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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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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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Family: Isn’t it about…gender roles?

The wife and I gave talks in Sacrament Meeting today, the wife on the Book of Mormon and mine on the The Family: Proclamation to the World. I’ll admit, talking about family in a public gospel setting is something I don’t really enjoy, mostly because there are a million ways to legitimately offend someone. However, lots are lots, and I drew this one, so I decided the best way to talk about the family is to be upfront about what kind of family we will most likely turn out to be.

If we were to put our family on a resume, it would actually look really Mormon. When we got married, one of us was almost finished with a degree in accounting, so the other spouse decided to delay school for the accountant to finish and start a career to support the family. One of us is, on the Meyer-Briggs personality test, an INFP, a rare, classic nurturer. The other is an INTJ, a rare, classic career person. When our baby is born this July, we’ve arranged it where one of us will stay at home with the child, and the other will continue to work. We try hard to live frugally, and we’re happy that we’ve found a great arrangement to complete the things we need.

There is no resentment in our current arrangement. The soon-to-be child-rearing spouse finds children adorable and loves to teach things. This spouse finds the monotonous schedule of housework Zen-like and fulfilling. The other spouse loves working and advancing in a career. This spouse finds the fast-paced office life exciting, and enjoys shouldering the responsibility of providing.

Of course, by now, you’ve probably figured out that my wife is the provider, while I’m the nurturer. It’s just how God created us. One time, we tried to live the traditional gender roles, and it was an unmitigated disaster. The wife stewed at home, bored out of her skull, while the husband toiled in a thankless office job, wondering how he found himself in such an existentially demeaning anomie. We soon switched again and never looked back since.

As a completely unintentional gender role smasher, life can be hard in the Church. You’re constantly having to justify your very existence and membership and faith. For the first few years of our marriage, we would evade questions with vague answers and try to keep up the facade. Finally, we decided with this ward, we’d stop trying. Go figure that this Sunday I would have to talk about our Church’s teachings on the family.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t love the Church’s teachings on the family, because I do. Joseph Smith had a sweeping vision of what family life’s potential could be. He lived in an age where industrialization and unmitigated capitalism was ripping the extended family system apart, in favor of the more isolating nuclear family structure. He saw a visionary end goal for humanity — to be saved as a family of God, working together in perfect harmony on Earth as well as in Heaven. For Joseph, Zion was more than just an economic utopia or a political theocracy, but a radical re-thinking of what and who family is. This obsession with family permeates every level of everything we do, and as an INFP, I love it.

The ideal Mormon family, circa 1860s.

Which pains me when I see the Church emphasize that all families must look cookie-cutter, because that’s not what Joseph had in mind. Ironically, the Church, which so repudiated the nuclear family in the early days, now wholly embraces it, sometimes at the expense of everything else. Families come in all shapes and sizes, made up of all kinds of people. Does it really matter whether it’s the wife or the husband who does the job, if both are working their hardest to provide the best home possible for their children? If husbands and wives are really supposed to work equally, side by side, as Elder Cook recently said in General Conference, then does it really matter if the husband passes off the provider duties to the wife and the wife tosses the baby into the father’s arms?

In the end, family is greater than what husbands are supposed to do and what wives are supposed to do, or specifically, what boys are supposed to do and what girls are supposed to do. Families are about love, charity, experimentation, adaptability, of teaching and discipline, of working together and learning to be a team player. It’s about never turning your back on family, even when times are tough, and yes, in our crazy Mormon family, about how everyone is a potential brother or sister that you just haven’t met yet.

So let’s not get hung up on the little things and focus on the big things — of the eternities, of creating heaven on Earth, of the immortal soul and the heritage of the Lord that we’re all a part of. In a trillion, billion, million eons, when we’re all hanging out in heaven still, sitting around with our eternal family, rubbing shoulders with the trillions of people who’ve lived and died and passed on, basking in the presence of Ultimate Goodness, will it really matter that I did the dishes and my wife worked in the office a trillion, billion, million eons ago?

Ideal Mormon family, circa today (not pictured: The six other children).

Or will it matter more that when the clock was ticking and the odds were stacked against us, my wife and I pulled together as a team and pulled out our brilliant Hail Mary play for an upset victory against Team Satan? That when times were tough, we knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses enough to consult Coach Jesus, and trust him enough to do what he told us what to do, even if it seemed to fly against common convention?

I expressed these thoughts (expressed is a generous word; in reality, I fumbled awkwardly through them) and sat down.

Later, a bunch of people came up to us, saying they enjoyed their talks, as usual, introducing themselves. But near the end of the line, one good sister came up and said, “In my family, we had a disabled child, and I had to work as a teacher because it was the only way to get insurance. I worked as a teacher for 35 years. And I have never regretted my decision, because I gave my children the best gift I could — a father. We do what we need to do to get the job done.”

I loved how she put it — we do what we need to do to get the job done. I want to make this our family motto, write it in fancy calligraphy on our family crest. Of course, the wife and I prefer the way we’ve assigned “gender roles” to each other, but it’s more than that. They’re family roles, at this point, regardless of gender. It doesn’t matter if the husband or the wife does them, as long as they get done. We’ve divided the tasks and now shoulder them the best we can, because we do what we need to do to get the job done. We don’t do this to make some kind of political or social statement; we don’t do this to break gender barriers; we don’t do this just to gratify our own selfish desires. We do this because we’ve found a perfect medium that maximizes our individual gifts while minimizing our individual quirks and shortfalls. We do this because we’d rather be realistic and work for the best outcome rather than have false hopes that God will somehow miraculously change us to match some 1950’s American cultural ideal. We do this because we love each other and we love our child and we love our family, and we are determined to make this work, come hell or high water, even if it means I’ll be scrubbing toilets and changing diapers, and the wife will be working overtime occasionally.

I honestly don’t think God asks for more than that.

Our Mormon family, circa 2008.

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