Stay the Course

Hopefully my consistency in parenting is better than my approach to posting on this blog. It’s not that there isn’t a lot to write about; every day with Toby is an adventure. He has boundless energy, and just the things he says on a daily basis could fill volumes. Finding the time and energy to document his words and activities is another matter.

While some things in life can survive a “take it as it comes” attitude, parenting is not one of them (at least as I see it). Children are the first to point out disconnects between what we say and what we do; even quicker to point out that we let them do “X” last time… why not now? I believe we shape our children one interaction at a time, which means we need to be mindful of what we say, how we act, and what we model.

I know many will disagree with that concept. Believe me, I’m not a “helicopter parent”, constantly hovering over Tobey to supervise his every move. But I do like to be intentional. I know that I want him to adopt certain values and beliefs, certain ways of interacting with others that recognize their worth and honor them…. and I’ve seen through life that those things don’t just happen.

The problem is, I still struggle with consistency in important areas of my own life. I’d really like to be one way, but I find myself behaving in ways that contradict that desire. It reminds me of the saying that we have two animals inside of us… one that wants to do good and one that wants to do evil. Which one wins? The one we feed. Perhaps for some people, consistency comes more easily. I was not raised to be a disciplined person, and have struggled to overcome that my entire life. I see threads of that struggle in my first four children. I don’t want Toby to fight that same battle. Perhaps learning consistent habits earlier in life will help him later. But I’m guessing that those life skills are as much “caught” as “taught”. Which means my battle is long from over. If not for my sake, then at least for his.

A Big Head

We’ve never been a big sports family. We moved a lot with my job when we were raising our first four kids, so getting them involved in anything was an uphill battle. We discovered, much to our surprise, that 6th or 7th grade is pretty old to start a new sport. So, we never really got to enjoy the “fun” of organized sports. Tobey is giving us another shot at that. I’m not sure I appreciate the opportunity.

We tried soccer in the spring. As competitive sports go, it seemed pretty low threat. At his age, they didn’t even keep score. His coach was amazing, with the patience of a saint. Tobey was much more interested in chasing the other kid about his size around the field so they could tackle each other, complaining loudly that “the other kid hurt me”, than he was in kicking the ball. While he did score a couple of goals over the course of the season, he didn’t really take to the game.

Over the summer, we tried golf lessons. I used to play golf, and enjoyed it when I had the time to play. But life got pretty busy with four teenagers, and my clubs haven’t been out of the closet in years. Tobey really didn’t like all the standing around waiting for his turn to hit the ball. Another no-go.

And now, football season is upon us. While I really think it would be great for him to start playing early, the wife is less convinced. I cajoled her into signing him up (I was on the road during the last week of enrollment, so it fell to her), but she’s coming kicking and screaming. She has found all kinds of reasons not to shop for the one piece of real equipment he needs… a helmet.

That leads us to the “big head” title. I’ve been out shopping for helmets, and am amazed by two things… his head appears to be too small for any helmets readily available, and the price of the helmets! $300 for a kid’s football helmet? Really? When I played, I think the league gave us our helmets to use for the season. Of course, I’m sure those cheap plastic brain buckets wouldn’t be acceptable today. The ones I’ve found in the stores would rival a NASA astronaut’s equipment. Holy cow.

But, if I want him to play (and I’d at least like him to try), it looks like we’ll be shelling out lots of bucks. I was able to find one for less than $100, but it was way too big. The only brands that list XXS are the big ticket items. Well, I’m the one who pushed for him to do this.

The great fear, of course, is that he goes to a couple of practices and decides he hates it. At that point we’ll be out about $450 in fees for nothing. I’m pretty sure I’ll never hear the end of it. And rightly so, I suppose. But I know all of my kids regret at some level all of the things they never really got a chance to do because of our nomadic lifestyle, and I want to give Tobey a better shot at “normal”. Even if it means a $300 plastic hat.

You Be Spiderman

At my age, I never expected to be playing Spiderman and Batman again. But when you take on a 5 year old, you take the whole package. And I never want Tobey to be the kid who didn’t get to experience some aspect of his childhood because his “dad” was too old. So, this morning when we were playing on the floor, Tobey handed me a Spiderman mask and said, “You be Spiderman. I’ll be Batman.” So, I was Spiderman… which mostly involved wrestling on the floor in a kid-sized mask the was about as comfortable as putting my head in a vise.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Spiderman. I enjoyed the reboot of the movies a few years ago (although I skipped the “Amazing Spiderman” reboot of the reboot). I even liked the way he was handled in the Avengers franchise. I just never pictured myself in the role. While I try to stay active by riding a bike, running, and working out five or six days a week, I’m not exactly superhero athletic. I’ve got a middle aged spread that seems to be outpacing my activity level, and I don’t run as fast as I used to when I set my half-marathon PR. But that doesn’t seem to keep Tobey from seeing me as whatever he needs me to be at the moment.

That same fault blindness is not shared by all. I teach Tobey’s Sunday School class, and during one morning’s class he referred to me as dad. One of his classmates looked skeptically at him and said, “He can’t be your dad, he’s old!” So much for my superhero ego.

Unfortunately, someday Tobey will also figure out that I am far from Spiderman. It won’t necessarily be because I can’t swing between buildings or otherwise “do whatever a spider can.” No, it will be some other human failure or frailty exposed at the worst possible moment. We all experience them, especially with our kids. Hopefully they aren’t catastrophic to our long term relationship. Hopefully, we can find the strength to admit our failure and ask for forgiveness. And hopefully, we’ve modeled enough of grace that they can practice it, even when the person they most idolize has failed them miserably. Until then, I’ll be Spiderman, and relish in every moment of it.

A Long Day’s Night

Tobey has never slept well. Hs challenges significantly predate his coming to live with us. We know from his previous caregiver that he often woke up with night terrors, screaming and clawing at something that only he could see. We experienced that scary phenomenon for a couple of months after he came to live with us, but it eventually subsided. In fact, he mostly slept through the night for almost 4 months, until his birth mother and her new husband showed up unexpectedly at our door demanding that he be returned immediately. That episode seemed to scare him so badly that he hasn’t really slept through the night since. And that’s been over a year.

I suppose that, in the grand scheme of things, not getting a good night’s sleep as a parent isn’t the end of the world. But after a year, it starts to drag you down. Some nights are better than others, but some are downright awful. We’ve had some episodes of waking up every 45 minutes, with him needing to be patted back to sleep for an hour. Many nights, he needs to have someone lay down next to him until he falls asleep, which may take an hour or two on a bad night.

We struggle with how much of this is learned behavior and how much is some deep-seated insecurity. We’ve been hesitant to force him to “cry it out”, as almost any parent of a two year old has had to do. Is this just a delayed developmental phase, or is he really that fragile? Deep down, neither the wife nor I wants to hear in 15 years that we scarred him irrevocably because we wouldn’t sleep next to him. But we also don’t want to stunt his emotional development. They still don’t give instruction books for this stuff.

So, we struggle on. He really likes his room, so we’re experimenting with agreeing to lay down with him, but not in his room. If he wants someone to lay down, it needs to be in another bed. Does that mean anything to a 5 year old? I don’t know. But so far, nothing else has worked.

All I really want is a good night’s sleep. And a happy kid. Is that too much to ask?

A Look in the Mirror

There are definitely phases to raising children. We had 4 kids in round one, all pretty close together. Their age proximity meant that we experienced about 8 straight years of toddlerhood, then moved on to preschool for about the same amount of time. We never really had to go back to any previous phases because of “late arrivals.” Until Tobey.

In the spirit of brutal honesty, I did not handle the abrupt return to dealing with a preschooler very successful. The transition was compounded by the fact that he was somewhat developmentally delayed; he looked like a 4 year old, but behaved more like a 2 year old. I remember very vividly being so frustrated as this tiny human directly challenged my authority to tell him to put away his toys or, heaven forbid, eat with a fork! My mood, or the circumstances of the moment, often drove my response, as opposed to a rational and emotionally sound understanding of his difficulties.

While I’m happy with the progress I’ve made in responding in a more appropriate manner, I got an ugly slap in the face while I was on the road this week. I saw a family traveling through the airport and got to witness another father treat his own son, about Tobey’s age, in the same way I did more often than I’d like to admit. The boy was doing what little kids often do… experiencing and engaging with his world in a fully immersive way. He was jumping from one colored carpet square to another instead of walking in a straight line like any normal, sane person would do. His dad, on the other hand, was a man on a mission. Get to the baggage claim as directly and quickly as possible. Never mind the fact that they would almost certainly beat the bags and then be forced to wait, standing still, for what would seem like an eternity to both of them.

Dad had a choice, as I did so often. Slow down and experience the world with his son, or try to drag him back into the reality of their “urgent” task at hand. You can guess what he did. Grabbing his son by the arm, he yanked and pulled. As the boy resisted, he pulled harder. Watching the interaction and the boy’s struggles, it literally broke my heart. How many times have I placed my artificially elevated priorities above engaging with Tobey in the moment, then used my size and strength to prove that I was more important? The aching in my heart for that little boy told me it was much more often than I’d want to admit.

I wanted so much to stop the father and tell him to take a deep breath and engage. I wanted to tell him to hold his son’s hand less tightly… and hold his heart more tenderly. I wanted to tell him… to tell me… that the luggage would wait, and that somewhere, deep inside, his son would remember this interaction much longer than the father.

But I did none of that. I held my tongue as the man dragged his struggling son through the airport. And I cried inside as I saw myself in his place, knowing that, even today, my capacity for failure is so great. God forgive me.

Just Another Day at the Beach

Traveling with Tobey is a challenge. Because of the instability of his first 4 years, he is very concerned when we spend the night away from home. We’re thankful that he has adapted so well to life with us, and that he very quickly came to see our home as his. Now that he knows that it is his house, any disruption to that stability is a major threat.

This is 4th of July week, and we’ve travelled to the beach in North Carolina for a family reunion with the wife’s family and our first four children. It’s a great group, although not without its quirks. Everyone has been very accepting of Tobey, welcoming him as if he were born into this brood. Even so, we can see his unease just below the surface. Occasionally, out of the blue, he says very clearly, “I want to go back to my house. I want to live there forever.” It makes me wonder what’s going on inside that little head.

Despite the intermittent longing for home, which I’m sure is normal even for kids without his history, he loves the beach and the water. He has no fear of water of any sort, whether swimming pool or Atlantic Ocean. I try not to be overly protective in those situations, but I’m never more than an arm’s length from his kamikaze self. As a someone who struggled with weight my whole life, and who dreaded going to the pool or the beach because I knew I’d be expected to take my shirt off, I love watching him completely enjoy the experience. I just wish he enjoyed it with a little less gusto.

Looking back at life with our first four, I regret that we weren’t able to relax and enjoy times like this more. I know that family vacations were always viewed with a mix of anticipation and dread, especially as the kids got older. Much of that stemmed from my own background in a pretty dysfunctional home, which I allowed to affect me for far too long. I’ve shared some of those struggles with my first four, in the hopes that they might understand and forgive me and the wife for at least some of our failings as parents while we tried to do our best. I’m trying to do better with Tobey.

All in all, it’s been a good trip. A few behavioral challenges when beach outings have to end, or bed time approaches while the rest of the family is still up and laughing. But if I put it into perspective, I can’t say the tantrums are any worse than what we might have experienced with the first four… just triggered more easily. If that’s the worst thing we have to deal with for the rest of the week, I think we’ll do just fine.

Here We Go Again…

The phrase, “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo” keeps coming to mind. The wife and I have already raised four kids. The youngest is 28, the oldest 33. That in itself doesn’t seem possible. I mean, when I was 28, my parents were way older than me; at least they seemed like it. At any rate, somehow my wife and I have found ourselves raising a 5 year old boy while we are in our mid 50s. Certainly not where we planned to be at this stage in life, but everyday convinces me even more that this is exactly where we should be.

For purposes of privacy and protection, I’ll avoid real names. I hope that won’t offend you or put you off. Our newest arrival, “Tobey”, is ours only under a guardianship arrangement. While we are  pursuing adoption, we’re finding that path more difficult than one would imagine. Despite Tobey’s really rough start with his birth mother, followed by almost 4 years of only sporadic contact and neglect, the law still favors birth parents heavily in contested adoption situations. I suppose I can see some rationale for that, but you’d think that, in a case like this, common sense would prevail. Yet, 18 months and almost $10K into the process, we’re still guardians. So, for his protection and our legal standing, we’ll stick with “Tobey” for now. I’m simply “me”, and the wife will be, well, “the wife.”

All of our kids were long out of the house, graduated from college, and living successfully on their own when Tobey entered our lives. The wife had been working as a child advocate volunteer and a foster parent in a residential home for a couple of years, and really felt a tug to become a full time foster parent… or possibly adopt. I was not a fan of either idea, to say the least. Through an odd sequence of events, which I won’t explain here, we became acquainted with Tobey’s desperate situation. Abandoned just before his first birthday, Tobey was being raised by a woman in her 80s who loved him dearly but had growing health problems. Everyone familiar with the situation would regularly wring their hands and lament that “someone needs to do something.” One day, while repeating that refrain, I was struck with an unavoidable thought… I had more than enough capacity, resources, and ability to be that someone, yet I had done nothing. Without intending to sound overly dramatic, I was reminded of the quote, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” All that was necessary for Tobey to be doomed to a life of poverty and despair was for me to stay comfortable. So, here we are.

Eighteen months in, I can honestly say that it’s been no walk in the park. Tobey came with a long list of behavioral and emotional problems, many of which we are still dealing with. But every day, when he looks at me and says, “Hey, dad, I’ve got a great idea…”, I know we are exactly where we are supposed to be. We’ve got a long road ahead of us… lots of challenges. But then, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo.