Essay

Hitting the parenting sweet spot

My first wife was not only a good mother to our children when they were very small, but she deeply enjoyed it. I hope I was a good father to our young children. I don’t think I was a poor one. I loved my sons, I was well involved in their care, and we had some lovely moments together. But overall, I did not enjoy their early years.

My sons at Halloween in 2000, aged 3 and 1

These were surprisingly lonely years for me. I worked days and my wife worked nights. Except for dinner we hardly saw each other. We either worked or were alone with our kids. On the weekends we each had house chores to do and it was just easier for both of us to do them alone and leave the other with the kids. I’d feed the kids lunch while she did the shopping. She’d care for them while I mowed the lawn.

I wish we had lived closer to extended family. Our closest relatives were my parents, but they lived 150 miles away. Day to day, we had no help. There was nobody to talk to, or to share the challenges with.

I wonder if my wife was lonely as well. I don’t know; we weren’t talking and connecting well as a couple. We were just pushing through our days as best we could.

Some fathers feel bonded to their babies from the start, but not me. Deep down I knew I’d do anything to protect them, and it was fun to make them smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until their personalities emerged in toddlerhood, when I could see glimpses of myself and their mother in them, that they truly entered my heart and felt like a part of me. Until then, my sons were just work.

Damion was colicky. He’d start crying midafternoon — and my goodness, was he loud. His mom and I used to joke that if the city’s storm sirens ever broke, we could just rent them Damion. When I got home from work and exited my car I could hear him screaming from our driveway, even in the dead of winter when the house was closed up. I’d put him in my arms and walk him from one end of the house to the other for hours. I have a heavy step that jostled him as I moved, which I think was been calming. I’d sing softly to him while we moved, two songs in particular, over and over. As long as I walked and sang those songs, he was calm. If I stopped, he’d scream. His colic usually passed sometime after 8 pm, by which time he’d exhausted himself (and me) and I could put him to bed. This was our routine for the first nine months of his life.

As Garrett grew, he struggled to cope with frustration. He’d try and try to achieve some goal that was just beyond him. I’ll never forget how he fixated on the sofa, which he purposed to climb. Little by little over several weeks’ time he gained the ability to reach the cushions, then the arm, and then the top of the seat back. I stayed close, but let him do it because he seemed so intent. But when he couldn’t reach the next level, he’d grow so frustrated and angry that he’d melt down. He’d cry in dark anger, turning crimson. He frightened the crap out of me a few times when he cried so hard he couldn’t draw in a breath. I had no idea what to do for Garrett.

Those were just the especially challenging aspects of our sons. Overall they were typical boys. I played with them and we watched TV. I gave them their baths and I made them lunch. I read to them a lot; they preferred Dr. Seuss: Wake every person, pig, and pup, until everyone in the world is up!

But for the most part, I was left with a feeling of is this all there is? I wished for greater connection and engagement with my sons, with my wife, and with the outside world.

Making cookies, still ages 1 and 3

It came as my sons grew. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them, the less my wife and I had to divide our time around child care, and the more easily we could all do things outside the house. When the boys developed basic self-sufficiency — they could dress themselves, use the bathroom alone, make a bowl of cereal — I started to experience real joy as their father. The boys and I could finally do things together, rather than me doing everything for them.

In the one-room apartment I rented while I waited for the divorce to be final, ages 6 and 8

I enjoyed fatherhood the most while my sons were in middle and high school. They were turning into their adult selves, and I was excited to watch it. I could share my interests with them, and they could share theirs with me. Damion set up his computer as a Minecraft server and we spent several lovely Saturday afternoons building things together in that virtual world. Garrett and I put together a lot of giant Lego sets. I took them on spring break trips including Washington, DC, and Route 66. Damion shared his interests in anime and in Dungeons and Dragons, and Garrett shared his surprising love of dark comedy.

But more importantly, I was able to speak into their lives and help them figure out how to finish growing up. The challenges they experienced in early childhood all baffled me, but I was primed and ready for their adolescence. I don’t know why, I just was. I still made mistakes, but overall I feel like I was made to be a father of teenagers. I wish I could go back and have just one more year of high school with them!

My first wife, in comparison, seemed happiest to be a mom during the baby and early childhood years. The story I piece together from things my sons told me is that she was far less engaged, perhaps even disengaged, while they were teens. It’s hard to know for sure because the divorce meant I wasn’t there to witness it. But my conclusion isn’t far fetched as that’s exactly what I witnessed with her child from her first marriage, who graduated high school before we divorced.

That doesn’t mean I was a poor father of my young children or my ex was a poor mother of her teens. Damion once told me that he feels like he is very lucky to have drawn us as parents; he called us both “fantastic.” It’s just that my ex was a natural with our small children, and I was a natural with our teenagers.

Damion, me, Garrett, and my mom at Garrett’s high-school graduation – ages 20 and 18

I think most parents, those who work to be engaged with their kids, experience this. There will be some years they don’t enjoy parenting, and other years where they love it and are just crushing it.

If you’re a parent of young children and you’re not enjoying it, hang on. The good years are ahead.

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Photography, Stories Told

Memories lost, memories created, memories kept

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.

I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

Dad Garrett 2001 b
Dad Garrett 2001 c.jpg

Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Damion 2001 a

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Damion Garrett 2001 a

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.

The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.

Indianapolis 2005

In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.

Indiana History Tour 2007

In 2009 we visited Washington, DC, and drove the National Road home. It was probably our greatest trip, generating the happiest memories. Right up until the moment we wrecked our car.

Washington DC 2009

In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.

Tennessee 2011

In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.

Route 66 2013

In 2015 we drove the old Dixie Highway down to Mammoth Cave. It was the last spring break with Damion, who graduated high school that year.

Mammoth Cave 2015.jpg

And this year Garrett and I did Cincinnati: the American Sign Museum, the zoo, the Taft Museum, the suspension bridge, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s.

Cincinnati 2017

There, you’ve watched my sons grow up! And I’ve relived these memories we chose to make together.

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them.

Mission accomplished. Garrett graduated high school on Saturday.

I know from experience with my stepchildren that parenting doesn’t really end until around age 25. Our kids all need at least some parental guidance in those early young-adult years.

But it’s a new phase of life for me, of moving forward into life with my new wife. But this time I get to do it with memories intact.

These photos are © 2000-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved. I will not grant permission to republish them.

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Music, Stories Told

Singing to soothe my sons

I have three sons — a stepson pushing 30 and two teens. I’ve been thinking back on their lives as one of my sons turns 18 today and is making transitions toward his adult life.

I was there when the younger two boys entered the world. I did my best to be a good dad to my baby boys, and my fatherly duties naturally included soothing them when they were unhappy or sick. Like most kids, they’re unmistakably like their mother and father but night-and-day different from each other. But when they were in distress, both of them calmed down when I sang to them.

The older son was good natured from the start. It’s as if he awoke every morning and said to himself, “I think I’m going to have a happy day, and make sure everybody around me does too,” and then set about making it so. He filled his days with big smiles for everyone who caught his gaze. He encountered everything – toy, television show, meal, our dog, other children – with such joy and delight you’d think it was long lost and beloved.

Yet colic plagued him the first nine months of his life. He’d start to feel bad by late afternoon each day, and by the time I came home from work he was fully miserable and wailing like an air-raid siren. His frazzled mother immediately handed him off to me and and disappeared to seek relief.

Now, I cared about my poor son’s suffering. But honestly, I mostly just wanted his eardrum-piercing shrieks to end. You could hear the boy out in the yard even when all the windows and doors were closed. I quickly figured out that holding him to my chest as I paced through the house calmed him some. I tried singing to him as I paced and found that some songs calmed him a little while others had no effect. So I tried every song in my repertoire. When I sang this obscure Paul McCartney and Wings song to him, he went limp and silent in my arms. So I sang it to him over and over, pacing the length of our ranch-style home every night for hours at a time. Finally, blessedly, the colic ended.

My younger son, on the other hand, approached life with steely determination. Think Chuck Norris out to get the bad guys. The boy quickly sized up a situation, identified his goal, and set about achieving it. His first conquest was the couch. It was cute at first to watch him grunt and struggle to pull himself up off the floor and onto the seat cushions. But after he achieved that, he set his mountain-climber sights on the couch’s arm, then the side table, and then the side-table’s lamp, which was not going to end well. We had to keep an eagle eye on that kid!

But with each new objective his desires outpaced his abilities at first. He would try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, getting angrier and angrier all the way. Soon his frustration would consume him and he’d just cry in hard fury, turning brick red and gasping through his sobs. I’d collect him into my arms, fall back into the big comfy recliner, and rock while I sang to him just hoping he’d catch a breath! At first this would make him cry harder, as if he was determined to stay angry. But soon he’d start to relax, and the crying would ebb, and finally he’d breathe easy. This gentle Paul Simon song was easy to sing quietly to him and soon I sang it habitually. After a while, just hearing me sing it calmed him.

Do you have children? What songs did you sing to them?

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2012.

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Personal

Reflecting on 20 years in Indianapolis

2014 is turning out to be a year of many anniversaries and passages for me. I’ve been sharing many of them; here’s another.

On the circle

I moved to Indianapolis at the end of August in 1994. My 20 years here can be divided into two 10-year periods: before and after my wife decided not to be married to me anymore.

Terre Haute doesn’t get much positive press, but I liked the small-city vibe and enjoyed living there. It was remarkable that I could find work in software development there, as the city wasn’t exactly a high-tech hub. But when the company I worked for started to fail, I knew it was time to go. I wanted to stay in Indiana, and the jobs in my field were concentrated in Indianapolis. So I got a job and an apartment here. I reflected once before here that I struggled to adapt to the bigger-city life, but I think I’ve finally done it.

A year later my girlfriend moved here and we married. Our marriage was a disaster, and it’s better for everybody that it ended. The last couple years we were together and the couple years it took for our divorce to work through the legal system were deeply destructive. They were the worst years of my life. I came out of it with considerable emotional damage that took me a long time to work through.

I suppose the best response to divorce is to build a better life afterward, and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve accomplished a great deal in my career. I’ve pursued my interests: writing, cameras and photography, and the old roads. I’ve made a comfortable home where I’ve raised my sons, at least on the days our custody agreement places them with me.

I’ve doubled down on parenthood. I’d wanted marriage and children from the time I was a teenager. But my marriage was filled with strife, and I was exhausted and depressed so much of the time that I lacked the energy to be the dad I’d always wanted to be. I still think it’s a shame that my sons didn’t get a whole, healthy, and functioning family. But what they have gotten since the divorce is a whole, healthy, and functioning father who has done his best to raise them into fine men.

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Music, Stories Told

Singing to soothe my sons

I have three sons – a stepson grown and gone, a teen, and an almost teen. I was there when the younger two came into the world. I did my best to be a good dad to my baby boys, though I freely admit I enjoy parenting more and more the older they get! Naturally, my fatherly duties included soothing them when they were unhappy or sick. Like most kids, they’re unmistakably like their mother and father but night-and-day different from each other. But when they were in distress, they both calmed down when I sang to them.

The older son was good natured from the start. It’s as if he awoke every morning and said to himself, “I think I’m going to have a happy day,” and then set about making it so. He filled his days with big smiles for everyone who caught his gaze. He encountering everything – toy, television show, meal, our dog, other children – with such joy and delight you’d think it was long lost and beloved.

The colic that plagued him the first nine months of his life stood out in stark relief. Things started going south for him each day by late afternoon. By the time I came home from work he was fully miserable and wailing like an air raid siren. His frazzled mother immediately handed him off to me and and disappeared into the kitchen to seek relief (and make dinner). Now, I cared about my poor son’s suffering. But honestly, I mostly just wanted his eardrum-piercing shrieks to end. Seriously, you could hear the boy out in the yard even when all the windows and doors were closed. I quickly figured out that holding him to my chest as I paced through the house calmed him some. I tried singing to him as I paced and found that some songs calmed him a little while others had no effect. I tried every song in my repertoire. When I sang this obscure Paul McCartney and Wings song to him, he went limp and silent in my arms. So I sang it to him over and over, pacing the length of our ranch-style home every night for hours at a time. Finally, blessedly, the colic ended.

My younger son, on the other hand, approached life with steely determination. Think Chuck Norris out to get the bad guys. The boy quickly sized up a situation, identified his goal, and set about achieving it. His first conquest was the couch. It was cute at first to watch him grunt and struggle to pull himself up off the floor and onto the seat cushions. But after he achieved that, he set his sights on the arm and then the side-table lamp, which was not going to end well. We had to keep an eagle eye on that kid!

But with each new objective his desires at first outpaced his abilities. He would try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, getting angrier and angrier all the way. Soon his frustration would consume him and he’d just cry in hard fury, turning brick red and gasping through his sobs. I’d collect him into my arms, fall back into the big comfy recliner, and rock while I sang to him just hoping he’d catch a breath! At first this would make him cry harder, as if he was determined to stay angry. But soon he’d start to relax, and the crying would ebb, and finally he’d breathe easy. This gentle Paul Simon song was easy to sing quietly to him and soon I sang it habitually. After a while, just hearing me sing it calmed him.

I’m reflecting on this today because tomorrow my older son, still the good-natured optimist, turns 15.

Do you have children? What songs did you sing to them?

I’ve always loved to sing. It soothes me and lifts my spirits. Read that story.

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