Do you want to build a Tower?

Parenting a toddler is like being on a roller coaster. There’s the anxiety that comes with the climb (when a tantrum is looming or an almost slow-motion fall is about to happen). This is followed by the thrill of the ride itself (including some laughing, crying, and the occasional vomit). The ride is both fun and scary as hell. This particular ride just happens to come with many lessons along the way.

One such recent lesson came while playing with building blocks. My daughter can play with these little plastic accidents-waiting-to-happen for hours. Our simple process for playtime with blocks is this:

  • In an homage to her favorite Disney Princess, Anna, I emphatically sing my adaptation of “Do you want to build a snowman?” called “Do you want to build a tower?”
  • She proceeds to dump the blocks out in one, big, messy pile.
  • Daddy is responsible for building the base, as evidenced by the screaming of “DADDA” until the base is constructed.
  • Daughter stacks as many blocks as her little self can physically manage.
  • Like a baby version of Godzilla, she knocks them down when it is no longer possible to go higher.
  • She proceeds to laugh maniacally like a cartoon villain.
  • Repeat (about 20 times).

blocks

As an educator without an off-switch, I can’t help but want to help her. I try to build a base around her stack of blocks. I take blocks from the pile and suggest an order. She, of course as a budding independent toddler also lacking an off-switch, wants nothing to do with any of daddy’s suggestions. Sometimes, I have to tilt the stack, so she can stretch and reach one more. When she’s done, we usually celebrate. When she knocks them over, I want to be frustrated. I wonder how such excitement can come from destroying something you have worked hard at forever (or in toddler terms – 3 minutes). However, my daughter meets the knocking or falling down of her colored blocks with an enthusiastic scream and cackle. I can’t help but, eventually, join her in that laughter.

This whole process and subsequent reflection has taught me something about my work with students. How often do I try to dictate how they build their tower? How often do I get frustrated for them, when they are OK with the result? Maybe my role is simply to build and hold that base, let them build, cheer emphatically, and support them when they want to tear it all down and start over. Many people in helping professions, education specifically, often get too fixated on the end result (passing the test, getting the job, walking across the stage with diploma proudly in hand) and less on the process and the learning that comes from it. Either way, a tower is getting built. Let’s allow students the freedom to choose their blocks and their structure, instead of us carefully handing them the blocks one by one and prescribing to them what comes next. This way, they get the tower that they want – and all the laughter and learning that comes with it.

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Finding joy in the mess

Life gets messy. Well, life is usually messy.

I am uncomfortable with messes both of the literal and figurative variety. I like things in order. I am a ENFJ and have Arranger in my top 5. My Outlook calendar is color coordinated. A cluttered desk gives me anxiety. Leaving an issue unaddressed causes me to toss and turn throughout the night.

None of this compares to being the dad of a growing, running, get-into-everything, toddler. If you think life is messy, wait until you have a kid.

Last night after a particularly challenging messy few days at work I was home feeding my daughter her dinner. On the menu: pasta. I know what you’re thinking. Yes, it was messy. Dinner usually is. Sippy cups being hurled across the room, vegetables being dropped on the dog, and thoughts of “how the hell did sauce get all the way over here?” set the scene. I stand ready, armed with paper towels, eager to wipe away the first glimpse of sauce. This is our usual routine.

Thinking my 17 month old can and will understand her dad’s appreciation of order in this chaos, I grab her spoon. I attempt to feed her the pasta, so to make less of a mess. If there is one thing toddlers like more than flinging food around, it is a sense of independence. My wanting to feed her was no match for her desire to now play with the spoon. The spoon transformed into a comb, something to poke dad with, and a paint brush (to add color to her clothes). Then, like a child genius experimenting with physics, she learned how to use the spoon to launch her food in a new and fun way. Once in a while, she would attempt to use the spoon as intended, but that was short-lived. She would go right back to using this simple utensil in other fun ways. I suppose there is a lesson in that, too.

Through my obvious and visual frustration, there came a moment; a special and important one which I will never forget. As I am wiping up the floor, moving everything out of the way so it does not get covered in sauce, I look up in defeat and anguish at my daughter. Seemingly out of nowhere, she laughs. This wasn’t a giggle or a chuckle, but a full on toddler belly laugh. You probably know the kind. The kind that could put a smile on the face of anyone. After a few seconds, I join her. Eventually, the two of us sit there laughing, playing with her food, and enjoying the mess.

While this may never be something she remembers, it is one of those parenting moments I will cherish forever. This night taught me something important; to find joy in the mess. Like trying to feed a toddler, life’s messes are impossible to avoid. They happen. We don’t get to choose our messes or when and why they happen to us. What we do get to choose is how we respond to them. We can feverishly try to clean them up, frustratingly so when it doesn’t happen as quickly as we would like. Or, we could pause, take a breath, laugh, and enjoy the mess with those around us.

At the end of the day, the furniture was still its original color, the immediate sauce splash zone cleaned, and the toddler restored back to her normal skin color from the orange-red tone the sauce gave her. The mess was eventually cleaned. Unlike other messes, however, this one provided a memory because we found the joy.

mess

Photo taken during last night’s mess. 

A letter to myself the night before becoming a dad

The following post is my reflection after one year of being a dad. It is written as a letter to my past self the night before becoming a dad. I read lots of books, posts, and articles offering advice to new dads, but none of them seemed to capture it for me. Hopefully at least one new dad can find something helpful about the advice below.

Dear Tim,
You are patiently awaiting the birth of your first child. Emotions are high, but excitement is most present. Well, that and anxiety. You still don’t know if you will be dad to a daughter or son. Looking back over the last year, here are some things you need to know about being Mackenzie’s dad.
You’ve never wanted anything more. You picture yourself as a dad often, but you have no idea what it will really feel like. It’s almost indescribable. The love you have for that little girl is more than you ever thought you had to give. The feeling of walking in the house after a long, stressful day and seeing her smile will instantly make it all go away. You’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. When you are holding your daughter, it’s as though nothing else in the world matters but her. You will be protective, very protective. It’s an instinct you did not know you had. It will be all the things they say; tiring, exciting, hard, fun, and joyful. More so, it will be OK. Daycare drop off will hit you harder than you can imagine. You will sit in the car and cry. Doctor’s visits that bring little scares will shake you at your core. You will feel as though someone is reaching inside your stomach and twisting and squeezing. You’ll also learn that Google is the enemy. Call the doctor. Trust your instincts, but for the love of God, do not ask Google for medical advice. The results will confuse and scare the hell out of you. Similarly, don’t listen to all those preachy parents; you and your wife will know in your heads and in your hearts what is best for your daughter. In the end, it will all be ok.
Don’t let the hard moments frustrate you. Sure, waking up at 2am on a work night is not ideal. You’ll be frustrated and that is OK, but know this; there is no feeling quite like being able to console your child. You will miss those 2am cuddles on the rocker as you rock your baby girl to sleep. One day, you will yearn for them. Cherish these moments and embrace them.  You will stand over her crib nightly, gazing at this beautiful little gift with tears in your eyes. Speaking of tears, you will cry a lot. It won’t take much. In the hardest moments, she will be there to make you smile or laugh…and that might make you sob. Though she can’t communicate, it will become abundantly clear that this little one loves her dad. And there is no better feeling than that.
You will love watching your parents and your in-laws bask in the joy that only grandparents know. You will be more connected with them than ever before, because all of a sudden you get it. You know what it must have been like for them and you appreciate it so deeply. Their love of your daughter and willingness to help will be very important.
Speaking of love, your love of your wife will strengthen. You will be amazed by her strength and forever grateful for what she endured to bring you this precious gift. You will watch her as a mom and fall more deeply in love with her than you ever have been over the last 12 years. Who knew this crush you had in high school would become your person and your partner in life? Tell her she is beautiful. Take her on dates. Make sure you pay just as much attention to her and let her know how much in love with her you are and how much she means to you. You will be thankful, more so than ever, that God brought the two of you together.
There are some small and random, though important, pieces of advice too:
  • Always have the clean diaper in position and ready when changing diapers. You’ll be amazed how far fluids can travel.
  • Speaking of diapers, always put one on after a bath and before putting that adorable and expensive towel around the baby.
  • Don’t buy all the things they tell you that you need. Wait and see if you need them first.
  • You’ll be “that parent” on social media. Embrace it proudly – people who want to stay engaged will.
  • Always bring an extra set of clothes with you everywhere. You will be shocked by how much poop can travel out of both a diaper and pants and onto you, making for an embarrassing visit to the doctor’s office.
You always roll your eyes when people tell you it will “go by so fast.” Believe them. It does. One day, you will sit with her, playing in the kitchen and just cry. You will wonder where the time went and why the hell it won’t slow down. At the same time, you will be proud. You will be excited to see her next steps (literally and figuratively). You can see the amazing person she is growing up to become and it excites you.
No one is perfect, but you will be perfect for her. Being a dad is a learning process. Be patient with yourself. Trust your gut. Know that you will do the best that you can do, and that’s enough. You will love being a dad. It will change you.
Sincerely,
Mackenzie’s dad

Parenting and a new perspective on balance

We live and work in a culture where our work defines many of us. Vacation days go unused, parental leave is worse than in most other countries, we are connected to work 24/7 with mobile technology, and the 9-5 is no longer the norm.

I am currently in the final stages of building a house, am still less than a year into a new job, and have a 1 month old. These are, as they say, 3 of the top 5 most stressful things a person can endure during his lifetime, yet I am the least stressed I can ever remember being. Here’s why; it all comes down to perspective.

My perspective on balance changed a month ago when my daughter was born. I quickly have switched from living to work from working to live. My job, though it provides me with tremendous meaning, pales in comparison to the sense of joy, responsibility and meaning I get when I am at home with my family. Parenting as taught me to be selfish. I say no, regularly. If it is outside the scope of my job and/or it takes away from my family, it is not important enough for me to say yes to. You would think this makes me less available and “worse” at my job. However, the opposite appears to be true. I am overall happier, more focused, and better at prioritizing because my time is more precious. I no longer live for my work, which really helps me to see things more clearly, not take things too personally, and to set healthy boundaries. These all make me a better professional and a better dad. I don’t bring my stress and problems from work home the way I used to.

Before I was a parent, I lived for my work. It is what gave me my greatest meaning. Working with college students, I feel that my work matters. The growth and development of my students came before my own needs and caused me many late nights, long weeks, taking things too personally, and lack of sleep. The crazy thing is I did not seem to mind. I was driven by this sense of being a part of something bigger than myself and by playing that important role in the lives of students. I am still driven by this, but it’s different now. I have a new found drive at work. I work with some incredible students who will one day change this world and impact it in profound ways, all of which my daughter will be the beneficiary of. I get out of bed and leave my family every morning to work with these students, so that they can grow and develop into future teachers, psychologists, activists, researchers, doctors, etc. that will make this world a better place. Not only has becoming a dad taught me how to be better balanced, it has also reinvigorated my sense of purpose for working in higher education. The two things (work and home) are mutually beneficial to each other and are firing on all cylinders.

I think working parents are often accused of having a “convenient excuse” and that expectations of parents in terms of balance may be unfair in comparison to those of non-parents. I can’t definitively say that either is or is not true across the board, but I can say this: balance is as much, if not more, about the person and not about the system. You are in control of much of your own balance. Don’t believe me? Look at your calendar right now. How many of the obligations (especially outside of “normal” work hours) are necessary for the successful fulfillment of your job duties? Struggling? Try this question instead: “Will I be fired for not going to this?” I am willing to bet that you can eliminate at least an hour or two of obligations by taking that perspective. It should not take becoming a parent to see this. I should have learned this a long time ago. Being overtired and busy, because I chose to, did not make me better at my job; it made me worse. When we are healthy and balanced, we are our best selves at work.

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What could you eliminate from your schedule and what would you do for yourself with that time?