Beginnings

I remember the day perfectly. 

I strode into the room, beaming with pride, my infant daughter strapped to my chest. Four months after becoming a dad, I was still full of energy and excitement. 

Underneath it all, however, I was terrified. I didn’t know any at-home dads in my area, and more than a few people in my social circle had expressed concern about the decision to put my career on hold while my wife pursued hers.

So when I read an ad about a New Parents play group in my town, I leaped at the chance.

“Hi, I’m calling about your play group.” 

“Yes, tell your wife we meet Tuesday mornings.” 

“Oh it’s for me.” 

“What?” 

“I’m an at-home Dad.” 

“Oh.” 

“I hope that’s ok. I don’t want to intru—” 

“Not at all. Can you come in two weeks?” 

“Sure; thanks!” 

“Not a problem.”

Looking back, I realized I fell victim to a common occupational hazard for therapists. When you spend your day reading between the lines, you tend to relax after hours. This means sometimes you miss some very important social signals.

When the day arrived, I dressed up my daughter in her very best playwear and headed to the group. I approached the mat where the moms were sprawled out, playing with their infants and toddlers. 

Not a single dad in sight. I took a deep breath, and kneeled down to unleash my daughter from her chest carrier. 

The moms bolted up in unison, like a tribe of meerkats. “Hi,” I said, extending a hand to the nearest one and introducing myself.

The tallest mom took my hand sheepishly, with the tips of her fingers, anxiously looking at her friends for guidance. Suddenly I wondered if I’d remembered to bathe.

“This is my daughter,” I said, trying to break the ice. My daughter — far more socially skilled than me — had already identified a playmate, and was admiring his toy truck.

Another mom spoke up. “I think there are some dolls over there for your daughter.” 

Without a chance to think about the gender stereotypes being offered, I said “oh thanks,” and immediately went over to look at the pile where she was pointing. I didn’t find any. 

When I came back, the moms had scooped their kids and were huddled together at the crafts table. At the opposite corner of the room.

Soon it was time for play dates and birthdays. Most moms were easy to schedule things with at pickup and drop off, but there was always a subset that seemed a bit leery. It was especially tough if they were moms of kids my kid wanted to hang out with. 

I’d introduce myself and ask them to call or email me if they were interested in a play date; but if they were, they’d call or email my wife instead (my wife runs two businesses and gets a ton of messages daily).

“They probably think you’re trying to hit on them.” 

“With a wedding ring on and a kid strapped to my chest?”

Scenes like that would repeat themselves over and over with some moms. With others, thank goodness, I was just a fellow parent. And when one would actually call me, it felt like I’d just been asked to the prom. 

When the time came, we enrolled our daughter in a highly recommended preschool some miles away. There we found some very progressive families, who marveled at we were doing. I can’t tell you what a shot in the arm that was. 

Soon our second daughter was born, effectively doubling my parenting duties as well as pleasures. Though I dreaded the hourly highway commute three days a week, I loved meeting a new kind of parent: one totally at ease with my being an at-home dad.

“I saw you on TV!” A kind journalist dad I met on Twitter had given my name to a local TV producer who was doing a story on at-home dads. She interviewed me and I was on the 5, 6, and 11 o’clock news.

“Oh thanks. Should I have worn Spanx?”

“Ha! You and your youngest looked great!”

Two years ago, we made the decision to move closer to the towns where we had our offices and were quickly making all our friends. A couple of days before moving, I was approached by a neighborhood mom while volunteering at a school function.

“Hey, I heard you’re moving.”

“Yeah.”

“Where to?” I told her. 

“Why?” 

Long story perhaps for another time, but I gave her the edited version. “Well, we never quite fit in here, and are looking to move closer to friends and work.”

“Yeah. Maybe it’s because you’re an at-home dad.”

“Excuse me?” I didn’t know whether to be more appalled at the sexism or the directness.

“I mean, to be honest, I don’t think too many of us are really all that comfortable with the idea of a man staying home and raising kids.” 

“You don’t say.” 

“Yeah, makes you wonder what’s wrong with him.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like I don’t know, can’t he find a job?” 

“You mean work outside the home.” I suspected this wasn’t the time or place to bring up gender or the notion of unwaged labor. “You know I have a private practice.”

“Oh I didn’t know that.” 

“Been seeing patients once a week since the girls were born.” 

“Really. I thought you used to be a professor or something.” 

“I was. I gave that up to become a full-time dad.” 

“Ok. But you know what I mean. It’s just weird.”

Under other circumstances, I’d have asked her to elaborate, but I decided otherwise. “Well thank you for your honesty and take care.” I offered her my hand to shake.

“No problem.” Then she surprised me. 

She didn’t take my hand, but gave me a warm hug instead. “Good luck with your move. We’re going to miss you and your wonderful girls.”

“Thanks.” I let myself cry just a little bit in the car on the way home. Still don’t know if they were happy, sad, or angry tears though.

A year later, I got a call from a colleague looking to refer a patient to me. I thanked her and asked what made her think of me.

“I saw you on TV last year with your daughter talking about being an at-home dad. I thought that kind of took balls.”

I thanked her.

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Catholic in America

Quite the controversy was stirred up recently when it was revealed that Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island had asked Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) to refrain from taking communion. The reason?

Here’s the bishop himself offering a synopsis:

“He attacked the church. He attacked the position of the church on health care, on abortion, on funding,” Tobin said. “And that required that I respond. I don’t go out looking for these guys. I don’t go out picking these fights.”

You could have fooled me, Your Excellency.

“Attacked.” Pretty strong words. I think if you ask most people, “attack” brings up notions of adversary or enemy. So according to the bishop, Patrick Kennedy is the enemy of the Catholic Church, at least in Rhode Island.

Why? Ah yes, he “attacked” the position of the Church on health care and abortion. Did he really?

I don’t know. But here’s what I wonder.

I wonder if the people who seem like the Church’s greatest enemies aren’t doing them the greatest of services. I also wonder if love and devotion is always and everywhere expressed through cognitive agreement.

I also wonder who or what I’m hurting if I call into question the “morality” of holding health care reform hostage to the abortion issue. Am I really supposed to keep my mouth shut on these or other matters of morality simply because I’m no longer a Catholic?

I think some would have us believe that Catholics, Christians, or the religious in general enjoy an exclusive right to speak with authority on moral matters. They might even suggest that whenever something is done in the name of religion it should enjoy an automatic immunity from criticism or critique (especially of the internal variety).

I couldn’t disagree more.

You see, I question the genesis of the Stupak Amendment. I wonder if it was ever really designed to serve the anti-abortion cause. I wonder, instead, if its timing doesn’t reveal it to be a legislative hand grenade lobbed in the general direction of a President and his party.

And speaking of morality, I also question the morals of threatening to withdraw aid to the poor if lesbians and gays are granted equal protection under civil (not natural, not canon, but civil) law in the District of Columbia.

In recent years, I’ve come to question whether the only legitimate way to oppose abortion is to support its re-criminalization. For a bit longer, I’ve questioned whether making abortion a litmus test for membership in the Catholic communion reduces the faith to the status of a political movement, or ties its fortunes excessively to those of a particular political party.

I’ve also wondered out loud whether it’s pastorally, theologically, or morally appropriate for bishops or priests to use what Catholics consider to be a sacrament – the body and blood of their risen Lord – as a political weapon to punish dissident Catholics.

I also question whether such practices are in keeping with what many regard as the bishops’ highest function: to be a pastor.

Is it any more appropriate to withhold Communion from a seeking parishioner than it is to withhold food from a misbehaving guest to one’s home? How about from one’s misbehaving child?

When parents threaten to withhold food, does this suggest to the outside observer that they’ve got matters firmly in hand, or that things are getting a little out of control?

What would you do if you heard a parent threatening a child this way in a public place? Would you get angry or upset? And would you walk away simply because “that’s an internal family matter?”

Or would your humanity and concern for the (spiritual) child – or awareness of the significance of (spiritual) food lead you to say, “hey, bishop, wait a minute, hold on, time out!”

Lastly, back when I was a “capital C” Catholic I heard some pretty interesting things about the sacrament of Communion. Among those were its description as a transformative encounter in more ways than one.

There’s the transsubstantiation, to be sure, the mysterious conversion of bread and wine to the body and blood of someone who conquered death (and did this in order to pay the tab for everybody). But there was also something about transformation of souls.

I ask myself this: isn’t it possible that administering the sacrament of Communion might, in and of itself, change hearts? On things like abortion? Or the pastorality of using the Host in particular ways?

Now this is just a hunch, and I could be wrong, but let me share my suspicions anyway.

What if those who refuse to acknowledge possibilities like the foregoing don’t believe enough in the power of the sacrament? Logically, then, they’d have to resort to their own powers – ministrations, exhortations, and other behaviors – to make the things they want to happen take place.

I wonder, then, what would happen if they stepped out of the way a little bit and just let the sacrament do its work.

Back when I was considering becoming a priest, I had a spiritual director who said that Catholics who didn’t fully believe in the power of the sacraments weren’t bad or evil people, simply not fully converted Catholics. I’ve never been able to shake those words or their effect on me.

Anyway, those are my pastoral, moral, and theological concerns with the bishop’s actions. Here are my political ones.

Whenever any cleric applies political pressure to an elected official of their faith, it undermines a particular kind of trust. The voter in a pluralistic society which believes in the separation of church and state needs to believe in the independence of their elected officials from their church.

Not divorce. Not marriage. Independence.

Of course, in a theocracy, none of this matters. But we’re not a theocracy, at least not yet.

Let’s say you’re not Catholic. What incentive could you possibly have to vote for someone who’s at risk of having to answer to their priest or bishop instead of to you, her constituent?

Let’s say you are Catholic, and would dearly love to see more of your people elected to higher office. You thought the days of anti-Catholic prejudice were over, when people accused people like Jack Kennedy of being an agent of the Pope. But now those criticisms are back, and you’re forced to defend your faith and citizenship once again.

The harm to the political fortunes of Catholic politicians in a pluralistic society would be minimized if the pressure were applied behind closed doors. But it’s not. It’s a spectacle now.

The bishop’s actions would be pastoral if the shepherd’s staff were a javelin, but it’s not.

And the bishop’s actions would be great politics if we were a nation of Catholics, and conservative Republicans ones at that.

But we’re not.

As with anything I write, I reserve full permission to revise and extend my remarks on these matters in the face of new and compelling evidence.

Readers, where have I gotten it wrong? Let me know, and I’ll proudly post whatever it is you convince me of in my next post on this topic.

What I’m Learning This Summer

Since I can remember, August has been a time for moms and dads to pack up the car, put the kids in, and take the family someplace else for a couple of weeks or so. It almost never mattered where we went, so long as it involved some form of access to water, typically by means of a beach or pool.

This time, I’ve had a chance to cull some of the more memorable flashbulbs that went off over my head, including some that happened too quickly for me to Twitter.

Whoever said lost time is never found again wasn’t kidding. It’s good to look back, and think of what could have been, or the choices you would have made differently. But if this meditation leaves you, on the whole, more despondent than inspired to live your remaining years better, you’re probably doing it wrong. Try again or just let it go altogether, is my new motto.

Kids are the best thing that’s ever happened to many people, and this is precisely why parenting is so treacherous.

Loving your kids doesn’t mean turning them into your everything or (even worse) only thing. It goes without saying it doesn’t mean turning them into obligations, nuisances, or other impediments to personal happiness.

Most of all, it doesn’t mean treating them like extensions of yourself, good or bad, or as personal self-esteem farms. Thanks in large part to the way lots of us were raised, I think this is a particular peril we have to struggle to avoid as parents.

More than anyone, Shakespeare taught us there a huge difference loving someone a lot and loving them well. King Lear loved a lot, but it took a Cordelia to set him straight on some of the basic skills. For fellow baseball fans, it’s the difference between having a big swing and an accurate one.

Our nation is still ruled by bullies and thugs. Count me among those who thought the election of Obama might herald a new age of decency, if not respect for people with more brains and compassion than brawn and bullying.

One sad lesson of the healthcare debate is that — and there is just no nice way to put an uncomfortable truth — vast stretches of the electorate are easily manipulated by lies that appeal to their hatred of fellow Americans.

Death panels? Honestly, come on! What kind of person believes this kind of horseshit?

And can we please have an honest appraisal of the motivations of the birthers, deathers, and many of the tea party types? Just ask yourself: where were their protestations over the size of “gubmint” when a white president was wiretapping wirelessly, hijacking congress to give money away to the rich through the reconciliation process, or bankrupting the nation and sending people off to die in a purposeless war?

Answer: sitting comfortably, at home, guns in hand, cheering a white president on.

At times it’s almost felt like I was reliving the worst part of the nightmare that was the Reagan years: when our society found a way to make greed, racism, nativism, and hatred of the poor fashionable once again.

The arguments against health care reform that don’t directly appeal to bigotry are just laughable on their face.

“It’s perfectly appropriate to bring a gun to a town hall, no less when the President is scheduled to attend.” I’m sorry, I’m just speechless.

“A public option is the same as socialism, and is tantamount to a government takeover of health care.” Oh, please. Just because your parents and teachers spent their lives teaching you to hate the word “socialism” doesn’t mean you have to.

Do the the educated among us still have a knee-jerk hatred of all things German, Italian, or Japanese now that World War II is over? And guess what happened to the Cold War?

Oh yes, and public libraries put bookstores out of business. Sure. Just like public schools did to private ones.

“We can’t allow people to have a public option because we love freedom, and things like options are the antithesis of freedom.”

“We can’t allow a public option because people might take it.”

“We can’t allow government to enter the marketplace — it might succeed!”

“While I’m personally on board with a public option, I have to vote against one because the conservative folks in my district might not like me very much otherwise.”

“I have to vote against a public option because we won’t get Republican votes otherwise, and that’s the most important thing of all.”

“I have to vote against a public option because we won’t get a bill through otherwise, and that’s the most important thing of all.”

Please.

Learning to Love Imperfection

My three-year-old daughter gave me a gift the other day.

She handed me a motorized toy with gears and spinning wheels, the very first one I’d ever bought her, and still one of her favorites. “Here, Daddy,” she said. “This is for you.”

“Oh, thank you, sweetie,” I said. “Is this for me to keep?”

“No, Daddy, it’s for you to fix.” Cuteness incarnate.

“All right, then, let me see…looks like it might need fresh batteries.” I quickly retrieved a fresh pair, along with one of those all-in-one screwdrivers, and immediately sat down to work. With my trusty assistant by my side, of course.

Time passed and effort was expended without the desired result. “Sweetie, I think it’s broken.”

Then, without missing a beat, she scooped it up and held the hulking mass to her chest. From behind the toy, she spoke in a tone just as sweet and beautiful as her initial request. “That’s OK, Daddy, I love it anyway.” Then she carried it back to her play kitchen, where it has occupied a place of prominence ever since.

After I wiped away a tear, I got to thinking.

What if we could learn to cultivate such a loving, happy, and carefree relationship with imperfection? How would we treat the imperfections in the world, our circumstances, each other, and ourselves differently if we could only say, with a sigh of affectionate acceptance, “that’s OK, I love you anyway?”