Learn As You Grow

I remember standing alongside Karen's bed in the delivery room in La Jolla, California. In the moments before our first kid was born I held her hand and wondered if, through all her pain and effort, she could tell how sweaty my palms were. In my head I was cycling through all the ways life was about to change, all the ways I needed to change if I was ever going to have any hope of being good at this fathering thing. 

In that hospital room I let all the fears of the coming years crowd in at once. They  jammed together and overlapped so that my unease over changing diapers smashed right up against my concern of how I'd help him navigate the world of dating. My fear of holding babies kept company with the worry that I'd never be able to help him with math homework more advanced than long division. To say nothing of colleges, weddings, careers and the natural hardships, feelings, and healing that life brings our way.

The tears I shed that day were an equal concoction of awe and panic.

Today, the most frequent advice I give to new fathers and fathers-to-be is: Relax. You'll learn as you go. 

We don't have to figure out fathering all at once. Those first couple weeks all they need is to be held. And then to be changed, fed, and put back to bed. And trust me, that's enough. Those tasks will feel like more than enough. 

Then they'll become second nature, and just when you've begun to master them you'll find you need another skill. You'll learn to interpret fussing from crying. You'll learn the difference between hungry cries and hurting cries and angry cries and just crying to cry cries. (There's a lot of crying.)

And later you'll learn how they like to be loved. How they need to be disciplined. How they best receive encouragement. All three of my kids help me know what they need and what they need me to be for them. Bit by bit they've taught me how to be a father.

But throughout a really wonderful Father's Day weekend, I realized that my kids have taught me so much more. 

A few days earlier Finnden and I were in the basement together. I was working on some things, and he was in the corner by himself, quietly playing with Legos. Just before we went upstairs he turned to me and said, "Dad, I have something for you." He came over, took my hand, and led me to where he'd been working. I looked down to see that he'd spelled out Happy Father's Day out of Legos. 

He looked at me with a huge grin and said, "I did it because we both like Legos so much." 

Finn is one of the most kind and empathetic people I've ever known. He sees people. He sees the things that mean something, and then he imagines ways to make those things mean even more. He teaches me—with a hug, or a word, or a drawing—what God's love likely looks like.

We went to the pool this weekend where I spent more than an hour wading in four feet of water so that Ellis could jump to me over and over and over again. She's still learning to swim, so she didn't want me going an inch further than her jump could carry her. To tease her I'd take tiny backward steps, and she'd say, "No, no, no. No farther." Half an hour into this game she said, "Stop, Daddy! Stop right there." I laughed and went a little further, to which she finally stamped her foot and shouted loud enough for the whole pool to hear, "Stop right there in the name of the Lord!"

That little girl is fearless and ferocious. She knows her mind and she speaks it. And she teaches me that maybe I don't need to always run my thoughts through an endless loop of what will they say? or the filter of what will they think? before those thoughts form into words. She teaches me to be brave.

On Sunday we were coming back from errands, and I opened the door next to Ona's car seat to find her beaming at me. Then she squealed and reached for me. As if that wasn't enough, when I scooped her up she nestled her little nose into the crook of my neck and held it there for a rare cuddle. When she pulled back I smiled, and then I watched her close her eyes and lean forward until her forehead touched mine. We stood like that, motionless—I barely dared to breathe—until she suddenly wriggled to get down. 

I set her in the grass to toddle off, my heart filled to the brim. I've never seen someone so quick to smile, that bright, big, whole-faced kind of smile. She teaches me what it looks like to spread joy and how just a few moments of intention can fill a heart to overflowing.

As I said before, somewhere along the way I realized that in fathering, my kids help stagger the lessons. We learn to be parents as we go. But this weekend God pointed out how often my kids are helping me learn to grow. They're teaching me how to be a better human. My children are teaching me how to be a child of God. 

Taking Notice

“Daddy, will you dance with me?”

The answer is yes, Ellis.

Usually she’s wearing a princess dress in some pastel hue. Then she takes my hands and insists that she be allowed to lead.

On the way home from work last week I listened to an episode of the TED Radio Hour that told the story of a little girl who could not sit still. She was constantly fidgeting, wiggling her way through classes at school, unable to focus. The girl’s teachers suggested her mother take her to see someone, a professional who could help diagnose what was wrong with her. When the little girl visited the doctor, instead of diagnosing her, he simply watched her, talked to her, took notice of her. Then he explained to her that he needed to have a private talk with her mother and left the room, flipping on the radio as he went. He and the little girl’s mother stood where she could not see them, and they watched while the girl leaped and whirled around the room. The doctor turned to look at the girl’s mother and told her there was absolutely nothing wrong; she was simply born to dance. That little girl grew to be Dame Gillian Lynne, one of the most prolific and acclaimed dancers and choreographers in the world.

When they interviewed her Gillian said, “I really owe my whole career… and, I suppose, my life to this man.”

What if he hadn’t noticed? What if he hadn’t really seen her? What if no one ever had?

I was suddenly struck by the parental responsibility of noticing, of perceiving the potential of large lives packed into these tiny bodies. I’m not talking about success, or education, or performance, or anything else by which these kids will undoubtedly be measured, compared, and arranged. No, I’m talking about the innate properties that need only the twin opportunities of acknowledgment and encouragement to thrive.

I was also convicted by how infrequently I really notice. I’m often rushing and hurrying, coaxing and cajoling, prodding and pandering to bring about this outcome or another, trying to get where I need to go or hoping to make it through the grocery store without little hands pulling down every single can of diced tomatoes.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to keep the wheels of my kids’ lives from drifting over the edge of a cliff. But the calling that’s on me as a parent is so much more beautiful than being a guardrail. My calling is to see who they are as deeply as I can and to ask for the help of the Spirit to see even deeper than that. My privilege is to notice the potential for which they were made and to draw that out as best I can.

Because that’s the way I’m seen. Even in my worst moments I’m seen as full of promise and potential. My Heavenly Father isn’t interested in being my guardrail—keeping me in line and helping me mind my manners. He’s taking note of me, looking into the deepest parts of me and seeing all the simmering potential he’d like to see boil over.

I want to be a dad like that, one who takes note, who sees promise wrapped in possibility.

So we dance. Ellis holds onto my finger, and she twirls around in haphazard circles. Suddenly she’ll stop, lean her head back, and raise one leg behind her as far as she can, all awkward angles and imbalance. But behind her closed eyes there is a ballroom brilliant with candlelight, its flicker falling upon throngs of men and women in their finery whose eyes have all turned toward her. In her dream she is gracefully posed, paused, holding their gaze before whirling away again.

And at night, when Karen and I sit in the family room after we’ve put the kids to bed and the melody of some made up song floats down the hall in her little voice, carrying the words that hold what she cares about most, sometimes we just listen.

These are the moments when I feel I’m getting a glimpse of something she is at her very core—strong, imaginative, bold, and disarmingly funny. More than in the the everyday errands, bedtime rituals, breakdowns, time-outs, and all the rest—in these moments I am able to snatch at some epiphany, like fireflies floating on a summer night. So I’m collecting them, putting them in a jar, and pressing my nose up to the glass, wondering what all these little glimmers might become.

Because how can I hope to help her become who she’s meant to be if I don’t notice who she is?

Leaving Something Behind

More than six years ago my grandmother knitted a blanket for our son, Finnden, her great-grandson. She finished it before he was born, a mint-green rectangle made from bundles of knots fashioned into interlocking triangles. During those long early nights when Finnden couldn’t find sleep we’d lift him out of his crib, place him in a swing, and tuck him in tight under that green blanket. He’d calm down almost instantly. Soon, he couldn’t sleep without it, and his attachment to it grew as he did. Before he could walk he’d sit in the middle of the room, surrounded by toys, but his eyes would anxiously scan the room for the only thing that mattered: the blanket. When he could walk he would wander from room to room in our house with it trailing behind him, dirty and ragged.

The blanket went back and forth from the house to the car so many times that we started to wonder if the odds would someday turn against us and we’d accidentally leave it behind somewhere. One Christmas, Gi-Gi-Ma (as the kids call their great grandmother), surprised us with two new blankets, exact replicas for his own but in miniature. These became our walkabout blankets, perfect for bringing along in the car and holding in the stroller.

The blanket became such a cherished treasure—and she derived such joy from Finn’s attachment to it—that Gi-Gi-Ma started making more. She was already in her late nineties, and there was no telling how many more little ones might yet appear, so she made a few extras, and my mom tucked them away. As each new child was born—Ellis, Evie (my brother’s girl), and Ona—she was given a blanket of her own.

This blanket-making business also had the added bonus of keeping my grandmother, Esther, busy, though it doesn’t seem so long ago that she didn’t need things to keep her busy. She’d always been a social butterfly with an easy laugh and a gracious smile, and she’d often have a card game going or a friend to visit. But my memory plays tricks, and I have to remind myself that the ebullient version of my grandmother has been disappearing bit by bit for awhile now, a sign of something like an ominous hiss from a bicycle tire.

In these last few years, as her eyesight failed along with many other aspects of her health, knitting was still something she could do. Even as her mind was weakening she was able to knit just a little. But then she couldn’t anymore, and all of us were thankful that we had these knotted treasures secreted away.

Four weeks ago Finnden started kindergarten. That morning Karen and I surprised ourselves a little with how well we were coping. No tearful goodbyes. No forlorn waves as the bus carried him off and around the corner. None of the melodramatic scenes I’d always imagined there might be. We saw him off; I took a deep breath, exhaled a deeper sigh, and then I was off to work.

That afternoon Karen texted me a photo, a picture of Finnden’s blanket sitting on the bench by the door where he’d tossed it before rushing out to meet the bus. Underneath the picture Karen had typed the words: It hasn’t moved.

Somehow, the sight of that made it far more real for both of us. The blanket wasn’t being dragged around behind him throughout the day, nor was is sitting balled up on his lap while he watched cartoons on the couch. He wasn’t begging to take it outside in the sandbox or waiting at the top of the basement steps for Karen to bring it up from the dryer. Our boy had moved on to something new and exciting, and he’d left something precious behind in the going. His blanket, sitting lifelessly there on the bench, was a reminder that our boy had stepped into a new world, one where we couldn’t go along with him in the way we always had.

We all move on, and it usually means we leave something behind.

This past May my Grandma Esther turned 101 years old.

Last Thursday evening she passed away.

After I received the news I could think only of Finn’s blanket and how still it had lain there on the bench a few weeks ago. At that moment, a few hundred miles away, Esther’s body lay still, finished with what had become the increasingly difficult labor of keeping things going. As I think about her now that stillness elicits a sense of finality and a flood of tears. But Esther has already moved on to something, something unknown and beautiful. She’s stepped into a new world, one where we can’t go along with her just yet.

And that means that for my mom and uncles and all the rest of us who knew and loved her (since the former always begat the latter) we have stepped into a new world too. Like Finn, taking giant leaps up the too-tall steps of the bus that first morning, we are taking huge strides into the unknown, and maybe without a full sense of all that we leave behind.

But I’m so thankful that we have a cherished treasure to come home to at the end of the day. Whenever we want or need we can come home to the memories we have from walking alongside a life well-lived. Those memories are the knots that knit us together. We can pick them up, feel the well-worn weight and the warmth of them and find comfort.

A New Normal

We recently had another baby.

Recently? She's three and a half months old. I'm not sure that's recent, exactly.

I've been reeling ever since. I knew that it would be an adjustment, that my life would have to expand to include another life, but I feel as though I've been thrust back to the very beginning of parenthood. I keep telling myself, We've done this twice before. We should have this down by now.

We do not. I do not.

Having the first child was like being schooled in my own selfishness. You know that feeling of reading a really good book, and then someone walks into the room, oblivious to the fact that you're reading (a really good book) and asks you a question? You try a short answer and get back to the paragraph you were reading. But there's the inevitable follow-up question. Then back to the book. Another question, usually something along the lines of Are you even listening to me? And now you're not even sure where you are on the page, so with a passive-aggressive sigh you mark your page and reluctantly engage in the conversation.

Having the first kid was like that. Moment by moment I was confronted with the decision: Will I tend to the needs of this little defenseless boy, to the needs of my tireless wife, to the needs of having us all fed and mostly clothed and presentable in public, or will I continue doing the things I've always done? More often than not, I think, I made the right choice, but I was conscious of the decision every time. Some days I just craved the chance to do whatever it was I wanted to do, to get back to my book, so to speak. Denying myself and choosing generosity—of time, attention, rest, agenda—never came naturally because the things that come naturally are usually quite a bit less holy than what I've been called to be.

Then, after a few months or years or something, I began to get back a little of what I wanted, a little bit of the rhythms and rituals I was used to. I was able to sneak in a chapter here and there before I had to press the bookmark between the pages again.

Then along came baby number two.

Chaos. Although this time, in less time than the first time, I felt like I was able to recover. Life was different, but I found an equilibrium a little faster.

Now though, since the arrival of baby number three, it's as if the book has been placed on some high unreachable shelf in the corner of some room I haven't set foot in for three and a half months. When people ask us how we're doing our answer is often, Oh, we're just trying to find our new normal. But what sort of makes my eyes go wide is the very real possibility that we've already found it. Our new normal (at least for now) is that there just isn't a lot of (read: any) me time because loving these kids is full time. And I'm trying to embrace it, learn from it, and revel in it because my kids are making me a better me, and together we're a better us.

So the book will sit awhile longer, and that's okay because I've been told that once I finally come back to it in a few years I'll probably find myself disappointed that the story written there is a lot less fierce, and funny, and frightening, and full of wonder than the one I've had the chance to live.