Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Liberal Dads: "Progressive AND Paternal"

Jonny and Colin

A shared homily given at the UU Church of Lexington 6/19/11:

FROM Eric Huffer, dad to Will (19) and husband to Susan:

I grew up in what might be considered a “traditional” household. My father was the so-called breadwinner, and my mother was the stay-at-home domestic provider. My mother didn’t even drive(her choice). My dad was the manager of a shoe store, and usually left the house about the time the kids were getting up, and came home shortly before it was time for us to get ready for bed. As a result, most of the parental interaction my siblings and I had was with my mother. Dad was the source of special treats or punishment, while my mom was the day to day get things done person. If we had done something wrong during the day, my mom would utilize a version of the famous “wait ‘til your father gets home!” She would claim to be too mad to effectively punish us for fear of losing her temper, and that it was best to wait until my dad could be there to mete out fair punishment. But this was also the man that would take one of us with him every couple of Sundays down to get Spaldings donuts. So, for us kids, he filled this almost god-like role. Coming down from his realm to administer punishment or dole out favors.
So, after growing up in a family that adhered pretty closely to the traditional gender roles if the 50’s and 60’s, you might expect me to tend to fall into those roles as well. That has not been the case. In our household, stereotypical gender roles and characteristics don’t really play out. We look at our relationship as a partnership, where we play off of one another’s strengths and characteristics. I do most of the cooking, mostly because I love it and it feeds my soul, and Susan handles the finances, because she is so much more organized than I am. And unlike the family that I grew up in, I am not the primary “breadwinner”. From the beginning of our marriage, Susan has always made more than me. While we shared in disciplining Will, Susan was definitely better at it, and was the ultimate authority. I’m a cryer, I tear up at sappy commercials or even when speaking about something important to me. Susan is more stoic, rarely crying, and shows her emotions more subtly.
So Will has been raised in a house where men cook, share household responsibilities equally, and cry; and where women are authority figures, and are strong; and where parents are partners.
While this situation is not as uncommon as it might have been when I was a child, it was still not the norm among Will’s friends. He has told me that most of them thought we were weird, and even hippies. When Will was 9, he started telling us he wanted to go to church. I think he was feeling left out when all his friends at school talked about going to church each weekend, and probably feeling a bit of peer pressure. We were a bit perplexed because we were having a hard time imagining what church we could possibly feel comfortable in. We finally decided that, based on what we had heard around, that the UU church would probably least offend us, and we could meet this need that seemed very important to our child. When we did come, we found a community that fit us perfectly. Here was a place full of people like us. A place that promoted and reinforced many of the same values that we tried to live by and were trying to impart to our son.
Many of you know our son, Will, you have seen him grow up here. We feel like he has turned out to be a pretty cool young man, and many of you have complimented us on how we have raised him. I want to state right now that it was all of us that have raised him to become the young man that he is. You have all been such a major part in helping Will develop, just as we are all helping to do the same with the children in our congregation now. Here at UUCL, he has been in a community that celebrated strong women and caring nurturing men; that practiced acceptance of others, and promoted fairness and justice in the world. He has been shaped by this just as much as he has been by what we did at home. For that I want to thank you all.
So, while we are celebrating Father’s Day today, I would like to suggest that all of us here are fathers, and mothers, to the children of our congregation; and we should celebrate thusly.

From Adam Gase, Dad to Lili, Morrigan & Maia and husband to Penny:

How does being a liberal/progressive religious person affect your parenting? How has fathering affected your "spiritual" life?

I started watching baseball with my dad as a way of connecting with him. That failed, but I did learn a lot about baseball. In baseball, it is very important to develop balance, not only athletic balance while throwing a pitch or swinging a bat, but balance in the skills your team has. You can't win every game with a homerun. You must be good in multiple facets.

The same is true in parenting. I balance two very different parenting styles: Red Forman and Bill Cosby. These are representative of the more conservative "strict father" and more progressive "nurturing parent" models. This has actually pushed me to be more progressive, rather than the other way around. As a scientist, I have to remain open-minded about things I do not yet understand or have enough information about. As a parent, I also have to remain open-minded about my approach. Being progressive pushes you to be more balanced, and being more balanced pushes you to be more progressive.

Before I became a parent, it was easy to think, "That's someone else's problem" about a variety of things. Having to care for your children forces you to expand that viewpoint beyond your own head, to encompass others outside of your experience. I think this realization, that other people felt the same about their children as I did about mine, that we aren't that different in our love, but perhaps different in expression, that forced me to be more progressive. We all paint pictures, we just use different colors.

There is a tendency, especially in my largely conservative family, to associate boys with being tough and girls with Barbie dolls and being delicate. I understand the history of this view, but I reject it. First of all, if my girls were delicate, they wouldn't survive ME. I play rough. We have taken martial arts lessons together, we fence and play football in the backyard, we hike, we bike, and we have traveled across the country and back, though not in the Family Truckster. Living with a mother who is not mentally healthy has forced some toughness on my girls. They are not limited to the delicate stereotype. Lili especially has picked up on this mentally, developing a wicked sense of sarcasm. She played baseball when we lived in Pennsylvania in 2008. She threw better than at least five of the boys on her team. She once said to one of her teammates who didn't throw the ball well, "Nice throw, Cody - for a girl." She proved to those boys that she could take it and dish it out. Instantly she had 12 friends. Toughness isn't a non-liberal characteristic. Just ask Rosa Parks.

A certain amount of intelligence is required to dish out good sarcasm, and a certain amount of character is built in learning how to receive sarcasm. These skills are useful when it comes to dealing with peer pressure as a teenager. I have no worries about Lili handling her peers. She's leadership material. She spots opportunities for humor and uses it to teach her friends how to be, not the other way around.

Humor is crucial in parenting. It is crucial in life. Humans are the only animals that laugh. Humor is the only thing that comes from the divine unfiltered. It makes every experiencer feel the same - heavenly. In that moment of vulnerability, it's easier to slip in some wisdom. This is how I operate, and both Lili and Morrigna are picking up that baton. Ghandi said that nonviolence is the weapon of the strong. He forgot to mention humor, probably because he was busy chuckling at this thought.

My spirituality is very connected with being a parent, with embracing the 4 billion year-old heredity of life on this pale blue dot. Joining the drum beat of life, fulfilling a biological destiny. As Robert Heinlein said, "the purpose of a zygote is to make more zygotes." Zygotes are a part of us. The purpose of us, humans, is to welcome more humans aboard to live out their destiny of choice between dark and light. My spirituality has been affected by being a parent in that now I see my role in raising children capable of making this wise decision in the scope of our 15 billion year cosmic history. We can learn to appreciate and love the universe that came to make us, or we can squander our precious resources in meaningless self-destruction.

From Jonny Lifshitz, dad to Dylan, Colin & Owen, and husband to Carrie:

I am Jonny Lifshitz – Dad to three boys, who take after me a little too closely for my wife’s liking. My wife Carrie will tell you that she has 4 boys – few will correct her!
Eight years ago, Carrie had an eldest and only son in daycare, whereas I had a younger brother in daycare. The teachers referred to me as ‘big brother.‘ We would roll and play and build and bump and interact in a deep and meaningful way, even if it was for only 10 or 15 minutes – both at drop-off and pick-up. We came to appreciate that minutes of QUALITY TIME are far more valuable than months of time together. We play hard and then we sleep. [Carrie has enough scrapbooking pages to validate this point.]
Through this quality time, I have formulated a few truisms about childhood and parenting (a.k.a. Mike Brady advice). From here on, I will present a few vignettes to illustrate some of these truisms.
Learn to listen: Listen to children, it’s like listening to yourself
Undoubtedly, parenthood is the best self-reflective mirror. Childhood development is a series of trials and errors, in which children mimic those around them. Each child tries on a personality for a while, if they like the responses and feedback from friends, parents, teachers, they will keep those personality traits. [This is the reason for continuing all those irritating behaviors.]
Given the amount of time around their parents, it’s no wonder that they tend to copy our mannerisms, speech, cynicism, and humor. Just ask any child how to drive a car; the responses are both entertaining and enlightening.
Now, when you observe and listen to your children [much in the same way you would listen to the wind, water, earth and fire], it is really you who you hear.
Owen, 2½: At the dinner table, “let’s do joys and concerns.”
Colin, 5½: Thank you Dad for being the best dad in the whole world.
And then there is Dylan, 8½, who is a bit more to the point:
“Dad, I am doing exactly what you did and saying the same thing you said. Why is it ok for you to do it and not me? It’s just not fair.”
Take out your earbuds, turn off your iPod and listen to yourself.
Gain another’s perspective: Experience the world from their level
It is essential to understand a child’s point of view, from their point of view – it’s different world from 3’. Every once in a while, you have to get on the ground to see what they see, hear what they hear, smell and taste what they taste. You have to be them for a while. In a sense, walk in their shoes. This will allow you to view the world in a whole new way. It will allow you to experience it from their unjaded perspective.
From this level, I could now understand why they were unable to see across the room, find a lost toy on the couch, or avoid a water puddle. From this level, I could now understand why they stop at every crack in the sidewalk, pickup lost coins and find weeds so appealing!
As my perspective changed, it was equally important to change the boys’ perspective. I clearly recall Dylan’s joy when we bought him a stool. Now, he could wash his hands, he could watch dinner being prepared, he could grab things on his own. With a stool in hand, he could change his perspective and be a part of every experience.
Kneel down or stand on a stool. The world is a remarkable place.
Life is a coordinated series of mistakes: People are fallible, but we must learn from our mistakes
The boys love their stories, typically the same ones over and over. More recently, they have become intrigued by the stories my parents tell of me or themselves. Knowing that people [even dad] are fallible, provides our boys with the perspective that things do not always go as planned. More importantly, I believe that these stories allow them to appreciate the experience (maybe even expertise) that their parents have gained as a result of these failures – sometimes minor, sometimes as a lack of foresight and sometimes epic. [Ever tried frying an egg without cracking the shell? It’ll save time, right?]
Through similar stories, the boys have come to know Carrie’s parents, both of whom have passed away. These stories allow experience [some people call them morals] to be taught, learned and transferred between generation – without the messy cleanup. We celebrate their lives – as we did yesterday – by sending helium-filled balloons their way [typically Red Robin helium-filled balloons].
I am sure that I could support the idea of coordinated mistakes with a quote or song lyric, but I won’t. If I am wrong, I hope that I learn from it.
Valuing differences help us grow: Expect the unexpected; relish in their joy
Whether it is a new experience or a different take on an old one, children have the most amazing way of putting the awe in awesome. I won’t be the first or the last to point out the mixed logic in awe-some and awe-ful. For example,
ice cream – awesome
Ice cream in a margarita glass – awe-ful

Bendy straw – awesome
Construction piping straw – awe-ful

Forks – awesome
Toothpicks – awe-ful
When we take the time to appreciate their perspective – that unjaded perspective, wowed by the little things in life – the ordinary becomes extraordinary. In our day-to-day obligations and chores, finding this awe is not necessarily difficult, but often overlooked. Children bring out that awe. As a quick example, my boys are always amazed by different promotional pens I pick up at conferences.
“Dad, did you see how this one works? It has TWO colors.”
Awe is having everything be a bright shiny object, worthy of a reflective thought.

For me (and I will speak for Carrie as well), our boys are our spiritual life. They are pure joy (and pain) and life itself. We know this with absolute certainty, because “those things that boys do” can instantaneously halt that joy.
Dylan – broke his leg in two places getting off a swing at 18 mo
Colin – fell forward on a stick scraping his upper palate on this 3rd birthday
Owen – three weeks ago, fell off a chair, knocking out 1 tooth and loosening 3 more.
In the end, however, love brings it all back together. It is near impossible to explain to the triage nurse in the emergency room that your son needs urgent care when they are asleep in your arms. That same love has allowed all three to recover, or be on the road to recovery, and our family bond.
And then there is sleep… ahhh peace.
As a neuroscientist, I have learned about sleep from countless angles. And let me tell you, the true purpose of sleep has nothing to do with rejuvenation, cellular repair, memory consolidation. It is purely to reset that precious relationship between parent and child.
Children can wear on the patience of even the most stoic people. For those tough days as a parent, as well as those blissful days as a parent, there is nothing like seeing a sleeping child to bring peace to one’s life and the world.
And with that… goodnight room, goodnight moon, goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere. Go in peace; Live with joy.