When Jay and Wally become an excuse to be less generous than I should

A couple weekends ago I waffled on whether to be kind to a stranger.  Jay, Wally, and I were at the playground and Jay found a smartphone face up in the wood chips.  There was only one other family at the playground.  They said it wasn’t theirs.  I knew, then, who had left it behind.

Twenty minutes earlier there’d been another family at the playground- a dad with his young son.  The boy was maybe 7 or 8 and he and Wally had crossed paths for a moment when they’d put their hands on a rope swing at the same time.  But it was the dad I remembered most clearly.  He was about my age with a closely cropped beard but he stood out in particular because he hadn’t been wearing a shirt. His chest was cut in the way of someone who lifts weights a lot, and he had a tattoo of a cross on his chest that split his pectoral muscles and came down nearly to his belly button.  All told he gave off the distinct air of having been in prison.

It was obvious that the phone was his, and now I held it in my hand and didn’t know what to do.  Had this man instead been a cute park mom or a square Joe dad like me I have no doubt I would have taken the phone home and waited for the owner to call.  But given the likely owner’s actual appearance I wasn’t sure I really wanted to get involved in his life.  I considered placing the phone on a picnic table and I reassured myself that he was sure to race back to the park and find it there.

At the same time I knew that if I left the phone out it might get rained on, or someone else might come along and take it, or the man might never realize where he’d left it.  The right thing to do was obvious but the easy way out was so tempting- I knew I could leave the phone behind and let the whole incident fade away like vapor.  It was only after some hemming and hawing and a quick phone consultation with Caroline that I drove home with Jay and Wally and the phone sitting beside me in the passenger seat.

There are a number of things I could say about this story.  I could write about the flimsiness of my own biases or how surprisingly easy it can be to wash one’s hands of another person’s problems.  But what I really want to write about is how being a father may have actually made me more ethically indecisive than I should have been.

Jay and Wally have certainly deepened my ethical commitments.  I care about their welfare more than I do my own.  When I hold Wally and look in the mirror I’m much more interested in his reflection than I am in mine.  In that sense, becoming a parent has deepened my attachment to people outside myself.

But I’ve noticed that in other ways being a parent has made me ethically softer.  One easy example of this is my attitude towards resource conservation.  I used to be real conscious of how much stuff I consumed and I’d go way out of my way to economize and recycle and reuse.  Now I put bags and bags of diapers out to the curb each week and do my best not to imagine the landfill where they’ll end up, and when it comes to buying a new swing or a second baby monitor, I don’t hesitate if I think it’s going to make my life as a parent easier.

It’s inevitable that Jay and Wally will increase my carbon footprint.  But there are also times when I justify not doing something I should, thinking, “My life is already stressful and tiring.  I’m fulfilling my ethical quota just by being a good dad.  Maybe it’s okay if I don’t bother to rinse out this peanut butter jar before putting it into the recycling.”

The same kind of thinking applies to the way parenthood has affected my relationships with other people. As I wrote last year around the Fourth of July, some of my ethical obligations to Jay and Wally come at the expense of my ethical obligations to other people.  I imagine I’m a little less likely, say, to risk my life to save a stranger now than I was before becoming a father, because I feel like I owe it to Jay and Wally to stick around to take care of them.  It’s all pretty complicated, but I think there’s no doubt that becoming a parent shifts one’s ethical commitments.  As a society we understand and encourage parents to put their commitments to their kids above their commitments to other people.

At the same time I sometimes use my status as a parent to justify being less generous with others than I know I should be.  It’s usually small things, like whether to text rather than call friends on their birthdays, or how much to spend on a wedding gift, or whether to fly across the country to be with a friend who’s having a hard time.  I see myself all the time trying to justify the easier, cheaper, less time consuming way out based upon the idea that I’m already giving so much to my kids.

Which brings me back to the smartphone.  In my indecision I remember thinking,  “I’ve got Jay and Wally to think of here, so maybe it’s ok if I don’t go out of my way to get involved with a man who’s almost certainly done hard time.”  Of course, the whole excuse was a stretch: the tattoo didn’t mean the guy had gone to prison and even if he had, what was he going to do, repay my kindness at returning his phone by smashing Jay and Wally’s carseats?  It was pretty thin reasoning, which is to say, I was surely using Jay and Wally as an excuse to look the other way because that was in fact what my weaker side wanted to do, regardless of how many kids I have.

But I did take the phone home.  The four of us sat down to lunch with the phone resting ominously on the kitchen counter.  Within ten minutes it rang.  The ring tone made me jump.  It was a rap song and the phone display said “R Jay” was calling.  I tried to answer it but my finger was wet and I couldn’t immediately figure out how to operate the touchscreen and after swiping at the phone frantically for what felt like an hour, I ended up missing the call.  “Great,” I thought.  “Now I’m sucked in even deeper.”

The phone rang again five minutes later and this time I managed to answer the call. I was worried that after failing to pick up the first time the guy might be thinking that I intended to steal his phone so I rushed out an explanation: “Hi my name is Kevin I found this phone on the playground and I don’t know whose it is but I really want to give it back can you help me.”  It was a woman’s voice on the other end.  I heard her say, away from the phone, “someone’s found it.”  Then she handed the phone to a man who said the phone was indeed his.  I asked if he lived close to the playground.  He said that he did, and we agreed to meet there in five minutes.

I took Jay with me (kind of for cover, kind of to keep him out of Caroline’s hair while she put Wally down for a nap) and by the time we reached the playground the man was already there, sitting in the passenger seat of a small SUV driven by an older woman who I took to be his mom.  He and his son got out of their car and Jay and I got out of ours.  As we walked across the parking lot towards each other I couldn’t decide whether to lead with the cellphone or a handshake and decided at the last second to get him back his personal property first thing.

He was wearing his t-shirt now and was quite grateful.  I told him I hadn’t been sure whether it was best to leave the phone on the playground so that he could retrieve it or to take it with me, and he said that he was so glad I’d done what I had.  We talked for another minute or so about our kids’ ages and about how during the summer he and his son walk through the playground every week on their way to the public pool.

Then we turned to go.  As he walked back towards his car I heard his son ask him, “Are you guys becoming friends,” and his dad gave a reply that I couldn’t quite make out as I ducked my head into our car to strap Jay back into his seat.

Off-camera, a glimpse of Jay’s real feelings about Wally

At weddings I like to watch the groom’s face when the bride first walks in. I remember my friend Charles looking eager and nervous, and my friend Arthur broad-faced and beaming. I like that moment because it’s one of the few semi-private moments at a wedding. All the guests are standing and looking to the rear of the church. No one’s looking at the groom and the groom probably isn’t thinking about himself either. You can tell a lot about a person by the expression on his face when he thinks no one is watching.

Which brings me to Jay. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how he feels about Wally. There’s a good amount of evidence, direct and circumstantial, that he might not care for him.

To begin with, dozens of times a day Jay goes out of his way to make Wally’s life harder. He takes his toys and knocks him over. His favorite move is to block Wally’s way by standing in front of him and moving side to side as Wally tries to get around.

Beyond that, it’s not hard to come up with reasons why Jay might not like Wally. Caroline and I try to hold Jay responsible for how he behaves. We correct him. Sometimes we yell at him. At the same time, we never yell at Wally. This is how it should be, of course, given the boys’ different ages. But sometimes I imagine that in Jay’s eyes it seems like we’re always getting on his case while giving his brother a free pass. Whenever Caroline or I hear Wally cry, our first response is always, accusingly, “Jay, why is your brother crying?”

In terms of our affection, I could understand why Jay might feel edged out by Wally. Last week both boys were sick and miserable and as a result, clingy and needy. Often they were both whining and both wanted to be picked up. In those cases the tie always went to Wally. I knew I could explain to Jay- or at least try to- why he needed to wait and go sit on the couch, whereas with Wally, there was no other way to get him to stop crying besides giving him the affection he wanted.

About a week ago the four of us were at home eating dinner. It was towards the end of the meal and Wally was getting silly as he often does once he’s decided he doesn’t want to eat anymore. He was making this funny “voooo” sound by putting his lower lip behind his top front teeth and then blowing out a v-sound. “Vvvvvooooo!” Wally’s parents were pretty charmed by it. Caroline and I started making the sound back to him, and giving him mischievous glances, and all three of us were laughing a lot.

We’d been doing this for a minute when I started to wonder about Jay. He was sitting quietly at the other end of the table from Wally. I was curious to know what he was making of the scene- our attention concentrated fully on his adorable younger brother while Jay sat off to the side.

What I found was reassuring. Jay was fully engaged in the moment, even if he wasn’t saying anything. He was kind of leaning forward in his seat, he had a broad smile on his face, and he was looking at Wally with unabashed affection. I thought I even detected a note of pride in his expression: Look at what my little brother can do.

Since that night I’ve made a point of trying to catch Jay in these off-camera moments. I always expect to see him looking bored or disinterested or aggrieved, but his expression is always the same. He seems charmed by Wally and happy and secure in his role in the family even when he’s not the center of attention.

I like to think that it’s these moments- more than when Jay’s elbowing Wally out of the way or pinning him on the living room floor, that show how he really feels about his brother.

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The feeling that comes when you can’t take care of your kids

One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had as a parent was teaching Jay and Wally to drink from a bottle. It went the same way for both boys. Several weeks before Caroline started her post-doc last fall, I started taking Wally and a bottle down into the family room to practice. Day after day he flailed at the bottle with his lips. Eventually he’d get so upset that all possibility of drinking was gone, and we’d retreat back upstairs and I’d hand him to Caroline to nurse.

The whole experience was almost as frustrating for me as it was for him. I despaired that he’d never get it and I felt powerless to do anything to help him. You can lead a baby to a bottle, after all, but you can’t make him latch.

Eventually Wally did get it, though. It gave me such a wonderful feeling to hold him in my arms and watch him drink- to know that now I had the ability to take care of him come what may, to provide for him, to give him what he needs in life.

I was thinking of Wally on the bottle this morning because lately I haven’t been feeling like such a good caretaker.

Wally’s been sick since Sunday. Jay brought the cold into the house from preschool but Wally got it twice as bad. He was up most of the night Monday and Tuesday, moaning like a cow, too congested to sleep. The congestion made it impossible for Wally to eat, too. Or rather, it made it impossible for him to keep what he did eat down. He’s had an extremely sensitive gag reflex his whole life. When he’s sick he gags on his phlegm and chokes up everything in his stomach. It’s truly diabolical. For two days this week he absorbed barely a calorie. And he’s already down in the single digit percentiles on the weight charts, and falling as of his last pediatrician visit.

By Wednesday he was feeling better, though. That morning he and I were in our backyard while Caroline packed with Jay for a three day work trip to D.C. I was working on my computer and Wally was climbing the porch stairs. He was on the third step when he fell. I saw the whole thing. He went head over heels, but slowly, and kind of controlled. After he settled at the bottom of the stairs I actually had a moment to think: Wow, that was not nearly as bad as it could have been.

He started to cry. I picked him up and as I brought him to my shoulder I noticed his mouth was full of blood. Inside I rinsed his mouth with water, and that’s when I saw the hole where one of his lower front teeth had been. Caroline changed out of her work suit into jeans and brought Wally to the dentist. The good news was the whole thing had come out, root and all. As they left the dentist’s office, Caroline reported that they passed another little boy about Wally’s age, coming in with the very same problem.

So that had been our week when Jay, Wally, and I sat down to breakfast this morning and talked about how Mama would be home from her trip tonight. While Jay ate his cereal I fed Wally- who was still congested from the night’s sleep- little teaspoon-fulls of raspberry smoothie. He ate steadily for about ten minutes but then he started to gag. And once he starts to gag there’s no stopping it. His morning bottle, a few cheerios, and the smoothie came pouring out of his mouth, one spurt, and then another, down his bib and onto his plastic tray.

For a moment I just sat and looked at him, feeling too defeated to move. There he was with snot and breakfast on his face and his stomach empty, and the exposed gum, still a little bloody, where his tooth had been. There are few feelings in the world that I’ve experienced that are worse than feeling powerless to provide for your kids. It’s a type of total failure that eats away at every other aspect of life.

You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here

We’d been awake for less than fifteen minutes yesterday and it was already clear: There was no way we could spend the morning at home.  After a fitful night of sleep I could see in Caroline’s eyes that she, like me, could not bear the thought of putting even a single slice of bread into the toaster.  Before we’d even stepped out of our pajamas, the pitch and chaos of our house were approaching levels usually only reached just before dinner.

So we made a break for it and headed to Pinckney State Park, which we’d been meaning to visit ever since moving to Ann Arbor.  While the boys tussled we assembled diapers, bottle, wipes, sunblock, sweaters, money, keys, phone.  All of Jay’s underwear was in the washing machine so we made him go commando in blue jeans.  For Wally, who’d never worn anything but slippers before that morning, we selected a pair of hard-soled sandals.  Caroline strapped them to Wally’s feet.  He stood in the driveway, perplexed at first.  Then he leaned against the car, feet rooted to the ground, and whimpered.

As we drove west on 94 the family mood settled quickly, and indeed, nothing simplifies the board like strapping two kids into their car seats.  I mentioned to Caroline that this morning was a good example of how it can be surprisingly useful to arrive in an untenable position- a situation so obviously and unsustainably unpleasant that you just have to do something to change it.

We stopped first for breakfast, at Zou Zou’s Cafe in Chelsea, a place we’d visited last fall.  Not only did Jay recognize it, but he remembered we’d capped our previous visit with a cookie with rainbow sprinkles from the glass display case in front of the coffee bar.  When he brought this up suggestively, Caroline explained that although it might seem like he’d perceived a pattern, the world is in fact more complicated than meets the eye, and eating a cookie does not follow necessarily from visiting Zou Zou’s.  Moments later we went to order and were hit with another inexplicable turn: 9:30am on a Saturday morning and they were out of bagels.

We had breakfast wraps instead and then followed signs up M-52 to the park. The map at the trail head indicated that it was about a mile to an overlook above Crooked Lake.  After months of seeing pictures on Facebook of friends’ camping trips, I was feeling especially eager for a good walk.  We set off, Wally on my back, Jay beside Caroline.  The trail wound through a new growth forest, rising and falling, and a few times we pressed to the side as mountain bikers barreled through.  Wally, for lack of anything else to do, began to tickle my neck, and howled with delight as I scrunched my shoulders dramatically in response.

After twenty minutes of walking we still hadn’t reached the overlook and I started to feel nervous.  Every step we walked up the trail was a step Jay would have to walk back and I began to worry that my enthusiasm for the hike was impelling our family towards ruin.  At a water stop Caroline ventured tentatively that we’d already been walking for forty minutes.  I acknowledged grudgingly that we should probably turn around and so we abandoned the overlook to another day.

On the way back Jay stopped short in front of me and we fell into a game where he was a horse and I was a horse driver.  He’d say “This horse is tired” and I’d say “giddyup,” or offer to feed him some sweet oats out of my palm.  When his pace continued to lag I picked up a short stick and explained that when the horse runs out of energy, the horse driver has to use a whip.  Jay asked me what a whip was so I demonstrated by poking him in the back.  He thought this was very funny, and for the next ten minutes we made good time as I prodded him up the trail.  I realized, of course, that I was afflicting my son with a stick to make him walk, which didn’t seem quite right.  But the stick came wrapped in a game that he’d prompted and, really, I couldn’t believe the utter genius of the situation we’d stumbled into.

And yet, it managed to get even better.  Eventually Jay, who’s no fool, said that he was tired of being the horse and wanted to be the horse driver instead.  He picked up a stick and jabbed it into my back.  I jumped and gave a whoop and galloped up the trail, and Jay galloped right after me.  “Oh no, this horse is too tired,” I’d say, and let him catch me, and then he’d poke me again and I’d start off running while he roared with fiendish delight and brandished his stick, all the way back to the car.




On the first day of school, more thoughts about Jay and Wally’s educational futures

This morning I roused Jay at 7am for his first day of preschool.  I dressed him in the gray post-dawn (already June’s endless days feel so far away), and sat him in the kitchen where he ate a piece of toast with peanut butter while I unloaded the dishwasher.  When he’d finished, I wiped the crumbs from his chin and we walked outside to the driveway.  Caroline came down in her pajamas with a t-shirt thrown over top and we took pictures on the front stoop.  Then off we went, through the neighborhood, past intersections where tanned children wearing shiny backpacks waited to cross the street.

Jay cried when I left him at school.  I had to pry his arms from around my neck and kind of thrust him into the grasp of his teacher in order to make a clean get-away.  On the drive home I felt sad and heavy but in that kind of good way that comes from knowing that life is proceeding as it should.  Our house was quiet when I walked back through the front door.  At breakfast with Wally, Caroline recalled the line, “The easiest number of children is one less than you have.”  Indeed, Wally’s clamoring for more smoothie aside, this post-Jay morning made me feel a little like an empty nester.

I’ve spent a lot of the day answering emails that came in response to my article in this weekend’s Washington Post.  The story, if you haven’t read it, is about the considerations and tradeoffs that go into choosing where to send your kids to school.  In it I conclude, with some doubts and reservations, that getting Jay and Wally into the best K-12 schools possible might not be as consequential as conventional wisdom would have it.

The response has been more positive (or at least gentler) than I’d anticipated.  I heard from dozens of parents, the majority of them mothers with grown children reflecting on the decisions they’d made with their kids.  One mother, whose letter I particularly appreciated, rued that job considerations had prevented her and her husband from moving their family from the Washington suburbs to New England, and laid out her advice quite plainly: “Here are my two cents: Go to Maine to raise your children!”

The article also prompted an email exchange with a friend.  He went to a top private school and wrote that he wants a similar experience for his young son for two main reasons: 1) He loved the intellectual stimulation; and 2) The large workload helped him develop a work ethic that has served him well throughout life.

These points are, to me, where the K-12 decision is hardest to resolve.  As I wrote in my article, I think that Jay and Wally will have the opportunity to go as far as their abilities will take them regardless of where we send them to high school.  And I don’t think attending an elite school (public or private) is the only way to stimulate Jay and Wally or to teach them to work hard.  But I do think it helps.

It goes without saying that the material taught at a place like Groton or Punahou (where our president went to high school) is going to be more challenging than the material taught at a typical public high school.  I grew up curious about the world and excited about ideas, and some of that curiosity and excitement was prodded by school.  But I was also bored a lot of the time and I wouldn’t mind if Jay and Wally spent a little more of their 7:30am-2pm adolescent days with their minds on fire.

With respect to working hard.  In a previous conversation my friend had told me and Caroline that he’d worked harder in high school than at any other time in his life.  We were both stunned because our experiences were so different.  All told, I didn’t really learn how to work hard until much later in life (maybe not until I became a parent).  It wasn’t that I was lazy or unmotivated.  It was just that the circumstances in which I grew up didn’t require me to work hard.  So, more or less, I made it into my mid-20s without ever having applied myself with complete commitment to anything.

As I wrote in a post last January, I want Jay and Wally to learn to work hard from a young age.  Both as an end in itself, and because I want them to understand that through sustained, committed practice they can get better at things.  It’s obvious on an intellectual level that hard work produces better outcomes, but I don’t think you can understand that in a real way until you’ve experienced it.  I first began to understand the relationship between hard work and progress a few years ago, when I got more serious about running.  I started running multiple times a week and longer distances and I saw my body change and I felt my fitness increase.  What I learned through running I’ve been able to apply to writing and raising kids.

And I do think I might have learned that lesson earlier in life had my education been more challenging.  At the same time, I think there are lots of ways I can impart this lesson to Jay and Wally that have nothing to do with where they go to school.

There’s a downside, though, to attending school in a challenging, demanding environment.  My friend told me that staying up consistently until midnight to finish his homework took a toll.  For Caroline, this is a main point.  She wants Jay and Wally to work hard and be stimulated but she doesn’t want them to be stressed throughout high school.  Both Caroline and I would err on the side of our kids being a little less challenged if it means they’re a little less stressed.  My friend said he’d err on the side of his son being a little more challenged, even if it means he’s a little more stressed.

The last thing I’ll say has to do with boredom.  And here I admit that things get fuzzy.  I’ve written before about “embracing boredom” and I do think there’s value in being bored.  When you’re not stimulated and not challenged, there’s room for other thoughts to come in.  I like the perspective I get on the world and on myself when things are slow.  Like I said, this is where things get fuzzy.  It seems ridiculous to base major parenting decisions on a line like, “I like the perspective I get on the world and on myself when things are slow.”  But there it is.

As I’ve said, there are no obvious answers when it comes to the K-12 school decision and probably no right answers, either.  At a certain point it comes down to personal experience and intuition and it’s important to remember that there are innumerable paths through childhood that lead to happy, successful adult lives.