Weekend Morning Rituals

Most weekend mornings I get up early and start the day by writing two letters: one to #1 and one to #2. About the time I finish, I can hear #1 and #2 stirring. We quietly dress, collect some game or toy, and sneak out the door to go find breakfast. We spend the next couple hours at some local cafe or coffee shop playing, drawing, reading, or otherwise squandering the morning together. We often stop by a park or go for a walk before coming home.

#1 and I started sneaking out more than a decade ago as a way to let Mother sleep in on the weekends (or, put another way, to avoid getting in trouble for waking Mother). Six years ago #2 joined us in our weekend morning Ausflüge. What began as a happy coincidence of self-preservation and consideration has become an important ritual that we share.

I understand that some people don’t think they are morning people, or think they should be allowed to start the day with some time alone, or think they need to start the day by reading the latest headline or email or Facebook post, or think they deserve to sleep late on the weekends because they get up early during the week. These too are rituals. Just not the kind I want my progeny to associate with me.

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Casual Tenderness

Somebody had just dropped him and his son off at the local college where he works. Clearly, local schools are not yet in session, so he was bringing his young son to work with him. As they walked along, the little boy prattled on about the birds and the leaves and the sticks and any number of other seemingly inconsequential things. At one point, the father reached out almost absentmindedly, tousled his son’s hair, draped his arm briefly around his son’s shoulders, and drew him closer. The son turned and wrapped his dad’s leg in a tight hug that nearly tripped his father: “Daddy, I love you.”

The smallest of gestures often mean a lot. 

What makes a “Stay-at-Home Dad/Mom”

Despite the fact that both of us work full time, I just learned: “Mom’s not a stay-at-home mom because she doesn’t play with us. You’re a stay-at-home dad because you play with us.”

Apparently the criterion for “stay-at-home” status is not whether or not you work, but whether or not when you are around you play with your children.

There’s a lesson here.

Their Father’s Voice

Every night I lie down on our bed flanked by #1 on my right and #2 on my left. After we have chatted for a few minutes, I read first to #2 and then to #1. The tradition started more before #1 could speak. I would stand next to the crib and read aloud. Then, when #1 moved into a bed, we would lie down next to each other and I would read aloud. From those early illustrated books we slowly graduated into longer and more complicated books. When #2 arrived, it seemed only natural that I would begin reading to both of them. At first, it was a bit of a challenge: stand next to the crib and read to #2 early while #1 got ready for bed then lie down next to #1 to read. About five years ago the three of us started lying down together with me in the middle.

#2 often asks that we reread a book we have already read—we’re on our fourth reread of a book about mermaids. With #1 we are slowly working our way through a series about Roman Britain. Some nights we are tired and scarcely make it a few pages into #1’s book before we are all asleep. Some nights, like last night, #1 and I read for quite some time while #2 sleeps quietly beside me.

As I have said to both of them, reading to them is the best part of my day. There are no deadlines, no obligations, no TV, no phone, no distractions, nothing but the three of us. Yesterday I was reminded of how important these times are to them. While visiting a friend, #2 said: “It makes me sad when you’re not home ’cause nobody reads to us.”

There are mountains of evidence that reading to your children improves their ability to speak, to read, it improves their vocabulary and comprehension, it improves their performance in school and their ability to articulate their thoughts in writing and orally. That’s all well and good, but I don’t read to them for some educational benefit. I read to them because it gives us time together. Time that is not fragmented by all the other demands and not splintered into brief moments between a ringing phone or a TV show. Time that we will never have again. Time that they don’t have to share with anything else.

I read to them so that when I am gone they will still hear their father’s voice and know that he loves them.

Holding Doors

Some parents hold the door open and allow their children to enter a shop or restaurant before them.

Some parents hold the door and glance back to make sure their children are coming.

Some parents just barge through letting the door close and leaving their children to fend for themselves.

Each behavior says something about how you value your children. Don’t think the message is lost on them.

Boredom is a Precious Commodity

#1, #2 and I had breakfast yesterday at a local cafe that has outdoor seating. It was a beautiful morning, perfect for sitting outside, watching the birds and butterflies, and listening to people chat. At one table two women were talking while a little girl sat in a highchair playing with mom’s (?) iPhone. I’ve been there. I’ve wanted to talk to an adult. I’ve played all the finger games I can handle for the day. I’ve colored my last picture. I’ve [fill in the repetitive activity you can’t stand] all I can endure. I’ve given one of my progeny an electronic babysitter and been happy. But I’m not happy for having done it.

My discomfort stems not from some fear of how spending time in front of small electronic devices is bad for little progeny, or some belief that video games are the root of all violence and evil in our society. Instead, I worry that children today are simply not bored frequently enough.

We have convinced ourselves that kids need to be entertained all the time. Industries have rescued us and our children from ever suffering an idle moment. We think little of giving tiny people electronic gadgets, often disguised as learning games or educational videos. We have to have kits filled with activities. We schedule “playdates” for their free time. Perhaps out of envy, we have eliminated boredom from our children’s lives.

Boredom is wonderful. How many adults wouldn’t appreciate some time to be bored? To do nothing? As we age, life’s demands increasingly eradicate boredom. Family, friends, school, job, house all conspire to fill your time with tasks. Boredom, by contrast, is time you get to spend with your own thoughts, not the thoughts someone else forces on you.

Boredom also encourages creativity and observation. Sit for a few minutes on a bench. Soon you will notice people, birds, bugs, and plants. You will sense the breeze as it changes. You’ll hear noises, snatches of conversations, the sounds of people walking, a faint rushing as water flows down a gutter, or the stray cough. You might notice a small dedicatory plaque on the bench or the contractor’s mark embossed in the sidewalk cement.

#1, #2, and I sat silently while we waited for breakfast. Although I was enjoying the quiet time, I wondered briefly, “Are they bored?” When our food arrived, #1 and #2 chatted pleasantly about all the things we had seen—the “purple butterfly that tried to kiss me,” the “mangy bird in the bushes,” the “fast train” heading toward the city, and even “the little girl playing with her mom’s iPhone.” I guess they found something to do.

The Parenting Panopticon

Mothers have long suffered under an oppressive culture that purports to make their lives simpler, easier, more fulfilling for them and their children (to be clear, this is just one of the many oppressive cultures smothering mothers). Disguised as “engaging” or “educational” or “edutainment” or “healthy” or “stimulating” or whatever, these preselected, prepackaged, preplanned activities and kits too often reinforce a person’s sense of failure because they encourage a model of mothering that many mothers don’t have the time or energy or resources to realize. It’s sort of the motherhood version of what too many women experience at the hands of the fashion industry: idolizing a fictional image of beauty. And like that fashion-industry inspired image of beauty, the image of the ideal mother is internalized and becomes of mechanism of self-policing.

In a twisted sense of equality, the parenting industry has begun to realize that it can exercise similar influence on today’s father. Fathering websites and magazines are springing up with increasing frequency. They prepackage, preselect, preplan activities, games, outings, and explain how much fun you will have doing these things with your kids. What counts as being a father and fathering is increasingly shaped by these sites and magazines. We see photos of fathers fashionably attired in stylishly decorated rooms sharing “ah-ha” moments with their child, or photos of fathers and children both outfitted in the finest of pseudo-rugged clothing bonding in idyllic settings.

Parents are like prisoners in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Constantly on view and at risk of being judged, parents have internalized the norms and behaviors idealized on the pages of parenting magazines and websites. We are now all holding ourselves up to fictions and judging ourselves failures when we don’t attain them.

Welcome to the Parenting Panopticon.