The self we lose

That’s my mom.

Young, vibrant, confident, and just starting out in adulthood. I believe this picture was taken before I was born.

In the photo, I both see and don’t see my mother. It’s my mom, yet, it’s not my mom. The simultaneous feeling of the familiar and the unacquainted wrestle and dance inside my head. I recognize her instantly, yet that recognition doesn’t map to my experience.

The feeling’s a bit like the one you had as a kid the first time you saw one of your teachers outside the classroom, walking an aisle of the grocery store, you were like “wait, I know you . . . . but what are you doing here?? and why are you buying Kraft Macaroni and Cheese? You recognize that teacher, but they’re out context.

In this picture, my mom is out of context for me. I think its because at the time of the photo, she had not yet assumed the role of mother. The person in the picture is a purer, undefined by role version of my mom, and that’s what emanates from the photograph — its a version of my mother that I never knew.

Our relationship with our parents is so rigidly defined by role, we tend to see them as mom or dad only, as caretaker or protector only. Parents rarely reveal their true selves to their kids — I’m not sure why. There’s no written rule stating “Don’t let your children know who you were before you became mom or dad”, but that’s what we do — we keep that part of our self, to ourselves, almost instinctually it seems.

The photo made me realize how little I truly knew of my mom; that most of what I knew of her was based on the bits and pieces she revealed to me as caretaker, protector, mother. The rest of her — her core self — her fears, what she wanted for herself, and the things she thought about in the dark of night, remained hidden from me.

The photograph reminds me how parenthood ushers in a new phase and sense of self, distinct from who and what you were before taking on that role.

I think this transformation was more impactful for women of my mother’s generation, many of whom chose to put off careers or ventures that might have fulfilled them in different ways than motherhood.

It’s a risky proposition, becoming a parent. How will the sense of self we lose, measure up to the new self we become? The potential for reward, matched equally by the possibility of regret.

Some find their better-selves as a parents, others struggle, or feel a sense of loss and sadness at the self they left behind. In my mother’s waning years, I can’t help but think she felt some regret and sorrow.

My mom was a good mother. She relished the role – threw every once of herself into it. She instilled in her 3 children a sense of responsibility and a love of learning. And I think she was proud of her effort and the results.

We all get a certain amount of time on this earth. My mother, like many other moms, put her pre-parent ambitions and untapped capabilities on hold, dedicating her time and energy to motherhood. I suspect she felt the impact of that tradeoff.

When you put everything you’ve got into nurturing your kids, you sometimes lack the energy, or simply run out of time, to nurture your self. It wasn’t until later in life that I understood the enormity of that sacrifice, and the love that fueled it.

Free Play Gone


Some 48 years ago, my parents (perhaps over a glass of wine and a scotch), decided to move the family to Aquidneck Island — where I was raised, not far from the ocean, in a neighborhood of shabbily constructed raised ranches — where on warm summer days, squinty-eyed kids staggered zombie-like from their garages or front doors, pop-tarted, sugar-smacked, and ready to roll.

We played ball (whiffle, base, foot, basket and stick) in our backyards or in the street — we rode bikes everywhere, we red rovered red rovered, and kicked the can against a near perfect backdrop of New England sunsets and warm summer breezes, to a generous and harmonious soundtrack of crickets, peepers, and nightingales.

We hunted salamanders in the woods and flash-lighted our way to collecting night crawlers for fishing expeditions at the town reservoir, to which we walked unattended by adults, poles over our shoulders, sun warm on our backs, our conversations held together with lite laughter and kinship.

The entire summer we hardly interacted with Mom or Dad except at dinner time, which was had around the dining room table without exception.

And so it was on Aquidneck Island I stayed, met my wife, raised 2 good boys and 4 dogs — the latest, a pocket sized pit bull, full of spittle and spunk, who envelops me in rhythmic doggy snores as I write this piece.

What strikes me most on this stroll down memory lane is the magnitude of change in parenting over a single generation. Our generation, handicapped by socioeconomic conditions requiring two working parents, and a feeling of fear and mistrust (largely unwarranted), the flames of which were fanned by continuous exposure to 24-hour cable news, which made us believe we could never leave our kids alone, that they had to be within earshot or eye sight 24 hours a day, less someone steal them away forever — and so it was by these phenomena, that free play, that priceless gift and ever-important ingredient in child development, was killed.

Gone are the days when kids gathered at a park or in someone’s back yard to organize on their own and “get a game going” — sadly, this has been replaced by regularly scheduled league games on sun-splashed well-manicured fields with perfectly chalked sidelines and clipboard-carrying, whistle-blowing, score book-keeping adults shouting out instructions while pacing in front of tight-jawed fathers in sunglasses and bermuda shorts (newspapers tucked firmly under their arms), whilst antsy, floppy-hatted moms in folding chairs with cup holders, try to capture every moment of play on their iPads or cell phones.

I think we’ve forgotten the value of free play on uneven surfaces where the end zones were marked by a rock and a tree, and the sidelines were guesstimated according to natural or not so natural boundaries and, most importantly, where kids worked out the teams and the rules and addressed issues that arose without “expert” interference by adults.

As my children walk into adulthood, I wonder about the absence of free play and the implications of an overly-scheduled, overly-structured, and, quite frankly, overly-parented childhood.

Triple Jumps and parenting bumps


I took a nice long walk last night.

It was cool outside, a noticeable contrast from earlier in the day, when the weather was summer-like, hot and humid; one of those days when you actually feel the weight of the heat pressing down on you.

I spent most of my day at Brown Stadium in Providence, trying (unsuccessfully) to escape the sun while watching my oldest boy compete in the RI track and field state championships.

He had high hopes going into yesterday’s event, but ended up not performing to his own high standards.

He jumped 40 feet in the triple jump, just one half inch short of making the finals.  He leaned back just as he landed on his final attempt, instinctively putting his hand down, which is where the scorer is required to mark the jump.

After the meet I could see the disappointment in his eyes – I could feel it in my heart; a weighty and palpable sorrow.

I told him how proud I was of him and that he had a lot of good things to build on for next year.  And though no truer words have ever been spoken, the actual act of speaking them felt somewhat forced, as if the words themselves had been shoved out of my mouth by a reflex for parental decorum. And no sooner had the final syllable left my lips did I find myself wondering what effect, if any, a father’s words have on his 17 year old son – no matter how pure and heartfelt the sentiment.

At 17 my son is clearly working through his own shit. I can see it on a daily basis. And my second go-around at 17 (I will call it P17 for Parent of a 17 year old) has been almost as challenging as my first go-around (when I was actually being 17).

As a P17 there is an almost constant “contents-under pressure” need  to impart wisdom – like I am itching to step up to the plate, to be the rudder, the sail and the beacon of light all at the same time.

The P17 phase of parenting is kind of like the Olympics – it’s the triple sow cow moment with all the high stakes (your child’s future) hanging in the balance. Sure it’s stressful, but you feel pretty confident that you can nail it. You feel more than ready to dispense advice that will shed the light, ease the burdens, clear the paths and lighten the load.

But here’s the rub. That 17 year old, the one you think stands to gain the most from your knowledge, experience and wisdom, that person who you love so much it hurts, seems (quite recently so) to barely be able to stomach the sight or sound of you.  And if ever a moment existed where we actually feel “deflation” as a human emotion, it is when we as parents come to realize this.

Sharing a kind thought or dispensing advice to someone who does not even want to hear the sound of your voice is emotionally draining. I suspect this is why that moment after the track meet felt so forced and unnatural. My son hardly ever rebuffs me in a disrespectful manner (he is too good a kid to do this); – it’s more like he is tolerating me.

The parenting paradigm shifts at 17.

In general, with regard to experience, we rely on what has worked for us in the past to formulate strategies for the present. Like everything else, memories of our parenting successes are stored and hardwired in our brains.

We have memories of spoon-feeding advice to our 5 year old or our 10 year old child, and them gobbling it up, to generally positive results.  So this is what we continue to do – we continue to advise our 17 year old as if he were still that 5 year old child (because our brain is telling us this is what worked in the past).

To assume this will yield the same positive results is to assume that your 17 year old son’s brain has not evolved – that it remains in the “accept input and act on input” mode. But this is not the case at all, because that brain in your seventeen year olds skull is no longer just accepting input and applying it. Nope, that brain is trying to work a lot of shit out on its own.  In fact that 17 year old brain is busy mapping its own morality, using as input not only all that you have fed  it, but  an un-ending amount of experiences from a world that more often than not,  appears unjust and uncaring. That brain is trying to reconcile a lot of inconsistencies.  A lot of them.

Sometimes I find myself practicing what to say to my 17 year old son – rehearsing and choosing my words carefully – in hopes that this will increase the likelihood of him at least contemplating my words.  It’s like all of a sudden my son’s brain has morphed into the star wars defense system and my words are missiles to be shot down.  I am not sure when this parent child relationship turned into the cold war – but I remain hopeful that all the effort we as parents put in early-on also get stored into memory. And none of this will deter me from dispensing advice.

Sorry Jake, that’s how I roll. 🙂

Small town dust-up forces dad to think about dirty dancing and sexual mores


Last week the Middletown high school principal cancelled the student’s homecoming dance less than half way through the festivities.

Apparently, juniors and seniors were protesting a ban on a type of sexually suggestive dancing (known as grinding) imposed by the administration earlier in the school year.

The protest included a sit-in, as well as a profanity-laced chant directed at the principal, who took to the microphone to admonish the students and to warn them that the dance would be cancelled if they continued to protest.

Mind you, at 50, the only thing I grind are my teeth. But, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years most, you’ve probably seen examples of this type of dancing. If not, just flip your channel to MTV or an episode of Jersey Shore (or any reality TV show for that matter) and you’re bound to bump into some grinding.

Truth-be-told, I am not bothered by it when I see it. I certainly don’t avert my eyes or act as if I am disgusted by it – I am old, but I’m not dead. That said, it’s funny how views on sexual expression shift to the right in matters that involve your own kids.

The story of the cancelled homecoming dance unfolded in real-time through social media, which is a good thing, because the part of the brain that enables humans to articulate verbally is slow to develop in teenage boys, of which I have two.

When I asked my older son what happened, he simply said “We rebelled”.

Here’s something I’ve learned as a father of two teenage boys – If you want any details about what is going on in the life of your teenage son, be prepared to ask more questions than a New York Times investigative journalist, and be accepting of the fact that almost all his responses will be one or two-word answers. It’s an exhausting exercise in futility, like trying to draw blood from a stone.

Over time, I received a full accounting of what happened. That which I did not learn from interrogating my sons, I gleaned from the local TV news, our town’s daily newspaper, and most interestingly, Middletown Patch – a local community web site and public forum (I am including a link to the Patch article at the end of this post – it provides an interesting and entertaining take on small-town mores and values)

But the point of this post is to peel back the layers of my reaction to my son’s response to the question “Do you grind?”

Now, if I were to describe my older son (and my younger son for that matter), I would use terms like kindhearted, intelligent, well behaved and socially modest. My wife and I have raised our sons to be respectful of his elders and mindful of the rule of law, and to not act like a jackass in public. Our boys have always held up their side of the bargain – they’ve never gotten into trouble – basically, our two boys are very good kids.

To be honest, I just could not envision my son grinding away on a dance floor – it just seemed. . . I don’t know. . . out of character. Still, I was a bit nervous to even ask the question – perhaps I was afraid of the answer.

A few days after the dance, I was sitting in my living room – my son was across the room on the couch. It was just us; my wife was in the kitchen. That’s when I decided to let the question fly:

Me: Hey, can I ask you a question?

Son: Sure

Me: Do you grind?

The words seemed to hang in the air between us.

Son: “Sometimes”.

This is where things got interesting from my perspective – because I could almost hear my brain working – it was as if my brain and myself had separated momentarily – my brain, grappling with the word “sometimes” struggling to come up with an appropriate response.

And then I heard my self say (rather sternly) “Ask yourself if you would dance that way in front of me or your mom or your girlfriend’s parents – and if the answer is no – then DON’T! ”

And that was pretty much the end of the discussion – but not the end of me thinking about it.

I wanted to understand why I said what I said – because honesty, when I replayed my own words – in my own head, they sounded like total horseshit

Here is what I think happened:

I had no mental frame of reference on which to formulate a response – meaning, my brain searched its database and came up empty :


I remember feeling agitated at his response – I think that feeling was my brain throwing up its hands in exasperation – and that’s when I spat out my horseshit response.

So, what have I learned?

I learned that my kids and your kids live in a society drenched in sexual imagery and their dancing is a reflection of that society and we would have to lock them in a closet, throw out our televisions, take away their smart phones, unplug their computers, cancel our magazine subscriptions, turn off the radio and erase what has already been burned into their memories in order to put a halt to the grinding or the urge to grind, and that our best bet is to tell our sons to respect their girlfriends and to tell our daughters to respect themselves and to not get overly concerned with how they dance and to not judge a kids character by what they might do on a dance floor, because, after all they’re kids, but at the same time tell them that people are watching and people will make judgments and that if they get carried away on a dance floor expect to be called out by a teacher or a chaperone and if that happens be thankful that someone is reigning you in a bit and letting you know it’s time to cool it.

Here is the link to Middletown Patch article:

40 percent chance of rain, 95 percent chance of extinction


I was sitting on the couch – my son across the room with his smart phone in hand – head tilted downward.

Without lifting his head he flatly stated that there is a 95 percent chance that the human race will be extinct in 9000 years. I immediately thought this was an opening argument for why my wife and I should spring for his school field trip to France. But not a single syllable followed. Apparently he just wanted to share a little sunshine.