Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

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On this day of reflection, I think of my father, his father, my mother’s father, my son’s father, the fathers of my nephews and nieces, and the many men and women who have taken on fatherly roles in my life, my son’s life, and the lives of my friends and loved ones. It is an especially poignant Father’s Day for me, as it is the first Father’s Day in which I do not include a “Heavenly” father in my list. It is also the first Father’s Day in which the belief in traditional gender roles has unraveled before my eyes.

According to the religion of my birth and the traditional expectations in place for fathers, it is the purpose of a man to be a provider and a protector for his children. This tradition is a strong one that falls back on the natural physical strength provided men by their biology. Testosterone drives the sexual dimorphism, building physique and inciting aggression. Men were designed by nature to fulfill the roles of protector and provider, but Father’s Day is about far more than honoring the results of sexual selection.

Father’s Day is a time to honor those who go above and beyond. It is a time to recognize those who’ve provided guidance and direction to their children and the rising generation. It is a day for reminiscing on quality time, bonding moments, and fond memories. There are many men in the world who neglect their familial obligations and fail to make the selfless sacrifices that build lasting relationships with their children and pupils. There are many men who abuse the natural power granted them by their physical advantages over the weaker sex. As a result, many do not have quality time, bonding moments, or fond memories with their biological fathers on which to reminisce. Many have painful memories and lost opportunities that retract from the joy meant to be shared on this day of honor.

According to the religion of my birth, the ideal conditions for a child are to be raised in a home with a father and mother fulfilling their traditional, gender-specific roles. But there are many homes that break such tradition. There are homes in which the roles are swapped, dual income homes, single parent homes. There are children raised by multiple families due to divorce and remarriage, children raised by grandparents, children raised by adoptive or foster parents, by aunts, uncles, or older siblings, and countless children in orphan homes or marked as “wards of the state” who have nobody fulfilling a parental role. There are children with two mothers or two fathers, and there are children who’ve lost parents through death, divorce, abuse, or indifference.

Countless children are raised in conditions far from the “ideal”, and despite what religious leaders would have their followers believe, this is hardly a new trend. Non-traditional families have been a part of society for quite some time, and children raised in these non-ideal homes are still turning out okay. While not every child will have a traditional father to honor on this day, most have at least one person who has stepped in to fulfill the roles of provider, protector, teacher, and guide. Most have at least one person they can look up to and express gratitude to for their involvement and influence on their upbringing.

And so, why insist on maintaining tradition? Why insist on an “ideal”? This incessant need to provide a mold for the perfect father causes more harm than it does good. It hurts the self-image of men and women who DO step above and beyond expectations to fulfill fatherly roles for the children who fall under their wing, by birth or circumstance. It creates division between those who’ve been “blessed” with an ideal family and those who have not. It causes those children without good memories of a traditional father to feel left out and often fall into depression on what should be a happy occasion.

It is on this day that we honor the ROLE of father, and not necessarily the men who fit the “ideal”. Because, in reality, there is no ideal. There is no mold. There are those of good, strong, moral character whom we choose to honor for playing an important role in our lives. What matters is who has personally helped shape, guide, and direct YOUR path, whatever the circumstances. And so, on this day, I would like to honor all those who have provided for me and my son. I would like to honor all those who have protected me and my son. I reflect on all the memories I now cherish of those who have guided me, taught me, and helped shape me into the person I am today. You are ALL my “Father”, and you make this world a brighter place.

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Having a child who suffers from an anxiety disorder makes for some interesting challenges. Potty training, for example, was an erroneously slow and tedious process. Even now, at six years old, it is a struggle to get my son to enter the bathroom alone. Every day seems to bring with it a new fear, a new worry, a new terror. Often, he does not even understand what it is that has caused him to feel so fearful and he cannot articulate his worries or concerns.

When fear strikes, he wants to run. He lashes out at those who try to speak with him – especially strangers. Like working with a startled animal, it takes patience and respect to maintain his trust and safety. He needs enough space to overcome the smothering sensation of too much attention, but he also needs someone right there, ready to take his hand and keep him from running headlong into a street.

As he grows and learns and develops, his fears become more complex. A religious individual would resort to prayer, blessings, trust in God, etc. The parent would share comforting stories of a heavenly father who sees all and intervenes on our behalf, of life after death, of heavenly rewards, of a Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts and soothes our ills… For many, faith is the answer to everything. Faith allows people to put aside their fears and believe in a being who watches over all things and has designed the world around us so that everything will work out for our good.

Of all the aspects of religion, I miss this the most. It is an easy answer to all life’s problems. A wrong answer… but easy. I miss it, not because I wish to comfort myself, but because I wish to comfort my child. I want to be able to assuage his fears and reassure him that everything will be alright. However, many of his fears have a legitimate foundation, and while I abhor seeing him in pain and anguish, I would feel absolutely horrid if I lied to him and told him he had nothing to fear.

Fear of death is a simple recurring topic between us. In particular, my son is afraid of MY death. The first time this fear was voiced, I was still a believer, and I told my son the go-to comforting answer that yes, mommy will die someday, but her spirit will live on and you will see her again in heaven. The story seemed to console him and the topic did not come up again until nearly a year later. He remembered what I’d told him about God, and when I didn’t again share this story or elaborate on it, he asked me if I’d lied to him.

“No,” I said. “Many people in the world believe there is a God and a heaven and that we will be with Him when we die, but we don’t know if it is true. Nobody really KNOWS what happens after we die, and nobody who believes in God really agrees on what He is like or what heaven is like.”

I did not go into much detail beyond that – he is, after all, only six (five at the time of this conversation) – and turned the conversation back to his main concern, death. I realized that it was impossible for me to provide an answer that would be both fully honest and fully comforting. I also realized that while I could not take away my son’s fear of death, there are aspects of death I could make less frightening for him. I explained that people usually don’t die until they are very, very old and at that point they are in a lot of pain and have lived a very fulfilling life. I explained that “my” death was likely a long way off, so far in the future that at this point he wouldn’t be able to comprehend it and it would feel like forever. I explained that if I were to somehow die while he was still young that there would always be somebody there to help take care of him – his grandparents, his aunts, etc.

An interesting change resulted from this conversation. As he asked questions and I provided honest answers, we delved into many details that never would have been discussed had I resorted to a story about God and heaven. His fear did not disappear. In fact, he had quite a heartfelt cry over the thought that his mother might someday be gone and that there was no guarantee when that “someday” might be. But as we discussed the aspects of death and it’s inherent uncertainty, there was a very clear difference in my son’s emotions. Rather than a typical panicked response, he seemed more calm. Sad… but calm.

I don’t want to raise a child who is blind to the realities of mortality and suffering. It pains me to see him hurting, afraid, sad, troubled… but I’ve come to realize that the vivid turmoil in my child’s heart is a GOOD sign. He will grow up aware. He will grow up passionate. He will grow up caring. He will grow up involved. He will grow up with a desire to make a difference. He will grow up knowing that any improvement that is to be had must come from US, because there are no blessings pouring down from an invisible deity. He will grow up knowing that ACTION begets change, not prayer.

Just as I can assure my son that there are no monsters hiding under his bed or in his closet, I can dispense with the fantasy of God. While I miss the ease with which I could provide comfort with stories of angels and guardian spirits, discussing reality on a six-year-old level of understanding has strengthened our relationship and provided wonderful opportunities to develop actual coping skills and mechanisms for easing anxiety. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have, and we’re making the best of it. And I’d rather have that than a thousand fairy tales.