Tag Archives: Child

What Will I Tell My Son To Help Him Avoid Divorce?

Father Son talk

(Image/Marsha Rakestraw)

Lynda asked: “My question for you is: what are you going to say to your son to teach him how to have a healthy relationship as he grows up? What seeds are you going to plant to help break the cycle? I have only a few years left with my boys under my roof to teach them what they need to know, and I don’t want to feel like they are doomed, given the family history. What are your thoughts?”

Divorce is very bad.

People often downplay it, A. Because it’s so common, “Can it really be THAT bad?” B. Because our parents did it, or we did it, and we’re all world-class experts at rationalizing our behavior no matter how sucky the behavior is, and C. Unless you’re the one getting divorced, or are intimately involved, it doesn’t cause much trauma. So when we hear about another divorce we all just kind of shrug and think: That’s a bummer! They seemed totally fine! or That makes sense! They never seemed right for each other!

But yeah. It can really be THAT bad.

Cancer is super-common too, but we take it pretty seriously.

Our sucky behavior is sucky regardless of our rationalizations, and even the best of humanity hurts other people sometimes, even if only by accident.

And I think it might take getting divorced yourself (while not wanting to) to fully appreciate what it’s capable of doing to your insides. Some people LOVE divorce, because it helped them escape a horrible situation.

Maybe my ex-wife feels that way. I hope not, but since I’m not inclined to ask, I’ll probably never know.

Setting aside the societal trickle-down effects of divorce for a second, the emotional and psychological fallout alone strikes me as one the things people don’t talk about enough. Because I simply didn’t know. Even when I was afraid of my marriage ending and having trouble sleeping every night, and even after 30 years of life experience as a child of divorce, I DID NOT KNOW.

Maybe because it’s another We Can’t Know What We Don’t Know thing. (I guess everything is.)

We live, and we learn.

The end of my marriage destroyed me internally and fundamentally changed me.

The “me” that existed for 33 years ceased to exist because I became someone else. That’s a painful process. It was the crying that gave it away. That’s not something I spent a lot of time doing post-childhood. But then I got divorced, and it happened a lot.

And when toughness is a virtue you admire, every little breakdown is another reminder of what a failing loser you grew up to be. And then maybe you cry some more.

On top of the brain and heart stuff, there’s the logistical fallout and ripple effects. Logistically, divorce makes you poorer, because it takes away your money, and something even more valuable—your time.

It was one of the first things I realized when my young son went from being home daily, to half the time: I just lost half of my son’s childhood. Ask any parent how fast 18 years goes before the little people they love most leave the nest. With 13-ish years to go at the time of the split, the truth hit me hard and fast: I just lost seven years.

I’m not shy about calling divorce the great social crisis of our time. It’s an epidemic that really hurts people while it’s happening, and then makes the lives of all involved a little worse every day afterward, even after the emotional wounds have scarred over.

Only about 1 percent of couples are going through divorce at any given time, so it’s easy to look the other way and act like we don’t have a big problem on our hands. But over 15 years, half of all couples will divorce. Nobody who hasn’t yet divorced believes it will happen to them. And most of the people who survive the emotional crucible post-divorce move on with their lives and don’t get involved afterward, even though everyone who remarries divorces even more frequently than the one-marriage couples.

Children of divorced parents have nearly triple the emotional problems, drug use, arrests—and are more likely to drop out of school and have unwanted pregnancies, according to Dr. Brunilda Nazario.

The risk of divorce is 50 percent higher when one spouse comes from a divorced home, and 200 percent higher risk when both of them do, says Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah and author of Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages.

Children of divorce are also 50 percent more likely to marry another child of divorce, he said.

The only way to address divorce is for a cultural shift to take place where people learn effective relationship skills.

I don’t mean: “A happy wife is a happy life!”

Nor: “Marriage is hard work! You must work together and compromise!”

Nor: “Never go to bed angry!”

I mean real-life, hardcore, make-people-uncomfortable, mask-removing, road-less-travelled conversation and behavior to help people go from ignorant (which most of us are) to enlightened on all things related to relationships.

We teach kids about past-participles and the Pythagorean Theorem and the French & Indian War and many other things long-forgotten from my school days. But we don’t teach (or even bother trying) kids relationship skills, and provide important information about the basics of effectively communicating and co-existing with other people (romantically or otherwise).

Maybe someday, that will change. I hope so.

Meanwhile, the only thing we can do is talk to our children and try to help them learn these things so they can slowly chip away at the problem and experience less horribleness in adulthood than we did.

Today’s kids have Generation X and Millennials as their relationship role models, which in their current states, shouldn’t inspire much confidence in the future of long-term relationships.

But We Still Have to Try

Cancer continues to vex medical researchers and practitioners, but we continue to fight.

The complexities of human relationships are such that we’ll never be able to hand someone a reliable instruction manual on how to succeed. So we’ll do the best we can.

Lynda asked me what I will tell my son. No one has ever asked me that before.

There’s almost no reason to think my son will listen to me.

No matter how many times I tell him his made-up word “Eccleest” is actually two words he already knows well (“at least”), he continues to say “Eccleest” instead. No matter how many times I demonstrate that being 37 should afford me some trust on matters of both fact and educated guessing, he continues to—on a case-by-case basis—behave as if I’m the world’s biggest moron on matters of disagreement since one of his friends and/or grade school teachers once told him something he believes contradicts whatever I’m saying.

He certainly loves his father, and is super-impressed with my ability to add large numbers together in my head (even though I could totally give him the wrong answer, and he wouldn’t know the difference because he doesn’t confirm it with a calculator), but if he doesn’t WANT to agree with or listen to me, it doesn’t matter that I can prove 2+1=3. If he wants it to equal 79 million—to him, it will.

It’s a natural handicap brought partially by his age, and mostly because he’s a blend of genetic code produced by his mom and I. In the You Should Listen to Your Parents game, little man never had a chance.

What Will I Tell Him?

That the romantic couples he sees in the movies are a lie.

I’ll tell him that—just like so many things he sees on TV—that’s not real. It’ll be some innocence-robbing shit, too. Like when he inevitably discovers in the next year or two there isn’t actually a Santa Claus. I kind of feel sorry for him. Robbing him of hope and optimism on the romantic front. But it’s exactly what I’m going to do anyway.

I’m going to teach him what real love is. I’m going to show him how it’s a choice to be made. And that when two people are willing to make that choice every day, no matter what, there WILL be legitimate romance sometimes. Not always! Nothing is always. But sometimes. And that just because forever-love looks a little less exciting and like a hell of a lot more work than fairytale-love, it doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful.

I’m going to tell him how HARD marriage is. Over and over and over again. Not to discourage him. To prepare him. And not to scare him. But because it’s true.

I’m going to teach him (and if I can’t, I’ll find someone who can) what it means to define your core values and vigilantly enforce personal boundaries so that his life won’t suck.

I’m going to help him understand that all those little things running around his head that he’s too scared to talk about are byproducts of fear, anxiety and insecurity (and that FEAR is really the only thing we should be afraid of). I’m going to teach him one of the most important lessons so many people don’t understand: YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE.

I’m going to help him recognize that being honest (like, uncomfortably honest) with his partner is awesome, because then he can wake up every day knowing the real him (and not the mask-wearing pretender other people think he is) is truly loved and accepted.

I’m going to teach him what empathy is and make sure he can prove to me that he understands it because it’s the skill he will need most in order to succeed in his relationship.

I’m going to teach him that his marriage can’t be about HIM. That if he’s marrying for himself, he’s doing it wrong. It’s going to be for the person he chooses to marry and any future children he might have.

When he’s old enough, I’m going to tell him that pornography destroys relationships, but maybe not for the reasons he might think.

And I’m going to tell him that the one surefire way to turn a female partner into someone who resents him and loses all feelings of attraction toward him, is to put her in the position of having to do things for him that his mom did.

I’m going to tell him that his mom and I splitting up is the worst thing that ever happened to me, and that he shouldn’t marry until he can demonstrate mastery of all of these concepts and life skills so that he can recognize a partner who understands them too, and teach any children to do the same.

I’m going to make DAMN SURE he understands what hedonic adaptation is. That it happens to EVERYONE about EVERYTHING—including romantic partners.

I’m going to help him really understand that the grass isn’t greener over there.

How?

What am I going to tell him?

The truth.

…..

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“Dad! I Have to Show You Something.”

Growth. It's a process.

Growth. It’s a process.

Uh-oh.

That can mean so many things.

“Daaaad! I have to show you something,” my five-year-old yelled from down the hall.

It can mean something was broken. Ugh.

Or just that he wants to show me a cool scene in whatever show he’s watching.

“Da-da! Daaaddddddd! Daddy! I have to show you something.”

It can mean a huge mess was made. Grrr.

Or that he created something fantastic and imaginative with his toys and craves my approval.

“Dad. Dad. Dad. Hey dadddddddddddddddd! I’m calling you. Can you hear me? I have to show you something.”

It can mean there’s a pukey or poopy mess. Gross.

I can usually tell whether the thing he wants to show me is good or bad based on his tone of voice.

But it was late. I hadn’t been able to sleep. Everything was surreal. Confusing.

I looked over at the clock. “It’s 3:29 a.m., asshole,” the clock said. “It doesn’t matter that you’re tired. It doesn’t matter that you have to get up in less than three hours. It doesn’t matter that you’re alone and there’s no one to help you. Get up. Take care of your child. He needs you.”

Shit. The clock’s right.

In the months leading up to our son being born, I spent a lot of time in our nursery which had previously served as our home office.

I would just sit there, in a comfortable old recliner from college—our baby’s in-room rocking chair.

That was such an exciting time. Such a hopeful time.

The walls were already a soft yellow. Gender-neutral. So we left it alone.

We never learned the baby’s gender during the pregnancy. Surprises have merit.

My crafty wife made some curtains. Our very first baby item was a mobile for the crib. I think we bought it with a gift card at Pottery Barn Kids because it was literally the only thing we could afford there.

I’d glance at the crib, picturing a little person standing inside, waiting for mommy or daddy to pull them out of bed.

For some reason, I thought we were having a girl. But I was guilty of slightly favoring a boy. Because of all of the fond memories I had with my dad and stepdad. I was excited to share in those types of father-son adventures.

Gender didn’t matter, though.

The love was swelling. As I visualized the child. Rocking him or her in that chair. Playing with him or her in the backyard. All of the future games the three of us would play. And maybe four, as at that point, I still hoped there would be one more joining the family, too.

Mom and dad. Hopefully son and daughter.

My little family fantasy.

Babies are Hard

They are.

It’s hard to take care of everything that needs taken care of in a day for yourself AND for another little otherwise-helpless human being. They don’t care that you’re in a hurry. They’ll puke on your shirt.

They don’t care that you just stopped a few minutes ago on your long road trip. They shit in their diapers. Really foul, awful shit, too.

They cry a lot. It’s really the only way they know how to tell you what’s going on.

If they cry, it means they’re hungry. Or they’re tired. Or they’re uncomfortable. It’s always one of the three.

Which is good because it doesn’t take long to solve. Universal problems. Universal solutions.

It’s funny that I wanted another child.

Because I was a bad father. Check that. I wasn’t a bad father. I was a bad husband to a brand-new mother.

Yes. That.

My wife got two children right away. Or at least, that’s how she felt. Because she had to take care of all of us.

When you have a baby, everything changes. And you have to make radical adjustments. Solve problems.

Two loving adults pulling in the same direction can figure out how to solve those problems together.

But when one parent doesn’t give as much as they take?

That’s how you make a new mother feel alone. That’s how you make a woman resent a man. That’s how you lose her respect. And eventually, her love.

She did it all. She really did.

She read all the books. She baby-proofed the house. She created his schedule. She managed all of his medical care. She organized his clothes and baby needs and always had the baby bag packed and ready to go.

She made all of his homemade baby food. It was an awesome system.

She found the daycare family who, to this day, still cares for our son.

I’ve failed many things in my life. Many things.

But I’m not sure I’ve ever failed anyone harder than I did my wife during the first year of our son’s life. I was lost. And so was she.

But she figured it out.

And I didn’t.

Not until later. Not until the day we were both sitting on our deck one afternoon having a beer in the sunshine and I asked the question: “Am I the reason you didn’t want to have more kids?”

“Yes,” she said. “That is a big part of it.”

Growing. Always Growing.

Both of us.

Father and son. Twenty-nine years separating us.

But still. Growing. Every day.

The weather has been terrible. Absolutely frigid temperatures. We got six inches of snow overnight two nights ago. But right now, it’s in the mid-40s. It will be 50 tomorrow.

Those temperature swings make people sick.

My son developed a cough from sinus congestion. He coughed so hard, he vomited right when he got home yesterday.

I cancelled my plans for the evening to focus on him.

We watched a couple shows. Had dinner. Had his nightly bath.

We practiced his “sight” words. Little flash cards. His writing is improving. His ability to figure out what a word is based on the letters is really impressing me. He’s learning so much in kindergarten. I feel immense pride when he shows an ability to problem solve. Hell. I feel immense pride all the time.

And here we are, six years later. Only he’s here now. All those visions dancing in my head turned into a real flesh-and-blood person. A sweet one. A funny one. A smart one. A loving one.

One capable of the stubbornness of his parents. Of the irresponsibility of his father. Of the antics of many small children.

But still.

My son.

Everything I could have hoped for sitting on that recliner late into the night six years ago, daydreaming about fatherhood.

And now it really is fatherhood. It’s not just me leaning on my wife (now ex) for direction, even though she still gets a lot more right than I do.

I’m here. Really doing it. Really being a dad.

“White.”

“Blue.”

“Three.”

He rattled off his sight words as I flipped through the handwritten flash cards.

“Is.”

“The…

“Hey dad! Did you know ‘the’ is the most-important word of all the words? It is. I know it.”

I flipped to another.

“I don’t know this one, dad. You say it.”

“You can figure it out, bud,” I said.

“Wa. Ah. Te. What!”

I love when he figures things out on his own.

“Very good! Yes! That spells ‘what’!”

We read a book. He spotted the word “lion.”

“Hey dad! I know a secret code.”

“You know a secret code?”

“Yes. He pointed to ‘lion.’ If you take out the ‘L’ and the ‘I,’ it spells ‘on.’”

I laughed.

“Yes it does. Very good!”

It’s such a joy seeing their little minds work. Grow. Morph.

Little miracles.

He was coughing really hard. Even after the cough syrup.

He’d rolled off his propped-up sleeping position. Laying flat, the coughing frequency and severity increased.

“Dad! I need more water!”

I still use his last remaining spill-proof sippy cup for his nighttime water cup. I’m not sure whether that’s bad, given his age. I don’t like cleaning up spills.

I had fallen asleep around 9 p.m. and woke up at midnight just in time to catch the second night of the excellent and hilarious Jimmy Fallon rocking The Tonight Show.

I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Tossing. Turning. My son coughing down the hall.

Hot. Cold. Busy mind. More coughing.

“Dad. I need to show you something.”

It was 3:29 a.m.

I walked down the hall. He was sitting up. Wide-awake.

“Hey man. Why aren’t you sleeping? What do you want to show me?”

He climbed out of bed and walked to the hallway closet and opened it.

He pointed inside.

There was a humidifier sitting there.

A device that hadn’t left the closet since the last time my ex-wife used it.

I smiled. I have no idea how he even remembered that was in there.

Smart kid.

“Okay. You get back in bed. I’ll take care of this for you.”

I put the basin in the sink to fill up.

I ran downstairs to grab salt—the crappy iodized table salt—not my delicious Kosher salt I use for all my food prep.

I salted the water, not bothering to measure.

A couple minutes later, the humidifier was sending hot steam into the air. Relieving my son’s congestion.

My little man.

Thinking for himself.

Solving problems.

Helping himself.

And helping me, too.

Growing.

Always growing.

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Confessions from my Past: A Playground Story

I was standing by the monkey bars when I hatched a devious plan to impress some girls at the expense of a guy who deserved better.

I was standing by the monkey bars in 1985 when I hatched a devious plan to impress some girls at the expense of a guy who deserved better.

When I was in first grade, I embarrassed a kid who didn’t deserve it because I was trying to impress some girls.

He was a nice guy, too. His name is Steve.

I saw him outside of my dorm building one random night during a late-night fire drill my freshman year of college. I was a little drunk and high. He was in town visiting some other guys I’d graduated high school with but mostly ignored during college.

I probably should have apologized to him then because I’m unlikely to ever see him again.

As a six-year-old in 1985, I had some kind of mind control over him.

There was a group of girls sitting on some steps on the southwest corner of our Catholic school playground. They were playing with dolls. Maybe Barbie. Maybe Strawberry Shortcake. Maybe My Little Pony.

Doesn’t matter.

I just knew if I could talk this kid into ruining their fun, only to have me step in chivalrously and save the day, I would win their affection.

So that’s what I did. I convinced him to go be a little douchenozzle and interrupt their fun. Steve wasn’t in on my master plan to impress the ladies. He was merely a pawn in my playground chess game.

He ran over and knocked their toys over.

I stepped in, as planned, and pulled him out of there, admonishing him for his behavior and apologizing to the girls for the intrusion.

Apparently, Steve had never heard the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Because when I asked him to do it one more time, Steve obliged.

And once again, I was the hero.

The details are sketchy after this.

I don’t remember how Steve reacted. I only know I didn’t ask a third time.

I don’t remember whether the girls were impressed. I only know I didn’t get a first-grade girlfriend.

And I don’t remember how I felt about my decision to take advantage of someone who apparently didn’t know better.

Was I proud of my evil scheme?

Did I feel some semblance of remorse afterward?

I simply can’t remember.

My guess is Steve doesn’t remember this incident at all. I’m quite certain the girls never fawned over me for my heroic acts.

My son starts kindergarten in a few weeks. And he’s going to start building these same kind of memories.

I pray as his father that I can help him construct memories that he can be proud of. That he has the courage to be an advocate for the playground kids on the fringe. The ones getting picked last in kickball. The ones naïve enough to find themselves being taken advantage of. The ones being bullied.

In between the playground incident and that night I was stoned and drinking outside my dorm room, Steve and I had some good times. I hope whatever friendship I displayed during that period made up for that day on the playground. And for all the years I haven’t talked to him since that night in college.

Steve served our country honorably in the U.S. Navy. I think he spent a bunch of time on submarines—something I’d be entirely too chicken shit to sign up for.

Steve is brave. Strong. A patriot.

And I hope my son will one day display some of those outstanding qualities.

But if my little man does choose to participate in some playground shenanigans before then, I hope he at least gets a grade-school girlfriend out of the deal.

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