Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Card for my Dad

One of the last times I saw my dad. From left: My neice Claire, Stella (around 8 mos), 
me, Dad, my brother Jason.

This morning, in between making biscuits and gravy for Father's Day breakfast and refereeing a sibling fight over a balloon and trying to keep the household volume to a level low enough to allow Dave to sleep in, I scoured through Facebook on my phone. Picture after beautiful picture of my friends with their dads, most of them at their weddings. Their dads were stout and thin, bearded and clean shaven, dressed to the nines and in t-shirts and jeans. They all held their kids and sometimes their grandkids close. They smiled. They emanated love.

I "liked" every one of these pictures. Even though my heart stung with jealousy. Even though tears welled up in my eyes. I "liked" them because I do like them. Because I want the world to have good  fathers.

But my heart hurts today. My sister and I used to joke about how hard it was to find a Father's Day card for Dad. He didn't play golf. He didn't do yard work. He didn't have a workshop where he made things out of wood. He didn't wear a tie. He didn't fix the toilet. He wasn't always there for us. He wasn't our best friend. We weren't "Daddy's Little Girl."

There were no cards that said, "Thank you for not killing Mom the last time you beat her up." Or, "We kind of missed you when you were in jail." Or, "I guess the abuse you heaped on me could have been much worse."

Sorry. We tend to have a dark sense of humor in my family.

My dad wasn't at my wedding. We were estranged at that time. There was an awkward moment when I tried to figure out what it should say on the wedding invitation. Just listing my mom's name made it seem like my dad was dead; putting his name on there would make people wonder where he was when the big day arrived. I was disappointed that printing companies didn't offer an invitation that said, "Estranged Father Mr. William Randall Skaggs and Actively Involved Mother Mrs. Judy Miles Skaggs request the pleasure of your" bla bla bla.

My "father-daughter" dance was with my mom. It was kind of strange, but I didn't want to omit it altogether, and my mom certainly fulfilled many of the duties that *should* have fallen on my dad. But if I'm going to tell the truth, I wanted a father-daughter dance with a father. It's just that my father wasn't the right man for the job.

Mother-Daughter Dance

I tried to reconcile with my dad years later. He'd softened. He was no longer terrifying. He'd lost a lot of weight and had health problems and seemed feeble. I was shocked and a bit confused by how badly I wanted this to work. I wanted my daddy. He'd done some heinous things to me in my life, but I was ready to forgive. I was ready to give my kids a grandfather.

But it was too hard. Dad never apologized for sexually abusing me, for physically abusing my mom, for abusing my siblings in multiple ways, for psychologically controlling and terrorizing us our whole lives. It sounds simplistic, but had he just owned it, had he told me he'd been mentally sick and he was sorry, I would have melted. I wanted my daddy. I was ready to love him whole-heartedly.

But that's not what happened. He bought me stuff. A $3,000 Chanel purse (for the crunchy mom who doesn't care for labels). He treated me, Dave, and Stella to airline tickets to see him in Vegas and fancy dinners and expensive shows. He flaunted me in front of his professional gambling pals, bragging about my talent and gumption and generosity.

He was trying, I know. But it hurt too much. I found myself melting down over nothing weeks before and after our visits and phone calls. I'd hold it in around him, but if one thing went wrong away from him, I was filled with rage or despair, screaming and/or crying over every little thing. I was triggered. I kept having flashbacks and nightmares. I was scared to be alone with him.

So I cut it off again. He called me, he sent me a couple of cards, he complained to my brothers about me being ungrateful. I felt guilty. I felt like a terrible person. But I started to get better, little by little, especially when I went to therapy to confront what he'd done to me and how I could heal.

And by the time I was ready to reach out again, to frankly confront him about our past in the hopes that we could move on, he passed away. And I had to figure out how to mourn a father who'd hurt me so much.

Dave is an incredible father. He's emotionally available, compassionate, hilarious, warm. This morning, he played his guitar and sang songs while Sam danced like crazy. He snuggles up to Stella and reads her books. He wakes up with the kids to let me sleep in, he gets up in the middle of the night to rock Sam. He asks Stella about her day at school or camp, and really listens to her responses. He lies in bed next to me and worries out loud about our lack of college funds and why Stella's best friend is not talking to her and if Sam is thriving at daycare or not. He loves those kids more than anything in the world and always will. He'll never hurt them. He'll always be there for them.

Dave took Stella to the Girl Scouts Father Daughter Dance this year.

I used to say that this made up for my lack of a good relationship with my dad. That was a nice thought. It is healing to see how a truly involved and mentally healthy father interacts with his kids. And I'm so grateful that I never have to worry that my kids are getting anything less than they deserve. And it does make me love Dave more than ever to see him fulfill his role so perfectly.

But it doesn't replace the hole in my heart. Father's Day will always be a conflicted day for me. So much joy for my own kids, so much sadness for myself.

As I've gotten better, I've begun to realize there were some good things about my dad. He had a love for travel and new experiences that he passed down to me. While some of my friends in our tiny rural town never left the state, we'd frequently travel across the country or down into the Bahamas during the years when his illegal bookie exploits yielded actual profits. He ate escargots at the French restaurant in Disney World and dared me to do the same. He pushed me to learn to swim and drive a car, even though my fear of getting hurt was crippling.

And he told stories. Hilarious stories, captivating stories. Stories filled with voice and suspense. Stories that inspire me today to walk up on a stage and tell my own.

So Hallmark will never make a card that I could get for my late father. But if they did, maybe it would say something like this:

Happy Fathers Day, Dad. Thank you for motivating me to be a world traveler and a constant seeker of new experiences. Thank you for inspiring me to tell stories, and for giving me enough kooky and intense experiences to serve as endless fodder for those stories. Thank you for trying to reach out to me, even though it ultimately couldn't work. I'm sorry we didn't dance at my wedding, and I'm sorry you were too sick to see how much you hurt us all. You'll always be my dad, and I'll always love you.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Careful the Things You Say

Don't you feel sorry for my poor kids? Look how disconnected they are.

It hasn't been a great morning.

I'm in a pretty deep funk. Sam's going through yet another sleep regression, and I can't function without sleep. He's also testing boundaries constantly. The way he kept kicking me - hard - as I attempted to change his poopy diaper without getting crap all over both of us. The way he constantly took off his shoes the moment I got them on him (and of course we were running late). The way he broke away from me at the park, sprinting to splash pad, clogged and flooded and nasty from yesterday's storm, and dove head-first into the water (and no, I didn't have any backup clothes). 

Moments before he submerged himself in the nastiness.

But I was determined to make it better. I stripped him of his wet shorts, put on a fresh cloth diaper, and took my pantsless son in his drenching wet shirt to Mama's Hip, a local kids store, for a toddler art program.

I was with my tribe - cool and smart and low-key mamas. Although I wasn't really in the mood to socialize, I'm an extravert, and so I feel better if I can get out and be around other adults, even if I just sit in a corner and look at my phone the whole time.

That is, until I overheard a certain conversation. I'm a natural eaves dropper. I have great hearing and I'm curious about everyone's stories (hence my obsession with the Moth storytelling programs). These two moms were talking about being moms in older years, a topic I'm familiar with, having had my kids at 32 and 37 years of age. I was just getting ready to pipe up with my own story, when one of the moms said something like this:

"I'm so grateful we had them so close together. I see these moms with their kids 4, 5, 6  years apart and it makes me sad. That's just long enough for the older kid to know what they're missing when the little one comes along. And you know those kids will never really be friends."

These moms had no way of knowing that my pantsless toddler has a sister 5 years his senior. In fact, I was so quiet they may not have noticed I was even there. But even if they didn't notice me, I wonder if they noticed all the other moms around us. Moms whose personal stories aren't on their sleeves. Moms who might have also been offended by their remarks.

I let it go, and continued to check out Facebook. I figured these ladies would move on to a different topic, something I might be able to contribute to while simultaneously avoiding conflict.

But no. Sam nursed, played with toys, had a meltdown, ate some snacks, and received 3 hugs - and these ladies were still going on and on about why having kids more than a couple of years apart is a really detrimental thing to do. 

I tried to muster up my compassion and outgoing nature to have an empathetic, informative talk with them. I tried to think of something to say like, "While I get that having kids close together is the best choice for you, I just wanted you ladies to know that some of us have kids much further apart and are really happy." I thought about telling them what a help Stella is, how close her and Sam's bond is, how he said, "Bye bye Stella"when I dropped her off for camp this morning. I considered tell them about the horrible post partum mood disorder that tortured me after Stella's birth. How it took a while to recover and find the courage to go through the process of having a baby again. I thought about a lot of things. And I guess I could have turned this tense moment into a positive, loving, learning experience.

But not today. With all that's going on in our country right now, I'm all out of compassion for anyone who can't take two seconds to think about others. I know that I've messed up and I've hurt others' feelings with my words. I know I'm being a hypocrite. I know I'm not necessarily right. But I'm over it, I'm done, I'm depleted. I can't tell people what to say or how to feel. But dammit, this would be such a better world if people could take two seconds to think about others' experiences and frames of reference and have just a tiny bit of tact and friggin' empathy.

So I gathered my diaper bag and my ragamuffin kid and said, "Some of us have kids 5 years apart and it's just peachy" and stormed out the door. And then I made a passive aggressive post on Facebook so all of my dear friends could tell me how right I am.

What I didn't have the patience or energy to say is this. It all boils down to the fact that there's no one way to parent. We pick and choose what works best for us as people, for our romantic relationships (or lack thereof), and for our kids' personalities. I do things that I feel strongly about as a mom. I also feel strongly that they wouldn't work for everyone. I love nursing Sam at 22 months, but I totally get that that wouldn't work for another person. So you'll never EVER catch me talking about how every mom should nurse her toddler. Both my kids sleep alone in their own rooms. Dave and I are not good at cosleeping (and neither were my kids, really, when I tried). But I'd never say that someone shouldn't cosleep.

And I'm not afraid to defend parenting decisions, even in the midst of a friendly conversation, even if it's a decision that's not my own. People know my passion for my own unmedicated births, and for helping other women who want to pursue unmedicated birth. So you wouldn't believe some of the hateful things I've heard about moms who want to use an epidural or moms who delivered via c-section. And they're shocked when I tell them that unmedicated birth isn't for everyone, and that I'm grateful for c-sections because they save lives. Or the moms who trash formula when they see me breastfeed, then get a mini-lecture from me about how Sam needed formula because I couldn't produce enough milk to give him at daycare, or how some women can't breastfeed due to former childhood abuse, or how parenting is hard enough, so why don't we cut women who weren't able to or don't want to breastfeed a little slack.

Ladies, stop it. Just stop it. We don't need parenting labels or sides or teams or what have you. We need empathy. We need understanding. If we're going to make this place better, more loving, safer for all of our kids, and free of the hatred that is consuming us like a plague, we have to lead the way.

Careful the things you say. You might hurt someone without even realizing it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

We Weren't That Good

Look at that rambunctious 2 year eating ice cream with her bare hands back in 1977. 
Sometimes, it feels like my Facebook feed is just bursting to the seams with posts about how kids today are brats and how much better they'd be if their parents just smacked them around a bit.

"When I was a kid I didn't get a choice - I ate what my mom cooked."
"If I talked to my dad the way that kid did, he would have popped me in the mouth."
"I wouldn't have gotten anything to eat at all if I threw a fit like that in the restaurant."
"My mom wouldn't have let me looked at her IPad - had such a thing existed - while on an airplane."

While this is, by no means, the only way modern parents are criticized (we look at our phones too much, we breastfeed too long or not long enough, we obsess over organic food or feed our kids crap, we hold them too much), it's quite possibly the criticism that bugs me the most.

Why? Because the insinuation is that we, as kids, knew our place. We didn't talk back, we ate our brussels sprouts, we didn't dawdle while getting dressed for school, we went out to play the moment our parents asked us to.

But the thing is, I have a really good memory. Part of my love for storytelling comes from the fact that much of my life just hangs out right below my surface, begging to be examined from time to time. And I need to tell you guys that we kids of the '70's, '80's, and '90's were no better than kids today.

Like most kids of my generation, I was spanked. I lived in a house where parents were in control, and the rules were clear and explicit. And yet, every time we went out to eat, I hid under the table, tickled my mom's legs, and stood up in the booth to stare at other diners. I threw fits for toys I wanted in a store. I refused to eat certain foods and cried until my mom made me something else. I came up with excuses for not going to bed, not getting dressed for school, not cleaning my room. I will testify that my parents did not spoil me. Not at all. But testing boundaries was pretty normal for me (and my siblings).

And I hate to burst your bubble, but you did the same thing. Maybe you, like me, were afraid of a spanking. And maybe that fear kept you from breaking the rules. Sometimes. But that urge to test out your parents' limits? Well that was too strong to resist. And so you, my friend, were a brat when you were a kid, too. And if you don't believe me, feel free to call up your parents to confirm the fact.

So what's different? We are living in a time when people are more free to live an adult life without kids. Whether a person's child-free life is by choice or circumstance, more and more people are walking this path, and society is learning to be accepting of it (though we have a ways to go in that department).

This is good news! Having kids is not for everybody, and it makes me happy that people are able to live a life that feels authentic and meaningful to them, even if it deviates from societal norms.

But the fact of the matter is that most people find other people's kids annoying. I have two of my own kids, I taught kids for 13 years, and I STILL mostly get annoyed by other people's kids. But I have a strong sense of empathy for other parents. So today, at a local story time, I smiled at the mom whose toddler screamed over a broken crayon, because I knew it was only a matter of moments before my own son would scream (over a folded piece of paper). When someone's baby cries on an airplane, I put in my headphones and remember that time Stella pooped her diaper right as the plane was descending and the seatbelt sign was lit and she screamed at the top of her lungs for 30 minutes while I tried every trick in the book to get her to stop. When a dad lets his son look at his IPad while the family waits for their dinner, I remind myself to give it a try with my own ansy kids next time we eat out.

Are there jerky and entitled parents? Oh yes. No doubt. And I'm sure someone reading this is just dying to talk about the screaming baby at the 10pm movie screening or the toddler in a bar or the kid who ran around and knocked everyone's plates over at a wedding. But again, and forgive me if I blow your mind here, there were crappy parents in our day, too. But in those days, you probably envied their kids for having cooler parents than yours.

So as we read more and more stories about parents getting kicked off of airplanes for having a crying baby and news article after news article about how our kids lack grit, I urge you all to find empathy for modern parents. We are doing things a bit differently. We're learning as we go, we're making mistakes, and we're doing our best. Many of us don't hit our kids, but we do provide boundaries for them. When they act out, we are seeking out ways to curb their negative behavior without obliterating their curiosity (a trait that often causes kids to test boundaries). We're in the trenches, day after day, trying to raise a capable, kind, not-as-neurotic-as-we-are generation to inherit this earth. And that 5 minutes of bratty behavior you're witnessing doesn't tell you the whole story.

Imagine of all someone knew of you was that time you were a brat when you were little.