Tag Archives: child

Emotional hostage

There are those times when, as a father and as a man, you need to grit your teeth and do the right thing. I was faced with that decision tonight. So I gritted my teeth, picked up my bag, and told my wife that I couldn’t handle my son’s cries, and I was going to take a walk. She smiled, gave me a kiss, and told me to have fun.

So here I am now, huddled in the Barnes and Noble down the street, hiding from my son’s current meltdown.

Perhaps, this is not one of my finest moments.

You see, my son has taken me emotionally hostage. It all started a week or two ago during our morning commute. While driving my wife to work, I heard a sound that freezes any parent’s blood. I heard my son choking. Loud gagging sounds struck me from behind like a club to the back of the head. I panicked. “What is he choking on?!” I asked my wife. She glanced to the side out of the corner of her eye.

“He’s just choking himself for attention. It’s no big deal.”

“What?!”

Sure enough, ever since then, whenever he wants attention, my son stuffs his hand into his mouth and starts gagging. Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned to filter out most of his sounds. I learned to ignore most non-essential crying (to save my sanity) within the first six months. I especially learned to tune out whining — that high-pitched, carefully rehearsed screech when I won’t let him climb into the toilet. I was Tough Dad, impervious to his attempts to break me. My wife, still full of that crazy hormone cocktail that makes mothers fall in love with their babies on first sight, suggested that we give in just a little, just to make him happy. I didn’t. I stood strong.

But my son knows that despite my Tough Dad exterior, I love him fiercely. He knows I would fight rabid dogs hand-to-paw for him. I would kill hordes of Nazis to save him. And so, he knew that the only way to get my attention is to make himself sound like he’s in danger, to activate my father instincts.

Thus, the choking.

My wife, on the other hand, now mostly pregnancy/labor hormone free, knows the game. Raising four siblings from infancy does that, I guess. She assures me there is nothing wrong. He simply has found my weakpoint and now he is exploiting it. Hard.

And so here I am, tonight, hiding. We had put him to bed and despite being tired, he didn’t want to sleep. So the minute we close the door, the gagging sounds begin, drowning out the sound of my breaking heart.

My wife shakes her head when she sees me start to bend. “He is in no danger,” she tells me again. “It is all just an act.”

Then the crying shifts. It’s not the usual whining, I’m-tired crying, or the very forced, carefully calculated fake-crying. It is howling, a primal scream that he only makes when he’s hurt. My blood pressure is spiking. My wife is nonplussed, playing Disgea on her Nintendo DS with headphones over her ears.

I am in agony. The timer goes off. My wife goes in to check on our son. The crying immediately stops when she walks in. But after singing a lullaby and walking out, the choking and screaming starts all over again.

“He’s not –?”

“He is not in any pain or any danger. I checked. No fever, no illness. He’s faking everything,” my wife reports.

I am sitting on the couch, alternating between covering my ears and putting my head between my knees. My son continues to scream his I’m-hurt-please-cry. My stomach is in knots.

You spend your entire life after your child is born looking for those signs of humanity. Not just life — the crying and pooping that indicates he’s still alive. You start looking for those markers that say “I am human!” The first time your child laughs or genuinely smiles is magical. When your child experiences his first thunderstorm and he clings to you, your heart melts. And when you first betray your child during his vaccinations and he stares at you, begging for an answer as to why you let these shots happen, it demolishes you.

But deception — it is amazing how quickly a child exhibits deception. And, when your child first hides something from you (say, a piece of paper he wants to eat) because he knows he is not supposed to have it, it deeply disturbs you. For what could possibly be more human than trying to deceive another human being?

His cries are reaching a fever pitch, something almost alien. It is not real, and yet it sounds real and it most definitely feels real. His level of acting is devastating. My son, who can barely put together sounds to make rudimentary words already knows how to lie to his father. As I try to block the horrible sounds out, I remember The Vaccination Incident. We are even, I think through gritted teeth. I don’t feel bad about that anymore.

“I can’t take this,” I say. My wife laughs, my dear wife, my Tough Mom of a wife. “I’m going for a walk,” I inform her.

She gives me a kiss goodbye. “Have fun,” she says as I walk out the door, my tail tucked between my legs, my Tough Dad costume torn to shreds on my son’s bedroom floor.

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A (humorous) meditation on death, loss, and fatherhood at two in the morning

It sounded like a cross between gagging for air and a forced, scratchy cry. My wife and I immediately jumped out of bed, sprinting towards the baby’s room. We flung upon the door and snapped on the lights. My wife pulls my son out of the crib. Normally a heavy sleeper, he is completely motionless.

“No no no no no no no no no no no no no no,” we stammer continually. I force my finger into his mouth, trying to detect any sign of breath. His eyes flicker open and he cries once, more out of annoyance than anything else.

“Oh, thank God,” I say, breathing in deeply. He wriggles in my wife’s arms, elated that both of his parents wanted to play so badly, they had waken him up (rather than the other way around).

“Want to stay up a bit with him, just to make sure he’s okay?” my wife asks. I nod. We take him back to our room, where he crawls over us, clapping and laughing.

I have had several brushes with death before. Once, while swimming in the ocean, a massive wave overpowered me, and the undertow dragged me across the sand, holding me under the water and unwilling to let go. I finally popped up for air and staggered to shore, bruised and cut. Another time, while hiking up a waterfall, I watched my friend lose his grip and slide uncontrollably towards the bottom. We watched helplessly until he thankfully caught hold of a root sticking out of the waterfall’s rocky face, from which he climbed back to safety. Another time, I collapsed while hiking up a hill towards a Buddhist temple in Korea. My mind realized as my whole body contracted into a ball, tingling and unable to breathe, that perhaps I might die. I was oddly at peace, but remembered that I had just started dating my first girlfriend (and future wife) two weeks ago, and she would be furious that I died while away and that maybe I should fight for life instead of giving up. Lucky for the both of us, I was spared.

This brush of death (or the perception thereof) was something wholly different, a completely new monster. I have rarely felt such a mind-numbing, awful terror that gripped my brain and heart and lungs with so much ferocity. At the birth of my son, I wondered if I would ever be one of those parents who would jump into a burning building to save his child. The thought seemed so foreign, so difficult to comprehend. At that moment; I got my answer. I would have done anything to hear my son cry again, even take my own life. There was no question.

I contemplate this new feeling, equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying. My wife and I are silent as my son climbs on our legs and arms, a solemn assembly of parents who had just experienced (if only briefly) our new, absolutely worst nightmare.

Then we heard the sound again, loudly, outside of our window. We looked at each other.

“A cat!” we hissed together. Relief floods into our faces, then embarrassment. My son giggles, as if to gently laugh at us. The clock reads 2 a.m. I’m just glad it’s the weekend, because (as predicted) my son decided to stay up for two more hours before going back to bed.

“Oh, my son,” I whisper into his hair as I hold him close. “I’m so glad you’re okay. You have no idea. But seriously. You need to go back to bed.” He patted my cheek condescendingly, then crawled away to play with a ball of yarn.

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We are all a bunch of babies

Parenting, I admit, has made me incredibly jaded.

Specifically, parenting has made me jaded towards children (babies, especially). But it has also made me jaded towards humanity as a whole, too, which is a feat considering I had managed to maintain a cheery, upbeat attitude towards humanity until now.

Actually, let me back up a bit.

Our culture tends to fetishize children. We ascribe a certain type of wisdom to children, one which can pierce through the guile and treachery of adulthood, revealing the heart of the matter. We argue that they are pure and innocent, that they are wildlife preserves that deserve the most utmost protection from anything nasty, even though the very world we’ve brought them into is the epitome of just that sometimes. Our Church culture, especially, promotes this fetish, mostly because of scriptural stories of Jesus saying we should be like little children, that heaven is made up of little children, and just in general being very protective about little children.

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t like children. I’m pretty sure he loves all of the children, like he says. But now that I am dealing with a child every day of my life, I have begun to wonder how Jesus actually thinks of us.

I cannot wait until my child grows up. I do not understand how parents can look back on these years with any kind of affection or wonderment (maybe I will later, but I cannot see it now). These past three months have been one of the most difficult months of my life. I rarely get more than four hours of sleep. My train of thought is generally interrupted at least once every thirty minutes by a wail that could chill the blood of a Nazgul. There are large stretches of my life where I am at the mercy of this baby, feeding him (and thus rendering myself useless; it is incredibly hard to do anything without hands), changing him, dressing him, bathing him, playing with him.

Meanwhile, this child could be termed as ungrateful, if he could even feel the difference between ingratitude and gratitude. Babies are a bundle of nerve cells and a very strong, healthy id. Everything the baby does involves him communicating to me that he wants something and he wants something now. He will scream until he gets it. And sometimes he doesn’t want anything. Sometimes, he is just tired, and all he does is scream. He can’t seem to calm himself down; I need to step in and soothe him and reassure him, and even then, he will struggle in my arms and scream at me as if it is all my fault. But eventually, he will calm down, and he will smile and coo at me as if the past hour scream marathon never happened.

There are many times in the day when I will stare into the eyes of my son. I love him fiercely, something that hurts physically sometimes, as if all the emotion in me is squeezed tightly in a vice. I will defend him to the death, if I have to, and perhaps my love will even reanimate me as an undead ghast in order for me to continue protecting my son. It’s that strong.

But there’s always this underlying baseline of frustration. My son begins to scream. I call out to him, let him know a bottle is forthcoming, and he only screams harder. Sometimes, he’s too busy screaming to even notice that I am trying to feed him. What a baby.

Yes, I stare into his eyes and think, This is how God sees us. We are a bunch of babies, a pack of humans that are bundle of nerves and very strong, healthy id. We scream and cry and howl and that’s all we do. I’m sure of it; we are a bunch of babies. And therein lies the predicament God finds himself in. “Come, let us reason together,” he says. Instead, we just scream at him harder, because there is no reasoning with a baby.

Babies are rarely cute. Well, my baby is cute (this has been empirically proven), but most babies I just don’t find that cute anymore. Maybe it’s that lingering baseline of irritation. Maybe constant exposure has taken the shine off of it. But babies are not cute. Babies are infuriating. Babies are ridiculous. But, very importantly, babies represent potential. Unlimited potential.

I’m excited for when my baby grows up. Then I can say, “Come, let us reason together,” and he’ll say, “Just keep the heals coming dad, then we’ll talk,” because we’re playing games. We can talk about religion. I can tell him about my experience and tell him about folklore and language and he will understand. Someday, he will be my equal and peer. He will develop from a screaming id to an adult, with passions and interests and sorrows and joys. We will share them together.

Within us lies a powerful potential as well. God did not create us with the intention of using us as his mere playthings, and I don’t think he really desires us to stay babies. He wants us to be like children, because children hold potential. They are a wellspring of opportunities that unfold slowly over time. God wants equals, peers which he can share creation with. He wants us to reason with him, to converse with him. He wants us to understand as he does. The problem is, we’re sometimes too busy screaming to realize that. But that’s okay; he’s patient. He can wait. He realizes that sometimes all you can do is wait for your child to stop screaming and notice that the nourishment is already there.

There will be 7 billion people on this Earth by the end of the year. 7 billion mouths to feed, 7 billion mouths screaming at God for something. God resides in yonder heavens on a golden throne of holy fire, but sometimes I wonder if every now and then, as he sees us, wailing miserably and selfishly, he feels like he’s in hell.

I am only just beginning to understand you, o Lord, as well as my own imperfections. Forgive me of my screaming and tantrums, for I know now what I do sometimes. Hopefully, it’s a phase, and I’ll grow out of it.

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Quick Lessons on Parenthood

Parenting is exhausting work.

Parenting is exhausting work.

1. Expensive doesn’t mean best

We have to feed our kid on formula (for medical reasons, before the breastfeeding evangelists jump all over us), and finding the right formula was a nightmare. Everyone kept saying we should buy Enfamil, considered to the best (and very expensive because of it), but it actually made our kid very gassy and his poop very runny. When we ran out of the Enfamil that our hospital gave us in the middle of the night, I ran out to Safeway to buy some formula. I bought the Safeway brand of formula instead because I am a cheap, cheap jerk, and lo and behold, a lot of our kid’s digestive problems disappeared!

Marketers target parents relentlessly (mothers, in fact, were one of the very first targets when modern advertising came about after World War II), and it works. Despite my Scrooge-like heart, I still felt awfully guilty buying what is considered to be a cheaper (in quality) knock-off brand. Luckily, when we brought this up with our pediatrician, she just rolled her eyes and assured us that, like everything else in America, pretty much the quality of the formula is all the same except for slight variances. Find the best one for you, and if you’re lucky enough to have a baby who loves the cheap stuff, count yourself lucky.

2. Swaddling is very important for getting a good night’s sleep

Apparently, kids have no motor control whatsoever, and so they will flail about without really wanting to. The first month or so, our kid would wake up constantly for no real reason, screaming and then falling asleep soon after. Unfortunately, the frazzled parents were not  falling asleep as quickly as the kid, and our sleep (and sanity) suffered. Eventually, my wife started swaddling him very tightly (but not too tightly) to prevent himself from jerking around involuntarily and waking up. This small trick can do wonders; one time, the kid kept screaming at me as I tried to put him to bed. I swaddled him tightly like my wife showed me and as soon as I tucked the last corner in, he promptly fell asleep for several hours. It was magical.

3a. You will become very annoyed and angry and that is okay if you deal with it constructively

There are times when my kid is a holy terror. He will scream at me and I will take it incredibly personally. I know this kid has no idea what he’s doing; screaming at me is his way of getting my attention. Still, as a parent, you can’t help but think that your kid is criticizing you, that his screaming is his way of telling you, This is all your fault!

“I’m doing my best!” I will sometimes plead with him, but he is unmoved.

Before having a kid, I wondered how any parent could do something as horrible as shake their child. Now, I understand that if you don’t tell someone that this is a Very Bad Thing, they will most likely naturally shake their child. Sometimes, your child can just be such a jerk. You sacrifice so much sleep, so much time, doing things like wiping up poop and rocking him to sleep, and he is still screaming at you because it’s all your fault.

This is really normal stuff. It horrifies people who aren’t parents, and I would venture a lot of parents try to suppress it, but babies can be incredibly, rage-inducingly frustrating. Our pediatrician explained to us that we could expect anywhere from two to eight hours a day of crying. Bring your cell phone to a workday. Set an alarm that goes off every hour or so with a recorded sound of a crying baby. It gets annoying enough when all you have to do is turn off your phone’s alarm. It’s worse when sometimes, you will run through trying to feed a baby, burping him, changing his diaper, holding and cuddling him, singing to him, and then take him for a walk and he is still crying. Apparently, sometimes babies cry just because they are bored. The entire time, you’re fretting because you’re afraid he might be sick. It’s awful, stressful, and you haven’t slept for more than four hours straight in three weeks.

My wife and I are super lucky that she has great maternity leave benefits and that we are financially able to let me stay at home and help. We don’t know how people do this alone. We also used to feel incredibly guilty when we would desire so viscerally to punch our baby in the face (“I don’t know how I can love someone so much it hurts and yet be so incredibly angry at the exact same time,” my wife observed once). It relieved us to know that this is a natural response (exacerbated by sleep deprivation and general exhaustion). Now when I want to punch my baby in the face, I pass him off to my wife, and vice versa. When she goes back to work and my son hits one of those crazy crying spells where nothing seems to solve the problem, I will lay him in his crib and listen to some music before returning back and trying again. Or maybe drive him over to his grandma’s house.

3b. You can’t do this alone very well

When the baby was born, we lived with my parents for three weeks. We were reluctant to go. Being the first grandson, my mother absolutely adored him. Her presence in helping to change his diapers or feed him or bathe him or just take him away from us when he was screaming his lungs out (nothing he does can be less than adorable to her) helped us keep our sanity.

Still today, my mother will call every now and then with the sole, express purpose of seeing if she could take our son for the day and give us a break. Parents, family, and friends are indispensable when raising children. Finding a community that will act as a safety net is vital. When you have a kid, there’s a tendency to turn inward, to surround yourself with the tight cluster that is your new nuclear family. In my opinion, the nuclear family is the worst idea ever. Build on your extended family; build an extended network of people you can rely on (and in turn, you can provide services to them; it works out well). We asked my best friend Quinton to be our son’s godfather. We’re Mormon; we don’t have a godfather tradition, but we decided to start one anyway because we felt it important to connect our son to as many people as possible. That way, if the worst happens, he will never be alone, and we never will be either.

4. Caffeine is my friend

I’m not at an addict, I swear. But sometimes, I just need a strongly brewed jar of yerba mate to drink before I can go into the day. I’m happier and pleasant. My child’s screaming turns into sweet, sweet music and I will laugh giddily as he spits all over my shirt. Raising a newborn is exhausting work. I have never felt more tired in my entire life, not even on my mission. You don’t realize it, but after about a week, you are constantly operating beneath your normal baseline. Sometimes, using a pick-me-up, whether it’s dark chocolate or going for a quick run, is necessary to keep yourself from ripping out your hair.

5. Baby clothes are the dumbest concept in the world

I don’t really believe in pants, but that’s beside point. Baby clothes are dumb; who are they trying to impress? Whenever it’s my turn to take care of the baby, the minute he urinates all over the clothes on his back (and he does this a lot), I’ll strip him naked, slap a diaper on him, and swaddle him. Just as good as clothes, but way less complicated. I did not realize how often I would be undressing my son to change his diapers, but there it is. When you put him in baby clothes, changing his diaper is an ordeal. When he’s swaddled, it takes me less than a minute. My son has outfits that have buttons and clasps and all kinds of complicated mechanisms to make him look “cute.” But it’s not like I’m going to let him borrow my car and take girls out on dates anyway, so for now, he will look like a pupating glow worm.

If it worked for Jesus, it’ll work for my son.

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Succession

Recently, my wife inherited her grandmother’s knitting needles and supplies. The matriarch and guardian of the Nielson Clan Secret Knitting Technique found it time to pass on this ancient practice to a worthy successor. As the only Nielson left with a passion for knitting, my wife now finds herself the one who carries the torch.

I exaggerate slightly when I talk about this recent transition of power, but in reality, it’s a very real thing. Her grandmother taught her how to knit in a special way that required less movement and knitted more efficiently. Whenever she knits in public, people comment on the unique aspect of her knitting style. This knitting technique very much is part of the Nielson family tradition, and as the one who has carried on the tradition, there was something intensely emotional and almost spiritual — even solemn — when my wife opened up the box and found a neatly wrapped satchel of fine, quality knitting needles.

A similar feeling coursed through me when we brought my newborn son over to my parents’ house for the first time. The baby started crying, and my mom jumped up and clapped her hands. Returning from the bedroom closet, she wrapped my son in the baby blanket she had knitted for me when I was born; it was quality knitting, and looked almost brand new. It was almost surreal; 26 years after its first use, it had found its way back into the next generation of the family.

As we move through our hyper-commercialized digital age, I wonder how this idea of succession within the family of concrete, physical objects will occur. You simply cannot manufacture these types of moments. Had my wife’s grandmother said, “I notice you enjoy knitting like me; let me buy you some knitting needles from Walmart,” I could guarantee my wife’s eyes would not swim with tears. Nor could that electric thrill run up my spine and scramble my heart had my mother pulled out any old blanket she got for sale from the local fancy department store. Money cannot purchase these inheritances; their worth is slowly accrued through the excruciatingly slow and demanding process of time, a test of patience as well as the enduring legacy of the item.

Will my son ever have the experience that I experienced, and that my younger brother just recently experienced, stumbling upon my father’s old vinyl record collection, shifting through the musty box, pulling out the faded covers and wondering what kind of person my dad had been in the past as a young adult in the 1970s? Or will he find a forgotten USB stick with my mp3 files that he can’t even play because the technology’s so outdated? Will we have vintage computers built specifically to play the old music of the past? Will I have anything of worth to pass down to my son, or have I, too, fallen into the trap of our troubling disposable consumerism with its siren song that temporary and cheap is better than an object built to last, well worth its price?

Our economy and society’s spending habits are powered by our desire for instant gratification. All of the furniture I own is not designed to last; at my parents’ home, I prepared my son’s bottles on the dresser my mother used to change my diapers on. But I really wanted a couch, you know? Even if it means my son may never lay his son next to him on it in the middle of the night in hopes of getting him to sleep like I do now. It’s a bittersweet feeling.

Someone on Google Plus recently wrote that he had deleted all of his mp3 files and moved everything into “the cloud.” I couldn’t help but feel just a little bit sorry for him; how will he pass his music down? I have no idea if my son will be able to play my old Goo Goo Dolls CDs that I’ve kept all these years from my high school times. I don’t even know if he will like them. I don’t know if he will listen to Black Balloon and let the music wash over him, or listen to Iris and think about his crush. But maybe if I keep these outdated physical relics with me, even if they don’t really serve any purpose now, there might be a chance.

Perhaps the greatest irony surrounding this is that the relics we do leave behind usually takes the form of our trash. Plastic bags and plastic wrapping and plastic shells that hold the things we actually cherish and love and use long often outlast what we actually purchase. I don’t have a good, quality pocket knife that I could use to show my son how to whittle sticks like my father did, let alone pass it down to my son. For the fifteenth time since my son’s birth, I vow I’ll get one soon. Meanwhile, I carefully repackage my high school yearbooks, letters from my mission, and my college sketchbooks. I have a pencil case that my mother bought me when I was 12. I’ve used it all this time to store my charcoal sticks. When my son turns old enough, I will show him how to sketch with charcoal, how to carefully blend the shading in with your fingers, and then gift him the case.

It’s covered with pictures of Dragonball characters. I smile as I hold it in my hands, slowly turning it over. I can’t wait.

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