Saturday, October 16, 2010

You'll Crack Your Head Open!

Parenting is no day at the park. But it does involve a lot of days at the park.

On one sunny morning this week I took my two little charges to a nice park in Vancouver, Washington for a change of scenery. It is a nice, old downtown park that has recently undergone some expensive renovations and added cool water features. It draws a strange mix of toddler moms, business lunch guys, homeless teens, and squirrels.

We got into a nice conversation with a woman and her two kids, aged 2 and 3. Jeep and the older boy chased each other around the playground, while the parents followed at a distance and occasionally . . . um, parented or something. The woman was very nice, and we talked about the rigors of being "at home" with two. Our conversation was often interrupted by general warnings or directives from the parenting core to be careful or take turns or whatever.

As time went on, I came to realize that we had a difference in parent styles. While our boys were different ages, they were both rambunctious little monsters who loved to bounce, climb, and sit on each other. But slowly I began to notice the frequency of negative messages coming from this perfectly nice mother. I think I'll call her Paranoid Mom.

Jasper, Come Down From There! Jasper, Let The Other Boy Go First! Jasper, DO NOT Touch Other People On The Neck!

It was kind of a micromanagement thing. But I liked her, she was friendly and sort of hot, so I just rolled with it.

Let me just say that she was a great mom. Excited, involved, fun. Basically, a female equivalent of myself (peals of laughter). She chased squirrels with her kids in the park. (Jasper, DO NOT Touch That Squirrel!) She shooed them away from the homeless kids encampment (Jasper!) and she took them to play in the fountain/creek/water feature that I think is so cool.

This is where it got interesting. Here I am, wearing my daughter in the front pack and leading my boy into the wilds of the two foot concrete waterfall with no shoes on. Paranoid Mom was doing the same, although she was hanging back on the edge of the fountain, splashing and playing. But Jasper would not be contained. He watched his new best friend 2 year old Jeep climbing the waterfall rocks and getting soaked and he felt compelled to do the same. Before long we were all tentatively climbing around the watery rocks, getting wet, and laughing happily.

I could not shake the feeling that Paranoid Mom had RULES for how and what her kids were supposed to do in dangerous playground water creek areas like this one, and we had somehow bent them. Everyone seemed alright so I didn't worry too much about it. And then I turned around and something amazing happened. I actually saw a thought bubble form above her head, and this is how she got her name.

But she did not speak these words. Paranoid Mom held herself in check, as we all must hold ourselves in check sometimes. Because all parents have these thoughts, many of us have them hundreds of times a day. And I did't actually see the thought bubble. But I heard her thinking this loud and clear.

As a friend of mine said recently, keeping kids safe is the most important thing. I agree with this in theory. If an oncoming bus is about to mow down my toddler, I would sprint to throw myself in front of it or tackle him out of the way. My worry is that we as parents perceive risk that is in fact just the natural consequence of learning in childhood. We're not talking about buses here, wer are talking about standing next to the edge of a two foot waterfall.

If you never give a kid the chance to stand near the edge, how will he learn to be careful?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010

Man Obsessions

As a stay-at-home dad, sometimes I get little worked up. I confess this openly.

The thing is - I don't have a job. That is, my job is the relatively peaceful and sometimes smooth operation of our domestic life. I make dinners, the floors stay sort of clean, and I keep the kids busy with what I like to call "action," as in "Let's go find some action!" or "Do we need some action around here??" It's a tough life.

So I don't have a job in the traditional sense, but I mean that I don't have a pursuit outside the home to escape to. This is something I envy about working parents. Full time parenting could drive you NUTS. You have to maintain a strong sense of self, or the whole thing comes crashing down. And that is where my Man Obsessions come in to play.

I call them Man Obsessions because they are truly tied to my most primal needs for defining myself away from the nurturing parent role. I take great pains to separate the identity of parent with the one as Dad. Why? Because I am a Dad. I feel it in my bones. I work differently than the nurturing and loving mothers of this world. I can do my share of nurturning, but in the end my bonding is of a different sort. I've said it before - I'm a man in a woman's world, and I need to find some escapes to keep my sense of balance.

These obsessions have come along over the past months and they are worth noting because they bring back my sense of power. In a world where men work and women stay home, I need these things to keep me sharp, good at my job, and ready for another day. I am lucky enough to be married to a woman who sees this for what it is, and gives me the space to obsess.

This has been a big part of my focus recently. When I get time away from the kids, I want to go compete at something. I used to run races, but let's face it - I can barely keep myself in shape enough to run for half an hour. If I ran a race tomorrow, I'd probably blow out a knee joint. So I opt for kinder, gentler competition. Last weekend it was the LC Homecoming Ping Pong tournament. This weekend I play in a monthly backgammon showdown with a bunch of backgammon nerds. And then there is fantasy football.

What can I say? I play in a fantasy league with a whole bunch of dudes who actually like football. I'm not really a football guy myself, but that is the beauty of it. There is an exquisite pleasure in beating someone at something as the underdog, when you know nothing about it. And me, I'm killing it this year. Top of my league. I don't want to jinx it, but I'm gonna win.

Ping Pong consolation prize for losing the loser's bracket. Hell, yeah I'm proud of it.

There is a myth that stay at home dads spend all their time remodeling the house. I might have been started by Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom. "220-221, whatever it takes." Let me just say that this is obviously not true. You cannot work on the house and watch the kids at the same time. At least I can't. My shop is under the nursery, my garage is over the nursery, and I have had to settle for much smaller ambitions during naptime. That said, there are a few projects I have muscled out over the past few months that deserve mention, or at least pictures. They seem to come on sporadically, take all my time for two days, and then quickly fizzle out. That's obsession for you.

Tore down my back fence this spring and replaced the posts and crosspieces.

This is a sweet sandbox, complete with cover, but it still doesn't have any sand.

The boy and I built these tomato boxes for the sunny side of the street.

Every spring I start an ambitious garden, and every year it fails. This year I built planter boxes and moved my tomatoes to the sunny side of the house. Voila! Tomatoes. At least 20, maybe 30. I know, it's not much, but watering the tomatoes is a great toddler activity. The picking of blackberries was also a huge hit this summer. We picked blackberries on every walk, on every piece of urban overgrowth reclaimed by the wilderness. One day we even went on a blackberry picking adventure that led us deep into the brambles of Vancouver lake.

This fall I also learned to do some canning and preserving. I first became interested in this when I tried a pickled beet in one of my martinis. There is a whole world out there of potential with home canned and pickled foods. This is also a great afternoon activity during naptime.

Finally, last weekend I got a permit to collect firewood up on Mt. Hood. This is something I have always wanted to do, and I loved it. A friend and I managed to buck logs into rounds and loaded about one cord of wood into the truck in just under four hours. It was a fantastic day of bright subalpine air and the smell of burning gasoline. My chainsaw performed admirably. Getting your own firewood is awesome!


Blackberry foraging

Firewood collection

Now THAT'S a ripe tomato (say this to yourself in a funny voice and pretend to hold a cigar)

I have made the case here for taking some time away from the world of parenting to pursue sometimes ridiculous and often time consuming tasks and then bragging them up to your friends and peers. My only real defense is this: these things make me feel great about my time here on the planet. I get a lot of positives from being home with the kids. Every time I make my little girl giggle it lights up my whole day. And my boy? I love his new words and interests and ideas. Every day is a challenge and a joy.

But my beautiful little darlings need something more than a parent who loves them. They need a Dad they can look up to and respect, someone with their own interests and passions and obsessions and excitements. These are the things that I must keep track of or they threaten to slip away. It is easy to lose yourself in this job, and that is part of the trick.

If you need some ideas about pursuing manliness, you might check out this guy right here at the Art of Manliness. He has a lot to say about manliness, alright, but I think I could still take him in a cage match.