Thursday, July 24, 2014

Advice to New Dads (and Maybe Some Moms too) - Part 1

I have a few friends on the verge of becoming new dads, and I started to think of what I could tell them, what advice I might share to help them in their own personal journeys into fatherhood.

Me and 'Lilli Bean', hand-in-hand
At first I thought, ‘Well, I really only have that one good piece of advice… okay, maybe two…’ The next day though, there was another idea, and the day after that another, then another. So this is, now, a pretty long list of ideas, thoughts and suggestions that I’ve jotted down. I hope at least one or two of these ideas becomes a little gem of advice that might help out a soon-to-be-dad and perhaps makes their own life as a dad a little easier, their relationship with their spouse a little tighter, and their own fatherhood skills a little stronger.

Stay Calm and Parent On

I’m going to tell you not to freak out or overreact, but… you will freak out and overreact. Hey, it’s the nature of the beast because you are a parental newbie and it’s always better to err on the side of caution, right? You will, naturally, be the equivalent of a parental freshman, so you’ll tend to overreact a lot. Again, this is just the nature of the beast – and better to overreact, than under-react, right?

I can say these words, that you will overreact on occasion, with some confidence for two reasons:
1. I’ve got two girls who are now 7 and 9 years old, girls I managed to help raise and not kill, die, expire, or otherwise pass away (yet)
Womb for one...
That's a baby in there, and she's on her way!
2. As a new dad, I was probably far worse off than most, having ZERO experience with babies before I had to deal with one – I just didn’t grow up around friends with babies, or little nieces and nephews floppin’ around anywhere around me, so I was even worse off than most in the overreaction department

Now, a new or soon-to-be parent might read the above, get slightly offended and kerfuffled, and say, ‘That’s baloney, that’ not me. I won’t overreact!’ And someday, when your second is a toddler, and you’re at Target with both kids, looking at the new dad with a tiny new baby in a brand new car seat that’s got a sunshade on it, and an umbrella, and a windscreen with windshield wipers, and airbags, and an abacus, and surround sound playing Bach, and he’s putting the ‘sanitary cart liner’ in the shopping cart before he sets down the car seat into it, you’ll chuckle and laugh at him. Then you’ll look back at what I just said and say, ‘Oh yeaaaah… Chesak was riiiight…’

Even having just said that, even after reading the above and nodding intently, that you will over react. It’s natural. And it will be cute when you look back at it all.

What do I mean by all this? Well, you’ll probably be nervous enough that you're suddenly totally in charge of this little, amazing, helpless life that you’ll so utterly err on the side of caution that you’ll generally tend to over-compensate; nothing crazy of course, just little things, like buying too many things you ‘think’ you need, or overtly fretting about the baby having a cough or sneezing.

Beautiful shot from the Idaho Statesman
of Sally and Lillian - who's screaming her
head off here by the way.
I was there in spirit, at least.
One example of this slightly over-the-top reaction: when Sally got Lillian home from the hospital and started nursing, she had trouble remembering which breast she had just nursed from. She started wearing a bracelet on the hand that hadn’t been nursed, and changed it with each nursing. By the time baby #2, Sylvia, was nursing away, Sally and I stumbled upon a video of Sally describing Lillian’s nursing system (a video for me, during my deployment to Iraq). We saw the bracelet and just laughed out loud because Sally had, by then, gotten very used to just grabbing her boobs to check, and plopping Sylvia onto whichever one seemed larger - no bracelet needed.

Regardless, when you start to stress, I want you to remember that absolute idiots have been raising kids for thousands of years and their kids, even caveman’s kids, turned out fine (and when raising kids, ‘fine’ is pretty damned good). And you are no caveman! You’re not even a 1970’s parent! You have cell phones and Internet and all that incredible, valuable advice (and confusing, overabundance of misinformation) at your fingertips! You’ll do absolutely fine. So try to chill out.

Babies Cry for Only Four Reasons (usually)

Remember this, because it’s true, but babies cry because they need one of only four things from you;
1. To be fed
2. To sleep
3. Be changed
4. Be burped
That’s it. If s/he is crying, there is a 99.9% chance that it’s because of one of those four things. So, that’s the good news.

Lillian crashed OUT! Babies little bodies are growing
so fast, they sleep all the time. But new parents don't get
that luxury as there's generally just too much to do!
The bad news is that, in those instances were it is something outside those four things, the baby just can’t tell you what it is, and you – as a freshman dad – are going to have to guess/estimate/reason it out. For example, your baby can’t tell you their gums hurt. You (with help from your relatives, your doctor, websites, etc.) have to figure out that they have teething pain and then take the necessary steps to try to help remedy it. Worse still, if it’s something really serious, you won’t know until you (and your team of relatives, doctor, websites) figure it out. Sylvia had numerous ear infections when she was a baby, for example, and the only reason we figured out that her hours and hours of screaming cries were because of ear pain (which would cease only when the eardrum actually ruptured), was when Sally finally happened, by chance, to see fluid running out of an ear.

Take Care of Momma

For the non-birthing spouse (be it dad or momma #2), your #1 job is to take care of momma. Let her take care of the baby because, for the most part, the baby doesn’t need you too much, as they truly only need the parent who gave birth and is actually nursing them. (And for two dads, this doesn’t necessarily apply so they can divvy up the duties, and the doodies, as they see fit.)

When it comes to taking care of momma, that means not just momma but also the house, the car, the yard, the dog and everything else. Let her do nothing but take care of baby, while you have everything else. It’s an easy, clear, pretty well balanced system (that took us a little too long to figure out).


One specific word on how exactly to 'Take Care of Momma': my biggest, most ignorant mistake as a father and a dad was becoming SO focused on the baby (then babies) that I did not emotionally care for Sally. 
Pregnant Sally. Mind you, she was
at a Board of Directors meeting
for the nonprofit she ran at the time.

While some pregnant/post-partum moms ‘get a glow about them’ most of them are pretty miserable. They feel fat, are retaining water, don’t fit into their clothes, their bodies are out of control and in general they feel gross and vulnerable. Your job is to make your partner feel better, both before and after birth. 

In a nutshell, you need to compliment the crap out of her. Tell her how beautiful she is, how great she looks, etc. She’ll tell you that you are full of shit, but tell her anyway – again and again and again.

Go Easy on the Social

Lots of people have babies. Your baby is amazing to you (as it should be), but it is, in the grand scheme of the rest of the world, just another baby. So don’t hammer the rest of your circles with fuzzy, soft-focus, studio portrait photos of your ‘blessing’, your ‘angel’, your ‘miracle’, etc. Please, I beg of you.

Actually a great idea from my friend Robin is to set up a private social page (on FaceBook, a blog, etc.) that those friends and family that you invite to the page can tune into when they like, rather than get photo-bombed by repeated images of your little pudge-ball’s first spit up.

Your Fun

As the dad, you now come last in the pecking order. Seriously.

Priorty #1 is baby. Priority #2 is momma. And you, well you come last. And I don’t mean you come in #3 in the pecking order, I mean last – like DEAD LAST. Your needs come after baby, momma, the house, the car, the dog, the yard, etc.

That means that your activities, all those fun things you used to do, are now curtailed. They aren’t cut off and aren’t necessarily lost forever, but they are certainly curtailed because, as a dad, you just won't have the time available for you to do your activities like you used to.
Me, taking a break from a party we were hosting
to give Lillian a bath (granted it was her first birthday
and she was covered in cake). 

Now, you may have dad friends who are bragging about going out drinking with their buddies all the time, or still getting in 60 ski days per season, or taking off on long bike/moto rides, but just know that these dads have a name. They are called douchebags. 

They are also called dads that will be absent from their kids lives, until the kids turn 14 and those dads suddenly think that they can hang out and do ‘cool stuff together’. And those dads are wrong, because it’s too late for them. They were out drinking, skiing, riding, whatever and the window to be a real dad, and really connect with your child when they need you the most, is gone – and it ain’t comin’ back.

So, be a dad and not a douche-dad. Fatherhood is a sacrifice, a fantastic one. And the first thing to go is, both sadly and yet frankly, your fun. 

'You Time'

That being said though, you have to try (TRY) to maintain your sanity and find what time you can for you. Just know that this time is short. It may be taking a half hour to read a book, or getting in a quick run, or just sitting by a brook and reflecting (or, most likely, napping), but take time to get away and clear your head.

But generally, in the list of priorities, ‘dad time’ is now something like number 764th on the list.

Sally getting ready for a date night.

'You Two Time'

As challenging as it will be, you also need to find a way to get some ‘you two’ time in. Find a trusted sitter (no small task with any kid, but particularly with babies), lean on a family member, or find some way to get out of the house and have a lunch, chat over coffee, go for a hike/walk/stroll, or go out for a movie (well, maybe not a movie as you might fall asleep). 

Better still, get baby out of the house and head back to the bedroom for some intimate time. And by ‘intimate time’ I don’t even necessarily mean sex, but even just touching, cuddling, maybe trade massages, etc. But, hopefully also sex – for both your sanity.

Use Clear Communication – and Then Communicate Some More

Due to time constraints, the nonstop and never-ending daily demands put upon you and your spouse, and delirium caused by lack of sleep, you’ll have to get used to being really pretty explicit in your communications with your partner. Don’t leave things hanging – make them definitive. And once you’re done, wrap up the conversation you just had.

Sally and I had to start completing our conversations and closing the loop on all of them, almost like you might do in a business meeting. For example, one of us might say something like, “Okay, we just talked about changing our nightly schedule and we’re now going to alternate putting her down so the other one can get some ‘me time’, right? And we said that you’d have [these nights], and I’d have [those] nights, correct? And we’re starting this tomorrow night, is that what we just agreed on?”

A critical communication element to get used to is confirming who has/is watching the baby. Let’s say you’ve appropriately prioritized your new baby-centric home and you want some ‘you time’. You might say, “Well, I just changed her, fed her, put her to bed, cut the grass, changed the oil on the truck, cleaned the chicken coop, did our taxes, and did seven loads of laundry. So I’m going to take about half an hour and just chill out, okay? So, you’ve got her if she gets up, right?”

And when you ask those questions, ensure that you get a ‘yes’ answer before moving out.

The Grind Will Get You

Generally, no single day with a baby is that hard (unless that baby is sick – then it’s pretty much a total bitch). What is hard is everyday with a baby. The constant grind of doing the same things over and over again, day after day is what wears you down: feed baby, burp baby, change baby, walk around/play with baby, feed baby, burp baby, change baby, put baby down, feed baby…

And you may feel like your brain has turned to mush because you’re just not using it at a very deep level, an issue that’s especially challenging for career-focused individuals. I once met a new mom who was a well-regarded psychiatrist who was used to working 14-hour days and just crushing her job. Suddenly she was a slave to the mundane baby cycle of bed ‘em, feed ‘em, change ‘em, burp ‘em, bed ‘em, etc. She felt like she was suddenly no one special because she had so identified herself as that hotshot psychiatrist for so long and now she felt like ‘just a mom’.
Sleep... precious, precious sleep... 

Of course being ‘just a mom’, is a huge deal, a magnificent sacrifice, and will be so very, very worth it in numerous ways down the road. But when baby is young, and all those rewards are years away, you can start to feel pretty bummed out sometimes about that finely-tuned brain of yours, honed by decades of work and study, which is suddenly not being used at the same depth as it was previously.

This is why finding some time for yourself and you and your partner is so critical.

Another note about your brain and your work: if you will be a working parent, get used to half-assing both work and being a parent. You can only do one really well if you’re not doing the other. So if you are doing both, just know that you won’t be able to be the dedicated, go-get-‘em worker bee you once were due to the demands of parenthood. And know too that you won’t be the ultimate uber parent that you always thought you could be, because you’ll still have to work 40+ hours a week. Accept this, move on, and just do the very best you can for both work and family.  

Shop Used

Contrary to popular belief (First World belief at least), babies do not have to be that expensive. Yes, you need some things, but you don’t need that much, honestly. Clothes yes, and bottles, and all those little things – but remember that people all over the world raise children without bottle warmers, nursing chairs, crib cams, and baby monitors and all that STUFF that you’ll see in Babys-r-Us gift registries and some of those awful parenting magazines (and most are totally awful as they are very negative, extremely reactionary and filled with headlines like – ‘47 Suffocating Dangers Lurking in Your Baby Room RIGHT NOW!’).

The girls checking out some books, and toys,
at a consignment store.
Plus, baby stuff is big business, so that means that there is plenty of it out there. So shop consignment stores, ask your friends with slightly older kids for hand-me-downs, and check Craigslist because there is plenty of baby stuff out there to be had for cheap. I would even bet that you could get a kid from age zero to two years old without having to buy anything brand new, not a single thing, and do it relatively easily too.

To this end, and to get very specific for a moment; don’t buy too many onesies. You’ll think, ‘Well, we can’t have too many!’ but… you actually can, because all your friends and family are thinking exactly the same thing. They will buy you some and you will get them as gifts and presents from friends that drop by and say, ‘It was SO CUTE, I just HAD TO GET IT.’ 

And before you know it… you have a huge stack of onesies that you don’t know what to do with. You’ll have ones that say ‘My Aunt is a Firefighter!’ and ‘Go Spartans!’ and ‘Grampa Loves Me!’ and ‘Whoopsie!’ and ‘Stanford Class of ‘36’ and all sorts of cute, cute, crap. And then you will eventually start to find brand new 6M onesies at the bottom of the stack (the one that says, ‘Don’t look at me – that smell is coming from my daddy!’) – when your baby is now nine months old.  I can't even tell you how many times we passed along to parent friends some brand spakin' new kids clothes, simply because they got pushed down to the bottom of a pile of other ones.


That being said, I think it’s inevitable that, as a First World parent, you’ll be deluged with STUFF (please note; all the stuff will seem manageable up to about six months, starts to get annoying and exasperating at about a year, and becomes just insane by the time you get to baby #2).
Lillian, with an early batch of 'stuff'.
More, so much more, would come later.

You see, your parents will want to buy things for the baby, you will get many things during a baby shower, excited friends will want to pitch in and buy cute things (like… more onesies), you’ll nervously overcompensate and buy too much yourself, etc. So, you’ll need some storage for this stuff, especially if you plan on having more kids down the line.

At one point, between babies, I had storage bins that went from our garage floor literally to the ceiling. I had bins for Sally’s various stages of pregnancy clothes, her post-partum clothes, clothes and things for 0-6 month, 7-12 month, 1T, 2T, etc. So buy your bins big, and make sure they’re stackable.

Weight Gain

I think most dads gain weight when they have babies. Why is this? 

Well, you’re tired all the time, so it’s easy to order out for dinners more than you used to (going out to restaurants is not easy, as it’s now far more logistically complicated with a baby in tow, but you’ll probably go out more often too, since you’ll want to get out of the house).

You’ll also be less able to workout and will be less active (BTW, if you are ever looking for good, hard, super quick in-home workouts that don’t need equipment, search on ‘Hotel WOD’ and check out a variety of in-home ‘Workouts Of the Day’ that might take no longer than 20 minutes with a warm up). I think I hit about 235, and I’m normally about 220 – and still trying to ‘get back down to 215’.


Booze was also a challenge and something that I started taking advantage of a little too much, especially with baby #2. Consider that I was working for a start-up, traveling a lot, in the Army National Guard (good bye one quarter of all weekends!), my wife traveled a fair amount with her job, it was baby #2 (more on that later), and we lived far from any family support. That alone might explain why I started drinking more. But it also became something of a crutch.

I’d finish work everyday, and come dinnertime I would just become absolutely useless – pretty much ready to pass out and go to bed right then and there at 6PM. But, as tired as I was, it was also one of the busiest times of the day (in contrast to Life Before Kids, when that time is for fun or relaxing). So it was easy to start drinking beer, which I found gave me a little mental pick-up, while also imbuing me with lots of good carby energy. Soon I was drinking 4-6 beers (if not more) a night. But, an important caveat here, this was with baby #2 – and I’ll get to that more in a later post.

Breast-Feeding and Sleeping

Sally nursing Lilli Bean on a camping trip.
I think these are two of the biggest decisions new parents have to figure out: are you going to commit to breast-feeding and all the benefits therein, and what will be the sleeping situation for your baby.

I won’t get into the breastfeeding debate here as it’s just too personal an issue, but will say that Sally and I were both committed to this for our kids. To us, it just made too much sense. After all, that is what breasts are actually FOR. Further, it was much nicer for late-night feedings to have Sally simply rollover and give a baby her breast than it would be to get up, heat up a bottle, etc. The same goes for feeding a hungry baby on a plane, in a taxi, in the mall, etc. It’s also less stuff to have to deal with too. It’s what breasts were made for, and how babies were made to feed. It’s also probably about 10-12 times more efficient than formula, when you consider all the time spend buying and mixing formula, washing bottles and nipples, etc.

For sleeping, you have to figure out where your baby will sleep. If you are committed to putting the baby in their own room in a crib, then you’ll have to suffer through a couple of nights of ‘cry it out’, whereby you leave the baby in there (screaming) all night long until s/he starts sleeping on his own. Sally and I decided to not go this route and instead just had the baby in the bed with us (or in a co-sleeper attached to our bed). For us, this was just physically easier to have the baby right there next to us (especially for nursing), but there are people who feel strongly each way. And the down side of our method was that we always had a kid in our bed for a long, long time…  

Part 2...

Me, settling into daddy-hood with 11-month Lillian.
The rule of thumb of blog posts is that they should be no longer than 700 words. Well, this post is approaching 4,000. What can I say but that it turns out that I had a lot to share, hopefully some of which might be of help to some dad or mom out there someday.

And as if this weren’t long enough, there’s still more yet. I’ll follow this up soon with a quick (well, relatively quick – certainly not 4,000 words) list of little ‘pro tips’ to offer up as well. So, stay tuned future dads…

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Parenting Mistake from 1987

As a young person, I always knew I wanted to have kids. Thus, I often envisaged how I’d parent my kids and, at the ripe old age of 17, I made up my mind to never lie to them, ever.

Even at that young age I’d already seen too many adults afraid to share the real truth with their kids, afraid that the truth would be too much and scare or hurt them. So, they told half-truths, or little white lies, or skirted the issue. It always burned my ass that they just didn’t come clean and fess up with their kids, sharing all the honest, even painful truths that they’d learned after so many decades of experience. If they were just upfront from the get-go, I surmised, they wouldn’t have to expend all that energy reinforcing lies, coming up with excuses, sidestepping repeated requests to understand, and – ultimately – avoid the painful moment when a kid confronts you with not only the real truth, but their disbelief that the adult either didn’t know it, or wouldn’t share that information. No topic would be taboo, I thought: drinking, sex, politics, war, even – perhaps most dangerous of all – Santa Claus.
Lillian's letter to Santa from 2012

Since I had it all figured out at the ripe and wizened ole’ age of 17, I thought that even when it came to Santa Claus I would never lie. After all, your child WILL find out eventually, right? Why then lie to them and continue to foment a myth, one that they’ll someday be crushed to find the truth about? Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, I was going to be straight up about all of them.

When Lillian first started to emerge out of baby-dom and start to get a sense of the world around her, Sally and I never even brought up Santa. We didn’t have to. Soon Lillian was coming home from daycare with joyous glee in her eyes, talking about how Santa comes to our house and brings toys on Christmas! Sally and I just looked at each other knowing, I think, in that moment, that we were going to have to let the Santa thing ride.

And let it ride we did.

Lillian (and eventually Sylvia too) became just frenetic as the build up to Christmas came. They both rambled on about Santa and the joy and excitement in their eyes was just amazing. It was truly magical, and their belief brought abundant joy to our home. Suddenly we had special, hidden wrapping paper for the ‘presents from Santa’. We helped them put out cookies and carrots on Christmas Eve. We started to even leverage their belief in Santa, telling the girls to behave because ‘Santa was watching’.

Oh, and it wasn’t just Jolly Old St. Nick, no sir. When the Tooth Fairy came, we sprinkled glitter from the window to their pillow, a trace of the fairy dust she’d left behind when she flittered in the night before.  We prepped them with reminders of the Easter Bunny coming, and how they should behave/get to bed/whatever. And, stealing an idea from one of their teachers, we even celebrated the arrival of ‘Wee Mr. McMurphy’, a leprechaun who snuck in the house on St. Patrick’s Day.

Sylvia celebrating the visit of
Wee Mr. McMurphy
Oh Mr. McMurphy was a blast. He’d pee green in the toilet (food coloring) and leave behind some green milk (food coloring). He’d play tricks on the girls, tying their shoes together, turning clothes inside-out, switching their backpacks and books around. And, perhaps best of all, the tricks took on a life of their own, as the girls started to imagine things that Mr. McMurphy had done, things that I hadn’t touched;

“Dad, Mr. McMurphy moved the tv!”

“Uh, sure. Yes he did!”

“Dad, the couch pillows are all different, he moved all the couch pillows!”

“Wow! Yeah, he did!”

But then, just a few months ago, we came to a crossroads. Sylvia started to ask if Santa was really real (while Lillian kept on beleivin’). She started to ask straight out if he was real because she had heard from some friends in school that he wasn’t. So, we skirted the issue; “Honey, Santa’s spirit is very much real.”

That worked for about two days, as you could see the soft little gears in Sylvia’s brain pondering what the hell we’d just said. So, a few days later, as she lay in her bed just before lights out, she asked again. I repeated the line about Santa's spirit, hoping it might stick. But she said pointedly, “What does that mean, his spirit is real?”

It was time. Time to uphold my pledge from 1987. I told Sylvia the truth. Then, like a cascading wall of old bricks, it all came tumbling down as she asked about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and even Wee Mr. McMurphy. I explained that none of them were real.

Lillian mailing a letter to Santa
I left her bedroom feeling proud that I’d been truthful and had upheld my pledge of integrity. But then, as I settled into bed, the nagging feeling started. At first I couldn’t figure out what was bugging me about what had just happened, but over the days a feeling of loss and emptiness started to build.

Eventually, I realized what I’d just lost: no longer would they believe that Christmas was truly magical. No longer would benevolent spirts in bunny and fairy form come to their home with gifts and candy and glitter and Peeps in the middle of the night. And Wee Mr. McMurphy was just ‘dad’. No more wailing with glee to discover Santa’s presents. No more inspecting the fairy dust left behind by fairies. No more racing around the house in absolute joy, looking for more evidence of leprechauns. We had lost the magic. And there was no getting it back.

I started to become truly depressed, and deeply regretted my decision. But it was too late, the truthful cat, that boring, ragged old black cat of reality, the one completely devoid of holiday magic, was out of the bag.

Every parent makes mistakes, of course, and I'm certainly no exception. But this one, this one I might regret the most.

First, in 1987, I should have realized I didn’t know a damn thing when it came to how I would eventually parent my kids.

Second, in 2014, I should have lied my ass off.

Friday, November 22, 2013

9.5 Things to do to be a More 'Green' Parent

Being a parent is tough. Being environmentally conscious is tough too. Being an environmentally conscious parent... well, that's just 'tough squared'. 

The modern, First World child is awash in opportunities that most of the kids on this planet just don't have: opportunities to travel, get a college education, engage in a huge variety of extracurricular sports and activities, a lifetime of internet access (and all the benefits and challenges therein), and so much more. 

They also are awash in massive amounts of STUFF. It's too easy to want to give these kids everything and then suddenly your kid is six and has already accumulated six years of STUFF in their rooms and you, as a parent, are suddenly spending far too much time in what I call 'stuff management', which is, in itself, purely a 'first world problems' type of issue. 

Lillian asks for more CRAP at King's Island.
Just say 'no' to more STUFF!
Stuff Management is just that: constantly getting tied up, over and over again, just managing STUFF. It's repetitively picking up, fixing, and putting away all the Barbies and/or GI Joes' accessories, the endless explosion of tiny Legos, all their past artwork masterpieces (works that have to be snuck out of the house to be thrown away), stacking back up all their stuffed animals 'won' at so many fairs (and note that they really aren't 'won', as the fairs just order prizes whose unit price is so low that even the act of paying to play a game means that they've already taken in some profit), and just generally dealing with the massive crapload of STUFF that the modern, First World child accumulates. 

Kids love stickers, and markers, and rubber band bracelets, and tiny, tiny little toys called Squinkies, and Iwanko erasers, and barrettes, and plastic coins, and cheap rings from vending machines, and old birthday cards, and broken crayons, and they certainly love to 'collect 'em all!' They just adore every single little tiny bit of crap that our American society can get them (and I suspect that all this consumption could truly be addictive as their little brains search for the next 'high' of consuming the next new thing). 

And a mea culpa here; I readily admit that I love to buy them stuff. It's a quick fix, a cheap and readily accessible opportunity to turn around a kid's bad day, further endear them to you (or at least feel that way), or just generally make a day extra special. Just imagine your child bursting through the front door with you, as s/he screams "Mommy, mommy, look what dad bought me!" and you'll get the picture.

But, as an environmentally-conscious dude, all this STUFF drives me nuts. Hell, my own amount of personal STUFF drives me nuts, and the girls have six times as much of it as I do (at least when considered in amount of stuff per pound of person...). 

So, I offer up here a few suggestions on how parents can be a little more green:

1. Choose experiential gifts over more plastic crap. This year our girls' gift list (mind you the one written by us and not the one written by them) includes a night at Great Wolf Lodge, renewing annual passes to places like an indoor water park or the zoo, special day trips like ice-skating and hot chocolate downtown, a trip to the rock climbing gym, tickets to a ballet or kid's play - complete with fancy dresses and dinner at their favorite restaurant. And don't forget to get the grandparents and aunts/uncles on board with experiential gifts too. 

A special birthday party sleep over
- with chocolate chip pancakes the next day. 

1.5 And don't forget to GIVE experiential gifts too at your kids' friends birthday parties. Providing a special day for your child and his/her BFF doubles the joy, since they get excited when they first get the gift and again when you actually do it. Ideas here include a 'high tea' with fancy dresses, go-karts, a picnic with special food at a park near their favorite playground, a day together at a children's museum with a trip to the ice cream shop afterwards, tubing or sledding with hot chocolate, etc. 

2. Buy permanent straws. These things are absolutely genius and you can order them online, either as tough plastic, glass, or stainless steel. It will save innumerable cheap, disposable straws from ending up in landfills (and don't forget to also buy the straw cleaning brush). 

3. Travel with water bottles for the kids - and I don't just mean on long trips, but have them in the car with you all the time. You can always fill them up as you go about doing errands, so they will save you from buying any more plastic disposable bottles. Further, when you go into a restaurant, it might (hopefully) allow the restaurant to NOT have to serve your kids their drinks in yet another disposable, single-use plastic or styrofoam cup, as you just ask them to fill the bottles instead.

4. Travel with crayons too. While many restaurants now are so nice as to offer up kids a brand new little box of crayons (which is very thoughtful), we have accumulated and/or thrown out maybe a hundred of these things. They're a little thing, but they sure do add up. So, carry your own little pencil box full of colored pencils or crayons with you. (Further, why not have a little kit that also includes some travel games or other non-electronic diversions?) 

5. And don't buy markers. Kids LOVE the vibrant colors that markers produce, not to mention the smooth flow of them over paper - and sometimes the smell of them. But they're a huge waste. Often kids don't even use them up, but just forget to put the caps back on and they dry out (which makes me wonder... what exactly is outgassing out of these things to dry them out and where is that going within the air in our house?). Stick with crayons and colored pencils. (And when you do end up with a pile of old markers, sometimes local waste disposal agencies will take them on the same days they accept old electronics, batteries, etc.)

6. Buy secondhand kids' clothes. Kids, especially tiny ones, don't care of their onesie or their Spiderman t-shirt came from a second hand store and, luckily, there has been a boom in such stores, especially for babies and toddlers. They are fantastic, often filled with brand new items (we'd seen things like a brand new coat, with a tag still on it, from places like Baby Gap) at ridiculous prices. After all, why buy all sorts of new clothes for a kid that's only going to wear it for a few times during the six-month period while it actually fits them?

Sylvia, reusing a box, egg cartons, and shipping tubes
to make a castle.

7. Reuse one-sided office paper, toilet paper/paper towel rolls, large containers, empty boxes and other recyclables for art projects. We've built boats out of old take-out salad containers, a castle and a space ship out of old boxes, caterpillars out of egg cartons (a classic), and more. I will even break down old crafts and reuse things like beads and pipe cleaners to give them additional life.  

8. And when you are buying toys, consider the content of the toys (I LOVE the cool, durable, well-designed toys made from milk jugs at Green Toys) and the longevity of them. 

9. Get rechargeable batteries! This is huge. This will save landfills from acquiring more of these toxic little buggers, and also hopefully save you some cash as well. And make sure to buy toys that actually use these sizes of batteries. There are so many little toys out there that take annoying, hard-to-find, hard-to-install little bastard batteries with names like 'CR2406-7'. Stick with toys that take batteries that are sizes AAA-D and get a recharge station that will recharge all of them. 

So, these are my thoughts on how parents might take another step toward hopefully being a little more environmentally conscious - and maybe saving yourself some time and money in the process. After all, wouldn't you rather be taking your kid out to race go-karts or ice skate than put away, rebuild, pick up, fix, install more batteries in, or step on yet another plastic, probably made in (and shipped from) China Super Squinkie Princess/Pirate Octo-Launcher Bubble Beads Playset? I know I would. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


There are times when your kids do something, maybe even something that seems rather inconsequential, that it just makes your heart melt. 

There they are, just doing their thing, when suddenly they do something, say something, or just achieve something, and you feel your heart liquify, and run out the bottom of your shoes while you fight back a couple of tears of pure, proud joy.

Young Sylvia busts a rhyme. 
It's easy for me to remember the first time this happened. Thanks to a deployment to Iraq with my Army National Guard unit, one that coincided 'perfectly' with our first child's birth (Lillian was born the very same night as when I flew from Kuwait into Iraq to start my yearlong deployment there). Because I was half a planet away in a war zone, I missed all the first moments most parents get to have with their child; her first coo's, first roll over, sitting up, all that stuff. Devoid of all this, I came home for 15-days of leave when Lillian was then five months old.

Now, I wasn't a baby person and I had no experience with little ones, at all. And my first day back home, still wearing my 'Desert Combat Uniform', I didn't even want to hold Lillian, I was so afraid of her. I left the parenting to my wife Sally. But very early the next morning, my body clock severely out of whack due to the flights back to the US, I was up and about, right around 2AM. I just walked around the house, both amazed to actually be home, and afraid to do anything like turn on the tv, in case it might wake Lillian. But soon after, I heard her stir in her crib. 

I froze. 'Oh crap,' I thought, 'I'm going to have to take care of her. What do I do?!?!?'
Lillian asleep, during my 15-day leave from Iraq in 2005.
I waited for the tears and crying that would force me to go into her room and actually deal with her. But I heard only a rustling sort of sound. Finally, perhaps more scared than I had even been patrolling the streets of Iraq, I went into her room. She must have been dreaming. She fidgeted, her arms and legs shooting out randomly, and I just stared at her for a while. Then she suddenly settled down, and let out a tiny little yawn, her legs and arms stretching out, little fists clenching up. And then she settled back into a deep, angelic sleep.

Right at that moment, that yawn; my first heartmelt. Put a fork in me, I was DONE.
After that, I was absolutely crazy about her and quickly picked up from Sally all that I could to learn how to care for her, play with her, and just help her grow and learn and help her start to figure out this world of ours out a bit.
Other heartmelt moments:
  • My deployment finally over, Sally handed Lillian to me on the Air National Guard's runway and she gave me 'The Heisman', pushing me away because she didn't know who I was. Three days later, I walked into the house, said hi to Sally as she did the dishes, and Lillian came running up to wrap herself around my thigh - and wouldn't let go. My first hug from her, at age 11 months. Heartmelt.
  • Lying down on the floor to watch football game, 18-month old Lillian sidled up to me and just lay her head in the nook of my arm and watched football with me. Heartmelt.
  • Dropping her off at daycare one day, Sally and I were informed that she was now advanced enough to move over to the other side of the facility, the 'big kid' room of 3-4 year olds. We gathered up her stuff, and started to walk her over to the other room. I, as a joke, started to hum the graduation processional song, when I was suddenly overcome by just how big this achievement was (something that before kids I would have thought nothing of if I'd been told by a parent friend about it). I thought of all her graduations to come and frankly I almost lost it.
None of this leaves out baby #2 of course, quite the contrary. When Sylvia came along, it was my opportunity to finally experience all those baby firsts I'd missed with Lillian. Sylvia's own, abbreviated, list of hearmelts:
Jubilant Lillian after roller girl camp.
  • Sylvia was a momma's girl, to start. She wanted Sally and only Sally and would have nothing to do with me. Fed up with constantly, incessantly having to carry her around one night, Sally forced her into my arms, saying something like, "That's it! You take her!!!" I was, again, terrified of a baby. I looked her in the eye and started to bounce her on my knee. She started to make a sound, something guttural  I thought for a moment she was choking. But she kept doing it, getting louder the faster as I went. It was, I realized, her first laugh. Heartmelt. (Meanwhile, a very grumpy, tired, stressed out Sally had some choice words that I'd been able to have this positive moment with her, when Sally had to always do all the hard work of taking care of Sylvia... not so 'heartmelt' for Sally then...)
  • Sylvia walked into our sunroom, while we were having friends over for drinks, and told her first joke; "Where my Dora [figure]? Where my Dora? You seen my Dora? Is it... in my butt!?!?!" The room of adults cracked up, Sylvia's big eyes bouncing around the room at each person's laughter, and she laughing loudest of them all. Heartmelt (a qualification here - this is probably a 'Daddy Heartmelt' as I don't think Sally was as impressed as I was...)
Sylvia's first drum lesson.
The heartmelts still come now, but they're for bigger, more complex achievements  Lillian, now eight, has gotten into roller derby (yes, they have a junior team here that starts at age eight). She's not a strong skater yet, and I was trying to tell her how to do crossovers as she went into the corners. She ignored me, in her eight-going-on-fifteen way, or so I thought. But she actually listed, and started watching the other, big, girls, and suddenly, one day, she just started doing crossovers. Double heartmelt for that one, because: she was a formerly all 'girlie' girl that took up roller derby in the first place, and then started to take a step toward trying to master the sport.

Sylvia started taking drum lessons recently. She sat down behind the practice drum kit with her little pink sticks and that was heartmelt #1, just seeing her sit down behind the kit, ready to drum. Her teacher asked her why she wanted to take drum lessons and she shyly whispered, "Because it's my dweam." Two heartmelts in, like, four minutes.

There are of course, many more heartmelts to come. And they're only going to get bigger: graduations, first apartments, first jobs, probably marriages, hopefully births, and who knows how many more. And of course, if I'm so lucky, with the births of any grandkids, the heartmelts will start all over again...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kids and Crises

“Daddy, what’s a gas chamber?”

My eight-year-old asked me this question last week. My immediate hope was that she heard this phrase in science class or in a science book. So I replied, “Well, it’s a chamber that’s filled with gas, thus ‘gas chamber’. Why?”

“Well, I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and…”

Lillian then began to explain that she really already knew, roughly at least, what these gas chambers where, that people had been tricked into undressing for them, thinking they were showers, and that they didn’t come out alive. And I then proceeded to have a conversation, an introductory, top-line conversation, with my eight-year-old about the Holocaust, Hitler, Nazi’s, and World War II.

And the world being what it is today, our conversations with Lillian about such heavy topics are not uncommon. She’s got a keen little mind that loves to absorb new information and ideas – sometimes absorbing them a little too quickly for her immature little heart. And so, we’ve learned (the hard way of course, by making many mistakes over some years now) how Lillian responds to such news: she becomes rather manic.

Lillian has what we call a ‘worry doctor’ and she sees this counselor on occasion. This wonderful woman has told us that Lillian has a rather advanced empathetic ability and, when tragedy strikes, it both allows her to become passionately engaged about that issue, while also making her, understandably, a bit of an emotional dervish.

It started when she was about three. She heard from her preschool teacher that some people ‘trash’ the environment and that we should protect ‘Mother Earth’. Lillian then proceeded to pick up trash, even cigarette butts, on all our subsequent walks and scream, “Look at this! Look at what someone did! They hurt Mother Earth!” She continued to call the planet ‘our mother’ for the next few years.
Lillian, NOT reading People magazine
(but apparently ready to catch up
 on some Great Patios & Decks).
When the earthquake in Haiti struck, Lillian found out from People magazine (like with Anne Frankwe were  undone by Lillian’s voracious and insatiable reading habits). She just picked up a copy that she found in our living room, sat on the couch with her legs crossed as if she was 40+ years old, and read much of the magazine while we were outside doing yard work. She then insisted that we take all of her money out of her piggybank (maybe about $14) and send it to help the kids in Haiti, which we did (and apparently now will never be released from UNICEF’s mailing list). She didn’t stop talking about the kids in Haiti for probably about a year, which was far longer than most people did.

The downside of this empathy is that she cannot emotionally process it, and it then exhibits itself in various negative ways. For one, her grades will drop, sometimes precipitously. While Sally and I were preparing to tell her about the Sandy Hook school shootings, plotting the best possible tactics and approach, she (unbeknownst to us) heard about it from an older boy when we were visiting friends at his house. She went from almost straight A’s, to B’s, C’s and even two D’s.

Another response is that she will also stop respecting her systems and institutions. Perhaps so internally distraught by the latest tragedy, Lillian will just decide that the rules no longer apply to her. After all, if our systems of armies, and cops, and fire fighters, and aid programs can’t save kids from gunmen, bombers, or famine, why should she worry about the rules in her classroom anymore? This has exhibited itself in Lillian throwing stuff (papers, books, her shoes, etc.) at her teachers, deciding that she no longer has to do her actual work but can now just read all day in school (thus the D’s), and once, after a tiff with a teacher’s aide during recess, making up her mind that she was done with school for the day and was going to walk home. Mind you this walk is probably three miles, includes crossing two four-lane roads, and is through what some might not consider our city’s best neighborhood. (And, if the teacher’s aide hadn’t caught up to her at the front of the school, I’m very sure Lillian would have made it all the way home, eventually.)

Lillian, during a good day at school.
With the most recent events in Boston, Lillian again started to have immediate, reciprocating issues. She accosted some of her classmates for ‘not speaking English correctly’ (meaning, in her bossy little brain, that they weren’t doing it as well as she could). The kids got mad, and ganged up on her, calling her names and insulting her. She came home bawling, talking about how mean these kids had been – but neglecting to tell us that she had first insulted them (a few texts to her teacher brought that out). At least, last night, I could tell her that the last ‘bad guy’ in Boston had been caught and remind her just how safe she (and each of our friends and family in the Boston area) actually is.

But the truth of the matter is that there will, of course, be other tragedies to come and parents will have to talk to their kids about them. I have friends that live in Harlem and it took them years to tell their girls about 9/11 (understandably, since they had themselves lived through that and were still dealing with it themselves as well). A college friend who lives in the Boston area posted on Facebook the other day that she had told her kids they couldn’t leave the house that day because it was a ‘snow day without snow’, a post that crushed me as I imagined her internal struggle over what to actually tell her kids when the ‘bad guy’ could have been lurking almost literally outside their window.

Looking back at all these tragedies, with the power of both hindsight and also years of experience (aka making various mistakes) in dealing with Lillian, I’d suggest these steps toward speaking with kids about disasters:
  1. Talk to them soon. While it’s far easier to wait and talk with your partner about how to tell your kids, and then wait some more and talk with your partner some more, you’re not only delaying the inevitable, you’re also increasing the chance that they’ll find out from People magazine, or your friend’s 12-year-old, or the iPad left on the kitchen counter open to the New York Times photo-spread. Delaying your talk with them only increases the chance that they’ll get the wrong ideas, or hear them in the wrong way, or possibly see images of the tragedy and then, perhaps worst of all, just hold it all inside, internalizing it all, without your assistance in putting it in context. So, talk to them soon.
  2. Be (lightly) honest. You’re not talking about Santa or the Easter Bunny here folks, so it’s tempting to steer away from the truth or glaze over the heart of the issue. But to try to protect them now is only going to set them up for failure, I think, down the road. Bad things happen in the world: it sucks, but it’s certainly true. And our kids have to start building their own emotional and psychological responses to terrible things so that they will be prepared to somehow deal with them on their own someday. This also starts to prepare them more to not be victims themselves. If your kids realize that there are bad people in the world, for example, it can start to help make them more vigilant toward those people. As my wife and I like to say, ‘A little paranoia goes a long way.’
  3. Go lightly. I used the word ‘lightly’ above and what I mean here is obvious to virtually any parent. Still, I’ll repeat it here in order to round out this list. As you talk to your child, you should speak to them enough to create the concept in their minds that something bad happened, but only touch upon the details. You certainly won’t want to go too deep. Numbers of kids dead in a Connecticut classroom, photos of marathon spectators covered in blood and missing limbs, video of people of jumping off the towers on 9/11 can wait for junior high school (if then...). Again, this is obvious to virtually any parent I’m sure, but I think it bares repeating here for clarity’s sake.
  4. Trust them. This is, like so much of parenting, the hard part: you have got to let go of some control. Giving them this information is giving them this concept of tragedy for them to start deal with, however they may, in their own amazing little minds. Thus, by doing so, you have to put your trust in them to then start to deal with it as they will – and no longer as you might want them to. Trust them to take it, mull over it, stew on it, come back to you (hopefully) with many more questions, talk it out as much as you can, and allow them to continuously process it. (Lillian’s questions to me last night were, “Were these people [the bombers in Boston] insane?” “If they were insane, how could two people go crazy like this at the same time? Isn’t that impossible?” “Were they mad about something? Did someone do something terrible to them?”)
  5. It’s okay to not know the answers. I know I love helping my girls figure things out and give them new information, especially answers to their many wonder-filled questions. But none of us have very many good answers as to why people go into a movie theater and start shooting people, and that feeling of exasperation at not knowing is multiplied many more times when your little son or daughter starts to ask you very basic, very good questions as to why things like this happen in the world. Why couldn’t everyone in the world give some of their food and their money to the kids in Haiti? Well, I don’t know… Why do people hate our country and fly planes into buildings? Well, that’s really complicated… Why would two brothers blow up innocent people who were just watching a race? Well honey, I think that… well actually, I really don’t know at all...
  6. Point out the good. Perhaps another ‘no brainer’ to any parent, but also worth repeating regardless: always finish on the positive. Point out all the EMT’s rushing to help people while all the cops look for the bad guys. Show the aid workers and NGO’s in the country who set up hospitals and distribute clean water. Remind them how incredibly safe they are in your house and how far away (hopefully) they are from these events. 

So, that’s all I’ve got. I’m quite sure that none of these suggested points are news to any engaged parent, but, somewhat overwhelmed now by how many times I’ve had to talk to Lillian about various tragedies now, I just felt an urge to write down what ever thoughts or ideas that I had in regard to this issue. Hopefully a parent or two out there might actually read this and get a glimmer or a new idea on how to approach their child, or maybe (more likely) just get a bit of an affirmation that other parents are out here too, dealing with the same difficult issues that they are.

Oh, one last suggestion, call it #7: Friggin’ cancel People magazine. It used to be a fun, ‘guilty pleasure’ for Sally to read, but a weekly, home-delivered magazine like that lying around the house, often with a beautiful photo of Taylor Swift on the cover but photos of mangled bodies lurking inside, is just too much a temptation if you have a little Lillian in your house too. So, cancel that thing, and those like it. We certainly did. 

Emilie Parker, 6, Sandy Hook victim.
Martin Richard, 8, Boston bombing victim.