My son watches me. He does. In fact, it’s become one of the most haunting and motivating parts of being a father.
I didn’t grow up with my father at home. And I still struggle getting to know my dad. His distance, with him living in Arkansas now, makes it harder. Our shared temperament for quietness at best and disinterest at worse makes it nearly impossible. So we’ve been building what we can with occasional visits and regular phone calls. I don’t see him, but I do see my son up close.
I’ve noticed how he, simply, pays attention to me. He does this less and less, but his interest is still there. He’s interested in other people, picking up details on life and living from a dozen places and people a day.
I remember how when he was really small, when we clicked him in the infant carrier, before he was too long to fit, I would turn around to check that he was breathing. I was nervous. I was afraid that I’d drive too fast for his lungs to catch up. So I drove slowly, and I turned around to ensure that his head was moving, his eyes open.
One day I turned around and saw him doing what he’s doing in this picture. I snapped it at a red light. I had turned to look and he was staring. I jerked, thrown off. I said something aloud like “He’s looking at me.” We were in the car alone, probably going to get his grandmother from home to bring her back to our place. When I turned around at the light, he was still steadily seeing my shoulders. He watched my head, the arm from my glasses, the profile of his father.
It launched me into a spiritual experience, and not the kind I enjoy. That stare made me conscious, technically self-conscious. Those almond eyes had a love in them that left me with a thousand questions. The questions have motivated me. Together, his watching me, the questions I’ve “heard” in his stare, make me want to grow.
It’s funny because I’m a pastor. I’m pretty sensitive to growth, especially in others. I’m not completely unaware of the topic. But I had to admit then–and, often, still–that I’m less aware of the reasons to grow until moments like the one behind this picture. Even as a Christian. Even as a preacher. The fact is I care less about God. I mean that literally. I care more about this kid. I care more about screwing up so daily that he conceives of life is a twisted way. I care more about doing something well so that he can see accomplishment and fruit and benefits.
Somewhere in my head I tell myself that God will get along well if I mess things up, that God might even show mercy to me. Of course, that is a motivating message in my ears. But it also makes me less vigilant. With my son, with my family, and with the people I love, they might not be so merciful with their glances. They just might expect me to live up to things. Indeed, they do, and just like my son’s stare, like his current habit of repeating exactly what I say, they make me want to live well. Or, at least, better. …I really have to watch what I say to cab drivers in the loop.
As I said yesterday, these posts will focus on my scrambled thoughts as I remember good memories from our vacation. I’m writing toward a new practice, a habit of paying attention to good things rather than my most natural tendency to hold to the bad. Most of these memories will be good, though there are a few not-so-pleasant moments littered through the last two weeks.
The point of the post today, for you who like points to posts, is to plan a vacation. Or a getaway. Or a break. Or a series of dates. Or a significant time away from normal life. The getaway, break, or vacation will give you an opportunity to nurture your marriage. Of course, you could do this with a friendship or a significant relationship with some modification too.
I’m somewhat of a planner. And traveling is important to me. I like to do it. You could say that I value it. We started planning this last vacation a couple years back.
Before we had a baby, before Dawn got pregnant, we talked about how we wanted to celebrate our tenth year anniversary. We wanted to do something big. We wanted to stretch ourselves, save up, and have a grand time. We couldn’t do what we really wanted which was to copy some friends who a few years ago spent a month on a different continent. But we could stretch. So we talked about what we wanted to do, and even though a little boy got made and delivered since those first conversations, we committed to acknowledge, in some way, that we were a we. That we existed as a married couple. That we were together. To be honest, we had our challenges conceiving, and affirming who we were outside of the parenting thing nourished us in ways that we haven’t always seen. So we determined to go on a cruise.
We’ve cruised before, done what I call the local cruises, the popular one to the Caribbean. We cruised the year I graduated from seminary, too, because that was my gift to myself after getting another masters degree! We also decided, in planning this last vacation, that we wanted to return to an early desire to see Italy. I had a dream when we were engaged at 22 years-old that we’d honeymoon in Italy. I was young. I was, in a word, foolish, on many fronts. I thought about a lot of things for us, but I didn’t think that going to Italy at 23 years-old when you had a mortgage and a construction project called a fixer upper was impossible. It didn’t become possible in those early years either really. So we took smaller trips. We saw family. We drove to many places. We went on those ships that I mentioned and saw the Caribbean and parts of Mexico. I used honorariums from speaking engagements and payments from work-for-hire contracts to make sure we were traveling together. One reason why we got married young was so we could see the world together, so we saw what we could.
When we planned this time, it was a similar experience. I started saving money, even though we couldn’t really afford it. We were blessed. I cut up portions of my second and third incomes–income that I never count until I have a contract–because my primary income is restricted to relatively fixed expenses and giving. We agreed on an itinerary, a mix of France and mostly Italy with enough Spain to keep us interested.
Dawn started looking into logistics. We struggled, waiting for the best time slot. Back then, Dawn was considering school. I had a small frame between my supervisor’s sabbatical and the start of my next calendar year in the VFCL program at GETS. We waited as late as we could because my coworker’s decision wasn’t exactly made. I knew when my teaching responsibilities would start. We really could only go at a particular time because of both calendars. Dawn looked at flight plans after I came up with a window of dates. She reserved and purchased our tickets.
We decided easily that the boy was staying when the cruise line said he would cost the same amount of money we would. We thought they were joking. They weren’t. We struggled with the matter of leaving him–for about two minutes. I mean, we are a couple and this was our anniversary celebration. We are not alone as a couple anymore so we were thinking that including the boy wouldn’t be all wrong. And yet there was this voice of wisdom speaking. Why not find a way, if it was possible, to leave the kid. To leave him and to remember that we were separate from him. To say our goodbyes and to have that be some shared meaning between me and the wife. Of course, we are parents and that reality is hard to get away from. But we are something else, a reality that’s easier to lose sight of as a couple. Everyday we attend to him, naturally and necessarily, but there is this other thing called a relationship which needs attention too.
We met with our mothers about staying at our home one week apiece, and I texted a few people to secure supplemental childcare. The week before we left, I went grocery shopping. I picked up enough apple sauce and wipes and diapers to last for a month. Just in case, you know, we couldn’t get back. In case we decided not to come back. I washed all the clothes in the house. Dawn bought her textbook and read her first week’s readings. I finished two contracts so I wouldn’t have them hanging over my head. I looked over the syllabus for the fall semester and thought through what September would be like. I did as much work as I could at the church to leave things well and in the hands of my colleagues. I had a few more meetings than I thought wise.
We talked to friends about Barcelona and France and Italy. Alan told us about the architecture in Barcelona, leaving me mad that we weren’t just going there. His eyes widened when he spoke, and he relived days where he ate bread and salami while sitting in a park in front of some building. I imagined him drooling while he ate in that park, though he wasn’t drooling exactly as he told his stories. We ate with Libby and Omar who helped us figure out what to see if we only had so much time, which was true, because it was a cruise and not a land-based trip. Libby wrote up a three-page cheat sheet and sent it to Dawn. She gave us more direction than any guidebook. She gave us guidebooks too! Omar told me to wear a fanny pack to keep our euros hidden from people pick-pocketing. I refused. I told Dawn that I’d simply wear my I-grew-up-on-the-south-side-of-Chicago face. It seemed to worked.
I wrote up the first draft of the cheat sheet we intended to leave our grandmothers and to our friends. We left explicit instructions to call us only when the boy was hospitalized since calls to the ship would be $10/minute. We had full confidence that Bryce would cooperate and not injure himself. We packed. We dreamed. We talked about what we wanted to see, where we wanted to go. We did something that a counselor I worked with during the early years in our marriage called “planning a future together.”
It’s a powerful thing to plan and map out your future. Of course, you make vows to a spouse about a vague future, but planning it is a second strategic step. It adds to the vow or the pledge the particular means and the specific steps. We were doing very romantic and relationship-strengthening work: looking at those next tomorrows and saying how we, together, would face them. Before us was a delightful series of dates. They included easy travels, long lines which we greeted with smiles and gladness, and a lot of words we didn’t understand. Those tomorrows included sumptuous meals and great servers and questionable taxi drivers. It would be wonderful, a little messy, slightly nerve-wrecking, and glorious.
Tomorrow I’m launching a second blog. I will continue to ramble about faith, writing, and relationships on this blog. But the second blog will be for fathers and the people who love them. I’ll share stories about parenting and focus on the skills that fathers and parents need, the interior life as a father, and the moments of grace I’m experiencing as a father. That last part will also still get some coverage on this blog, though the posts for Intersections will be explicitly about my faith and how fatherhood is relating to, renovating, or enriching me spiritually.
Of course, I’m a man of faith whatever blog I’m writing on, so you should expect to see glimpses or full-scale shows of faith and grace on both blogs. If you’re interested in these father-related topics, or you know someone who is, the address is forfathers.wordpress.com. I’d love to have you or that person you know visit the blog.
The second thing about tomorrow I’d like to mention is that you should read about modern slavery in America over at the Root. It summarizes Juneteenth, what it is, and how we should look at and respond to issues of slavery today.
The other day I dropped my son off to Maggie’s. She had consented to watch him for a few hours before one of the Grands picked him up. When I got to the Swansons’ place, I was rushing. We were late. The boy delayed matters that morning.
He wasn’t as interested in eating breakfast as I expected him to be. His little lips closed when I offered his cereal. He, of course, didn’t obey when I told him to eat. At least not right away. He sat, taking me in, figuring me out. I saw his little mind working, wondering why I was glancing at the clock, why I was rushing his meal. I saw his brain turning, thinking how futile my anxiety was. The boy already knew that we, and I, were late. And he had no problem with lateness. He had no place to be except where he was. It became a little lesson for me.
So, there was me saying “Come here” to him. “Come put on your coat.” There was him looking at me, standing still in the doorway. There was the bottle to grab so he could drink when he arrived at the Swansons. There was the pacifer to put in the bag. Did I remember that? Even though he was officially off the thing, Dawn reintroduced it last week since he was sick. I disagreed. He didn’t need the mouth stop in my view, but sometimes I go along with other people’s programs. There was the coat to put on. I needed to bring the stroller. Grannie would walk him home. I forgot the spare set of keys.
When I got to Maggie’s, it was too early to greet her. I think I grunted. A thin layer of sweat always pops across my forehead when I’m late. I hate being late. Almost as much as I hate being yelled at. I have a thing about time. The boy doesn’t get that. He was waiting in the strapped seat for me. I pulled the stuff out of the trunk. I got him. Maggie was great, always is. When I ran through answers to her questions, I sounded quick. She knew I was late because I told her I was going to be there 2o something minutes before that moment. Maggie probably laughed inside, amused that I still don’t quite get how being a parent leaves you perpetually unable to schedule yourself well. It’s a loss.
I turned to leave. I heard Bryce wailing. Maggie picked him up. He’s aware of what it means when he’s at the Swansons’ or at one of the Grands’ homes. He knew I was leaving. He yelled. I turned, hearing and not hearing, thinking about my appointment and how late I was going to be. When I got to the car, I wondered if it would matter to me later on in his development that he no longer cried when I left. I wondered if it will bother me as much then as it did that morning because I was late, that I was off schedule, that I had something to be rearranged. It probably won’t. I’ll probably cry one day that the boy doesn’t care that I’m here or anywhere, and I’ll probably miss those tears I tasted when I kissed him goodbye in Maggie’s arms.
One of the things we did to celebrate my son’s birthday was visit my father in Little Rock. On the way back, I was tired. I hadn’t eaten. I had gotten up early, at the time I designated, so we could get on the road and return home in enough time to keep the bedtime ritual solid. It’s funny how much happens around a baby’s bedtime routine.
We got up early. I slept enough hours to feel like I could actually drive while awake. But I hadn’t gotten that much sleep, certainly not enough to deal with people, including a small one, expecting me to be social. My wife understood this about me at the time. She’s had enough experiences with me to know that I’m half sane before morning. She knows that morning to me is post 10a.m., and that any time before morning is still night. My son, well, he’s still learning about these things.
Somewhere, long after my real morning, and probably closer to the afternoon, I had been driving long enough to wish the trip was over. The boy had his naps. We stopped for lunch. Things were fine. But the kid started making noise. My eyes had started doing the things they do when I’m tired. I don’t exactly not see things in those moments, but I can tell that it takes more concentration and energy to focus. I get quieter. I pay more attention to how I’m holding the wheel.
Bryce whined and cried. I told him to stop. Of course, he didn’t listen. Well, he didn’t obey. I told him that I was not in the mood to hear his noise. He kept up the noise-making anyway. I raised my voice to match him. I turned up the music to drown him out. When he was smaller, music would settle him. He’d stop or moan or even bounce at the head. Coming back from Little Rock he just screamed. At some point he stopped fussing. But it was after I’d gotten short with him. It was after I made the mistake of losing patience, the thing I seem to lose so easily. He stopped after I marked my little parenting path with another small failure.
I thought about it that night. I wondered if he were piling up my mistakes and my wrongs in his little head. the way I had been I wondered, worse, if he wasn’t. I wondered how it was that he could so quickly forget my shortcomings and run to me with stretched up arms after his bath or his meal, asking me to hold him. I wondered if Bryce was secretly plotting in his crib to get even when he’s the one changing my diapers.
It would probably make me feel better if the boy was able to keep count of my errors and wrongs. It’d make me feel accomplished if I knew there was a correlation between good parenting moments and a good outcome with my son or bad moments and bad outcomes. It would leave me with something to count and organize and expect. From what I’m told by seasoned parents, though, that’s not the way it is.
God, having something to do with children-making and parent-developing, probably smiles at little thoughts like mine. Thoughts which hope that we could do the right things and get the right results. If I am patient enough, then I’ll be a better parent. If I am good enough at this parenting job, then the kid’ll come up bright and confident and handsome. That’s the essential parenting mistake in my increasingly muddy and yet clear view. It pushes grace out when we need it most. That car ride was just another current example of how I’m in need of a grace-giver, and not just the boy. This short spark of a fuse in my heart is an abiding reminder that the more my boy grows up, the more help I’ll need to raise him. I couldn’t get through that ride, yes, without the forebearance of my wife and a little help from some random country song by Rascal Flatts that mysteriously came on three separate stations in Missouri. But I couldn’t make it without God either.
My son’s birthday is approaching, and one of my gifts will be to continually evaluate what kind of man I’m presenting to him. I fear being a poor example because I want him to grow up loving people, honoring his mother, respecting his elders and everyone after that. I want him to be a bold man, to be what he is. I want him to have a bright boyhood full of fun and laughter, a phase that leads to a young adulthood that exposes him to greatness, that calls him to greatness. I want him to be so much better than I am, than my mentors have been, than the exemplars before him–even though we’re aren’t “all that bad.”
I don’t think being a man is easy and I’m already finding that bringing one up has its challenges. Telling him how to respond when people speak to him. Walking with him by the hand so we can see new things approaching really slowly since once of us moves slower than the other. Encouraging him to explore but not so much that he jumps off a balcony. Watching him pull the oven door down upon his head. And then watching him go toward it again later, just brushing against it that second time as he remembers the knot on his head from just a few weeks ago. Yeah, I did it. It’s called Michael’s method of child-proofing.
I cannot imagine parenting without all my smart and generous family and friends around me and Dawn. I cannot imagine. With that said, I read something that has me turning over my role as a father and my role as a guy, as a man. The question, “What makes a man?” stands out from a piece I read over at the WSJ.
The article talks about pre-adulthood, that phase that’s certainly post-high school and often post-college when young adults are earning and spending money and making their own decisions. They are deciding what they want to do and what they don’t, including whether or not to clean the kitchen or take out the garbage. Young adults, males and females, are deciding how to pay bills, how to develop themselves, how to become. And, though the article is about men, women go through this as well. I have a niece who’s growing up, and at times it is painful to watch. But this post is about boys and men and something in between.
I’m wondering how you view manhood and what it takes to become a man. I’m wondering if you have a real clear approach to raising the boys in your life so that they become good men. I’m wondering why some guys are less motivated to get up and do things like take care of the people they love.
I grew up with good models, including my father who didn’t live with us. He taught me. My mother taught me. Other “fathers” taught me. It’s foreign to me not to wash and cook and take care of myself, almost to the point where I find myself saying “I don’t need you” because I’m so good at that self-care thing, if that makes sense. I’m not the guy who would just watch a woman do things for me. I never have been. My mother taught me to iron my shirts and she stopped because I started. I have other issues, ones we don’t need to discuss in this post. But this article reminds me that I can’t take for granted what becoming a man is and that’s done these days. Seeing my boy grow up tells me the same.
Questions for you: How do you think we can continue to encourage boys to become men? And let’s not get nasty. Let’s be constructive. Any thoughts? Is the project of bringing up a boy different from the one years ago?