Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

Today on what would have been your 64th birthday I want to tell you some things.  I don’t want to focus on the addiction that took you away from me, that kept you from ever knowing your grandson and only having the briefest glimpse of your granddaughter.  I don’t want to dwell on the lies and pain that plagued our relationship during the last few years of your troubled life.  I don’t want to enumerate for you the ways in which the dysfunction of my childhood has caused me to struggle through my adulthood.  We spent far too much time rehashing each of those items in minute detail while you were still alive, and now I realize much of that to be time squandered before I realized how little there was left.  Today I’d like to tell you about some of the wonderful things you taught me, lessons that are only now being revealed to me as a father and a husband.

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 4.51.49 PMFirst, I find strength in laughing with my children.  Your sense of humor, your ability to laugh at yourself, the way we laughed so hard at the silliest things that we couldn’t breathe, these are all joys that I try to bring to my children.  My daughter has a laugh that can fill the room, and my son’s impish grin helps us forget all the familial strife that a five-year-old boy can cause.  When the normal pushing and pulling of parenting bring me to the edge, I try to let my kids’ smiles return me to normalcy because in light of all our troubles in the final years of your life, I still remember most vividly the times you and I would laugh together.  And the last time I saw you, just a few weeks before you died, when you could barely hold your head upright and your failing liver caused you to fade in and out of reality, your smile at the sight of our then one-year-old daughter is the last image of you that I will always keep in my mind.  I remember trying to talk with you about the gravity of your prognosis, and you smiled and told me, “Just slow down.”  I think you knew that your time was limited; you were done dwelling on the darkness, and your smile let in some of the light.

You also taught me to be honest about my unabashed love and passion for my children.  You wrestled your emotional demons for all of your 58 years I know, but you never let your struggles keep you from conveying to your only son in some way how much you loved him.  Though it seemed time and again that you so often chose the bottle over me, I understand now that your disease and your love for me were two mutually exclusive aspects of your identity, although the former sometimes cast a long shadow over the latter.  Now, when in the throes of some operatic struggle with my kids, I always take the time to calm myself down and explain my feelings.  Even at their young ages, they seem to understand that when Daddy sometimes yells or slams a cupboard or asks them to leave him alone, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love them, especially because when the storms have subsided inside me I sit down with them, hold them close, and talk through how I dealt with my feelings, and how I should have dealt with them.  I remember one of the only times I screamed, “I hate you!”  I was an early adolescent and it erupted forth during some stupid argument; once I had calmed down, I wanted to act like nothing had happened, but you sat me down to explain how hurt you were.  A lesser parent might have been hesitant to reveal to a child just how much pain can be caused with such a simple word, but your honesty and tears that day have helped me understand the importance of being true and open with my feelings for my kids, both the good and the bad.

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 4.54.11 PMAnd one of the strangest gifts you provided me was an opportunity to connect with these two amazing adopted children in a way that is simultaneously wonderful and awful.  Because each of them had parents that grappled with the very disease that took your life, I can empathize and identify with them in a way that has already given us the foundation for some honest, difficult, and healthy conversations.  Even though they are young, they know what took you away from us, and they know their own mothers suffered from similar sicknesses.  As they grow, the conversations will be more difficult as my husband and I fill in the gaps for them and they begin to see the vast differences in the choices each of our mothers made, but for now we have a similar vocabulary around the language of loss.  I’d give anything to have you here and healthy and to take away all those years of drunken victimization, but since this is the way things ended I’m glad that some good can come from that loss as I help my children navigate their budding awareness of their own identities and background.

I still struggle with you being gone Mom.  The constant ache isn’t ever present like it was in the beginning, but when I stop to think about you on days like today, the pain feels as raw as it did when you first left me.  As I grow older and I see my children change and mature before me, seemingly instantaneously at times, I come to know more and more of the sacrifices you made and the ways in which you made me the man I am now.  Today I celebrate all the good that came from your life, which includes the two grandchildren that you are helping shape even in your absence.  I’ll admit that I still fight my own inner-battles as a result of our pained relationship, but today I’m not going to focus on that.  Today is a day to remember your lovely smile, your unbridled emotions, and your tremendous strength in spite of your fate.

Keeping Score

Not quite a Christmas present

We have a post office box that we use solely for the purpose of communication with our kids’ biological families.  It’s in another town that’s accessible for my husband on his drive to and from work.  Since there is rarely mail there, we don’t check it very often, usually once a month or so.  My husband checked in the week before Christmas, but didn’t find anything but junk mail.  Then he checked last week, and there were two items: a large package for our daughter from her birthgrandmother, and the holiday card we sent to our son’s birthmom marked “return to sender.”

Lately, our son has been having a hard time with his sister reaching the age of reason.  She’ll be seven in a few weeks, and we’ve noticed she’s reached a new level of maturity.  Our son has noticed it too, and he feels the divide widening.  The same thing happened when our daughter turned five and he was still three.  Every interaction was a operatic tragedy for him, and now that he’s got a five-year-old’s vocabulary, he bemoans the ways in which his life is unfair in comparison to his sister’s.  And his behavior has been correspondingly atrocious as he works through these feelings.  (In fact, we have our first teacher conference about his behavior next week.)

So when my husband brought home this big package for our daughter, we actually left it in the car for a day or two until we could find the right time to bring it in.  When we did bring it in the house and told the kids what it was, our daughter was excited and our son was deflated.  We dealt with the fallout and waited a few more days to actually open the package.  Tonight, our daughter was pleading to open the box, and we let her after dinner.  Inside, her grandmother had folded a few of those super soft fleece sweaters that our daughter absolutely adores.  Then underneath was the holy grail of all presents: a Dream Lite Unicorn.

The perfect gift for a granddaughter you’ve never met.

She’s been begging for one of these night-light-stuffed-animals for months, and when she saw it she just about lost her mind screaming.  She was so excited.  Our son on the other hand lost it in a different way.  My husband swiftly swooped in and kept him from totally going over the edge, and it was a tough conversation to navigate.  Our daughter, being nearly seven now, was extremely kind with her brother, showing him how the night light worked and inviting him into her room so they could turn it on in the dark.  Still, I could tell he was saddened by yet another tick in his sister’s life column and another empty space in his.

And so we’ll keep telling him how much his birthmom cares for him in spite of her absence, showering him with our praise for his social development, and helping him enumerate the people in his life will always be a part of his forever family.  With any luck, he’ll move out of this phase of keeping score, and maybe someday he’ll even fill that void created by his missing biological connection with the love that our family has for him.

Anatomy of a Meltdown

I am angry!

When things completely melt down between me and my son, I am often left to wonder what the real problem is here.  I am the adult, and as such, I am capable of some pretty powerful manipulation of my five-year-old son’s emotions.  Usually, I can use that power for good, and sometimes for something else.

This morning was hair day.  My husband needed to plot our African-American daughter in front of the television for about two hours to braid her hair.  This means that by extension, our son gets to watch more than his fill of television too.  About 90 minutes in, one episode of Johnny-Test-Ninjago-Batman-Clubhouse ended and the argument began about who got to pick the next show.  Since our daughter is the one that has to endure the tugging and pulling of her hair for several hours, she typically gets to select her the anesthetizing visual drug.  Our son was not interested in this methodology though, and before he had a total meltdown, my husband told him he could pick the next show while he attached our daughter’s beads to her braids.

Twenty minutes later, he was done with her hair completely, and so at the end of the current episode, I turned the television off.  Now I’m a smart man, and I knew what would likely happen if I did this, but I supposed I just needed to test my sense of reality.  My son could barely get the words, “But Daddy…” out before he threw himself on the floor in hysterics.  I asked him to calm down so we could talk this through, but he couldn’t do it.  When he throws tantrums like this, my husband I usually try to acknowledge how he feels, validate his feelings, and let him know that he’s welcome to continue to express those feelings up in his room.  We try to walk that fine line between “Crying is okay” and “You can’t throw a fit every time you don’t get what you want.”  We invited him to continue to cry in the other room, and on the way, he threw a chair to the ground.  According to my new theories on parenting, I calmly told him, “Now you can go up to your room.”  He stormed off as loudly as he could, sounding much more powerful than his barely three and a half foot body could possibly manage.

“He was upset about picking the TV show, you know.”

“I know.  If you knew you were only 20 minutes away from finishing hair though, you shouldn’t have told him he could pick the next show though.”

Who was I fighting with now?  Why was I picking a fight here?  Luckily, my husband didn’t take the bait.

“So that was my fault, but maybe we could have handled it differently.”

A few minutes later, our daughter headed upstairs herself, followed by shrieks and screams.  She came running back downstairs complaining that her brother had gone into her room and stolen her Lego Batman plane.  He came quickly behind her, attempting to look sheepish but only managing impish malice.

“Did you take go into your sister’s room and take her toy?”

He immediately fell to his knees, ululating as if agony.  “Why does everyone want to talk to me right now?  I just want to be alone!”

We ushered our daughter back up to her room, and attempted to calm our son down.

“I just want to be alone,” he screamed.  “Don’t you know what alone means?  If you don’t know, you should just ask.”  Remember, he’s yelling this at the top of his lungs, tears streaming out of his eyes.  It was adorable, so I started to laugh.  This didn’t validate his feelings in the way he hoped, and he started to storm out of the room.

“Come back here so we can talk,” my husband and I urged.  “I’m going to count to three,” I continued calmly, “and if you don’t come back, I’m going go come get you.”  This brought him reluctantly back into the room.

“I just want to be alone,” he repeated.

“You can be alone after we know you’ve calmed down and we’ve talked about what happened.”

My husband tried first, holding him close.  “Your breath smells like coffee,” our son cried.  “I’m going to throw up.”  My turn.

The source of tremendous angst.

He sat on my lap, repeatedly telling me how he wanted be alone.  Eventually, he started ranting about a scene at Target a few weeks ago where the four of us split into faction so that the kids could buy Christmas presents for one another.  I valiantly took our son and embarked on a nightmare spree of “No, that’s something that you want.  You need to think about what your sister wants” before he finally settled on the Batman Lego kit in question this morning.  Apparently, he felt some right to the toy because he had chosen it for his sister and given it to her.  He wasn’t really ready to talk rationally though, and every time I asked a question or suggested something, he simply contradicted me.  After constantly being told no again and again, I stood up, deposited him on the sofa next to my husband, and walked out of the room.  My son bid me farewell by screaming, “NO!  N-O spells NO!”

I retired to the other room while my husband calmed him down.  About twenty minutes later, the three of us were able to sit and talk about the events that had transpired, including using my example of getting up and walking out of the room as a time when I was feeling so frustrated I might start yelling at the people I loved.  We explained to him that one of the hardest parts of growing up is controlling your emotions, and knowing that even when we feel really angry inside, we can’t take it out on the people we love.

In the end, it turned out okay thanks to a lot of time, effort, and two parents tag teaming duties.  I’m sure most of this could have been avoided with me simply having this talk with my son before I turned the damn television off, but I think it all ended up being a good lesson for him and for me.

Resolving to Be Better (& Quieter)

Read her blog post!

If you haven’t already read Rachel Macy Stafford’s fantastic blog post (picked up by The Huffington Post) about yelling at your kids, please do so now.  A friend of mine posted it on Facebook this week, and I blinked away the tears as she described scenario after scenario that had played out in my own home, my children being children and I being a tyrant.

As anyone who has done it can attest, parenting is hard.  Way harder than anything I’ve ever done before.  It’s incredibly difficult to remember that my kids’ minds are still developing and that logic conversation about “choices” isn’t always possible.  It took me several years as a teacher to realize this about teenagers.  They may look like adults, and the twenty-eight-year-old actors playing teenagers on some of my favorite television shows may behave like adults, but nearly all of the students who fill my high school English classrooms are very, very young.  In the beginning of my career, I had a hard time distinguishing between my mistakes and the children’s, or even the relationship between the two, and I spent many a night wallowing in the traumas of my day.  Now, more than a dozen years in, I’m still traumatized by some of the things my students do and say when they feel threatened–threatened by a phone call I’ll be making to their parents, by a B- on a report card, by being exposed when I call on them in class to comment on the previous night’s reading–yet the trauma is relatively momentary and I’m able to quickly wipe the slate clean in my interactions with any given student.

This is not the case with my own children however.  I’ve been at this parenting thing for almost seven years now, and the traumas are still lingering and debilitating.  Much of what Stafford writes about in her piece resonates with me.  I feel incredibly burdened by my roles as teacher, father, husband, and more, and as she puts it, I tend to fall “apart behind closed doors in the company of the people who [mean] the most to me.”  I can’t freak out at a student or my boss or a stranger in the supermarket who cuts me off in the pasta aisle–at least not in the same way that I let myself freak out at my kids.  Why do I let the people I love most suffer the brunt of my rage?

To put this in context, I am a serious yeller.  We were visiting friends out of state a few years ago, and our two kids were being fairly well behaved while her son kept running over to the hot oven and yanking open the door.  She didn’t yell at him, and kept telling him that that was very dangerous, but he kept right on doing it.  She finally turned to us and asked, “How do you get your kids not to do stuff like this?”  My husband and I both looked at each other and said, “We usually yell at the kids until they cry so that they know we’re serious.”

Of course I tend to yell even when there’s no immediate peril of death.  I find myself approaching my kids with the logic of a thirty-something-year-old man, which is clearly insane.  I grew up with a similarly minded father, a computer engineer who I remember clearly getting so frustrated with the time it was taking me to bait my hook when I went fishing with him as a kid that he ended up taking it away and spending the day fishing with two rods while I made little rock harbors in the shallow water a few feet away.  We got along fine, just as long as I was doing what logically made sense to him.  And this is the case with my own kids.

Take your binky and be quiet!

We all know that logic isn’t a parent’s best friend.  When my daughter was only a few weeks old and only sleeping 2-3 hours at a time, my husband and I took turns with the middle-of-the-night feedings.  When she woke screaming, and I, sleep-walking my way through the routine, would give her bottle and change her diaper.  When these two things failed to calm her, I would rouse from my half-eyed stupor and yell, “What do you want?  I’ve changed you and fed you!  What else is there?”  My husband would then come in and silently take the infant from my arms and guide me back to bed.

Over the two years we were potty training our son, I lost it almost daily.  One time I was home alone with the kids.  My older daughter was in the shower, and I had put my three- or four-year-old son on the potty.  He sat there for a few minutes while I passed bathing accoutrements back and forth to my daughter, constantly looking at him and smiling, “Is it coming out yet?  Put the poop in the potty and Daddy will be so proud!”  He would sit there really trying for fifteen minutes or so, and then say, “I don’t have to go.”  I’d get him off the potty, dress him, and then the minute I turned my back on him to towel off my daughter, I smelled it.  I turned to him, and saw the lump in his pants.  My blood began to boil as I turned up the volume: “You were just on the potty two minutes ago!  You said you didn’t have to go!  Why did you poop in your pants?  Do you like sitting in poop?  What is wrong with you?”  He started crying of course, and then I would console him and apologize for exploding, as always explaining why I was frustrated, and then I noticed the polite cocktail conversation floating up from my neighbor’s yard to my son’s open window.  I could clearly hear the conversation between my neighbors and a few of their visiting friends starting up again after a definite lull, a lull clearly caused by me screaming about poop.  I can’t imagine the things my neighbors have heard me scream over the past few years.

This trajectory of events has become so engrained in our family that it’s become somewhat normalized for my kids.  One night at dinner, the kids were playing the “When I Was a Baby…” game.  My son said, “When I was a baby, I pooped in my diaper.”  Without missing a beat, my daughter said, “And then Daddy yelled at you?”  We all laughed because she said it not out of fear but with a sardonic grin that suggested wisdom beyond her years.  She seemed to know how ridiculous our dramas had become, and it’s true that when we’re not in the throes of emotional upheaval that we get along fabulously, and we even have pretty healthy talks about how Daddy needs to work on how he expresses his feelings.

Everyone needs to hear my rage!

Now that my son is nearly six years old and his stubborn streak is proving to be a personality trait rather than a phase, the two of us find ourselves enmeshed in this nightly drama that results in my blood pressure spiking and him running crying from the room.  And it’s typically over the little things.  He’s chewing with his mouth open at the dinner table.  He’s not cleaning up his Legos quickly enough.  He doesn’t believe me when I say that tomorrow is Saturday.  All these little things that send me over the edge.

I know my own emotional pathology is at play here.  I am significantly self-conscious about my parenting abilities, which is due to a variety of factors: the lingering effects of the dysfunction in my own household growing up, societal rhetoric about whether or not I should be allowed to have children at all as a gay man, the way we treat dads differently than moms, the persistent questions about the healthy development of children in trans-racial adoptions.  As with most parents, I want my kids to be model children when they leave this house, and that’s exaggerated by the ludicrous notion some people will always have that these kids shouldn’t be in my care.

Still, I need to work on myself.  I’m not sure I’m up for the challenge of a 2014 with no yelling.  In fact, here on January 3, I’ve already lost the challenge–twice–but I am willing to try harder.  My husband and I had a good talk yesterday about the ways in which we communicate with our son, and we’ve got a few new strategies that might help out.  Principally though, I need to back off.  Right now, we’re able to bounce back fairly quickly from these screaming matches, but I know in a few years that won’t be the case.  I’ll work it out with the help of my husband and a good therapist, and with any luck there will be a little less for my neighbors to listen to when we open the windows this spring.