Friday, June 17, 2011

A Really Good Father (Babble)

My husband, Ian, is a really good father.
(Ian with the kids heading off to school earlier this fall)

When I think about how last year at this time he was still in Iraq it’s hard to believe.  The deployments were so difficult that I’ve been happy to let them get left behind in memory and replaced with better things happening now.  I don’t like to go back to that place where we lived without him and holidays like Father’s Day made us painfully aware of his absence.  It was hard not to see all the good things as simply things he was missing.  But this Father’s Day has me focusing instead on the ways in which being a good father doesn’t come easy, and how extraordinarily well my husband fills that role.

People often tell me I’m a good mother, and I appreciate the compliment, but honestly my kids make that easy.  I’m not saying they are perfect or that parenting doesn’t have it’s hopelessly difficult moments, but overall my kids are very good kids.  They are kind and intelligent and curious.  They don’t follow all the rules as well as they should, but the ones they break aren’t the end of the world.  It would be great if they put their laundry down the chute without being nagged or didn’t bring food into the family room, and lately Aden is developing a moody attitude that is a disconcerting preview into what her teenage years will be, but none of my kids are mean to me or disrespectful.  They are considerate in public, well-behaved in restaurants, and generally nice to be with.  Who wouldn’t look like a good mom toting them around?

On top of that I am fortunate that my kids don’t currently suffer from any debilitating disorders which would demand more of me as a parent.  We don’t struggle with challenges like autism, their bodies and minds function well, and I am not required to extend myself to care for them beyond pretty normal parameters.  If I were a superstitious person I would be frantically knocking on wood all around me right now, because I know how precarious good fortune can be.  We are all one proverbial (or literal) lightning strike away from everything changing, so I appreciate what I have while I have it, and what I have is great.

But I don’t know how good a mom I would be if things were different.  I remember as a kid saying to my mom once that I was glad I was being raised in a family that didn’t preach racism or hateful things, but that I wondered if I would still know that was wrong if I were raised in a different kind of family.  I didn’t know how many of what I considered to be my better characteristics were innate, or if they were based on my pleasant environment.  I felt untested.

My mom told me she’d often wondered the same thing about herself, since her parents were wonderful people and she’d had such a nice life.  But my father, on the other hand, came from a more complicated home, and in many ways had rebelled against his upbringing and chosen a demeanor and direction that he felt had little to do with how he was raised.  Therefore, my mom argued, I could at least be assured that my genetic makeup came from stock that was half tested.

The biggest parenting trials I’ve had to face were during my husband’s deployments.  I survived them, and overall I did okay, but I know now when under great stress how much more prone I am to yell or lose my temper.  There were so many times that I felt as if I were flailing about and not doing enough of what I needed to be doing as a mother.  Some days I rose to the challenge, and other days I felt like an utter failure.

Now I have better balance.  My situation is currently as close to perfect as one could reasonably ask for and still have it be real.  We have health insurance, our small business is doing fine, we have the freedom to make choices that interest us, but we also have ants in the kitchen, my husband and I don’t get enough time together as a couple, Quinn can’t snap his own pants….  That’s just life.  Everything that actually matters is great, so if I can’t be a good mom under these conditions than something is wrong with me.  My kids love me and they show it and it is easy to love them back.

But Ian faces different challenges than I do.  And I admire his parenting because I don’t know if I could do it as well he does under the same circumstances.  Because despite sharing the same marriage and living in the same house and having made these kids together, he sees our marriage from his own angle, he sees our house differently than I do, and those kids are not the same people with him that they are with me.

If you asked me to make a list of what I love about my marriage, depending on how long you let me make that list, I would probably include how wonderful it is that Ian does all of the laundry.  I don’t think ‘getting’ to do all the laundry would make Ian’s list.  So just because we are both in this marriage does not mean we are experiencing it the same way.  (Actually, I’d be scared to have Ian make a list because I’m quite sure I’m getting the better end of this deal, so let’s move on, shall we?)

It’s the same with parenting the kids.  Luckily we figured this one out early, because baby Aden responded to me differently from her father from the start, and we learned that making any statements about “Aden does this” or “Aden does that” did not always translate from one parent to the other.  I wasn’t just Mommy, I was a source of food, so of course she was a different baby with me.  Daddy has always been the master of getting kids to sleep.  My kids to this day don’t want to sleep when I’m around (because I’m just that damned exciting I guess) but will all be soundly asleep promptly at the official bedtime when dad is the only one at home.  I’m good to read with.  Daddy’s more patient about playing board games.  Tears from Aden or Quinn work on Mommy but not on Daddy.  (Tears from Mona work on anyone because they are rare.)

Ian and I have different expectations about how much the kids should be able to do for themselves, in what ways they should help out, and what are reasonable things to ask for.  Since they most often interact with us alternately it doesn’t really cause problems.  Ian is the stay at home parent so when I show up he gets a break.  The only times we experience really weird annoying behavior from the kids is when we are both right there, and I think they just don’t know what the expectations are in that case.  The possibility of contradictions can arise, and kids don’t like confusion.

So I watch Ian’s challenges as a dad from a distance sometimes.  I check in with him on the phone from work and get updates at dinner or the end of the day.  He handles everything well, but differently than I would do.  That was a hard adjustment for me when he came back from Iraq, to let some of that control go, even as it gave me more freedom.  Ian’s adjustment to life on the kids’ schedule as opposed to in a war zone is still hard for me to fathom.

For the most part things have gone well with the girls since he came home.  Aden and Mona unabashedly adore their dad.  They missed him and were excited to have the parent back who lets them eat raw cookie dough.  Dad was the preferred parent at the after school pickup because he nearly always let them have fun on the playground before taking them home.  (If I pick them up they know I always have somewhere else to be right after, so they never even ask if there is time to play.)  When dad is around we use the grill, so they associate dad with s’mores.  Dad doesn’t hover.  Dad can solve computer problems.  Dad can fix bikes, arrange play dates, and is way more likely to let them experiment with food or get out all the paints.  The girls love their dad.  They may interact with him differently than they do with me, but they love him and trust him and it’s all good.
But Quinn is still adjusting to having his dad home.  I’ve written a few times about how hard it’s been waiting for Quinn to warm up to his father, but the boy is as stubborn as he is smart, and he’s not made this simple.  I don’t believe he necessarily remembers his dad being away at this point, but I know he remembers having me all to himself all the time.  Roughly a third of Quinn’s life has been spent with his dad away with the Army, so of course their relationship has suffered setbacks.  We’ve been as accommodating to Quinn as has seemed reasonable, but there are times it’s frustrating.  The boy is only four but he’s still entitled to his feelings, and we’re struggling with shaping his behavior despite what those feelings are.

When I pick up Quinn from school he smiles and jumps up and down with joy.  He makes it easy to feel like a good mom in those moments.  When Ian picks up Quinn from school, for the longest time he usually gave his dad the cold shoulder, and at worst threw a fit.  Ian handles it with grace, and tries not to take it personally.  But how unrewarding is that?  To do all the work of parenting, to deal with all the chores and all the mess and all the errands and indignities, and not get the love and snuggles in return to compensate looks incredibly painful to me.  I would not handle it as well.

We spent the entire school year trying to improve Quinn’s behavior at the half-day pickup.  We tried little things like having dad bring him a pop tart on the days he did the pickup, and making my pickup days as dull as possible.  But Quinn made a decision that he was not going to be happy to see his dad and he stuck with it.  Month after month after month.  And his dad took it in stride as best he could.

A few weeks before the end of school we had a painful experience at the half-day pickup when I went to get Quinn, and Ian was supposed to meet us at the violin store after he ran some errands.  Quinn came out of the building in the line of little K3’s and K4’s (there is nothing cuter than the half-day pickup) and when he spotted me he did a little happy dance.  I saw him mouthing the word “Mom!” over and over.  He smiled and fidgeted and could not wait to be released from the line.  When the teacher finally shook his hand and dismissed him, he ran to me, arms wide, yelling, “MOOOOOoooooommm!” and I scooped him up and hugged him and he hugged me back.  Pure bliss.  Then we spotted Ian coming across the playground.  He’d finished his errand early and tried to beat me to the school, and ended up seeing Quinn’s response to my picking him up.  He laughed a little and said, “Wow!  What a totally different reaction.”  As bad as that was for Ian it was like a knife to my own heart as well.

Ian deserves the same kind of love and sweetness.  I’m impressed beyond words that he can function without it.  I would be resentful.  Of course I look like a good parent when my kid wants to hug me and never let me go.  The truly good parent is the one who can keep it together when a kid makes love hard.  But Ian is amazing.  He is a truly good parent.
(Ian ready to catch his boy if he falls, whether Quinn knows it or not)

Luckily things are slowly but surely improving.  Ian’s patience for playing endless games of Sorry or Trouble has made their afternoons alone together nicer.  He makes his son grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch and Quinn appreciates it.  There is not much enthusiasm on Quinn’s part, but his resistance is crumbling.  He’s not trying to avoid his dad the way he used to.  Sometimes they get along very well, as if Quinn has forgotten his resolve to keep daddy at bay.  Those days are little by little becoming more frequent.
We’re getting there.  One board game at a time.  And I honestly think we will look back years from now and Quinn won’t believe us that he was anything but crazy about his dad.  Because how could he not be?  I married the best guy I know.

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