fact his development depends on this process. And yeah, at moments like now, I can recognize this dynamic just fine. In the heat of the moment, though, when I just want the children to listen and do what I want them to do, I bypass reason for authoritarian imperative.

Do it because I said so.

Parenting, like living, like writing, constantly reminds me that I have a go-to set of reactions that if left unchecked, lead me to the same unpleasant result. I want to change the way I parent, the way I live, the way I create, so I look for models on how to change this fundamental instinct. There is the briefest of moments when I can react in a different manner—when I can halt the impulse to snap or yell—but recognizing I’m in that moment is nearly impossible because that’s just my way. The best guide so far has been the work of Pema Chodrön and her explication of shenpa. Or what she translates for us as ‘getting stuck.’

When I have one of those oh so many parenting moments where I’m on the verge of losing my temper, inside it feels like when I’m shifting gears and there’s that briefest of pauses before the clutch disengages and the new gear locks in. It comes fast, and it comes of muscle-memory, and if I’m not paying attention (which is me 99% of the time) I can just keep on keeping on in the same way I always do. Then, in the hangover of it, I feel shitty for once again reacting in the same old way.

This morning, this moment, is another go at the same challenge – the kids have been bouncing all over the house for hours. And I get to practice again and again (and again). Will I react differently? Can I change? Or will I react in the same old way once again.

Maybe today I’ll get it right, and the groundhog will finally see its damned shadow.