A Ten Year Sleep - The Parenthood Blur

I don’t want to blame it all on my two children, but the past ten years have flowed unlike any other set of years that I can recall.

The clues are there every day: when I have time to listen to music, to watch a movie, to select a new novel to read—and of course any time I exercise or look in the mirror—that a number of significant years have passed in a blur and a rush and my context for nearly everything is 10 years out of synch.

Some days it’s like waking from a distorted version of suspended animation. The Parenthood Blur.

I’m surprised by my lack of emotional response to this realization. I hope this means that I have better learned to accept myself and the world around me. That I’ve adapted to the role of parent.

That all my passions and interests are combining into some massive and wondrous integration.

Hope is not a strategy, I’ve learned, but sometimes our lives align in the best ways despite our efforts to understand how we got here and when.

Fly Away With Me

I don’t often fly with my kids. When I travel, I’m most frequently boarding an airplane for work so that I can visit a client in another city.

But there’s something about being at the airport and watching those exhausted, stressed and strung-out parents with one or more freaking out children in tow that makes me—somehow—wish that I were experiencing my currently uneventful and comparatively stress-free travel with my own two sons.

Typically, any travel experiences with my kids culminates in the convincing decision that I will never, ever, travel with my boys again.

Then, when I’m back to again traveling solo, I find myself looking at these wrecked parent-child units and yearning for the chaotic, sometimes frustrating presence of my own offspring.

There’s probably a broader observation to make about parenting here. How before kids my mood could be altered by some (admittedly) trivial inconvenience whereas now the energy available for self-flagellation is no longer accessible because I’ve already spent that energy parenting.

Having children is a constant pull and push that singes the emotional receptors of your being every day until you collapse in bed at night exhausted, fulfilled and regretful. It’s the regret that is, for me, the most pervasive of parenting-hangover emotions. Regret that I didn’t get more time with them, regret that I didn’t appreciate their attention while I had it, regret that I didn’t do better.

Words of Loss

Kathryn Schulz has a beautiful and devastating piece in The New Yorker about loss; the misplacing of essential, everyday objects, and the displacing, disappearing, of the essential people in our lives.

Two weeks ago I traveled alongside an elderly couple who were flying home to Seattle because their forty-year-old son had died the day before. The couple had lost another son years ago: the boy was three when he drowned in their pool. Somehow the couple had survived this devastating loss, had had more children, had had another son who in their words was a ‘blessing and a comfort’ after the loss of the first. Now that second son was dead, too.

Last weekend, near our house, a two-year-old boy wandered outside at night. When the mother awoke at 6AM the next morning and found the toddler gone, she called 911. Like many neighbors, as well as the police, we searched for him. Police found the boy several hours later, exhausted and suffering from hypothermia, in a bramble of blackberries a block from his apartment.

Perhaps it’s the national mood, perhaps it’s my own, but this feels like a season of loss. A season of misplacing, a season of losing that which is closest to us. Life changes on us quickly.

The Spiritual Life Made Manifest - Larry Gordon, In Memoriam

Larry Gordon was a pivotal innovator in the southern California surf culture of the late-1950s and earl- 1960s. He was also my uncle. Along with Floyd Smith (also my uncle - San Diego was a small town back then, if you can believe that) Gordon and Smith developed some of the first foam and resin surfboards, which, to make a long story very short, transformed the sport.   

He was also a man of deep Christian faith. Although he and I never aligned on the specifics of our belief systems, we did have many interesting discussions--and arguments--about the nature of living as a spiritual person.  

Larry Gordon was diagnosed with Parkinson's over ten years before his death. How he conducted himself--with strength and with dignity--during an illness that mocked that strength and spit on that dignity is one of the most profound models of how to live one's belief's that I have seen. 

Below is a piece I wrote for my aunt and cousins when my Uncle Larry passed away a couple weeks ago. I find it interesting that despite the religious ideas that he and I used to talk about, it was his actions as a father that have left the deepest impression. 

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According to the writer Adam Gopnik, we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.

Larry Gordon--my Uncle Larry--was that contrarian figure who was drawn to faith while practicing faith. He lived by his beliefs, and those beliefs lived in him, infusing everything from surfing to running a business. But it was Uncle Larry’s practice of faith as a father that has left the deepest impression on me.

I have the bad habit of realizing life-lessons long after they’re applicable. Sometimes I find myself mimicking my role models without realizing who those role models are. And although I’m a terrible surfer, a poor scientist, a distracted searcher of spiritual truths, Larry Gordon is a role model for the kind of dad I want to be.

My own father left when I was six. It seemed at that time as though the world of my childhood was divided between those children whose dads had stayed and those whose dads had left. There is in this an uncomfortable feeling of exposure, that you are somehow undeserving, that you are somehow to blame, that the absence you feel so acutely is a detectable flaw in you or on you.

During that tenuous time just after my dad left, perhaps sensing that I needed guidance, the Gordon family took me to their church and included me in their community. And what lingers more than anything else about that time was how being accepted by a family where the father was present and engaged, where the father wanted nothing more than to be right there with his wife and his children, was quietly powerful and beautiful and something that I desperately needed to experience.

I couldn’t have a father like Larry, but I can try to be a father like him. Or, to put it in a way that Uncle Larry might appreciate, I will be the dad I would have wanted whether my own children like it or not.

Make no mistake, I fail more often than I succeed. I’m frequently humbled. I spend much of my parenting time practicing doubt.

In my better moments, though, I try emulate Larry, and the example he established: let your beliefs guide you, seize each swell as a new possibility, be there in the moment, be present, whether you’re stoked or whether you fall, and always, always be ready to paddle out one more time no matter what the ocean throws at you. 

Although I certainly have doubts about my own performance as a parent, thanks to his example, I have absolute faith that the act of being a good father can be done and it can be done gloriously.

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.