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It's been a little while since we had one of these, right? And with school starting, it seemed an opportune time.
My family is moving into a new phase this year - all 4 of my kids are in full-time school, with the youngest starting Kindergarten. My oldest is in 6th grade, which is still Elementary where we are, so for this one year all 4 kids will be at the same school. We've been talking about this for 5 years, ever since Heidegger was born.
Philosofette has a part-time job at the school, in the classrooms, this year too, which should be excellent for the family. Or the rest of them at least. I'm all alone.
Anyway, it's been a real gut punch. I'm super excited for the future for all my kids, but also kids grow up too fast, and I don't want any more time to slip away.
Also, here's a sappy poem I wrote. Someone feel free to edit it to be better and more effective - emotionally I'm a wreck right now because my kids are growing up too fast, so I'm no condition to fix a poem about my kids growing up too fast.
To my daughter, now all grown
On the eve of school’s first day
To that happy girl whose beauty shone
Whenever we would play
I can’t believe you’ve come so far
So fast, the time has flown
My pride and joy you truly are
My love expanding as you’ve grown
This night before I sit on edge
I can’t believe it’s almost here
Now to leap from home’s safe ledge
The morn draws ever near
The doors will close, the bell will ring
Your attendance will be marked
While to the past your father clings
Your future now embarked
To my daughter, now all grown
As the time slips still away
Go out and make this world your own
And know I love you more each day
Alright... everyone with kids older than me, tell me it'll be alright and how wonderful this next phase is too. While I wait for people to do that, I'm gonna go look at their baby books.
Aquinas is in 5th grade. We had a version of The Talk with him a year or two ago, when there were rumblings of kids in nearby grades making certain comments and references and the like. It was clear at the time that it might have been a bit premature for him, but I'd definitely rather that than he hears about it too late from us.
Today his school had their "Your Changing Body" presentation, or whatever they called it. Parents were invited (this is a private school). I felt it was important to attend. I was the only parent there. The materials presented were pretty watered down, but that's probably okay for a 5th grader. They highly encouraged students to talk to their parents. That seemed good. Maybe more importantly, for me at least, the materials also talked a little bit about values - being empathetic to others going through things, understanding mental health as a part of development, having patience, etc. - and I was quite pleased, though I think extended conversation would have been good.
That's what the parents are for, I suppose. So not having other parents there left me feeling a bit worried. I want other parents talking about this stuff with their kids. That's going to help my kid get through it, just as much as theirs, right?
Anyway, this seemed like something worth chatting about on this site.
How have you all handled this subject? What are your experiences? How can we be better about this stuff for our kids?
With all that's been going on lately, how are the Citizens with young kids handling it? I want to share some thoughts, tips, and resources, in case they're helpful. And if you don't have young kids but know someone who does, please feel free to share this with them.
First off--do you really have to talk about race with kids? Can't you just tell them that everyone is equal and let them figure it out from there? Nope! The world is not colorblind, and neither are your kids. A while back, I read the book NurtureShock, which has a great chapter called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk about Race.” You can check out an excerpt here. The key takeaway is that even very young kids see skin color differences and that not talking about race results in kids jumping to conclusions that are probably not what you wanted them to have.
And think about it. Once kids hit a certain age, they're going to hear things at school, from kids on their baseball team or in their gymnastics class or from someone at in their scout troop. So wouldn't you rather have given them a certain level of knowledge and understanding for when things come up in situations you're not a part of?
Telling a kid that a cop killed a Black man in your community is wrenching. When we told the jalapeno, who is nearing ten years old, about George Floyd's murder (omitting graphic details), he asked "But why?" in this voice that broke my heart. I was glad that at least we've been talking about race and racism for a long time already with him. When you have already been talking about race with your kid, in a moment of crisis you're not starting from zero.
So where do you start? I probably have a bias toward books, but I also think they're a great way to have a conversation about something without making it about your kid or their friend or anything that feels more personal.
Here's a great list of picture books you can use to start these conversations: 31 Children’s Books to Support Conversations on Race, Racism, and Resistance.
For a resource specifically about police violence toward Black men, there's a good book called Something Happened in Our Town that's also been made into a 9-minute video you can share. I like that it includes both a white family and a black family in the storyline. Consider watching it with your kids as a way to launch a conversation. If you get the book, there is a lot of information for parents and educators about how to talk more with kids.
Earlier this morning, I read an article in the Washington Post specifically about the need for white parents to talk about race with their kids. There were three key points I found helpful.
1. Include books, TV shows, movies, music, etc., by nonwhite people as a regular thing for your family. And expand your circles to include people of different ethnicities. The article didn't mention this, but supporting minority-owned restaurants and other business would be another great thing to do.
Our actions speak at least as loudly as our words, and kids pick up A LOT just by seeing what we do. Remember that if you're only reading books about Black people when talking about slavery and civil rights, you're not sharing a complete picture of Black life.
To find good, diverse book for kids that aren't specifically about racism or oppression, a great tool is the Our Story app from We Need Diverse Books.
2. Educate yourself and your kids accurately about history. The article doesn't mention this, but I think doing so also gives you the background so that you can speak up as needed in conversations with your kids' teachers to advocate for a more accurate, more inclusive curriculum.
There are lots of lists circulating right now for what adults can do--here's one with a lot of good resources. And here is a graphic with some great books--the caption includes suggestions on what to start with if you're feeling overwhelmed.
One key book I read last year was An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, which has helped me have better conversation with my kids about our country's history, since my own education in school was profoundly lacking when it comes to Indigenous history.
3. Talk often about current events and things you're seeing on social media. We white people are so often uncomfortable talking about race because we didn't grow up doing it. But by making it a regular part of conversation, you and your kids will start becoming more comfortable having these conversations at home--and out in the world.
Keep in mind that you're not going to have one conversation about race with your kids. Like everything important in parenting, it's something that will come up repeatedly. And your conversations will expand and deepen. And kids will ask questions sometimes when you're not ready for them. But remember that your kids don't need you to have all the right answers. They just need your willingness to talk.
Finally, if you've made a donation in recent days, talk to your kids about the place you're donating to and why. When I was a kid, I had no idea my parents donated anywhere, and while I get the instinct to not call attention to it, I didn't really understand that donating was important because we weren't talking about it.
So I hope this is all helpful, and I wish all the parents out there lots of strength and support today and every day!
The nice thing about having agreed to write this post is that I have something to do this weekend that doesn’t involve repeatedly checking Twitter and Instagram, trying to send messages to friends but not being able to figure out the phrasing and finally giving up, and staying up too late thinking I’ll get something done but accomplishing nothing.
My kids were on spring break last week and I had four days off, but Friday was rough. To get us through the weekend, I had my kids make schedules (pictured above), which definitely helped in terms of avoiding boredom as well as giving them a sense of control in a situation that’s beyond their control.
If you're looking at the photo of the schedules and thinking they're absurdly detailed, yes, it's true. They're ending up being more of a guide to a sequence of events than something we're following exactly. A long time ago, I remember reading something about the value of following the usual routine during times of crisis. For a kid (especially young kids), the routine provides comfort and helps them know what to expect. So having a set wake-up time and bedtime, having some limits on screen time, having regular mealtimes, getting dressed every day, etc., all have meaning right now.
For those people here who have kids, I imagine the specific things you’re dealing with are different depending on the age of the kid, but it’s all stressful. And for those who don’t have kids, I know many of you still have your own parents to worry about right now.
Highlights of the past couple days include the jalapeño learning to chop vegetables with a chef’s knife and the peperoncino grating his own cheese for a quesadilla. The boys have also done a good number of household chores, and the jalapeño’s room is the cleanest it’s been all year. The jalapeño has also been having FaceTime chats with a 4th grade friend, and they've been both hilarious and adorable. Yet there were also some intense sibling fights and meltdowns.
In some ways, having elementary-age kids is great because it limits how much time I can spend reading about the pandemic. Taking care of my boys’ immediate needs gives me something to focus on and keeps my anxiety levels down. On the other hand, I dearly miss having any sort of time to myself (the boys did very little without a parent all weekend), and I envy the people who seem to be actually accomplishing stuff while staying home. On the other other hand (I have a lot of hands), I recognize how fortunate I am to not be dealing with far more serious problems.
During this next week, teachers in our school district will be working on plans for teaching remotely; we will be going to the school to get a Chromebook for each boy at an assigned pick-up time. Since Mr. NaCl and I will both be working from home (and need to be able to actually get work done), my parents are going to come help. They’re both 70 and in good health, so on the one hand I think they’re happy to stay busy and pitch in. But part of me can’t help wonder if I’m being selfish and irresponsible by accepting their help.
Over the weekend, I did do a very little bit of reading about how to talk to kids about coronavirus, and one of the key takeaways is that it's wise to filter the information they get. It depends, of course, on age of the kid and how sensitive they are, but limiting their access to TV news/press conferences and online sources of info might be wise. I've also told the jalapeño that there are things he might want to talk about that shouldn't be discussed in front of his 6-year-old brother.
By chance, I came across some wise words from a school psychologist. This psychologist said not to be surprised by an increase in behavior issues, including meltdowns, tantrums, and oppositional behavior. This is a normal reaction under the circumstances. (I was very reassured to read this.) They also said not to obsess over kids' progress in school during this time of remote learning or to put too much pressure on kids academically. As parents, our first priority is to do what we can to ensure that our kids feel comforted and loved right now. To quote the psychologist, "How [your kids] felt during this time will stay with them long after the memory of what they did during these weeks is . . . gone."
So how are you feeling?
Today is Aquinas's golden birthday. He's 10. As cliche as it is, I still cannot believe how fast the time has flown by.
Aquinas is the person who brings me closest to understanding the mind of God. I suppose that's what parenthood is, really. Their joy is your joy, their pain your pain. You want for them so much more than you want for yourself. You both see the person they could be and love the person they are. It has been a decade, and the effect this kid has on me continues to grow.
I've documented on the site some of our hard times - his struggles to fit in with kids who aren't much like him, how a small town makes those problems seem bigger, some bullying, etc. I want so very much to take away all of the pain and hardship he faces, or be able to gift him the tools to expertly overcome those problems. But I can't do that. So instead I wanted to take a chance to document just a few good developments too, because there are so many of them, and they feel like they're very much parenting related.
Aquinas was born in D.C., and as his birthday gift Philosofette and I flew out there with him for a trip over Labor Day Weekend. It simply could not have been more perfect. The museums were a tremendous hit. We saw a play at the Kennedy Center. We hung out on the Mall at night ("This is exactly what I pictured!" he exclaimed). He met old friends of ours and their kids, and saw our beautiful old neighborhood. And most important, especially coming from a small town, he was able to broaden his perspective on the world. We know how important this is for him - especially for him, as opposed to some of his other siblings, given his experiences and personality - and being able to deliver... it feels like a real accomplishment.
Aquinas seems to have some genuine creative ability. It's a big reason why we've enrolled him in piano lessons (finally). He's somewhat hesitant towards the lessons themselves, but just in the past couple months he has started tinkering around on his own, and I think it's really growing on him. The idea that we were able to nudge him into something he could be very good at - and enjoy - is incredibly rewarding. Always the balance between pushing too hard and not pushing enough. This feels like an area - at least for now - where we're succeeding in helping him to be the person he could be.
We started Lego League recently. Basically, you build a robot out of legos, and program it to complete tasks. I specifically started this league because our community members need something other than sports, and because Aquinas specifically is one of those community members. This is one of those parenting areas where I'm modelling my Dad. He was my baseball coach, and I remember him staying up late at night after work to watch videos about how to coach, and what drills to run, and things like that. I learned a ton listening to him discuss coaching philosophy, not just about coaching or baseball, but I learned about priorities. What was important wasn't winning or losing. That probably wasn't even secondary. And so when the Lego League opportunity popped up, I jumped. Aquinas can learn those things too, I hope. And hopefully find some other kids, and an activity, that he enjoys in the process.
Anyway... I'm kind of rambling, I realize. This isn't a well-thought out post with a point, other than that it seemed like a good time to share. He's our oldest - our golden child - and it's his golden birthday. What better time to celebrate?
My wish for Aquinas is to be the best person he can be, with all the success, happiness, and virtue that come from so being.
Last week, I closed out the Girl's 529 Account and this week, we'll be making our last ever(?!) tuition payment. We are now entering that netherworld between having "children" and becoming grandparents (with no guarantee that we will ever graduate to grandparent status).
So, what now?
Thankfully, we've been able to transition gradually, via the mostly-empty-nest, for about three years. And let me tell you, having the house to ourselves is pretty awesome. The Mrs and I can have conversations not about the kids, and we can, like we did Friday night, head up to bed at 7:30 p.m. with nobody to give us shit for being old.
Still, the "senior advisor" role takes some getting used to. When do you offer, when do you keep your damned mouth shut?
I'm like many guys, oriented toward fixing problems when I see them, rather than mere, passive availability of emotional support. I have seen my daughter struggling emotionally--with relationship issues, in particular, but also with mild mental health challenges, and found it very hard to find the right pitch. She's a brilliant, talented, highly opinionated, intensely moral, tightly-wound personality, slow to make friends but fiercely loyal when she does.
I've seen her fall in love. It was glorious. She positively shined. And I ached for her, knowing that there are tremendous risks that go with giving your heart to someone, particularly for the first time.
And I've seen that love crumble, as often happens, not-just-but-particularly with first real loves, and wondered how I could support her and give her what she needs.
I went through something vaguely similar when I was a college junior. A long-term, intense relationship died, not of my choosing (although to my long-term benefit). Picking up the pieces after is one of the signature challenges of becoming an adult. So I know that it's something that she mostly has to do herself. Knowing that doesn't make it much easier for a parent.
She comes home in two weeks for her last spring break. I get to wrap her in my arms again, maybe hold her hand on a walk, and tell her I love her. Maybe along the way, we'll get to have one of those conversations that two adults sometimes have with one another about things that matter. And then we'll send her back across the country for a last time as our dependent, before she goes out into the great, wide open.
Alright, the title is a bit misleading. I don't feel any need to defend large families, or that they've been denigrated here, or anything like that. I was just trying to draw some eyeballs. And let me state at the outset that I, much like others before me, don't in any way think there is a "right way" to do families. Everyone is different, it takes all kinds, and I've no reason or desire to judge the way anyone else does it.
The last few Parentgood posts have been, in some way or another, about not-having kids. There was the having of someone else's kid, the not-going-to-have-them, and the prepping for an empty nest. All were much appreciated perspectives. So I thought maybe I'd just offer a little bit of my experience, since it's noticeably different from those previous entries. Quite obviously this isn't going to be the thing for everyone, (again, to each their own, and no one should condemn anyone's choices in this realm), but I thought maybe I could shed a little light on life in a big family.
First, I am the oldest of 13 children. So I have some insight into truly big families. Second, I have 4 kids of my own. Not exactly a big family, but certainly not a small one by the going standards. (As an aside, we'd be open to more, but that might not be the possibility we once thought it was. Doctors visits are pending, and prayers are appreciated. But not what this post is about.).
One of the things that stands out to me most about being part of a big family is that there's a certain generosity of spirit that is more or less required. The family motto is "there's always room for one more" and we really carry that out. We had 50 people at Thanksgiving dinner, and we've had bigger. There's always enough because everyone is always giving, contributing to the common cause. Indeed, my parents are the most generous people I've ever met. They are far from well off - we spent much of my youth as considerably poor - but the amount they give surpasses anyone else I've known. And I suppose that's especially true in the Biblical "widow who gave her last two coins" sense.
A more quirky aspect of the large family is that nearly everything is a large production. You can't have a get together without it being an event. You can't do an outing without it being involved. I still carry the habit of sliding to the back of a group and counting the heads of everyone in front of me. Just the role of the oldest, I guess. But with this comes a real feeling of accomplishment. Admit it: if you successfully took a dozen people to the zoo or hosted a 30 person bonfire, you'd feel pretty good about yourself. That's just a regular weekend in a huge family, so you learn some real skills, and to feel good about them.
It's also amazing to have such a wonderful support system. Whenever we need help, family is there. That's been true of little things like a couch to crash on or painting a room, and that's been true of big things, like a dentist sister who can do a root canal or planning a benefit for my nephew who was born with half a heart. That support is also amazing for dealing with the emotional baggage we all face. Grief, especially, has hit us hard these past years with a couple of deaths in the immediate family. But we're all there to help each other pull through, to provide support and comfort, and that system is amazing.
Sometimes there is a sense that with big families you don't really get to know your siblings, or that you're not as close, or, most horrible: that there is a finite amount of love to be had, so it gets spread thinner. Nothing could be further from the truth. My siblings and I all know each other really well. We're incredibly close, and, if anything, that love in the family is multiplied, not spread thin.
Finally, I want to talk about being a parent of a bigger family. I take it as an acceptable premise that a person's identity changes in some way when they become a parent for the first time. I don't know too many parents, if any, who wouldn't acknowledge that. I remember a conversation with a good friend after we both became parents for the first time, and we both expressed how much better we understood life, now that we were parents. We understood our parents, we understood love, we understood God, and so many other things in such a better way.
For me, there was a somewhat similar experience when I went from having 2 kids to having 3. Somehow, something about having a third kid, where you could no longer split them off, one to each parent, shifted my identity again. I became less of a parent and more of a family man. Yes, I am still a parent to individual children, and I have that relationship with them still, but there's a larger family sense that I'm more vividly aware of now that I have a larger brood. There are things I try to do "for the family" now, in a way maybe I only did "for Aquinas" or "for Aristotle" prior to Neitzsche's arrival. I'm more aware of the way in which the kids are interacting with each other, and how one kid's experiences are affecting the others.
Honestly, it's really cool. And really humbling. I became more of a servant when I had my third kid than I ever was before. And I like that. Now, I know it's not for everyone. But given my experience, it's something I'd recommend to those on the fence. I know I'm better for it.
…. and it’s not hers, either. She is acting as a surrogate for someone else.
We initially signed up to do this without knowing who the intended parent would be. We (mostly she, but I had to some of this) signed on with an agency, expecting this would be for someone we had never met before. But, when she started telling some of her friends about this, one said she had been in the process of looking for a surrogate, and asked if my wife would do it for her. So, in the end, the intended parent will be someone we know, and are friends with. That’s been nice, to get to see her excitement and anticipation grow as we get closer. The baby mamma’s parents are also super excited; the mom is an only child, so this will likely be their only grandchild. It’s definitely a nice feeling, knowing that all we are putting into this is going to cause such happiness for someone else.
She’s due on November 1, so about 6 weeks left. That means that it’s really, really obvious she is pregnant, so of course we get lots of comments from random people all the time*. Depending on the question and the situation, my wife will often respond that the baby is not ours, which leads to reactions in two main categories:
- Wow, that’s so amazing! What a gift to give someone! You are so awesome!
- Wow, I could never do that because...
- pregnancy was awful for me, I can’t imagine doing that again for someone else
- it would be too much like giving up my own baby. Won’t it be hard to birth a baby and then give it up right away?
For 2.1, my wife had very easy pregnancies for both of our kids. And so far, everything is going fine this time. She’s getting more and more uncomfortable, but nothing more than the usual third trimester issues (back pain, swollen legs and ankles, exhausted, sore all over, etc.).
And for 2.2, it really hasn’t been a problem for us at all. This has never been our child, so it’s not like we are giving away our own kid. Some of that is having no genetic connection; this was IVF, with the intended mother’s egg and donor sperm. But I think more of it is just the mindset that it isn’t our baby. When we started this, I was a little worried how our kids would respond to this, but they seem to completely understand that this is not our baby. They say momma is growing a baby for someone else. It’s kind of like babysitting, just for a long time (and internally instead of externally, but sort of alike at least).
It’s a new situation for us, but not in a bad way. It does feel a bit weird to be dealing with a pregnancy and preparing for a birth, while not at all preparing for a baby. It’s not like we need to be getting a room ready, or setting up a crib, or getting baby clothes, or anything else. The intended mom is doing all that, of course, but that’s not our job. Once the baby comes, our part of this is done.
I don’t know for sure if we’ll do it again for someone else, but that’s definitely a strong possibility, depending on how this last month and a half goes. I know agencies are always very interested in having women with previous surrogacy experience do it again. That way, the biggest worry the intended parent could have (that you’d run off with their kid to a state with less favorable surrogacy laws [like Michigan; if you birth a baby there, it’s legally yours] before it’s born and keep it for yourself) gets allayed a bit.
Overall, so far so good. We’ve been very happy with it, the new intended family is super excited, and all the pains and problems my wife has had (both during the pregnancy, and the many, many hormone shots at the beginning of all this) have been as expected. I know doing this is not something for everyone, but based on how well this has gone, I think it really is something for us.
*I don’t really understand why seeing a woman that appears to be pregnant makes strangers feel that they have a right to ask invasive, personal questions. I personally don’t mind all that much, and I don’t think my wife does, either, but I’m sure there are others in different circumstances that would.