Source: “Type, writer!” (1)
I have been learning lessons from my son, re-adjusting my perceptions, so that instead of anxious about his antics, they can bring me a sense of calm. My shoulders used to bunch together-muscles knotting into a clenched fist-whenever I heard the crash of a toy bin being upended; all I could envision was the potential mess. I used to take a few unsteady steps backward, an uneasy retreat, when I caught a glimpse of a mud-caked Finn running at me; all I could see was the clean-up. I used to escape from the room when Finn turned on his music, quickly distancing myself from the noise, as he started to screech and gyrate his body wildly to the tune; I could only imagine the impending headache. But all this has changed, well, mostly. He hasn’t stopped doing these things; rather my reactions have slowly been altered.
Those that haven’t tried being a stay at home parent for any length of time are completely clueless-yes I said it-but all those that have will tell you-if you have the ears to listen; it is fucking hard. And if you have heard your spouse or friend utter these words, than feel glad, for those that find it hard are those that are putting out the most effort. It is less difficult when I choose to let the television, or the iPhone, or any other electronic device do the minding –and there are times when this is an absolutely necessity to prevent murder or suicide-but I have resolved to search for other ways to engage, less passive paths to entertain, and a more tactile method to educate.
Every day Finn insists on playing the same games, implores me to push around the same toys, and asserts that we should converse with the same dinosaurs; it seems that consistency rather than variety is the spice in his life. I try to bask in the glow created by the mutual experience, enjoy the togetherness, no matter what the activity. But there are times that I need to avoid situations that are so mind-numbing, that they make me pray for some alone time, so that I can bang my head against a concrete wall.
It is a challenge to get him to try new things, and occasionally the tantrums these suggestions elicit make me feel like the exercise wasn’t worth the headache. But I find that the more inventive I get, the greater the chances are that he will react differently, and the more likely he is to add a fresh line of dialogue to Tyrannosaurus’s lips. I feel triumphant if we make it through a full day without television, euphoric if I’ve managed to coerce him to go outside for a couple of hours before dinner. I find that the lower my expectations are, the greater the mental rewards, and the better I feel at the end of the day.
So out of this came an epiphany of sorts, one that forced a re-interpretation of the facts. At the age of three if he is creating a mess-he is learning; if he is covered in mud- he has been engaged heavily in outdoor play; and if he is screeching-he is interacting with the music. These are all things that he should be doing, things that he needs to be doing, if I want those neurons in his head to be firing effectively. And so I muster as much enthusiasm as I can harness, and help him dump toy bins on the floor; dress myself in clothes that are ratty and worn so that I can join him in the dirt; and I have even learned to let go of my own inhibitions about my inability to sing, and belt out an out-of-tune lyric: because it is these things that are truly essential to his growth.
I have learned to embrace the chaos; learned to love the mess.
But I draw the line at finger-painting with feces. We use chocolate pudding.
Food has become an issue.
I understand dislikes of certain tastes, aversions to odd textures, but an all-out rejection because of appearance seems foolhardy at best. My parents are quick to remind me of my own ‘pickiness’ when I was growing up, and I certainly remember disliking a huge category of food, but I think that I at least tasted most things before rejecting them, in fact I have vivid memories of being forced to do so. I have come to believe that my own discerning palate might have stemmed more from a desire to assert my autonomy in a household with four overbearing brothers, than any real detestation of certain dishes; but regardless of my own history, as a father, I try to make efforts to broaden my son’s meal choices.
Finn was actually a really good eater as an infant; two hours after he was born by midwives in our living room we were all sharing large plates of East Indian food. He might not have participated directly in the meal, but since my wife hadn’t eaten during the fifteen hours of labour-which had began at one in the morning and ended at four in the afternoon- I contend butter chicken was the first flavors that hit his lips, even if it was filtered through my wife. This should have been a good base; my parents still haven’t tried butter chicken, at least not voluntarily, so it would have been a broader base than I ever had as a child.
There was also an uncomplaining eight month stint as a vegetarian, and after he was all too happy to gobble down most kinds of meat, with a true Albertan’s preference for ‘cow.’ But now, at the age of three, he has developed a keen eye for what he doesn’t like; so much so, that he doesn’t even have to bring it near his mouth to know with utter conviction that it will taste ‘awful.’
My wife is far more easy-going than I, more willing to trust his instincts and not willing to go through a grueling process of pleading before flipping a grilled cheese sandwich, or peanut butter and toast, onto his plate. But lately I have started using a trick, something that all smart parents have in their arsenal: the bribe. For him, and my wife for that matter, the best temptation is ice-cream, and so it goes.
“If you take one mouthful of mushy peas there might be ice-cream after supper,” I slyly remark.
“The vanilla white kind, with brown yummy choco specks?” I hear the euphoria in his voice.
“Maybe,” I try not to commit.
This sometimes works wonders, with him finishing his whole plate, and sometimes just gets a new food into-and then instantly spit out of-his mouth. I am content if he is willing to try a new flavor, and I try to honor his decision if he asserts that he truly doesn’t like it. And he ends the meal with a bowl full of ice cream.
My wife is impressed when I have managed to get him to try-and sometimes even like-a few things that he has hastily dismissed; and an impressed wife is rare enough that it too has to be cherished.
I thought I had this thing beat-or at the very least had a strategy when I hit resistance-and felt proud that I had a son willing to try new things, one that would grow to understand the merit in variety, and might even strive to discover new dishes.
I felt so good about it the other day that I flipped him his favorite go-to meal, one that has stood the test of time and has been a staple in our house: the grilled cheese sandwich. I created a large pool of ketchup beside the golden pieces of toast-melted cheese oozing out of their side-and set the plate in front of Finn.
“Okay I’ll eat that Dad, but there better be white ice cream with brown specks after,” he commands with hands folded across his chest.
I grew up in an era when Sunday nights were all about one television show: The Magical World of Disney. My four brothers, as well as my Mom and sometimes even my Dad, would gather around the black and white 23” set to revel in the antics of a funny looking mouse and his rowdy group of friends. Now that I have a son of my own, I often feel nostalgic about that time we spent as a family mutually enthralled by a single show, undistracted by cell phones or internet. I decided it would be a great idea to institute a night of good wholesome entertainment with my three year old and wife; an evening where we could all bask in the artificial multicoloured glow of our monstrous 42” LCD boob tube.
I ardently believed that this could be a night of education, as well as togetherness; so I decided the theme would be Nature, and would revolve around two excellent sets of BBC DVD’s that I had purchased years ago: Planet Earth, and Life. David Attenborough narrates the former with a studious drone, but since the latter is a US version, it is the ubiquitous voice of Oprah Winfrey who provides the audio commentary. All episodes are under sixty minutes, making them easily digestible, and reducing the chances of my toddler becoming distracted or annoyed.
The first night was a huge success, and instead of weekly installments like I had planned, Finn begged for this to become part of our regular nighttime routine. I quickly embraced this idea, for it would mean a break from our evening ritual of playing a game Finn had affectionately dubbed Bash, and which usually left me and my anxious wife exhausted. Bash is an outdoor affair, played on our back lawn, and it consists of both my son and I running in a well-trodden circular path in opposite directions. When our bodies intersect, we ‘bash’ into one another; and when this happens it is my job to pick Finn up and fling him into the air as high as my strength will allow. (My wife refuses to watch us play this game because of the panic that wells up as my son flails upwards-kicking and flapping his limbs-and for the terror she feels during the agonizing milliseconds it takes before gravity again takes hold; his body suddenly propelled downwards, back towards the Earth, and into my outstretched arms.)
So the replacement of a hyperactive activity with that of a mellower one was something that I could happily adopt. My desire was that these shows could help connect Finn to the Natural world, inculcate a love for its myriad forms and multitude of species; create a longing within him to get out into the wilds of Sooke. Of course, I recognized that television could only be a starting point; it wouldn’t ever replace the necessity of getting your hands dirty.
Luckily only four driveways away the VanBeek’s have a mini farm: three horses, four bunnies, squawking geese, egg bearing and meat ripening chickens, a gaggle of goats, and usually a handful of turkeys. This gregarious family has generously allowed my son and I full roam of their property; instead of chasing us off with a large broom, they have invited us in. Hospitable and understanding, forgiving me even when I lose control of my brother’s Chihuahua/Shih-Tzu cross and I’m forced to shout and run as it chases some of their wandering fowl, they regularly pause from their daily chores to give us some of their time and periodically manage to produce gifts for Finn.
And so it is with great wonder and excitement that Finn explores their working farm, the smells and sounds recorded by his impressionable mind. And I happily explain to him the difference between rabbit feces and chocolate chips, horse farts and goat spray, and the connection between the sudden disappearance of the noisy turkeys and our delicious Christmas meal.
It may not be exactly the magic of Disney that he is getting, but as I scrub the goose pooh from his palms I can’t help but think that his education is a little richer and more realistic than most things that Uncle Walt decided to depict; although I’m not trying to disparage singing warthogs and penguin waiters, those have their place too.
Post Script: Goose poop can easily be removed from hands, especially when compared to slug slime, but I recommend not mentioning this fact to your wife as it might beg the question: were you really supervising him that well while he played in a large field of animal excrement?
Sleep has always been one of my most cherished things.
When Finn was born my wife and I decided to invite him into our bed and try co-sleeping. This was to be a temporary arrangement until Finn had adjusted to the outside world, and I was happy to share tender moments with my gurgling and cooing son.
Of course, there were times that my peaceful slumber was disturbed, my consciousness rapidly and unhappily restored by the earsplitting howls of an upset newborn. A heart cracking sound. I would feed him from a bottle, or prop him up for my wife; and once finished I would resettle him in the crook of my elbow-pit, so that I could lie flat and rock him back to sleep.
My waking state, in which I perpetually found I had foggy brain, began to resemble that of my unconsciousness; at times I was unsure of the texture of the space around me. But I heard that this was common, and mollified by the constantly repeated phrase of parents the world over; “it’s just a phase”, I waited for things to change.
Our attempts to move him to a crib were quickly aborted, his bloodcurdling screams always brought us back into his room, and him back into our comforting arms. Other parents informed us that they had children that would cry until they turned blue-or even worse-until they threw up, and that this phase would pass if you were persistent. Late at night my wife and I would exchange glances, but neither of us were willing to volunteer, and once coerced, follow-through with the excruciating ordeal of trying to let Finn put himself to sleep. We soon gave up.
At fourteen months we moved Finn into his own bed, and other than a handful-literally less than ten and probably less than five- brilliant nights in my own bed, I had essentially moved in with him. Fortunately it was a double bed.
At bedtime I always read him four or five stories, any less and I’m dealing with a tossing and turning child; sheets and blankets churning around in his restlessness-and if I try to retreat from his kinetic energy, he will wail. So after the books I lie down with him, until he’s petered out and drifted off into unconsciousness. Most nights I don’t mind. Despite the ear pulling and skin picking, it is nice to be wrapped up so close to my son; breathing in the milky odor of my toddler. I often fall asleep myself, and accomplish this without the half hour-or hour-of mental gymnastics I endure in my own bed when it is time for me to call it a night. On my own mattress I somehow can’t avoid going through the checklist of things to do in life-nothing too abstract or fantastical to avoid stressing about-often tying myself into knots before passing out. When snuggled up next to him though, I focus on his needs, I’m distracted from my own imaginary schemes, and I slip away into unconsciousness.
I always re-surface an hour or two later with a start, rare is the time when I’m able to remain asleep with him through the night; I realize that I have some more things to attend to before I can commit myself to slumber. Glancing over at Finn I assess his needs; a warmer blanket, a pillow, an adjustment; but mostly I just observe the calmness of the moment.
Re-emerging from my child’s room I find my wife, and spend some time with her before she packs it in; and then I steal down the steps to the basement to write. Sometimes I only get a sentence off, sometimes a paragraph, but it always feels necessary to carve out some time for this practice-alone with myself.
At midnight or shortly after I hear the wail, Finn’s beckoning screams that wake up the whole house; forcing me to return to his room, and lie back down with him. I plan to pre-empt them, and sneak back into his bed at the appropriate hour before he starts his cacophonous call, but more often than not, I am too wrapped up in my writing.
All it takes is my presence to soothe him, occasionally he laughs and tells me what he has been dreaming about, and then he returns to sleep. I’m left knowing that it is too late to get back to the keyboard-he will soon be awake for the day and need me. And I’ll need whatever time is left for my own rest, so that I can keep up with him when the morning breaks.
I lie prone on his bed contemplating; trying not to fret over the banalities of existence. And with Finn in my arms this is made more simple, for although at times he creates a lot of stress, it is at moments like this that he-by example-shows me the importance to relax. And now I have something new to cherish.
PS: A good friend told me about the book Go the F*$% to Sleep, and YouTubing Samuel L Jackson reading it is something that brings me an immense amount of perverse pleasure. If nothing else, it reminds me that there are others experiencing the same amount of agony as I am, with certain bundles of joy.
Being a parent can be hard; in fact it usually is, but I find that life in general isn’t a series of easy decisions, ones that I can make without much thought or angst. Having a child feels like an extension of having a life, an important part of being alive-I’m not trying to imply that everyone should pro-create-but for those of us that do, most have discovered a new realm of living; opened up by being completely responsible for a little one. Well, half responsible.
I find ordinary decisions being coloured by my role as a father, from what I eat, how much television I watch, and even the language I use. I have always appreciated a carefully placed swear word, a cleverly appointed expletive that can add spice-or punch- to a mundane sentence. So how do I elicit that pleasure now?
Like so much in parenting it is as much about the habits that you leave behind, the old skin that you have to shed, as it is about the new things that you take on. I have developed the Daddy persona, something I bemoaned when I watched such daring and raw personalities adopt them-like Eddie Murphy’s transformation from a foul mouthed and homosexual Mr.T into an annoying and pesky donkey.(Pre-child I don’t think I would have even used the word pesky). But if life is driven by evolution than I guess this is inevitable and something to be embraced rather than fought against. I always shake my head when I hear people say they wish they were eighteen again; I remember that stage as a time of promise, but it was also full of angst and I was desperate to be an adult and begin a life of my own choosing. Sixteen years later I’m still searching but at least I have a son now to help point out my way.
Before him I used to spend time and money getting to places I thought of as worth going to; whether it was the mountains, the movies, concerts or theater, I was constantly on the go. Finn has shown me how to slow down, how to appreciate the splash of a puddle, the feel of a slug in your palm, the pleasure of a walk in your back yard. With unrestrained joy he applauds and revels in the simple wonders that are so abundant when your eyes are open to them; and because of him my eyes now are.
I’m sure there are non-breeders that can find purpose and direction internally, but for the rest of us we need to divide, have children, to uncover many of life’s mysteries. I salute their strength, learn from their determination, and catch myself whenever I feel a flicker of envy at their lack of roots, their freedom. For all the speech sanitation, the adventures that never leave the backyard, and the entertainment derived from a four page book; I wouldn’t trade it for the planet.
As we sit and play with Playdooh for the five hundredth time that week I smile inwardly at the way he rolls the mash-able substance into fifteen snakes. Chuckle as he asks me to make him just one more frog, and happily comply. For all those things I gave up-or shed-so much more has been gained; in fact I didn’t realize how constrictive my beliefs had been until they were gone.
Finn’s snake slithers off the table and hits the floor; Bronco-a Chihuahua/Shih Tzu cross- grabs it with his tiny jaws and trots off.
“That dog is a f*&%ing one,” Finn asserts as he watches his tail wag its way into the distance.
“Yes he is Finn,” I reply calmly, “yes he is.”
PS: I am not an advocate for foul mouthed toddlers-but I have been advised to not react too strongly if you hear a child use the lingo of a pirate, or the obscenities of the French.
A few days on stool duty is enough to drive you mad. You are alternately happy to hear that your son in preparing for a bowel movement, and terrified that the jagged hook he has ingested might get stuck while getting eliminated. My wife has warned me not to be tempted to tug or pull at the hook, if it isn’t fully clear, she then proceeded to describe her fears of it pulling something vital out with it.
Pushing those images from my mind, I wait for Finn to finish his business. I then clutch an oversized popsicle stick in one hand, and break apart whatever has plopped into the shiny porcelain toilet; Finn cheers me on. We both share the hope of catching a glimpse of the shiny brass hook; the X-ray had shown without any ambiguity that it was in there, so I squelch any doubts of the importance of doing this, and try to ignore the feeling of humiliation. I can’t help but thinking that if I had been a ‘better’ parent, he wouldn’t have swallowed that jagged hook in the first place.
Finn looks onto the proceedings with glee, oblivious to the scenarios that run through my head, and the threat to his life that this situation represents. I know with ardent conviction that I love him more than myself, couldn’t imagine my life without him, but this knowledge only makes my worry sting all that more keenly.
“Did I poop it out yet Dad?”
“Not yet, maybe next time.”
“Can I have a candy?” he asks with a cheeky grin.
“Sure, you can have a candy.”
We are beyond that stage of toilet training when bribes of candy are the only thing standing between feces on the floor, and shit in the toilet. So we no longer use sweets to prompt his relieving himself on the throne, but under the current circumstances, I don’t have the heart to refuse his request.
At the hospital I had been told to wait seven days for the hook to work its way to freedom, and if it hadn’t by then, to bring my son back to the ER for another X-ray. I hoped that Finn’s bowels would make a return visit unnecessary, but this time there was no prize in the crackerjack box.
Each preceding day as I wait, I go through the normal motions of our life, pretending that everything is normal-my wife is usually off at work while I play and entertain our son-but my senses are heightened, my emotions closer to the surface, at the back of my mind I’m constantly wondering how many more hours I have with my son: one thousand? one hundred? one? I make a conscious attempt to savor the moment, participate fully in each game as we play, and I try not to alert my son that I’m worried that something disastrous is imminent. Could that object be doing irreparable damage, and is Finn only a moment away from collapsing in pain? It is a great effort to maintain the belief that there will be a positive outcome, but I have to-not just for him-but for my own sanity. I observe as he gambols around, there is no indication that the sharp spike that he has inhaled is causing him any grief, but can I rely on that as a sign that he is in the clear?
“Dad, run with me,” he cajoles in a frenetic state.
At night when I curl up to him, for I’m the security blanket that he insists he needs every evening, I cherish the moment. I realize that it won’t be a lot of time before he is demanding that I leave his bed, with the same vehemence that he now demands that I stay. I have become accustomed to his small warm body close-by, the sound of his quiet snore, and I wonder if I have come to rely on the presence of these things, before I will allow myself to drift off into unconsciousness. But with that hook still circulating through his body, I now imagine the possibility of him not being here, of no Finn to cuddle up next to at all. My eyes moisten as I push these morbid thoughts away from my mind.
Seven days trickle by and it is time to return for another X-ray.
With sweaty palms and inflated fears we hear the result: the brass hook is gone, disappeared, no longer inside him. Despite my wife and my own best efforts, it has slipped past us; probably lodged inside a compacted piece of pooh, or secreted in the explosive blast of diarrhea.
Relax, breathe easy-I hear my mind whisper-and let down your guard; well at least until the next holiday.