Here Is What This Dad Learned Marching with His Son Last Saturday

Last Saturday, resisting the urge to remain in my warm bed, I attended the Women’s March in Nashville. Along with my wife, toddler, and mother-in-law, I gathered with thousands of Nashvillians marching through the streets, waving signs, chanting, cheering. I marched not because I am a model citizen; rather, a tiny voice inside me said either get your ass out of bed or stop complaining about the election results.

Initially, I felt uncomfortable in the the large, diverse crowd (an introvert’s nightmare) but the vibrating energy was contagious and reminded me why I was there in the first place–my son. I want him to learn to appreciate women and treat them as equals. I want him to witness strong, committed women in action. I want him to do a better job of treating women with respect than I did as a boy.

Marching through the streets not only felt good it also opened my eyes. Here is what this daddy learned at the Women’s March:

We need to trust women. I know this is not an earth shattering insight, but we really suck at it, especially when it comes to decisions related to a woman’s body. Reproductive issues are complicated and involve varied circumstances, so let’s not pretend we know what is best for a woman in every situation. We live in a nation that prides itself on giving people choices; therefore, I don’t understand why we have such a hard time allowing women to decide what is in their best interests regarding health care. At the end of the day, women deserve the right to make the final decision about what will be done or not done to their body. It’s THEIR body. So, back off and let their conscience guide them.

Our children deserve better. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or Independent or apolitical, I hope we can agree the lack of decency this past year was disturbing. I’m bothered by the barrage of name calling, mocking, shaming, and bullying our kids witnessed from adults. Our sense of decency swirled down the toilet bowl. Now, parents are navigating through a hostile climate where hate groups feel comfortable crawling out of their dark corners, spewing their warped ideology. It would be foolish to pretend our children do not hear them. If we don’t reject hateful behavior, then what does that say about us as parents?

We need each other. The Women’s March reminded me how much parents need each other to get through the next four years. It will be so easy to wallow in cynicism, isolate ourselves, and quit caring about what our children are absorbing. But if we make an effort to stay connected we can lean on one another and share our collective energy to keep spirits high. Resisting the hatred, bigotry, and ignorance is going to require a community of like-minded people who share the burden. If I don’t find it, I will buckle under my despair. I’m reaching out. Are you with me?

Oh, on a lighter note, below is my favorite sign from Saturday’s march.

Unexpected Teachers: Toddlers and Spiritual Lessons

I triple check stove knobs before leaving the house, recount pages in stapled assignments, and proofread text messages long after hitting the send button. At my worst, in the middle of the night, I lie awake debating whether or not I closed the garage door. My desire for control pervades my daily life; it ranges from stove knobs to completing tax forms to remaining hydrated. I desire control so much I decided my best way to cope was to father a child.

“Parenting is like wearing your heart outside your body for the rest of your life,” a friend warned. My son’s birth created an unprecedented test for my inner control freak. While he rested in my palms, I experienced a new level of vulnerability. I felt a complete loss of control.

As my son developed from sleepy infant to wide-eyed toddler, my need for control was further challenged. My son hurls himself off furniture, launches into walls, and bangs his head against hard surfaces. He does these daring activities with a smile on his face.

Children are like little mirrors. My son’s wild exploration of the world reflects back to me my control seeking behavior. He reveals to me my own issues, weaknesses, and unresolved problems. I do not raise him to provide myself with accountability, but it comes with the package.

I like to think my compulsive need to control his environment is a noble act—a sign of a good father—but I know there is more going on inside me. The twenty-five pound mirror in front of me reveals a larger picture.  He shatters my illusion of control.

The truth is I want to prevent my son from experiencing pain because I don’t want to be reminded of my own vulnerability. I don’t want to face the reality of my own fragile nature. I don’t want to face the reality of living in a harsh world, a world where I am not in control and at risk of pain and suffering. This is an unpleasant reality that my furniture-climbing toddler forces into my awareness.

Children are often unexpected teachers; miniature prophets speaking truths we can no longer see. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” Jesus announces. He spoke these words to his disciples who questioned the presence of children. The disciples, like us, often need to be reminded to remove the barriers between ourselves and the innocent, clear eyes of children.

What do the children in your presence reveal? If you listen closely and observe their actions, they might reflect back to you the places within your heart where spiritual growth is needed. Children have a knack for exposing our blind sides–the ways we deny, manipulate, and seek control. They disclose our attempts to force life into our own hands.

Recently, at nap time, I noticed my son’s small stomach rising and falling in a beautiful rhythm. Of course, he was unconscious and relying on his body’s autonomous systems to perform the essential act of breathing. In that moment, it dawned on me how little control I have over his life. I can pour endless energy into carrying out his best interests, but ultimately his existence is in the hands of the God who created his beautiful stomach. My son is given to me not to control, but to receive as a divine gift. And the best way to respond to a gift is appreciation, not control.

Loosening a tight grip on life can feel like a step into darkness, but the good news is when we embrace our lack of control, we make room for God to work in our lives. A new space is formed within our hearts. A space where we can relinquish our petty control attempts, and place our lives (and our loved ones) in God’s hands, where they belong.

A Grown Man and An Animated Tiger: Lessons Learned from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

I glance at my iPhone.  The display reads:  8:00 A.M.  It’s time for Daniel Tiger. I push the power button on the television and set the channel to our local PBS station.  A small, round-face tiger, wearing a red sweater, appears on the screen and sings,  “It’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a land of make-believe, won’t you ride along with me? Ride along! Won’t you ride along with me?” Henry, my toddler son, smiles and directs his attention to the singing tiger. “Da-na,” he says.

I sip my coffee and read the news headlines on my iPad.  In the middle of an article, I hear Daniel announce: “Dad is taking me and my friends to the clock factory.  And YOU’RE coming too!”  I wanna go. Daniel, along with his father and friends, walk into the clock factory. The walls are covered with fancy clocks displaying moving arms. “Hey, do you want to make-believe with me?” Daniel asks.  Of course, I do. I follow the animated tiger through a sparkly, clock fantasy examining up-close cogs and wheels.

After the exciting exploration, Daniel’s father calms us with the episode’s mantra:  “give a squeeze, nice and slow, take a deep breath, and let it go.”  I take a deep breath.  And let it go.  “Da-na,” Henry says. Fast forward. Daniel’s father teaches us how to count on a clock face, which leads to chime time, a magical time involving synchronized chiming.  The clocks sound while lights flash. I want a job at the clock factory. I wonder if they offer benefits.

My wife and I refer to Daniel Tiger as “DT.”  It’s our go-to show in the mornings. DT is practically a family member. If you are not up to date on children’s television, (neither was I until the last year) Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is based on the classic children’s show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  DT is the son of the original Daniel Striped Tiger from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; the other characters who play with DT, such as Prince Wednesday and Katerina Kittycat, are also children of original characters. The show aims at preschool-aged children, and focuses on teaching them emotional intelligence and respect for others through basic lessons like sharing and speaking kind words.  You know–neighborly behavior.

So, here’s the thing:  I love DT not only because he offers creative, virtuous lessons for my child, but also because he reminds me of the values I need to be a kind, generous, and moral person. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood intends to speak to small children, but at it’s core are universal values and behaviors appropriate for people at every stage of life. And let’s be honest, we all need an occasional reminder regarding neighborly behavior.

In some episodes, I feel like the playful, computer-generated tiger speaks directly to me.  What does this say about me? I don’t know.  I think it says I am an imperfect human being that often forgets the behaviors necessary for a well-lived life. You know how when you go to church (maybe you go to synagogue, mosque, or temple) and find yourself spiritually fed by the children’s lesson more than the sermon?  This is how I experience DT.  There are days when I need a deep, thoughtful, and reflective teacher, but there are also days when I need DT’s simple, yet wholehearted, message to feed my soul. There are days when I need someone to speak not in parables, but in direct, concrete words.

I believe the world would be a better place if everyone watched an episode of DT in the morning. Below, I want to share with you a few of my favorite lessons.

All feelings are okay.  It’s important to embrace the range of feelings we experience–from sadness to joy to anger to disappointment.  Expressing our emotions allows us to be fully human.  Sometimes emotions are frightening and get pushed down inside us.  We need supportive friends to help us feel safe and comfortable with our feelings.  All emotions are not only okay, but an essential part of our humanity. Check out DT’s soothing song about feelings from episode “Someone Else’s Feelings.”

Empathy is necessary. In the episode, “Empathy at School,” DT teaches the importance of intentionally placing yourself in someone else’s shoes, and how it can go a long way in preventing damaged relationships. It’s a simple, preventative act that moves us outside ourselves and connects us to the humanity of others. Refusing to honor the feelings of others contributes to the never ending cycle of emotional, physical, and spiritual hurt in the world. We empathize not only to avoid creating pain, but also because it’s the right thing to do.

You gotta find a way to play together. Living in a neighborhood requires compromise.  For the best interest of the neighborhood, we need to recognize our way of doing things may not always be the most helpful approach.  Perhaps the way we are familiar with worked in the past, but it no longer works.  We need to listen to others and consider their approach.  Finding a way to play together is necessary to promote a joyful and playful neighborhood. (DT demonstrates comprise in the episode “Daniel Plays At The Castle.”)  Easier said than done, but it’s the only way to live in a real neighborhood.

Feelings, empathy, and playing together are a few of the topics explored. If you tune into the show, you will find endless wisdom.  DT and friends constantly remind children and parents about the importance of neighborly behavior. In fact, when I wake in a foul mood and act like a toddler, my wife straightens me out.  “Go watch DT and calm down,” she says.

The Gaze, Picasso, and Fatherhood

I adore the first picture taken in the hospital of me and my newborn son.  My eyes gaze on the small face resting against my chest. The dark rings below my eyes, formed from my wife’s two and a half days of labor, extend to the top of my cheekbone. I tilt my head to study the tiny features of the face cradled in my hands, only a few hours old. My soul intertwines with the nine pounds of soft flesh sleeping in my arms.  A sacred beginning unfolds.

In Pablo Picasso’s painting Mother and Child, I recognize a similar gaze.  At six months old, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Henry and I viewed Picasso’s famous painting.  A mother, draped in a white robe, her infant sitting in lap, tilts her head downward to look in the child’s eyes. She resembles a classical sculpture more than a living person; her large, round features provide the child a harbor.  They are tethered by the mother’s body language.

I hold the picture of myself and Picasso’s painting side-by-side.  My gaze in the photograph sets the tone for my relationship with my son. The bald, blue-eyed creature becomes the center of my world. Early in the morning, I wake with him and stare into his eyes, while I sip my steaming coffee and feed him a bottle. Upon finishing, breast milk runs out of the corners of his mouth as they raise into a smile.  His face reminds me of my holy responsibility as a father.

The mother’s gaze offers protection from hostility; the child anchors down in her crossed legs.  The emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of the infant is underpinned by the mother’s eyes.  I imagine only the child in the picture, lying on the floor, mother absent, and emptiness overcomes me.  A connection lost.  A foundation of support vanished.

Picasso painted Mother and Child following the birth of his first offspring.  I discovered at the museum he included a father early in the creative process, but painted over him for the final version.  Why did he remove the father?  Did he believe only a mother can nurture a child?  I envision the father standing next to the mother and child.  He gazes into the child’s eyes.  The gaze knows no gender.  Its roots are in the soul of both men and women.  It sprouts from a divine place.  A child arrives and a light switches on; suddenly, we witness the most gorgeous creature.  Mother Nature has performed her finest work.

I don’t know the reason Picasso removed the father.  I do know when I look at the picture of myself and my son a few hours after his birth, a warm sensation fills my chest.  It reminds me how naive we are to categoricaly divide motherhood and fatherhood, as if they have been cleanly severed.  The relationship is complex.  “Fatherhood and motherhood aren’t separate conversations, despite the unique parenting experiences you find at any single point on the gender spectrum,” writes Jason Tucker.  I wholeheartedly agree, they are entangled.

How do we define fatherhood?  We discuss it alongside motherhood, because parenting a child is more complicated than the portrayal offered by Picasso’s painting or society’s narrow gender roles.  Both are fluid, not static.