Grace and Parenting Mistakes

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.

Boys, Men, or Something In Between

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?

An Indispensable Checklist, 2 of 2

The last post started my small list of things to do when you’re readying yourself for a new kid.  Or a new all-encompassing something.  Here’s the balance of my suggestions for the checklist:

  1. Create a plan for how you’ll take care of yourself.  If you got a person in your life or even if you went to a new job, you’d benefit from having in place the way you plan to live and stay alive during those first critical months.  I told my wife that it would’ve helped greatly if I could’ve come around month 4.  She hardly laughed.  I thought it was funny.  Those first months were brutal.  I still find myself telling people that I would have had an easier time emotionally if I could have surfaced a few months in, mostly because self-care was less possible.  I couldn’t sleep.  I walked too much.  I jumped up from quasi sleep when the boy moved, when the wife sneezed.  I learned how to care for the boy but not for me.
  2. Implement above-mentioned plan as soon as possible but before your kid arrives.  Not much to say here.  You need to practice the pattern of your life early on.  The kid will so disrupt that pattern that if it’s not grained in, if it’s not second-nature, the plan will disintegrate.  Even then the plan was fall and crash and shatter.  The other day I went to exercise and I saw a friend, a personal trainer.  I waved and talked for a minute to Mimi, interfering with her client’s workout.  I knew her client didn’t care.  Personal training is torture so the pause was probably desired.  I told Mimi that I could count the times I had worked my fitness routine in the last year on one hand.  I didn’t have a way to “keep pushing play,” to continue exercising during those last eleven months. 
  3. Decide what your measures of growth will be.  When I first started leading the staff at Sweet Holy Spirit years ago, before I knew about NC3 and what I’d be doing here, one of my coworkers challenged me on a particular decision.  I remember telling myself that that was the person, the relationship I wanted to renovate and change so that when I left, she’d be one of my best supporters.  It happened.  And that change was a marker for me.  It gave me a picture of growth.  When you start a new job, how will you know when you’re effective, when you’re wrong, when you’re at your best or at your worst?  What about the relationship you’re nurturing?  How will you know these things with a kid if you’re a new parent?  Decide what your pencil marks on the wall will be.
  4. Tell your mother to help.  She will.  She’ll help you more than you want.  She’ll feed your kid black eye peas when he’s four months old and tell you she didn’t.  She’ll let the boy stay up later than he’s supposed to and she’ll devise a plan that’s different from the one you made.  Uh, for the record, my mama didn’t do this.  Not exactly.  My point is that mothers and family and loved ones are the best helpers when we’re faced with something new.  I am fond of repeating something a professor once said.  It takes the brain up to three years to adjust to a new role, to a major transition.  Let other people help you and give yourself time and grace to catch up to the role, to the relationship, and to its demands.

Would you add anything?

An Indispensible Checklist, 1 of 2

I remember people telling me when I was engaged to get married that you were never “ready” to get married.  They said the same thing about parenthood.  They, whoever they are, are probably right.  You may not ever be ready, but you can be prepared.  A year ago me and Dawn were in the slow process of readying ourselves for the baby who is Bryce. 

So, reflecting on some of the grand experiences of having a newly born boy in my house, I offer the following checklist for you who are preparing for something or someone that promises to change your life.  Maybe not a baby.  Myabe a new job or life after a breakup.  I’m writing, thinking about prepping for a baby but I suppose you can read this a view toward preparing for anything:

1) Consider why you want one of these people in your home.  Really.  Why do you want that job?  Or that baby?  Of course, some people wouldn’t necessarily say they want a baby.  They may just get one.  It’s helpful to know your reasons, whatever they are.  Sometimes the reasons sustain you at two in the morning when you haven’t slept because of you-know-who or you know what in the case of a new job or a new life as a student.  Or when you’ve changed seven diapers with increasing amounts of baby waste, all in varying shades of green, brown, purple, and gray.

2) Start a list of reminders of life before the baby.  I believe that life should be lived in the moment.  Life is now.  But life now is informed and shaped by what we’ve done and what we’re looking to do.  New parents need to remember what life was so that we are able to do what the wise mentor of mine, Johnathan Alvarado, says, integrate a child into the life you have and not build your life around a child.

3) Develop ideas on what you’d do if a sitter magically appeared.  One way of thinking about this is to consider how you’d take a break, how you’d relax.  Friends might call.  Relatives may become spontaneously generous.  Of course, you won’t leave your kid with everybody.  You won’t even leave the child with every relative.  But if those people on the parentally approved Post-It came along, what would you do if you had an hour or three?  Know this because God might send someone or someones to provide you respite.  I have my list.  It’s developing into a seasonally adaptive list, too.  So, if you’re on my Post-It (and you know who you are), I’m ready already for your call!

4) Make a list of all your friends.  Then, send them an email, or better, call them.  Have a nice conversation for as long as you can.  And end the conversation with something along the language of, “I enjoyed this, loved this.  If we don’t do it again in a few years, don’t take it personally.”  The truth is you will have to make an effort to keep those special people around.  You won’t have the energy to be friends.  You’ll hardly have energy to go to work.  Or to brush your teeth.  You’ll give yourself over to that child.  I imagine starting a job is like this.  You give all you are to it.

My Boy’s First Failing Grade

The boy isn’t in school.  I’m told that early enrollment doesn’t mean that a ten-month old can buy a laptop and graph paper.  But he has already gotten his first marks.  They weren’t good, if you’re paying attention to the title of the post.

I should say that I think we struck it rich in finding our pediatrician.  In fact, it’s a practice full of good doctors.  We not only get the best pediatrician for the kid, but when we can’t get on her schedule, all of her colleagues are great substitutes. 

Everytime we go, they give us cheat sheets, printed in a color different from the previous visit.  I think we’re starting a file somewhere, tracking these appointments.  They tell their own stories, these cheat sheets, capturing everything from the boy’s weight, height, and head size to all kinds of helpful information, which mysteriously answers all the questions we’ve brought up with the doctor while at that visit.  I get the sense that these good people have had enough Q&As with parents that it’s easier to prepare the standard answers in advance.  To me, it’s great planning, and I’m not really sure why these sheets impress me so much.  Let me get to my real point though.

During the last checkup, the nine-month, we were given a test.  It was a booklet.  I didn’t really listen when Dawn and Doctor talked about the exam.  I needed the basics.  There was a test.  I know what that means.  I’ve taken a few.  The boy has homework.  Sit him at the table with a pencil and follow the instructions.  Don’t help him.  It’s a test. 

But my wife went over the test with Bryce.  The tasks took my back to my first class in psychology and that other one about learning and memory.  I thought about my favorite teacher at Wheaton, Scottie May who knows everything about how children learn.  I saw Bryce’s results on the counter and pinched myself when I saw the answers Dawn (or Bryce through Dawn) had chosen.  I wondered to myself when I saw a few circles how this would shake out.  Dawn mailed it in.

Now, we don’t get calls from the boy’s doctor.  Well, the office calls to remind us about appointments but that’s it.  So, when I came home and heard about the conversation my wife had with Dr. Hong, I was intrigued.  I went straight to the boy and asked him why he didn’t get a better grade.  Why is your doctor calling my house?  I asked it in my I’m-the-concerned-father-of-a-student voice.  Bryce was smiling, no doubt performing his own mental test of me at the moment. 

We talked about him looking for hidden phones, juggling my wallet, his mom’s cell and noisy bus with shapes cut out of the window.  I spoke about him banging something on a table or chair or a floor, about going under the bed for a remote control. 

Finding a hidden toy was one he was graded poorly on.  “He does that,” I told Dawn.  To which she explained that she hadn’t seen it.  In my mind I started thinking that I was  a better test-taker, that I should’ve completed the paperwork, that my son now had a record, of sorts. 

I was worried.  I texted his doctor and said I guess the kid wasn’t enrolling in Harvard anytime soon.  Then I hid the favorite toy.  And me and my wife saw him go after it.  Not to be quickly satisfied, we did it again.  He picked up the pillow and took the toy.  Then, I texted the redemptive message, my way of suggesting–like our pediatrician did when she returned this texted reply–“there’s always northwestern.”