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Friday, January 31, 2014

"Dad, are you mad at me?"

"Dad, are you mad at me?"

My youngest has been struggling to sleep in her own bed the last couple weeks due to fear.  We can't pinpoint where the fear came from and why it started when it did, but when it comes, it envelopes her and she will lie awake in bed all night long.  

At first, Heidi and I just encourage her to relax and go back to bed.  When she works her way downstairs complaining of an upset stomach, we tell her to get a drink and go back to bed.  After coming downstairs again, she asks to take a Melatonin (sleep aid) and we quickly agree.  Back to bed. Ten minutes later we hear her whimpering at the top of the stairs and yell up for her to come down to talk.

"What's going on, Tay?"  

Through the tears she's trying to hold back she says, "I don't know, I just can't sleep."

"Did something happen?'

"No.  Not that I know of." She replies with alligator tears streaming down her cheeks.

"You have nothing to be afraid of.  Your sisters are sleeping in your room with you, we're awake and the doors are locked.  You are very safe and you have nothing to fear. Ok?"

She shakes her head, but you can tell that something just isn't registering, like something else inside her head is screaming at her or whispering to her, either way, the thoughts begin to snowball and as irrational as they are, to her they are believable...especially at night.  We hug her and tell her to go upstairs and give it another try since it's getting really late and we can tell she's really tired.  Yet inside, we can tell...she's gonna be sleeping on our's only a matter of time.

One night turns into two and two turns into 4 and so on.  Every night we have her start in her bed, but we begin to notice that even hours before bedtime she's beginning to shutdown at the thought of dread that comes over her that "she probably won't be able to get to sleep".  I think, based on my experience with sleeplessness, that the thing that's consuming her is how slowly time passes and how quickly thoughts bombard you as you "try" to fall asleep.  The fear compounds and the whole ordeal begins to snowball into an avalanche of anxiety.  We can see it written all over her face.

Around the 4th day, we had her try to sleep in her own bed and she just couldn't.  She kept coming downstairs crying.  Eventually I said, "Come on, let's go get your blanket and're sleeping on our floor."  As she trailed behind me climbing the stairs to her room I heard her say faintly,

"Dad, are you mad at me?"

I turned around and said, "Oh no, Tay. It's not your fault, I'm just frustrated that something has gotten to you and attacked your mind.  I wish I could grab it, choke it, and kill it so you could be free to sleep.  But until then, you can sleep on our floor."

There was an instantaneous peace that came over her.  As Heidi made a bed on our floor for her, I looked over at Tay and it's like her face was filling with color again like she was being resuscitated.  My heart went out to her.

She's been on floor for several nights and we haven't even tried to start her in her own room.  It feels like we have to break a cycle of thought that she's trapped in first.  Every night we'll just guide her to our room and we sit with her talking about her day, playfully interacting with her, and praying with her for peace and joy to once again fill her frame.  I can't say for sure, but I think we're making headway.

I guess the thought that struck me in this whole ordeal is the addition weight she was carrying in her question: "Dad, are you mad at me?"  She's already racked with torturous thoughts, and on top of all that, her little heart is trying to carry my emotional fragility as well.  She's trying to make sure I'm ok.  She's trying not to bother me.  I heard her say it in different ways that night: "Are you frustrated?"  "I'm sorry, I'm really trying."  "I feel bad that I can't get to sleep."  These little expressions just tore me up.  They indicated something that I fear so many children feel in homes across our land.  It is something that I think eats a kid up. 

I think we live in a society where parents are so volatile that the children carry concern for their parents emotional health.  They can see we are angry, distant, depressed, touchy, easily offended, petty, sad, bored, rushed, and disappointed with life in general.  They pick up on our conversations with our spouses.  They see our flaccid faces and our hollow eyes.  They notice when we don't laugh at their antics anymore.  They watch us watch television.  They witness the shutdown and they start to feel either like it's their fault or that they are supposed to make it better.  Both conclusions are soul-killing for a child.  It's pressure they aren't meant to bear up under.

We can easily use this as parents to our advantage.  It is the cheapest way to get superficial behavioral modification.  We take out the crowbar of guilt and leverage it for all it's worth to get them to "grow up" or "obey" or "do what we say".  

"I've had a long day already, don't even get me started."
"You don't appreciate what I do for you."
"If you only knew how much pressure I was under, maybe you'd change your attitude."
"I don't know if I can handle one more thing today."
"After all that I do for you and that's the way you talk to me?"
"I've been working hard all day, I don't have time for your attitude."
"Just let daddy relax, he's had a rough week.  Don't bother him right now."
"I don't think I can take one more thing today, so don't press your luck."
"Life is already hard enough, and you're making it harder."
"Your mom is a mess and you're the one killing her."
"Please don't add any more pressure, I'm not in the mood."
"Life is already hard enough, and you're gonna push me over the edge."

Initially these statements will get you immediate parenting results.  Translated: It makes our lives easier.  The child will feel the effect of their added strain and will back away.  You will plant fear, shame, and guilt in their soul that modifies their behavior.  They will begin to realize that you are very fragile and they must be "careful" not to offend you, bother you, or push you past the brink.  You are, after all, very busy and stressed with so many extremely important and heavy things, and they need to let you have your space and help alleviate pressure if at all possible.  

Some children will act out to try to get your attention.  They can tell you're distant and distracted and depressed, and they will even misbehave to have a conversation with you, albeit heated.  They crave your attention so badly, that they will take even negative attention just to feel noticed.  It's not healthy, but it's something.  And as they say, "Something is better than nothing."

But many more children take on the role of a care-taker.  They carry their parents burdens and try to do something to make things better.  When they are struggling at school, or with relationships, or with their own pain or pressure, they will dismiss it or hide it in an effort to not contribute to household heaviness.  They even tell themselves, "It's not a big deal, not compared to what mom and dad are going through." Of course, they don't know how to use words like this to express themselves, but this is the feeling that fills their minds in the quite hours.

"Dad, are you mad at me?"

For what?  Having fear as a 10 yr. old?  Not understanding the emotions that are bringing on those tears?  Carrying anxiety over things that you can't yet put into words? Battling thoughts in the darkness that harass your helpless heart?  Coming downstairs and asking mommy and daddy for help...infringing on "our" time?  If I'm made about that, it's my issue.

Her questions caused pause in my heart.  It revealed to me that often in the chaotic craziness of my life, I forget that my kids don't exist to help, support and care for's the other way around.  They aren't a nuisance unless I think they exist to orbit my all-important life.  I'm supposed to be there for them, taking hits for them, buffering them from the harsh realities of life, creating a safe space for their young hearts to grow, listening to them talk about their problems, whispering salve into their wounded places, caring for and carrying their sorrows or struggles, giving them a free place to play.  I'm there to make sure they're ok, they are not to be assuming that place in some sick role-reversal, making sure I'm balanced and regulated and tended to and cared for and thought about and made to feel valuable and loved and safe.  How have we come to think this way about our households?

I'm very aware that we all need grace.  Parents and Children.  I don't write this to rip myself to shreds, nor to tear anyone else to pieces.  I write only to expose what I feel is a lie that is killing our kids and causing premature maturity that forces them to grow up at an unnatural speed.  They already are over-exposed to things that their young hearts aren't created to carry way before their time.  It is my heart's desire to make our home a place of peace, not another pressure cooker of unjust expectations.  They are the kids, we are the adults.  We are there for them, they are not there for us.

"No, baby, I'm not mad at you.  You're just fine.  Daddy and mommy are here for you and we'll get through this together.  You don't need to be afraid anymore."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Parenting little ones...and "getting no credit"

"I think the reason it's hard to parent infants and toddlers is because we don't and maybe won't get any credit for it."

I said it in the passenger seat to another young father wrestling with the emotions of raising two children under the age of 3.  He was talking about how frustrated he felt by the redundancy of it all, the mundanity of minutia, the seemingly meaningless motions of following them around, picking up the messes they leave everywhere, cleaning their poppy pants, mopping up their spills, dealing with their unhinged tantrums with no recourse of reasonable dialogue to remedy the lunacy of it all.  He was exhaling a sigh of futility I knew all to well.  It's the behind-the-scenes footage that seems so insignificant, dare I say beneath least that's the feeling on certain days.

There are moments of unspeakable joy, and I feel I give the bright side almost exclusively on social media, but there's an often unspoken angst to parenting little ones that I want to take a moment to try and put into words.

Back to "getting credit".

I think one of the hardest parts of being at home with the boys on my days off (my wife does this all the time) and tending to their incessant needs is they won't remember what I'm doing with/for them.  I think it's almost rigged to be that way by God.  I say rigged because when a psychologist is asked the most formative years of a child's life that determines the health and well-being of their future, the answer is (drum roll, please) the years that they will never actively remember happening in early childhood development.

They won't remember the pain of tumbling down the stairs thankfully, but they will also never remember the times you stayed up at night with them while they screamed with a ruptured eardrum.  They won't remember the times you yelled at them for instantaneously doing the very thing you just told them not to do and have been telling them not to do for only God knows how many months on end, nor will they remember the times you pushed them on the park swing and crawled through the germ-invested tubes pretending to enjoy chasing them while your joints felt like you were dislocating your knee caps with every poignant pound on the plastic.  They won't remember the bedtime prayers or all the times you fed them spoonful by spoonful trying every trick in the book to make them eat their vegetables.  The messes, the fusses, the holding, the scolding...nothing.  The money you spent on diapers, formula, wipes, toys, treats, trips back and forth to places of play just to keep them entertained until nap time.  The sleepless nights, the meltdowns, the inconsolable cries for "who knows what", the short-lived contentment, the never-ending desire for more food, the inability to do things for themselves and their constant need for you to get them things, watch them do things, follow them as they show you things, listen to them as they try to tell you things in broken sentences and mispronounced me, this would be a long blog if I recounted what is coming to my mind in almost rapid fire.

What really gets you and what I think causes a good many parents to "check out" in this season is a fact that is hard to reconcile: The object of my affection will never acknowledge my investments, nor is anyone around most of the time to bear witness to the "good parenting".  There is no audible affirmation.  There is no tangible reward.  In a world where you are used to receiving credit for your sacrifices and servitude, there is either silence or scorn.  You parent by faith most of the time.

But here's the killer and the kicker...this is the most volatile stage of their development.  Even though they won't consciously remember your words, kisses, hugs, affirmations, stories, shelter, time, sweat, discipline, smiles, tickling, prayers, and training, they will subconsciously be shaped in this window of time that you can't make up for down the road.  If they aren't given enough physical affection and verbal interaction, they will be feral in certain critical areas of personal development.  What happens in the 1st six months is unique to the first six don't make up for that when they turn 12.  If you don't snuggle, wrestle, talk and establish closeness of body and spirit in the first 3 years, that window of psychological formation closes and often never reopens.  And this is why the feeling of "not getting credit" has got to be overcome, because you have someone's life that's on the line and "selfless, thankless" parents get over the childish need to be rewarded for our labor.  It must be a labor of love, unconditional to the core.  But that's easier said than done when you look around you and there's no audience besides God.

He's the only one who knows the mindless hours of baby talk you're babbling as you try to get these "little lumps of flesh" to keep their food in their mouths as it dribbles down their chins and onto their bibs.  The sights, sounds, and smells of raising little ones can reduce you to a puddle, melting away your sense of significance.  But it is just a sense, and base and carnal sense.  Sensual, but not sensible.  For these unaccredited hours of unseen, unknown and largely unappreciated heroism are all-important.  Though it doesn't seem so, what our children will never remember will be the cornerstone of their very character.

The cornerstone is more important than the capstone.  No one drives by a house and comments: "What an amazing foundation!"  It rarely if ever gets any commentary because it has no curb appeal.  Yet it's underground holding everything in its place.

Just because you don't get credit for something doesn't mean it's not worth it.  It is often the things that will never receive an honorable mention that are the most honorable of all.  As Jesus said, "And he who sees what you do in secret will reward you openly."

We are parenting before the audience of God.  He sees.  He knows.  And that is all that matters.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

As daughters get older...

I've noticed something lately...

My daughters aren't so easily amused.  It takes more to get them to laugh, to get their attention, to get them excited.  Another way of saying it...they aren't so easily pleased.  

They are older.  Things that used to be enough, aren't so much.  Conversations didn't require nearly as much energy and creativity.  I used to be able to step into their rooms and get them laughing with simple stories and spontaneous playacting.  Whatever I made up on the spot was plenty sufficient to hold their attention and affection.  

But slowly I've noticed subtle changes.  Thresholds have shifted.  I have to work harder to engage conversation...they drift elsewhere if I'm too lazy, hoping it will come to me.  It's not coming to me like it used to.  They've seen more.  They've heard more.  They've experienced more.  Their worlds have widened and I've become a smaller character.

Hang's what I think it feels like.  

It feels like I'm becoming a smaller character.  And here's where I think a lot of dads bow out and allow that conclusion to feed a delusion.  When you feel like your role has lessened, been diminished somehow, it makes you want to pull away in order to preserve pride.  No one wants to keep pursuing something that makes them feel like failures.  When you feel like your daughters could care less...and less...and less, instincts of self-preservation cause you to lean toward things that are easier and "pleasier". (not a word, but you get my point)

But just the opposite is true.  

The role of a parent (a father) is more crucial and relevant than ever.  My daughters aren't plotting to push me away...they are scheming ways to make me feel unwanted.  I could believe that to be the case, but it's not true.  They are simply changing and their worlds expanding...will I change with them, expand with them?  Will I keep nudging into the spaces they give me, or long for the wide open spaces of yesteryear?  Will I take greater pains to relate to their scatterbrained existence looking for in-routes, end-arounds?  Can I make mid-course adjustments, finding ways to express my affection more stealthily.  As Jesus said, "Be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves."  I think that's a killer piece of advice for parents of pre-adolescent and adolescent children.  We long for the days of easy-energy, but those days are gone.  We aren't playing with bb guns anymore shooting tin cans and burnt out barn lights, we have to aim our lives and make every shot count.  

Here's the thing, it takes intellectual, relational, and emotional work now.  It's not just physical activity and physical presence...that doesn't suffice.  Before I could play with them while I did other things.  They couldn't tell the difference between half-hearted parenting and whole-hearted parenting.  They were just tickled pink that I was there.  I didn't have to be as present, I just had to be there.  But with every year the relational requirements raise bit by bit.  They begin to desire engagement and can pick up on detachment.  There's a shift, something weird is astir.

They need more and want less. (at least that's what it looks like)

They appear to be doing fine without you.  They are swallowed up in activities and friendships and technological devices and books, etc.  They aren't running to the door and saying, "Daddy, daddy!!" when you get home, that's for sure.  You walk in and they are sitting on the couch watching television like zombies.  You say hi and they barely look up as they say hi back.  Again, it looks like they are disinterested and would rather you not bother them.  They may even make statements that seem to indicate as much.  "Dad, you're weird." or "Dad, stop it."  You go to hug them, tickle them, joke with them...and they don't seem so warm to the gestures anymore.  You sit by them and they stay put.  They used to move over and lean on your arm or chest.  You try to pry into their day asking about school or church or soccer and the "one-word-answers" begin to break down your resolve to stay close to them.  So you give them their space.  You conclude, "If they want to be close to me, they can make the first move."  

I've had to fight off these real feelings...and I have above-average affectionate daughters.  I have to labor for flow in conversation.  Laying with them in bed seems more stilted and stoic if I don't employ every technique in the playbook to keep it unpredictable.  I do everything but make them come and sit on my lap.  Persisting, pestering.  I think they need to be close to me whether they know it or not.  I don't think they know what they need right now or what they want.  So I have to stay on task regardless of the kickback.  The rewards for my labor aren't as easily seen these days, but my belief is that every word and deed is planted in the soil of their souls laying dormant until their college years and on into young adulthood.  Those seeds are sacred.  I must keep planting them though the harvest isn't as immediate as it once was. 

I could write more, perhaps I will someday.  But for now I just wanted to put words to a feeling so that I don't let that feeling change my commitment to father them to the very end.  I don't father for a response, I father for a reason...and that reason is love.