The Father-To-Be: Not Expecting the Expected

Perhaps I should have saved this topic for mid-July—thirty-six years after it happened. But since it relates to fatherhood, and yesterday was Father’s Day, I’ll post it today.

I’ve mentioned the “treasures” I found when cleaning some cupboards over the last several months. One treasure was an “all-porpoise” card from my husband to his great-aunt. His aunt saved the card and gave it back to us many years later.

In the card—a Hallmark card, of course—my husband wrote:

“The ‘porpoise’ of this card is to let you know that Theresa is expecting a baby!—or so she thinks. . . . We haven’t told any of our friends yet, but we want our families to know.”

He followed with some family news, and ended with “I hope you find our good news agreeable.”

When he wrote the card on July 14, 1981, my husband was able to refer to it as “good news.” But by that time he had had two or three weeks to internalize his new status as father-to-be.

The story behind the story is that he was quite stunned when I first gave the news to him. He wasn’t unhappy, just incredulous. I think he had understood the possibility of pregnancy on an intellectual level, but the reality was still unexpected. “I can’t believe it” were his first words. His impending fatherhood didn’t really sink in until he saw me too queasy for breakfast several mornings in a row.

He turned out to be a wonderful father. Somewhat strict and a little old-fashioned, but nicer than I was and more patient with childish foibles.

Except on Sunday mornings when the kids didn’t want to get up. Then we were all treated to a rousing rendition of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. That got them out of bed in a hurry.

How did you react to impending parenthood?

Summer Freedom from Generation to Generation

Now that we are well into June, most schools across the nation are out, and kids everywhere are enjoying their summer vacations. Or are they? It seems to me that children don’t have as much summer freedom as past generations had. They may have the world at their fingertips through the internet, but they don’t know their neighborhoods as well as their parents and grandparents knew theirs.

My dad in the years when he roamed Los Angeles

My dad talked about taking the bus all over the Los Angeles area when he was a kid. His family lived in Pasadena from the time he was six or so until he was thirteen or fourteen. He told me he and a buddy would each bring a dime for their excursions—a nickel to travel outbound as far they could travel using bus transfers, and the other nickel to get them back home. From Pasadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, they rode to downtown Los Angeles and beyond. I wish I could remember his stories about all the places they went.

It didn’t seem to bother his parents that he was roaming the streets of a large metropolis in the years after World War II. (L.A. was the fifth largest city in the U.S. in 1940 and the fourth largest in 1950.) He made it sound perfectly normal for a preteen boy to be out on his own anywhere he could travel on public transportation.

A Kansas City-born friend of the same generation as my parents talks about similar bus trips in her hometown. “My mother never knew where I was,” she told me. Kansas City was much smaller than L.A., but in the 1940s the municipality was annexing land for expansion, and it had its own share of crime. I’m not sure I would have let my preteen kids take the bus by themselves, though they did once they reached high school.

By contrast, I grew up in a small town without any public transportation. I could only go where I could walk or ride my bike (and there weren’t many places in town worth pedaling to in the summer heat). In my grade school years, I mostly roamed the fields around our house with my brother or stayed inside and read a book.

Columbia River from near the ferry road access point

When I was in high school, some friends and I did go tubing in the Columbia River on hot summer afternoons. We took our inner tubes to an access point on the old ferry road and floated to a boat ramp maybe a mile or so downstream. The river was cold but the sun was hot, and the water felt great in the dry desert air. Then we’d walk with our tubes back to the ferry access and do it again.

I look back on those times now and realize floating the river was probably less safe than riding the bus in L.A. in 1947. The current was fast, and I was not a strong swimmer. But there was only one time we didn’t maneuver ourselves to shore at the boat ramp. We floated on past as we paddled furiously and reached the riverbank a few hundred feet further on. Then we had to scramble through the rock and brush back to the boat ramp. A little scary, but we all survived, unscathed except for a few bug bites.

Friends my age talk of being shooed out of the house on summer days until dinner time, whether they lived in the country, in towns, or in cities. So freedom was still a part of summer for my generation.

My kids having a summer picnic on our deck. Not much opportunity for exploration. 

But my kids’ generation had a different experience, at least those who were in day care. I can remember making sure my children were enrolled in summer programs during their grade-school years. Their school had a summer program with weekly activities that seemed quite adequate in the primary grade years. But as they got older, they wanted more variety. They went to Scout camps and YMCA camps. They visited grandparents. But I made sure they had scheduled group activities every week. I didn’t want them home alone.

When my son reached middle school, I let him stay home by himself a day or two a week. But I thought a whole week at home by himself was just asking for trouble. When my daughter reached middle school, she refused to go to the school’s summer program any longer. I let her stay home with her older brother—who was in high school by then. They had strict instructions on what they could and could not do, where they could and could not go. They were allowed to walk to the YMCA swimming pool a mile from our house, but they were also cautioned about crossing the four-lane roads and the freeway entrance and exit ramps that lay between our neighborhood and the pool.

So my children had less freedom in the summers than I had, and far less than my father who had all of Los Angeles as his playground. I think it’s one of the disadvantages of having two parents who work jobs with little flexibility.

What do you remember of your summers? Were you free or scheduled?

Working Across Time and Across Generations

My husband and I recently were fortunate to have visits from our two adult children. Our son came for a few days at the end of April, and our daughter was here over Mother’s Day.

My parents and me on one of my solo visits

I remember my mother telling me one time how nice it was to have her children visit by themselves, without their siblings and without their spouses and children. She said she enjoyed being able to talk with each child by himself or herself. And now that my children are grown, I have the same feeling. It is nice to have a crowd around sometimes—over the holidays, in particular—but the one-on-one time is also special.

On these recent visits, it occurred to me how different my life is now than my children’s. And how different their lives are than my life was when I was their age (in my thirties). Each of them spent most of the weekdays they were here on their laptops working. My daughter has billable hour requirements she has to meet, and my son wanted to minimize the vacation days he had to take. Even when they are in their home cities, my children spend some days working from their homes (my son regularly, and my daughter occasionally), so their time in my house probably didn’t seem unusual to them.

In my thirties, I, too, was focused on my career, even though I had kids at that age and they do not. But it was easier in the 1980s and ’90s to separate work and family time. When I was at work, I worked. I didn’t have social media accounts to check, and I had almost no personal email in those days. When I was at home, I dealt with family and household issues. My thoughts might have sometimes been on what I needed to do at the office, but I didn’t have Internet connections and 24/7 smartphone access tethering me to the job. On vacations, I only checked voice mail occasionally.

I could get away from work, at least for a few days. My children do not have that luxury. They have separate work and home laptops, but they have access to everything everywhere.

And my time now? I no longer work solidly from 8:00am to 6:00pm on weekdays, plus several hours on the weekends. My time is flexible, and that flexibility is the primary reason I retired. But I still consider myself to be working. I work as a writer and blogger. I serve on committees for charitable organizations. I take on occasional paid mediation cases. But for the most part, my time is my own to schedule. When I am too busy, I have only myself to blame.

Moreover, I set annual objectives for myself—how much I will write, what marketing I will do, and what volunteer commitments I will make. I also set objectives for family activities. I mark my progress toward all my objectives twice a month, with a formal review about quarterly.

For example, I try to work on writing about 30 hours a week. But that time seems to dissipate in meetings and webinars and blog posts, instead of getting applied toward my novel. In the past two months, I added about 35,000 words to the novel. Not bad, but I wanted to be finished with this first draft by now, and I still have about 10,000 words to go. I will not meet my objective on my novel this quarter.

The result of all this monitoring is that I’m getting far more performance management than I ever got while employed. Even if now I’m managing myself.

I wrote in a recent journal entry, “Retirement life is harder than I thought.” I have to work to retain the flexibility I want while still feeling that I am productive and growing. “How do I find a sense of balance?” I wrote to myself. “Is it elusive in every life and at every stage of life?”

I suppose the answer to each part of this question is yes.

Still, I am glad I do not have a full-time job anymore. Flexibility in work—as in all things—is a benefit. Whether balance comes with it or not.

How has your life changed over the years?


A Mother-Daughter Brunch and Fashion Show

My daughter went to an all-girls high school. One of my favorite events of the year was the mother-daughter brunch held each spring. After the meal at a hotel downtown, the senior class put on a fashion show, with the styles selected from several major retailers in our area. Each clothing store offered a different theme—casual clothes, beach wear, formals, etc.

I loved the fashion shows, which were an opportunity for the seniors to have a bit of fun after four years of hard work. Not every girl in the senior class participated, but most did—even those who were shy or overweight or who never wore anything but the school uniform or jeans. The show was a rite of passage. Kudos always went to the seniors willing to wear a swimsuit in public.

I worked in a corporate environment largely populated by males, and there was more estrogen in that hotel dining room than I was accustomed to. These young women strutted their stuff down the runway, proclaiming themselves young adults now out of the schoolroom as campily as they could. They showed their potential as independent women of the world, whether in bikini or gown or business wear.

My daughter and I attended this brunch all four years. The first three times I watched the show, I looked forward to the year my daughter would be a senior. I anticipated her role. What clothes would she model? Would she enjoy it as much as most of the girls seemed to? What glimpse into her future would I see?

Her senior year finally came. She didn’t tell me much about what she would be modeling, other than that it would be in the business wear section.

When that portion of the show began, I watched the girls parade in skirts and slacks. I saw them as they would be not too long into the future, after their college years when they would—most of them—enter the professional world.

My daughter is in white. Though she’d never wear a tie like that these days.

And there came my daughter. My tall, beautiful, intelligent daughter, striding down the runway in a white pantsuit, looking like the successful attorney she wanted to be.

Like the successful attorney she has since become.

I was granted a vision of the future that spring morning, now fourteen years in the past. I loved it—and her—then. I love her more now. She has become a strong, independent woman—both book-smart and street-smart, athletic, attractive, and caring. I couldn’t have asked for more from a daughter than she has given her father and me over the years.

As I’ve written before, she was my Mother’s Day baby—she has a birthday this week. I look back on her runway day and smile at the past. I smile even more at the present. And I await the future, still smiling.

Happy birthday, daughter!

A Mother’s Speech to Her Son, With Compliments to Kipling

I mentioned in a post in March that I was looking for the speech I gave at my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony.  I’d found pictures of him at that event, but I didn’t know where the speech was.

In another monumental cleaning project a couple of weeks ago, I found the speech! He was sixteen at the time and is now more than twice that age. Re-reading the speech took me back to a turbulent time in our lives. I thought of trying to summarize the speech in this post, but I worked so hard on it at the time, that I think I will just reproduce it here:

I’m in a difficult position tonight—J____ asked me to make this speech personal, but not to embarrass him. That’s a fine line that I’m not sure a mother can walk. But I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to give J____ some advice in the presence of so many witnesses. I have a lot to tell J____  because in this short month of February 1998, J has reached many milestones—he turned 16 . . . he got his driver’s license . . . he was confirmed in our church last weekend . . . and he has now received his Eagle award.

As I reflected on the place of Scouting in J____’s growth, I boiled down my advice to J____ into three themes—pride, prudence, and perseverance.

First, on pride. Many people are proud of you this evening, J____—your father and I, your grandparents, your Scout leaders, and many other friends and family members. Even your sister is probably proud of you tonight. But, as you recognized in the personal statement you wrote for the program, what is most important is whether you are proud of yourself.

When I speak of pride, I mean your own confidence that you have done a job well—and done the job through your own hard work. Your Scouting road has taken ten years from the time you started as a Tiger Cub, and you have achieved a lot during that time. Most of your achievements have been your own doing, and you are justified in taking pride in a job well done.

But along with pride should come a sense of humility. No matter how much energy you invest in yourself, other people invest in you as well. I look around this room at your family and friends and your Scouting leaders, and I am thankful for all they have contributed to your success. You would not be here without them, and they deserve your appreciation, along with mine. I was pleased that you recognized their contributions in your personal statement, and I hope that as you succeed in the future, you always remember to thank those who have helped you along the way. Pride, tempered with humility, will serve you well in life.

My second theme is prudence—by which I mean thinking through the problem before you start, and planning for how to overcome the obstacles. Scouting has enabled you to try many different things—such as camping, backpacking, climbing, and canoeing. Your Scout leaders have taught you to do these things safely—to plan ahead and to be prepared for what might happen.

As you know, I am an avid proponent of planning, and, like your Scout leaders, I try to make sure you think ahead. In the years to come, you won’t always have me to force you to plan. In fact, now that you are 16 and are driving without me, I already need to be able to rely on your good judgment and prudence. I hope that when I’m not there to give you my excellent and prudent advice, you will think back on the Scouting motto, and always “Be Prepared.” You’ve got a wonderful mind, and are capable of doing anything you want, if you exercise prudence and foresight.

My third theme is perseverance—keeping on when the going is hard. You have had to persevere to get here tonight—through times that were difficult, and through times when you didn’t want to continue with Scouts. You worried about getting your Lifesaving merit badge. You didn’t know whether you could get through the Order of the Arrow ordeal. You had other commitments like debate and dramatics—and thought you didn’t have time for Scouts. Despite these difficulties, you kept at it, and you have now achieved the pinnacle of success in Scouting.

You have many difficult goals ahead of you—such as doing well in college and building relationships with a spouse and children,  and being successful in the career you choose. The road to your dreams and ambitions will not be smooth. However much your father and I might want to make the road easier, we can’t. Your own perseverance is the only way to get there. The good news is that you can now reflect back on your Scouting experience to tell yourself that you have done it before, and can do it again.

I recently ran across a quote from poet and playwright W.A. Auden that explains what I mean by prudence and perseverance:

Those who will not reason perish in the act;
Those who will not act perish for that reason.

What this means is that you must think things through before you act—you must be prudent. But you also cannot stop with thinking; you must in the end make a decision, and follow through on that decision—you must persevere. Your Scouting experience has readied you for both reasoning and acting—for prudence and perseverance. Because of what you have learned in your life thus far—in large part through Scouting, I am confident that you will have many future successes in which you will take pride.

I want to end with another quote, this time from Rudyard Kipling. You might recall your father and me reading Kipling’s “Just So” stories to you about the time you started as a Tiger Cub. Kipling also wrote a poem entitled “If.” Every line in that poem has something to say about growing up, but the following lines seemed to match most closely what I have been trying to say about pride, prudence, and perseverance:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowances for their doubting, too; . . .
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same; . . .
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will that says to them: “Hold on!” . . .
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

And to those lines of Kipling’s, I add one more of my own:

Godspeed, J____ on the journey you’ve begun.

My son is much further along his journey now, though I hope he still has most of it ahead of him. He’s done well, and as Mother’s Day approaches, I hope that both he and my daughter realize that the thoughts I expressed in that speech almost twenty years ago still apply to both of them. Every day.

What advice have you given to your children?

A Story I’ve Rarely Told: The A Minus Incident

I’ve mentioned before that I was one of several valedictorians of my high-school class. The six of us all had 4.0 GPAs.

A 4.0 was as high as one could get in our high school—all A grades (A+, A, A-) counted as 4 points. There were no deviations for pluses and minuses, and there were no extra points for AP or Honors classes. (In fact, the school didn’t have separate AP classes, though it offered the tests.) And, in addition, the school only counted semester grades—quarter grades were shown on report cards, but not used in calculating GPAs.

My junior year of high school was my hardest, as it is for many students, then and now. I took six courses—Honors English, U.S. History, Chemistry, French 4, German 3 (straight from German 1, I skipped German 2), and Russian 1. I had no free periods for studying, and I had homework in most of these classes most nights. But through the second quarter, I had all As, and I even had an A+ in Chemistry.

My father at about this era, early 1970s – you can see how stern he could be

For the third quarter, ending in the spring sometime, I brought home a report card with an A- on it and no A+s. I can’t remember which class the A- was in, but I remember my father’s frowning response when he saw the report card.

“You should do better than this.”

We had several dinner discussions about how an A- could be improved.

I’d been disappointed in my grades that quarter also, but I recognized that it wasn’t the end of the world. I’d have to be sure that nothing slipped further in the last quarter of the year to retain my class ranking, but I knew that this report card wouldn’t impact my GPA.

Still, I was angry and hurt at my father’s reaction. This was the man who was chastising me—the guy who got a D in Algebra?

My father’s lack of early scholarship was part of our family’s lore. My mother—also valedictorian of her high-school class—dated and married her classmate who got a D in Algebra the first year she knew him. His problem wasn’t capability, but in his early teens my future father suffered from a poor attitude and failure to do the assigned work.

Somehow my father turned it around (probably my mother’s doing) and later earned a Ph.D., but still . . . his history was that of a D student, which I knew full-well. He shouldn’t be complaining about an A-.

I hid a lot of tears that spring.

Many years later, just a few months before he died, my father and I spoke about the A- incident. My pique still showed.

“I was too hard on you,” he said, “wasn’t I?”

“Yes,” I told him.

At his funeral two years ago this week, his former secretary told me, “Your dad was awfully strict with you kids. I remember when he complained about an A- you received.” So the story had made it to his office. “I told him he shouldn’t give you such a hard time. Wasn’t I right?”

I chuckled and said I’d told him the same thing.

Like my father, I know I was hard on my kids. They were (are) smart and usually were good students. Even though I was strict, as they went through high-school and college, I tried to keep my perspective about their grades, remembering the A- incident with my father. I think I was relatively calm about grades, though I lost my cool about many other things—assignments not turned in, papers forgotten, and disciplinary failures. I’m sure they could describe many times when I overreacted.

I wonder which of my failures they will try to eliminate from their parenting behaviors, should they have kids someday.

When has a memory from your childhood impacted how you parented?

Yo, Mom: An Introduction to the Teenage Years

I’ve written before about our family’s trips to the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming, where we spent a summer week riding horses, except for occasional breaks to hike or go river-rafting. On our last trip in 1994, my son was twelve. It was his third time to the ranch (or the fourth?), and he was an old hand. He relished the freedom from parents that the ranch permitted—most days, the kids had separate activities from the adults.

Son on horseback the day of the “Yo, Mom” incident. He’s holding on in this picture.

One afternoon, the ranch staff had all the kids who were there that week practicing various gaits as they rode across a large open field. I was leaning on a fence nearby, watching the kids show off.

From the middle of the field, my son shouted, “Yo, Mom!” as he trotted by, waving his hands in the air, not touching horse or reins, a big grin on his face. Like Superman, only on horseback. His cocky assurance that he wouldn’t fall off was evident.

I was a little taken aback at his casual greeting. “Yo, Mom?” It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I didn’t know it was part of his.

But he was so clearly enjoying himself that I let it pass. He probably didn’t mean to be disrespectful. He was just moving into the teenage years. A few months early.

In fact, I was amused by the greeting. “Yo” became our calling sign for the next several years. His bedroom was in the basement, and when I wanted him to do something, I’d shout down, “Yo, James,” to get his attention. (I didn’t use it when I was angry, only in good humor.)

“Yo, Mom,” he would call back to signify that he had heard me.

His true teenage years began the week he turned thirteen. That was the week his cocky “Yo, Mom” morphed into talking back at me. I don’t remember what the topic was that week of his thirteenth birthday, but I gave him some instruction, and he sassed me in response.

Talking back and the hang-dog, put-upon sighs of a teenager responding to parents continued for several years. His high-school years were sometimes difficult and tense. He grew more distant when he went to college, and, of course, I couldn’t call down the stairs when he was hundreds of miles away in a dorm.

But he and I both came through his teenage years mostly unscathed. He has become a fine, independent adult. I admire the man he now is. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect that his opinions are thoughtful and well-founded.

Today, that cocky twelve-year-old turns thirty-five. He lives far away, and we only talk occasionally on the phone. I would love to be able to yell “Yo, James,” to get his attention, to have him close by, and to see him more regularly.

But it’s a good thing for both of us that he doesn’t live in the basement anymore.

Happy Birthday, Son!