Nice Guys vs. Bad Boys: We’ve Got to Talk About This Differently

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.

goodvevil mlakner

I recently did a blog about my 13 year old son’s thoughts on respect. It made one small (in my opinion) mention of my son’s perception that “the boys at school that are not respectful to girls are mostly the ones that have girlfriends.” I thought that was a very small part of his insights but that is what most of the comments centered on. Having been out of the dating pool for 6 years now I was surprised to find that the “Girls only date bad boys”/ “Women only like assholes”/ “nice guys always lose” discussion is still going on. And that it was stuck in the same place it had been when I was dating. Men talking about it as if it’s something women are doing *to* them. Women frustratedly explaining that being pissed that a woman isn’t having sex with you means you aren’t actually a “nice guy.” And around and around we go.

Here’s what this old married lady thinks about it. An old married lady who BTW is married to a man who rates so far away from bad boy/asshole or even being assertive that he could hardly speak in my presence for the first 15 years I knew him. And unlike Raj he doesn’t drink, so no help there.


So here’s the thing. This isn’t about you. This isn’t about how women are doing this terrible thing that leaves you alone. This is about a terrible system that is leaving many people in bad situations. This isn’t about women thinking to themselves “Oh that’s a nice guy…but I’d really prefer an unhealthy relationship with that asshole over there!” This is about a system that brainwashes almost everyone to some extent.

One big problem I see in how people approach this is in the over emphasis of false dichotomies. First you have the women vs men dichotomy, as if they are opponents in this issue. Then you have the bad boy/asshole vs nice guy dichotomy as if all men fit into one box or the other. Then after creating this shallow dichotomy, you assign winners and losers as if both “sides” are in the same game. But they’re not.

The issue of women choosing men who are perceived to be anything from aggressive to abusive is created by the system. It’s not women’s evil secret plan to punish you for not being the jerk they have asked you not to be. It’s complicated, but here are a few things to consider.

Not all “bad boys” are jerks. Women live in the same media filled, culturally influenced world you do. If you are feeling the pressure to be hyper masculine, they are feeling the pressure to want someone who fits that stereotype. Some women feel in some part that their value is determined by the men they can get. That doesn’t mean that they want jerks, that means they want the man you may feel pressured to be. We are all taking in messages every day that tell us that aggressive/bold/daring equals masculine and that attracting masculine attention is the measure of femininity. Some women are caught in between society’s messages and what they truly need in a partner to be healthy and happy.

“But what about the guys who really are jerks?” you may ask. In a society that has as high a rate of domestic abuse as we do, we are going to have children who grow up to be drawn to abusive dynamics. People who are drawn to abusive partners may be playing out abusive dynamics they grew up with. Gender is not the point here, the point is what happens in your family as you grow up has a deep, often unconscious influence on you. This means you may be absolutely unwilling to be with someone who even raises their voice when they are angry. On the other hand it may mean that you keep coming back to people who treat you like crap, or it may mean that you become someone who treats people like crap. Or both.


You may still be saying “But why do they always go for the jerks? They should have figured it out by now.” and my question for you is, if every woman you are interested in is interested in men who are nothing like you, what are you doing to examine why you are drawn to the same kinds of women all of the time? Because there are plenty of women who have no interest in jerks.

If you aren’t finding any of those women, then you have as much of an issue of being drawn to the wrong people as women who are only into jerks. I don’t say this from some high and mighty place above anyone. I say this from the perspective of someone who, until I got married, ALWAYS picked unavailable men. Never jerks, but always men who were not interested in me, or who lived thousands of miles away or who were gay…you get the picture. I even spent some time in the “why do guys always go for the girls who treat them like crap?!?” camp.

That’s right, there are plenty of men who always choose women who treat them badly. Having a bad partner picker is not gender specific. We all have our dynamics to play out. It’s not until we become aware of them that we can begin to change them.

I’m always surprised to hear men who in any other situation would demand that you not put men in such limited boxes…go straight into nice guy/bad boy dichotomy as if there are only two kinds of men. There is a continuum, and along that continuum there are infinitely varied and complicated men. Everyone has some mixture of light and shadow, some areas where they are good and some areas where they are screwed up. So while it would be great if you would stop judging women for not being interested in you, maybe it’s also time to consider not sentencing other men to a two box judgment. Yes, some people are assholes, some people are even abusive, but how does it help you to focus on that in this context? If you want to focus on assholes and abusive people, I suggest focusing that energy on the system and how we can change it so everyone has a better chance of growing up healthy. You can start by not putting someone in the asshole box and writing them off as a stereotype instead of a person. You can also take some time to think about what defines someone as a “jerk” and where do those characteristics come from?

The first guy I fell in love with was an “only likes girls who treat him like crap” guy at the time. I suffered over that for a long time, but one night he hurt my feelings intensely and I got bitchy with him. His whole attitude toward me changed. We’d been friends for 7 years. The first time I was anything but totally nice to him, he suddenly treated me like he was interested. I realized that night that I could have him. This guy who I wanted, who I thought I was in love with, I could have him. All I had to do was treat him like crap. It was suddenly clear to me that it wasn’t him that I wanted. What I wanted was a good relationship with him. I wanted a romantic relationship that was as healthy as I thought our friendship was, not a train wreck with him in a starring role. What I wanted was an impossibility based on how he was wired and where he was in his life journey. Eventually, he did end up with a really great woman who treats him well. The interesting thing is that very time I spend time with them I am so thankful that it’s her and not me. The dynamic that works for them wouldn’t work for me.

So I’m asking you to consider that maybe the “assholes” are not getting what you want. If what you want is a healthy relationship, then you have to find a healthy person who is a good fit for you. Even if the person you want (the one who is only interested in assholes) decided to be with you, it wouldn’t be the relationship you want because that person isn’t set up for a healthy relationship. When they are, they will be drawn to healthier people and dynamics. They still may not be drawn to you.


Part of the problem with the “women only date assholes” complaint is that often women hear it from men they aren’t attracted to that they don’t think are nice. It seems that for many men it is much easier to feel like they were rejected because they are something good, instead of facing their fear that they are not good. This is part of the system we need to change, because someone not being attracted to you does not necessarily mean you suck. It means that you are not a fit for them. Once people can accept that they may not be a fit for someone they are attracted to, without feeling like it’s a failure, the need to keep screaming about “women only date assholes” will stop.

It’s not all on men of course, a lot of the ways women tell men they aren’t interested are meant to “let them down easy,” so instead of saying “I’m just not attracted to you.” They say “I’m sorry, I’m attracted to someone else.” That is part of the system. Women are trained to “be nice.” They are put in the position of not wanting to hurt a “nice guy’s” feelings. But that is only half the problem. The other issue is that a woman, who doesn’t take the blame onto herself for the “I’m not interested,” is risking abuse. That’s right, the women you think only date assholes are very possibly trying to avoid having men be assholes to them.

It happens all the time. The idea that ‘a man’s self worth is wrapped up in his ability to get women’ makes some men mean when a woman says no. Add on top of that this stupid idea that the media spreads that what women really want is someone who will chase them and you now have a situation where saying “I’m not interested.” doesn’t work. Saying “No, thank you” most often gets you either called a bitch (or a slut, which is interesting…why does saying no get me called a slut?) or a guy who doesn’t take the no seriously.

How many books are there out there that tell men that women really want them, they are just playing hard to get? How many movies are there showing that when men don’t take no for an answer that the women eventually give in? This is part of the system we have to stop. In the meantime women have learned that saying “No, thank you.” is not effective. They have learned that taking the blame and saying they are with someone else or attracted to someone else is their best bet to get out of an awkward situation with as little abuse and awkwardness as possible. Change that and more women will be willing to say “No, Thank you.” instead of “You’re a really great guy, but I’m still hung up on my ex.”

—Photo mlakner/Flickr


SnapShots: Man with Neck Tattoos

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.


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I know a man with neck tattoos. Knuckle tattoos too. His tattoos are the kind of that tell a story the police want to know about. As far as the eye can see he is covered in prison tattoos. Only his face is clear.

He spent years doing the things people do when they are heavy into drugs. He spent years in in and out of jail.

Have you ever met someone who feels really peaceful to you? He feels like that to me.

One day he told me how he had been about to get into a fight with a man. He said he knew he could kill him and not care. But something happened in that moment and all of the anger from his whole angry life began to drain out of him. He could feel it drain from his head and on down his body until it soaked right into the ground. He said he’s never been the same, that the anger has never come back.




Call for submissions for The Good Men Project’s new SnapShots section

SnapShots are those rare moments when someone you do not know suddenly snaps into such clarity that they become vividly real to you. SnapShots change the way you look at other people and the world.

I want to read your SnapShots. Most of them will be between 100 and 300 words, but the uniqueness and power of the moment is the most important factor.

Email questions and submissions to


—Photo hutchphoto/Flickr

Thank You Notes and Gender Roles

Originally posted at The Good Men Project as Do Men Ever Send Thank-You Notes?


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Our small family (myself, my husband and my two sons) have a reputation in the larger families (mine, my husband’s and my ex’s) for being bad about sending thank you cards. My sons are generally known for being exceptionally smart, respectful, fantastic boys, and my husband is known as a generous and helpful man. But in this one area, all of the families are united in their disapproval.


Years ago a family member sent gifts to my sons for Christmas. When the gifts came, I had the boys (ages 2 and 5 at the time) call her to thank her in their sweet tiny voices and genuine enthusiasm. Months later I found out there was a huge scandal in the family because she was upset that we had not sent a thank you card. I was shocked. Who would choose a thank you card over hearing those sweet voices? I can’t imagine being upset for months about not getting a thank you card. But even more confounding was that it came with two distinct types of disapproval. The disapproval for me was about my mothering and the disapproval for my then husband was connected to him not getting me to live up to family expectations.


All of the major players in our families have made hints and even demands. They’ve used diplomacy and downright guilt to try to get us to make the boys do thank-you cards. The disapproval over the cards is aimed mostly at me, even though my husband has never written a thank-you card in his life—even when his mom was the boss of him. Yet everyone also seems frustrated with him, not because he isn’t writing thank-you cards, but because he, like my ex, does not “make me” do “my job.”


When my husband was single, he never once wrote anyone a thank-you card and his family took it in stride. His family was lucky for the most part if he got gifts for them on traditional gift-giving holidays. If he did show up with gifts they were given in the bag from the store. If he was being extra fancy there might be an extra Target bag tied around it so there was less see through.


My husband sucks at expectations. He sucks at “shoulds.” If you tell him that he should call someone back, he will automatically have a block against doing it. What he rocks at is random acts of kindness and generosity. According to him, he “pretty much always” missed getting gifts for his family for Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and birthdays. On the other hand, he once spent almost two years designing and building a custom art piece light fixture for his mom.


I have joined him on many covert surprise gift giving missions just because he got an idea for something a friend would love. I once came home to find he had somehow planted a tree in our yard. It wasn’t for a holiday, it was because I had described how much that kind of tree reminded me of my Papa. He doesn’t usually do anything really special for Valentine’s Day but he once drove 50 miles with a giant glass vase of roses in his lap (to keep it from spilling) just to bring it to me on a random work day.


I get that my family and in-laws believe that if we make my sons do thank-you cards every time that they will learn… something. I’m just not sure what they want them to learn if they do not expect them to write thank you notes when they are grown. We work hard teaching them to do things mindfully, to do things because they are kind and sincere. That is a lesson I expect they will take with them into manhood.


We do send thank-you cards on occasion. Just not, it seems, enough to satisfy The Family. Thankfully my husband is much less sensitive about his family’s expectations in that way than my ex was. He does feel bad for missing birthdays and not doing thank you cards. But he doesn’t feel any shame for not being able to control me, a concept he finds ridiculous. He feels equal responsibility for sending thank-yous, and we are equally bad at it. We’ve only been married for 6 years, there’s still time to send out the thank-you cards right?


If you expect thank you cards with such determination that not getting one causes you suffering, or if getting a gift on a set date each year is more important than receiving a thoughtful show of love or affection when the feeling strikes, you may be missing the point of giving. I am at peace with our families values and actions in regards to gifts and thank-you cards. I also think that my ability to accept gifts as my husband naturally offers them, instead of being angry that they aren’t on a schedule, is a gift to both of us.




What I’m curious about is, why does it seem that mothers are expected to make boys write thank you cards, but men are not expected to write them? What is going on in our gender training that creates this odd dynamic? I have seen articles about job searches that encourage men to send thank you notes after an interview, do we expect men to be thankful for job interviews but not for personal gifts? Why in this day and age is there still an expectation that a husband should be able to control his wife in certain areas?


I would love some insight into this, please leave comments about your experiences and your thoughts on our expectations of men and boys in regards to gifts and thank you cards.



Photo courtesy of author.

But She Wants It!

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.


We’ve been talking about looking at women respectfully around The Good Men Project. The Good Men’s top post right now is about a dad who is thinking about how he will explain to his son that, “It is a woman’s responsibility to dress herself in the morning. It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing.” Then in a really great discussion today among a few of the writers, one man explained that he’s confused by what he is supposed to do when confronted with a woman who is dressed in beautiful or sexy attire. My understanding of what he said was that he feels like women work to get attention for being attractive—but he is not supposed to look too much or compliment them on that attractiveness. This is a man with a Ph.D. in psychology from one of those really impressive schools and decades of working with gender roles. If he’s confused, I’m betting almost everyone is.

I think the problem is that we confuse the system with the individual. We confuse the unhealthy wants with the healthy needs. Our culture teaches and enforces that a woman’s value is in her ability and willingness to be attractive. It’s so universal, that when you meet a little girl you compliment her on how pretty she is, or how cute her dress is. I caught myself doing this not long ago and I know better. It’s an easy default when you don’t know someone. It’s the easy opener, it seems nice and it doesn’t ask them to talk to you except to thank you as if you’ve just done something for them.

I want to challenge you to think of complimenting women you are not in a relationship with as you would think of force-feeding candy to a diabetic. Yes, they may want the candy badly sometimes, even if they know it’s making them sick. You are not being kind or noble to give it to them. I know it feels good, as if you’ve done something positive. You think “I made her day.” It’s comfortable to say something “nice” about something so shallow, so accepted. Most women will find cheap pleasure in the complement or pretend to. So either way you don’t have to be mindful of what you are saying, you can just roll out the ‘old compliment them on their looks’ thing and move on. If a woman has any reaction but gratitude you get to say she’s being a bitch and feel superior because you were only being “nice.”

The problem with that is, you are not being kind. Everyone has an innate need to be valued and so often women are told the only value they have a chance of achieving is with their ability to attract male attention. People need to feel seen. Women and girls are often trained to believe that the only way to be seen is to be attractive to the eye. Men, you can related to this, right? Men and boys are often told they only have value in how well they provide, in how invulnerable they are, in how successful they are.


Some people are probably saying “But some women like it! Why shouldn’t I give it to them if it makes us both feel good?” If you only care for your own “good feeling” then I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about why you would feel good doing something even if it feeds into someone’s unhealthy attention-seeking.

Other people may say, “But it does make her feel good.” This is where the analogy to candy comes back. You can get pleasure from being complemented. You can get pleasure from eating candy. You can get pleasure from using hard-core drugs. Pleasure is not an indication of health.

For some women, compliments on her looks are like having a candy bar. Not good for her but not that harmful, if she’s not having too much. For some women compliments on her looks can be like a candy bar every day for a diabetic, slowly and maybe silently damaging and undermining their health. For some women, compliments on looks are like crack. They hold a serious high at first, but eventually they are brought down to doing anything to get the next compliment, the next bit of attention. They need them just to try to feel somewhere near OK for just a moment.

Now I bet quite a few of you are going “WTF? Over dramatic much?!?” That’s OK with me because I’m not one of the women for whom compliments are an addiction or a disease. I got lucky, I was never abused as a child and I was always in the middle. I was never the pretty one, never told I was worthy because of how pretty I was. Nor was I ever the girl who was told she was ugly, sold the illusion that if she was pretty she would be worth something. I look around at the women around me and I feel like the one in a war zone who managed to not get hit by anything too serious. This isn’t personal to me, I get to be the reporter on the inside without being one of the badly wounded.

Since I’m not one of the badly wounded, I don’t have a personal story to share with you about seeking compliments while hating myself for doing so. But I sure see and hear enough of those stories. There are the stories from my girlfriends, most of whom have many times starved themselves in unhealthy ways, sacrificing their bodies in attempts to be attractive. There are the stories told by the bodies of the women I see around me who have taken their complement seeking to the extreme of plastic surgery. Sometimes to the extreme of living a life with not one part of them OK as it is. I see these women and they have covered themselves in makeup and fake tans, covered their smell with perfume, covered their eyes with contacts, covered their hair in dye and products, covered their body in things to change their very shape. Not one part of them is allowed to just be, not one part of them is OK as it is.

Do you want to play into that?

I am sure there are some of you who are saying “Well, if they say they like it, why should I believe you?” You are absolutely right. If you know someone well enough to have talked to them about this and they have said that they find compliments to their looks healthy or no big deal, respect that. But if you don’t know someone, I’m asking you to consider that even if they seem to be seeking attention and compliments, it may not be as simple as you think.


I’m not sure how many of you know this, but there are women who dress attractively not to be noticed by men but to avoid being harassed. Women who do not conform to society’s idea of attractive are, in different ways and amounts, treated badly. Sometimes it’s just a matter of “more attractive/gender conforming = more privilege” but there are times when not being what society says women should be gets you abused or harassed. Sometimes it has to do with how much you weigh, sometimes it has to do with not wearing makeup or not shaving your legs, sometimes it’s the clothes you wear. On rare occasion not conforming to the expectation that you will do your best to be attractive puts women in danger of being assaulted.

Often it involves people telling you what you should be doing with your body. “Hey! Smile for me, it’ll make you beautiful!” or “Women should always wear jeans, they look sloppy in track pants” Sometimes it involves things like, “Let’s punch a fat person to see if they have feelings!” These are real examples BTW. If women don’t want that kind of attention they may not wear casual clothes to run to the store again, and the next man may say, “if she didn’t want attention why did she dress up to go to the store?” It’s a lose-lose situation for women.

It’s a lose-lose situation for men, too. Chances are that if you compliment a woman you don’t know on her looks you are very likely either irritating her or playing into dysfunctional dynamics she has going on. So what is the solution? How about if you just make it a point to never compliment a woman on her looks unless you know her well enough to know she is OK with it coming from you? You may even find that once you take that option off the table, you find much more interesting ways to engage a woman in discussion. If you have no interest in engaging her in discussion…don’t talk to her.

Once you take complements off the table, you may just find many more interesting ways to engage a woman in discussion.

I know this is complicated, any time you have someone who seems to want something and then says they don’t it’s confusing. It’s often confusing for the women who are doing it too. But I don’t think they are alone. I think that some men have a similar issue. Only for men it is not wanting to be desired for money. They truly do not want to be wanted because they have money. Yet the car they drive, the clothes they wear and the things they do are often an advertisement for the fact that they have money (even when they don’t). Does that mean that it’s healthy or acceptable for women to be with them for their money? I don’t think so. I don’t buy “she was asking for it” and I don’t buy “he was asking for it” either. In any situation. We all have the responsibility for our own actions.

How you treat people is about who you are. It is NOT about who they are or what you think they want or deserve.


I’m interested to know if you can think of other areas men do this? Leave a comment on something you do or that you’ve seen other men do that advertises themselves for something they do not want to be valued for. I’m looking forward to a thoughtful insightful discussion.

Photo B Tal/Flickr

Kick perfection in the face

Beautiful. Important. Not Perfect. Which is, of course perfect.

Disrupting Dinner Parties

I keep starting this and stopping three lines in.

Trying different titles, going down different paths.

Vulnerability, depression, strength, what it means to be human.

Every time I stop, because nothing feels right. Nothing feels good enough. Nothing feels perfect.

And that’s ironic, because really what I am trying to say is: Fuck perfect.

Perfect is a lie that we tell ourselves. Perfect is a mask that we hide behind. Perfect is a desperate attempt to find control within a vast and unpredictable universe.

But the truth is, you can be as perfect as you possibly can – you can get all A’s and get the perfect job and cook local organic vegetarian food and do yoga every single day and strive towards that unattainable cellulite-free ass – and the people you love will still get hurt. You will still get hurt.

We are human. We are boundless capacity for…

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My Real Dads


Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.


It seems that talk of fathers not being involved and why, and dads who define awesomeness are all over my corner of the internet today. It’s got me thinking about my father who was not involved and the men who filled the empty space.

When I was 9 or 10 I got my stepfather a plaque that said “Any man can be a father, it takes a special man to be a dad.” Nowadays, I know that is really insensitive to men who wish they could father a child but are unable to, at the time it seemed like grand wisdom to me.

My biological father knocked my mom up, apparently spermicide on its own is not an effective method of birth control. (Thanks mom for the TMI.) They got married because that’s what you did back then, but when I was about one years old, he left.

My first word was “Da!” and my mom cried thinking that I was missing my father. Obviously I don’t know what I was thinking at the moment of my first word but I doubt it had anything to do with him because I can’t imagine him measuring up to my paternal soul mate. Yes, I love my mom, yes I loved others but when it came down to it no one in my childhood was as important to me as my maternal grandfather. I called him My Papa.

My Papa was my idol. He was my super extra-special person in the universe. We didn’t live with him but somehow I remember more of my time with him than I do of anything else in those early years. He taught me that I deserved to be respected. He spoke to me about important things, he listened to what I had to say. He taught me that I was infinitely lovable. He was a solid rock I could count on. He taught me that men were good.

When I was 6 my mom remarried and not long after, we moved across the country from My Papa. He was still a huge part of my heart and I did get to see him once a year or so but he did not remain the center of my world. My stepdad and I got along well when I was little, though I don’t remember it as clearly as I remember my relationship with My Papa. Things got more difficult between us during my teen years and we struggled to live together somehow in some kind of harmony.

During that same time I had an amazing teacher, My Teacher. I had many teachers of course but he was special. He had faith in me. He held me accountable. He taught me how to listen, and how to talk. He appreciated who I was and the work I put into things. He taught me that the best way to feel better about your life is to help others. He also taught me that heroes are human too. He was a coach and I watched his amusing struggle to stop cursing around students. I saw him make mistakes and say he was sorry. He taught me that I was worthy of respect. He taught me that men were good.

Ironically, it was during my mom and step dad’s divorce when I was around 20 that I truly realized that I’d had a dad the whole time. There were a few years when I was disconnected from my family. I stopped having contact with them when I was 18, but somehow my step-dad found out that I’d been mugged. He called me and asked me if I needed anything. I had cut them off. I had been so sure in my teenage spaz that they did not really love me or even notice me. But here he was calling me to see if I needed anything. Of all the things I ever learned, how to ask for help is not one I’ve ever been good at. I made myself tell him that my glasses had been lost during the mugging and I that I had no way to replace them. He said he would buy me a new pair. Just like that. No guilt trip, no conditions, no hesitation.

In that moment something clicked for me. I was able to look back at my life and see all of the ways he had always been my Dad, even when we were not getting along. He taught me the value of hard work. He taught me what family means. What it really means. He gives the most unconditional love of anyone I’ve ever known. He doesn’t care what society says or what someone does, once he claims them as family that’s it. Forever. He won’t force it on you, but he’ll always welcome you back the moment you seek him out. He taught me that I was worth having as a daughter. He taught me that men are good.

I know that having a missing father can be a hard thing for many. For me, it was a huge blessing because of the amazing men who stepped up to fill the space. If my biological father had been in my life, I would have learned what children of alcoholics learn. Instead, I learned that men are good.


As an adult, I know that not all men are good. But I think it makes a huge difference which default you see the world through. I see the world though the “Men are good.” default. I assume men who are not good are the exception, that something went wrong. I assume that it means we as a culture and society need to work harder to give boys the best possible chance to grow into good men. If I had not had these good men in my life I am sure that my default view of the world would be very different.

To all of the good men out there, I hope you are reaching out, touching lives. I promise it will make the world a better place for the people you’ve connected with. Maybe it will even be one of the drops in the bucket that makes the world better for everyone.


Photo courtesy of author. That’s me and my Papa!

The Art of Saying Nothing But I Love You

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.


I was reading The 7 Hardest-to-Answer Questions My Kids Have Ever Asked… And 2 Surprisingly Easy Ones here on The Good Men Project last week. While I liked it, I had trouble concentrating on it because I kept flashing back to the hardest question anyone has ever asked me. I tried for a week to stop thinking about it because it’s still painful after 6 years. Finally I gave in and began searching for my old private blog to find what I’d written about it then.

This is what I found, edited a bit for clarity and a fair amount for punctuation. This happened almost exactly one year after my ex helped us move back to California and our divorce became final.


It’s been a couple of months and the boys have been doing well for the most part. They still ask me when they can talk to him or why he doesn’t come to visit or call. They still try to include him in games we play and stories we tell, even though it’s just their idea of him. They still tell me how much they love him defiantly every so often…to see what I will say. I always say “of course!” because I don’t know what else to say and I don’t ever want them to think that isn’t OK to love him.

He’s been gone for almost a 1/4th of my 4 year old’s life now…and I think for him a lot of it is the idea of him. Not actual memories. I am sure there is a bond there but for him he doesn’t remember as much to miss. He doesn’t know this is not the normal way of dads in general or his dad in particular. It helps that he has always had that extra special bond with me. I know I read somewhere that it switches at different stages of development from one parent to the other so maybe is so strong because the other parent wasn’t around for his turn. But I tend to think we are special soul mates. Not that I love my 7 year old son any less at all. Only that my little one and I seem to understand each other in a way I don’t have with him.

I really feel that my older son lost the most in the break up of our family. I have heard him singing to himself, soulful rambling ballads of how much he misses his dad or how he “doesn’t have a dad…and that’s so sad.” Sometimes he acts out and I think he’s testing me or just freaking out in helplessness and fear and pain. Other times he is so full of life and joy he’s almost too bright to look at and I know exactly why I call him my little sunshine. But sometimes I catch him just looking sad. Or sometimes out of nowhere he will suddenly ask me things about where his dad is or why he can’t be there.

Tonight was one of those times. He was being rambunctious and silly. Then tormenting his brother and on and on, until suddenly he was quiet for a bit. Then he started talking to me on the monitor, asking me to call his dad and tell him to come to the play my son is going to be in on Monday. I said that I didn’t think he’d be able to make it on such short notice but that tomorrow he could call him and tell him all about it. He kept talking to me and I kept telling him he needed to go to sleep, that it was an hour and a half past his bedtime. Finally he said in this little voice “Mon (his special name for me), I want to talk to you.” Normally I say no after bedtime but something in his voice made me say yes and go up to sit with him.

I sit down and he says “Mon…tell me the story of you and Pie (his special name for his dad) breaking up.”

Crap, what do I say to that? And that was not the last really really hard question he asked. I can’t really tell you what I said. I think in the end I said a lot of “I don’t know” and “I love you.” Over and over in different ways, in different contexts and sentences. I tried to say as little as possible. No false hope, no condemnation of his dad, no adult details…pretty much nothing except I love you, I appreciate you, I want you with me, I would miss you if you were not here.

I’ve never worked so hard to say so little and so much before.

In the end I tucked him in and came downstairs and a few min later he says to me in this voice full of pain “Mon, I want to tell you I love you more than Pie” OMG I never knew hearing he loved me could hurt so much. So I tried to keep the tears out of my voice as I said “Sweetheart you have enough love inside of you to love me and Pie both more than the whole outer space” and he was quiet for a min…and then he sounded peaceful and a bit happy and he said “yeah…I just wanted to see what you’d say.” I reassured him that he could love us both totally and he got quiet.

I decided we needed to hold each other so I went up to his room again and we snuggled. He said to me, little man that he is, “It’s been a long time since we did this” I laughed and said “You’re getting to be such a big busy boy…but we should find more time to snuggle.” He said “yeah” and then held onto me like he hasn’t done in a very long time. When I finally tucked him in to go, he sat up and gave me a hug and an eskimo kiss. Then fell asleep almost right away.

I’m exhausted. He must be too.

I hurt for him. I can only cry and take deep breaths and remind myself that there is nothing more I can do tonight.

Life Lessons from LEGOs

Originally posted at The Good Men Project as Learning About Life From Legos.

My sons are obsessed with LEGOs. They live, dream and breathe legos much of the time. My almost-14-year-old is especially obsessed. He declared years ago that he will be a LEGO designer when he grows up. Today he has been trying to work out how to create a backpack for a certain Batman minifigure (apparently there is such a backpack in a videogame, but not in any LEGO sets you can buy). He said something to me that he has said before. He said “It would totally work if I just had this one piece, but it doesn’t exist!” Each time he says this I use it as an opportunity to point out that all of life is like that. We could do so much if only things existed…that don’t exist. We could do so much if only things were different than they are…but they are not different from how they are. I try to remind him that thinking about what you could do if things were different is a complete waste of time and a sure way to cause yourself suffering. I encourage him instead to think about how he might change things, or do something different instead of lamenting what is.

After we talked about that I decided to see what else my sons are learning from playing LEGOs so I asked them “What have you learned from LEGOs about life?” this is what they said.

You need a sturdy base to build on.
Build from the ground up, or from the inside out. You can’t start from the outside.
Build to last.
Sometimes even when you build to last, things fall apart. Sometimes you can fix or rebuild them.
“I could build it if I had more pieces!” gives way to “look at what you have and figure out how to build from that.”
Be creative.
Sometimes you start to build one thing and it turns out to be something else.
Plan ahead. Or don’t.
Look at what others have done. Be inspired. Build your own thing.
There is always a way to substitute.
The bricks/pieces will only do what they will do.
Sometimes you need to take breaks.
Think small, build big; think simple then build onto it.

All of this, and there seems to be quite a bit of evidence that playing with LEGO is good for kids in other ways too, including making them better at math, science, creativity, and fine motor skills.

Now, if only we could get them to go back to the times before they segregated the gender of their toys and focused on battle and weapons.


Your Dad Is In Jail. You Are Not Alone.

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.


I grew up with invisible friends. I know, you think they were imaginary. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I also remember, as child of the 70’s, watching Sesame Street, and the storyline of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus. I remember how frustrating and yet comforting it was every time Big Bird would try to introduce Snuffy to other people and they didn’t see him. The Sesame Street writers had created a story that reached out of the screen and made me feel less alone.

Sesame Street has a wonderful history of taking issues small and large and helping kids make sense of them and feel less isolated. They have done shows on issues such as divorce, death, and 9/11 so it should not have been a shock to see that they have created a toolkit for caregivers of children whose parents are incarcerated. But it was a surprise to me. We don’t think about how many children there are with parents who are in jail or who have spent time in jail. I didn’t think about it and I worked in a prison. During my time with the Federal Bureau of Prisons I worked in the visiting rooms of a Federal Correctional Institution. I watched children interact with their incarcerated parents many times, but that isn’t the biggest reason it should not have been a surprise that this was a subject badly in need of some Sesame Street attention.

The father of my two sons spent almost 2 years in jail when they were in the age range that Sesame Street’s toolkit has been created for.

My younger son wasn’t really sure of what was going on. He had a general sense of anxiety and lack of understanding why that daddy guy had disappeared and where he was. My older son struggled much more.

One of his struggles was with fear. He was afraid of everything connected to the whole situation. He was afraid that he would never see his father again, and to his young mind 22 months was  not far from forever. He was afraid that his father was in a scary, dangerous place. Thanks to my experience years earlier as a correctional officer, I was able to give confident concise descriptions and reassurances that helped to some extent. My heart aches for children who have no one to do this for them. I’m not saying that prison is never a scary place. But I was able to help separate the day to day realities of a Federal Prison Camp from the overwhelming anxiety of the unknown. There are not many narratives out there that highlight the mundane of prison life instead of focusing on the most intense possibilities.

Letters and 15 minute weekly phone calls from his father were both a blessing and a curse. The contact reassured my older son that his father was still out there but would also get him stirred up and make him fearful again.

The fear had a strong hold on my older son. I remember vividly one day finding him frantically searching for coins and trying to get the money out of his bank. I asked him what was going on and he told me that if his dad needed money he would send it to him. He had somehow gotten the idea that his father was in jail because he’d done something for money and he wanted so desperately to fix it so his hero didn’t have to “go to jail anymore.” I had to try to explain that there wasn’t anything that we could do to change this. My son was heartbroken. He was 6 years old, trying to take care of his father and feeling like a failure for not being able to. I was heartbroken. My sweet son did not deserve to have this weight on his small shoulders, but nothing I could say seemed to lift it.

My son felt shame for not being able to fix things for his father, and a deep shame at being part of a man he understood had done “a bad thing.” He experimented with stealing things and when he got caught, told me he wanted to find out why someone would do “bad things.” He seemed to be trying to figure out what was so great about these things that someone would chose them over him. I think he was also testing himself to see if he liked “bad things.” He was afraid he was bad and would end up in jail one day too.

Kids in this situation deal with all of this and so much more, often while feeling like they are the only ones. I asked my son if he’s ever told any of his friends that his father had been in jail. He said “no.” He didn’t think that any of the kids he goes to school with would understand, but the statistics say that some of his classmates do have a parent who is incarcerated.


We can’t easily change the reality that children face when their parent is in jail, but we can talk about this more openly. First, we can talk to kids we care for who have loved ones in jail. We can talk about it as something we understand may be hard for them, but something that does not need to be a shameful secret. We can let them know that we don’t think it means they are “bad.” We can let them know they are not the only ones. More than that we can give them our time and attention. We can let them share or just let them have a safe space to be.

I’m not a psychologist so I can’t tell you the signs that a child needs to see a counselor, but I can tell you that I wish we had found one sooner. We just didn’t think of it. That sounds crazy to me now, but we were just going along doing what needed to be done. Even though we did not get a counselor until after my ex was released it has made a huge difference for my son. It’s rarely too late to get help.

Even if you are not a caregiver or friend of a family with a child in this situation, you can spread the link to theSesame Street toolkit link around in any parent groups you are in, online or in person.

If you have been in any role in this situation you can share your story.

If seeing that Big Bird had a friend that no one else could see was powerful for me, imagine how powerful it could be for parents, caregivers and children to know that they are not the only ones involved in a situation that involves incarceration. I wish that I had known someone whose father had been in jail and who had grown up into a good person. I think it would have made all the difference for my son if I could point to someone real and say “His dad was in jail too, you are not alone, this will not stop you from growing up to be a good man.”



Friends Outside, in California has this page of resources.
Photo: Dave Goodman / flickr


Insights on Respect from a 13 Year Old Boy

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.

My 13 year old son often tries to start “deep” discussions in order to get out of doing the dishes or going to bed, so when I asked him to do the dishes and he said “I wanted to talk to you about something.” I didn’t necessarily expect to have one of our most awesome discussions ever.

It started out with him telling me that he noticed that many of the kids in his junior high have started hanging out in “different” kinds of groups. Which was his way of telling me that they’ve started having groups of pairs instead of mostly “guy groups” and “girl groups.” So I asked him, “What have you noticed about these different groups?”

“I’ve noticed that the boys at school that are not respectful to girls are mostly the ones that have girlfriends.”

I was thinking “Oh Crap!” and mentally scrambling for how to deal with the 13 year old version of “Women only like jerks!” To buy me time, I asked him what he thought respect was. His answer blew me away.

“Respect is following a not-talked-about group of agreements. But that’s not all. It also means not holding someone back and not being passive aggressive.”

I can’t say that I’ve ever heard a better explanation of respect anywhere. By this time I was totally paying attention and asked him to repeat that so I could start taking notes. Then I asked him what he would do or not do if he was being respectful.

“Not touch in any unpolite manner and certainly not being passive aggressive or holding someone back or down or not giving them any choice what to do. Bullying is very disrespectful, you’re trying to put them lower, you don’t actually get higher, you’re still in the same place and they are lower, instead of really talking to people and getting yourself higher.”

So I asked him if it was different how people disrespected a boy from how they disrespected a girl.

“With boys it’s more physical. With girls, they more treat them like innocent breakable glass, like they can’t take care of themselves. The problem is people don’t even notice. People just keep doing it until everyone does it and the person may not even know they are being disrespected.”

He had mentioned being passive aggressive more than once so I asked, what does that mean to you?

“Passive aggressive is anything that’s like acting like a sad dog “oh you don’t like it?” (this was said with a sarcastic exaggerated sad face and voice) Acting like they are mad just to get you to do things. Any type of feeling, acting like it’s extreme just to get them to do what you want them to do. I noticed it’s usually disrespectful guy to the girls, sometimes to each other. It’s really weird, sometimes they even try to make someone want to be closer to them by guilting them!”

I told him how insightful I thought this all was and asked him what else he thought of respect.

“Also I think people mistake being polite for being respectful. That’s just a very shallow bit. You can even seem like you are being a jerk and be being very respectful, like if you’re being honest. There are I think like three degrees of respect. Degree 1 is polite, 2nd degree verbal. Deep respect would be level 3: not doing things that make the other person uncomfortable, either sexual or not sexual. I notice at the beginning of school they only talk about the sexual part but that’s not the only part.”

I asked him what else he noticed about respect.

“I notice the guys do things for the girl she doesn’t always need or want and then expect her to do things for them and get mad when she doesn’t. I also notice these messages they tell guys that aren’t true, like you have to have a girlfriend! and all of the things they tell girls of course like you need to wear short shorts for a guy to like you. All this stuff based on fake love and it clouds many minds. They act like it’s a game. Then sometimes the fake love turns to fake hate! I realize this is just a door; I don’t have to go in there and play that game with those people.”

At this point I’m completely humbled. I started this discussion with the mindset of the grown up who was going to make use of a teaching moment. I ended it with a solid reminder to never underestimate people or what they might have to tell you, even when you are in the “teacher” role.

I was feeling that floaty awesome feeling you get in those moments when you feel like you are doing something right as a parent. Then he moved on to the next subject…a twerking incident at school. Then when I told him this was really his blog and maybe he should think of a pseudonym. His ideas included Ninja and Jedi but he felt strongly putting them together would be best. Then there was a story of his Ninjaness at school in an attempt to distract me from making him go to bed. I guess he’s back to being your average 13 year old boy.

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