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.

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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.

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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.

I Told My Son He Was Going to Fail

Originally posted at The Good Men Project here.

 

I sat my son down for a very important discussion. I had him get comfortable and I said to him in my ‘this is really important’ mom voice. “I need you to know that you are going to fail.” He blew me off. He smiled and laughed and thought it was a joke. So I said “No, I need you to know that you are going to fail and then you are going to fail again. You will fail your whole life. You will fail beyond your wildest fears. You WILL Fail. You will fail over and over again. Then you will fail some more”

It was at that point that he got that I was serious and started giving me the ‘you have finally lost your mom marbles’ look, because that is not what the rest of the world is telling him. It is not something I had told him before, but I had been reading Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and I had been stopped cold by her discussion of perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.

Last, Perfectionism is not a way to avoid shame. Perfectionism is a form of shame. Where we struggle with perfectionism, we struggle with shame.”

My son is a perfectionist. Worse than that, the world keeps telling him that he should be able to do things perfectly…the first time. Everywhere are these messages about the boy (or man) who took a wild risk and it all turned out with fame and fortune. He is realistic enough to know that wild risks rarely work, but he is surethat if wild risks can succeed in nearly every movie he sees and story he reads, then his perfectly planned ideas should not fail. When they fail he is crushed, not only because he didn’t win the lego building contest (that had a secret prize of all the legos you can play with for life) but because he thinks that means he sucks. He is disappointed that he failed, but he feels shame for being a failure.

Screw that. I am done letting our culture give him the uncontested impression that people routinely succeed on the first try. I know the world will keep sending him the message that you just have to put yourself out there and try in order to be good at things. I will have to counter that with examples of hard work and long term perseverance, while also battling the idea that “practice makes perfect.” Every bit of his brain that is taken up with the idea that he can achieve perfection instead of excellence is setting him up for shame.

So once I knew he was really listening by his expression, I continued. I told him that I needed him to really truly understand that he was going to fail, because otherwise when it happened he might give up, or worse he might think it meant that he was a failure. I told him that everyone fails. Every single person fails, all of the time. I told him that success doesn’t happens when you do things perfectly, success happens when you keep working toward excellence after you fail.

I also told him that if he could really learn this he would not only achieve his goal of being successful, but also be happier which is my goal for him.

Since that day, I tell my son he is going to fail and I tell him often.

More importantly I tell him when I fail. I search out stories of success that include: how many times the person failed before they succeeded, or how a mistake turned out to be an amazing success and I share them with him.

Most importantly I tell him I love him, just him, no perfection required.

Rubbing Shoulders With The World

I watched a documentary on the Amish today. While I disagree with them on some very important issues, I found myself feeling a kinship with them when they began to talk about raising their children with very different beliefs from the world around them. One man said

“We want to be a society of people that are separate from the world, but still we want to be friends with the world, but it’s tough, you rub shoulders with the outside world and after awhile you’re just like they are and it happens fast.”

There was a story related about an Amish man who is asked by a group of tourists how the Amish are different. The story goes that the man asked the group how many of them have televisions at home and everyone raised their hand. He then asked them how many of them thought that their family might be better off without television and almost all of the group raised their hands. He then asked how many of them were going to go home and get rid of the TV and no one raised their hand. He told them that the difference was that the Amish would get rid of things that they felt were bad for their families.

Much like the Amish I look around at the things mainstream Americans feed their children’s minds, bodies and souls and I worry. We are all on our own paths and I have no room to judge. I am not a perfect parent, I make mistakes. I’m fumbling to find my way, but my ideal is if it is bad for my family then I will do my best to change it. Many people think I go to extremes. They wonder, “What is a little bit of artificially colored sugary junk going to hurt?” They think my sons are missing out on all of the latest shows and video games. They think I am ruining Christmas with my refusal to lie about Santa or make it a day of many gifts.

People often comment on how wonderful my sons are. They will even say in amazed respect “Wow, there are still kids who drink water?” or “They are so good!” but so often they have a disconnect from their complimentary opinion of my sons and how they are being raised. They seem to believe that my sons are good kids and I don’t need to be so extreme.

I agree that my sons are wonderful. They are two of my favorite people in the world. They are kind, smart, sassy, funny, good people. I don’t just think this because I’ve brainwashed them to agree with me either. I make the parental decisions, but they bring me respectful, well thought out debates(and a few temper tantrums) about the way our family works. I do my best to listen(when I’m not having a temper tantrum).

The thing people seem to not understand is that the reason my sons are different is because we live a different life. It is not a case of my just being handed two amazing kids so I don’t have to do much, they are who they are in part because of how we raise them. They read like crazy because the TV is rarely ever on, the adults are always reading books and we go to the library every week. They drink water because soda is not an option. They eat tons of vegetables because we worked for years to make that happen. They are respectful because I treat them with respect and they are used to having boundaries.

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