Making Space

A confluence of people, largely comprised of fathers, gathered near the Alamo recently. It’s a yearly custom, this gathering. The locale changes, but the goal of it does not: to be better fathers to our children.

The name of this collection of creatives and parents is Dad 2.0. They come from all manner of places: cities, rural communities, other countries. A wide array of viewpoints and opinions descend into one place, seeking out camaraderie and experiences together. Whatever someone is looking to glean from this assemblage of talent, they’re bound to find it. Whether from panels, speakers, or conversation amongst the crowd, there’s limitless perspectives and stories to find and hear.

Ordinarily, the stories are what I relish most. This year’s conference did not disappoint. Some stories elicited laughs, others brought tears. The gamut of emotions was run.

This year was special for me, though.

I was given the opportunity to moderate a panel about a topic I’m incredibly passionate about: gender and sexuality, especially as it pertains to raising children. I was even more fortunate to have a stellar panel: Amber Leventry, a non-binary parent with three kids, including twins, one of whom is transgender; Nick North, a trans male who birthed 4 kids before he transitioned and remarried a woman who had a child from a previous relationship; Jillian Zeigler, my wife and mother to a trans son and a non-binary child; and Brent Almond, a gay father with an adopted son that he parents with his husband.

An hour was simply not enough time to cover the enormous swath of territory that encompasses gender and sexuality, especially in these times where kids are able to articulate who they are at earlier and earlier ages. We made due with the time allotted and spent more time with those who had questions afterwards. It was an incredibly informative panel, and one that I’m proud to have been a part of.

This was near the end of the summit, so I had some time to contemplate that panel session, and one recurrent theme was apparent: making space.

Making space for everyone, no matter their gender identity or sexual identity. More importantly, I need to use my privilege as a straight white male to not only make space for our LGBTQ+ friends, but to maintain and broaden that space wherever possible. We all do. Inclusivity is elastic, and if you don’t stretch its boundaries, it will snap back to its original size. We must use our leverage to expand the space we all inhabit as humans so that everyone has a voice. The LGBTQ+ community is strong, but they need our help to combat the ugliness of bigotry that seeks to shrink their voices and the spaces in which they occupy.

It is incumbent upon us as allies to stand beside our LGBTQ+ brethren, and beyond that, elevate them so their voices are heard and respected. We also need to listen, REALLY listen, to what they are saying and what they need, then amplify their message.

It starts with making space. The next step is expanding that space so that they know they’re being heard and respected. The more we push, the more they will be seen as equals by those that seek to quell their demands for equality.

That’s the thing about elasticity; if given enough time and pressure outward, the elastic breaks. Then the space is truly inclusive, and permanently so.

Keep pushing.

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Conspirator

Cleverness is its shield and also its sword.

It camouflages itself as reason. Overrides your better angels. Knowing your fears, it plays upon them, a crescendo that rises to an apex that is impossible to ignore. There are cracks within you, and it inveigles into them, pushes them wider. All the while tricking you into believing you’re something you’re not. Too often, you listen. It whispers to you in a tone only you hear.

Your conspirator misleads you time and time again. After it has worked its alchemy on you, it slithers back to the darkness within, waiting for another opportunity to bring its agenda to the fore. To conspire with you, unwittingly, to follow its whims. Only after the fact can you see the falsity of its claims. Its true genius, though, lies in its ability to rebirth itself again, unseen, and lure you into its trap and plunge you into its morass.

Conspirator, thy name is doubt.

Nowhere is my conspirator more active than in my role as a father, especially as my children edge closer to adulthood. My every statement, every action is subject to its blistering feedback, after which it masterfully rewrites my mental code to assign the source as logic rather than itself.

Doubt is a chameleon.

Teen age years are rife with self-exploration and self-expression. What they are not, by and large, are times where my fatherly advice is needed. The nature of adolescence is discovery, and there’s not much room for my wisdom from a pre-internet time.

That leaves me in an alien role: a parent who isn’t needed constantly. The younger the kids, the more you are needed, an essential piece of their days. Years and experience gained for them means stature lost me. It seems an odd space for me to occupy. This unfamiliarity is where the conspirator finds a foothold yet again and uses fear to bolster itself.

Since I want my kids to become good adults, I believe my thirty years’ experience as human adult qualifies me to dole out those nuggets of insight. Because my capacity as a dad previously commanded their attention, I overestimate their willingness to hear my life lessons. To their credit, they desire to make their own way, to learn as I did: trial and error. The challenge is for me to take my latent expectations out of the equation. The conspirator instigates here as well, playing on my hurt feelings about being needed less and insisting what I have to offer from “real world” experience is in fact required to be given.

Doubt is resourceful.

The truth that my conspirator doesn’t want me to grasp is that I have done an admirable job as a father. My children have been imbued with the morals my wife and I believe to be imperative for operating as a good person in the adult world. They practice these more than I realize, thanks to the deception that doubt weaves into my thoughts. While they can be abrasive and lean towards ignoring advice given to them most times, they truly are good and wonderful people. They are working through how they fit in society, just as I had (and in truth, am still doing). They care. They love. They grow. And oh, how proud I am of them.

I’ll set a watch for that conspirator. It is gifted, and will breach my defenses at times, insinuating itself into my consciousness. More than four decades of deft maneuvering makes it a formidable foe. While I may never be rid of it, perhaps it can be steered in other directions. I certainly have no shortage of insecurities it can latch on to.

Doubt is flexible, after all.

Photo credit: DrCuervo

 

 

 

 

Unbalanced

The balance is weird.

In the beginning, it was all tilted my way. I was needed, damn it, and the requirements of me never dwindled. I was deified – a god amongst you – assuring you of your safety. I provided laughs, love, protection, and warmth.

Then, you decided that you had a world to explore and means to make that happen. I still mattered greatly, a guardian angel of sorts while you moved awkwardly about, trying to make sure your curiosity didn’t meet your demise. There were bumps and falls to be certain, but on the whole, I was there to save the day when needed.

Through the persistent exhaustion and the time that blurred past, the scales were yet in my favor.

Then, a new phase came to the fore, a daily routine where you garnered new friends and were bequeathed knowledge to shape you and your worldview – all given to you by strangers. While I weighed more heavily than these recent additions, the time I could be your champion was relegated to mornings, evenings, and weekends.

Your peers started intruding on my importance, eroding my stature, or at least, that’s how it felt. Hugs and kisses remained part of our bed time repertoire, thankfully. Public displays of affection waned. I lamented those moments would forever be passed off to memory, remnants of erstwhile yore.

The balance is uncomfortable.

The pillars of your days moved farther and farther from me. You shared stories with friends, and then with me if you were home and it struck your fancy. Screens filled your conscious because that’s where your tribe resides. I quibbled about how much you were reliant upon those tools to maintain relationships. In reality, I was jealous of their ability to take time from me and you.

The ongoing discovery of yourself in the roiling seas of tweendom filled me with pride. That pride rode shotgun with my fear. The fear that my role in your life would lessen as others became essential. However, I maintained some status of equality on this life’s see-saw, but only just.

Now, comes the hard part. There is no scale. No balance.

A fully fledged young adult; a teenager. You rightly came into your own, and yet, you struggle to define yourself, pushing of all manner of boundaries. Some are benign. Others keep me awake at night, worried about you functioning outside the safety and comfort of our home. You argue, mock, cajole, and at times, flat out insult me. This isn’t really a fault or something to blame you for. You are finding your way and putting me on notice that you are becoming who you’ve always been. I did not realize it until now.

Honestly, it stings. This person I’ve helped grow and develop pushing for autonomy from me. Surely this can’t be? Moments flare in my memory of you struggling to walk, seeking me out when the dark was too fearful to face alone, craving comfort from the world. Those days are largely gone now.

The scales are toppled over, equilibrium jettisoned in favor of staunch opinion and individuality. An occasional hug is fleeting salvation as I slide further into ignominy. While I ingest the ache of irrelevance, I do not blame you for moving forward. I’ve raised you to become this – a person who shares their feelings and thoughts, and goes out to live them. A child on the cusp of adulthood, ready to face its challenges and rewards. I am above all proud, even if my ego cringes at your new-found strength. Ultimately this was my goal all along. I can’t help but be wistful for the time I was your hero and the one you needed when things were uncertain. But that feeling will quickly morph into happiness that you are a force to be reckoned with. You will do great things in this world, I know.

My perception of the balance is weird, but it isn’t to you, and that’s as it should be.

Photo: Abby Thompson

Master of Peeves

A tablet left on the couch, awaiting destruction by an unsuspecting person who blindly sits down. Endless cords and chargers, always left plugged in, with nary a device to send its replenishing current to. Dishes abandoned in places no dishes should be, the household equivalent of a grocery cart toppled over on an empty playground .  A minefield of shoes and book bags left at the door, requiring entrants to navigate an obstacle course that more often resembles Wipeout than American Ninja Warrior. And of course, the perpetual challenge of putting toilet paper in its rightful place.

These are a few of my least favorite things.

In fact, these seemingly innocuous childlike actions are my most infuriating things.

Taken individually, these are nominal indiscretions. Collectively, they engorge my rage gland to bursting. One by one, each indignity pushes my anger level upward until I explode, Mount Vesuvius-style, expletives and bluster spewing forth in a majestic display. After the initial grand eruption, grumbles sputter out the sides of my mouth, embarrassment overriding aggravation, my mood cooling like so much magma meeting the air. The only way to save face is to retreat to some other location, irritation mingling with shame, faux complaints mumbled incoherently.

Sadly, this is not the end of this disaster. Now that my personal volcano has let loose, so it must bubble beneath the surface I privately stew on the heinous infraction (or so I have built it up to that level in my mind) that caused me to blow my figurative top.

“Haven’t I asked them to not do those things hundreds of times?”

“Have I not been clear enough in my fire and brimstone diatribes?”

“Don’t they respect me enough to extend the smallest of efforts to keep me from going ballistic?”

“We provide so much for them. How is it too much to ask to do the most menial of tasks ?”

This is my jukebox of justification, and it plays all the hits, over and over again. Its cyclical nature ensures that I stay ever-livid, rage boiling just below my exterior. I am dangerous, a smoking crater of exasperation that can erupt at any moment.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Not so long ago, my wife put to me a question that shook me: “Where is that happy-go-lucky guy I met all those years ago?” She had a valid point. Upon a time I was a devout believer in the mantra “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff.” Now a simple misplaced cup will launch me into a soliloquy on the virtue of responsibility as if that one cup will be the fulcrum that pushes our kids down the road to ruin.

Where has that man gone? The one who always saw the glass as half full (regardless of its location), the one who wore a grin like it was his favorite shirt? The cheerful one, the one who exuded glee and happiness?

That man had kids that became teenagers. The age of confusion and hormones. When the journey to discovering themselves, physically and otherwise, begins. Chaos reigns in their minds, even if they are awash in smugness when you are bestowing wisdom upon them. We’ve been there too, feeling like we understand the world so much better than our parental units while alternately being thoroughly confused at who we are supposed to be. Tumultuous and righteous, they are grappling with themselves and the two worlds they live in: the real and the digital. It’s a lot to ask a developing human at their most vulnerable stage mentally and emotionally to be perfect in their actions. They are coping with hurdles most parents of teens have not had to contend with: crafting and honing an online persona in the midst of figuring out their lives in our tactile existence. On those grounds alone they deserve far more leeway for missteps than I have allowed.

Yet, despite these truths, I have done little in the way of granting such graces. I’ve done mostly the opposite, letting minuscule peeves rule my days and nights with our kids. I’ve allowed perceived slights fester within, squashing the good man, the happy man, the man who found joy in life and his family. Perhaps my offspring aren’t the only ones weathering the internal storm of upheaval .

There is certainly an appropriate time and place for frustration to show with your kids. It is healthy for them to see you upset, and understand the why of the disappointment or irritation with their action or inaction, especially in the moment. Family is rarely Rockwellesque; it tends to be more in the vein of Dali. Strange and odd, but all the more lovely for its natural eccentricities.

Armed with the understanding of my teenagers’ challenges as well as my own, I will try to lessen the grip of the wee things that wriggle their way under my skin. I will endeavor to keep in mind that we are all imperfect, and that is OK. Of course I’ll slip up. I’ll burst at the seams here and there, regressing into the easily agitated father role that I’ve lived in as of late. But I will, over time, quell the dweller of peeves within, and return the volcano to dormancy.