Free-Range Parenting: Knowing When to Let Go

Free-Range Parenting

I asked our 9-year-old son if he thought he and his 6-year-old brother were old enough to walk the mile between our home and the neighborhood community pool without me or Mom.

He shook his head “no” before I finished the question.

“Maybe in one more year,” he said. “But right now … it’s a mile.”

He paused to marvel at the magnitude of the word, the vast distance it represents for a third grader, the incomprehensible here-to-thereness of it.

“There’s so much chance of bad stuff happening along the way,” he continued. “Like, what if there’s a snake or something?”

Yes. Exactly.

What if the mean streets of our suburban Central Florida neighborhood were over-run by an army of hungry Burmese pythons, on the hunt for new meat after eating all the rabbits and deer in the Everglades?

Or something?

Something like aggressive, stinging fire ants, which can swarm up a small child’s leg in an instant and inflict dozens of painful wounds.

Something like reckless high school-age kids tearing around the neighborhood like idiots on modified, rocket-propelled golf carts.

Something like a careless driver flying along far too fast to see two little boys alone crossing the road.

Something like open bodies of water – retaining ponds, drainage creeks and golf course lakes.

Free Range Parenting

Actual alligator sunning itself near the sidewalk connecting our house and the community pool. It looked hungry to me.

Something like the alligators that frequent those bodies of water. (Seriously. They’re everywhere. See photo.)

Something like a bad person looking for an unprotected kid to take.

Something like an over-zealous “good Samaritan” watchdog poised to place a panicky phone call to an over-zealous law enforcement agency that stands ready to over-zealously protect the children of the world from parents who have the gall to allow their kids to walk alone on a public sidewalk less than a mile from home.

It’s a jungle out there, right?

No. No, it’s not. Not here.

It’s a pleasant, 15-minute stroll, with broad sidewalks attended by shade trees the whole way. Wide strips of low-cut St. Augustine grass form a green, well-tended barrier between the walkways and the occasional passing minivan.

It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s a safe neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where friends respond gladly to neighbors in need. Crime is low.

This is home.

Yet, even in this idyllic setting, danger lurks behind every swaying palm tree. The seemingly tranquil stretch between our driveway and poolside actually is a battle scape.

In my mind, at least.

Listen, we trust our sons. They have proven worthy of that trust time and again. They are growing up well and confident.

But they’re kids, and we’re parents. They don’t yet possess the capacity to deal with crises — or even minor conflict — without adult supervision. It’s our job as their parents to help them learn those skills, and part of learning means failing at it. We understand that, but we’re not going to be irresponsible about it, either.

So, when they play outside, they must do so within shouting distance of the front or back doors. If they plan to go inside at someone else’s house, they must let us know where they’ll be and for how long.

When they want to go swimming, we take them to the pool. One day soon they’ll ride their bikes or walk that mile alone, but not yet.

Does a cautious approach make us helicopter parents? Are we over-protective? Too risk-averse for the healthy emotional development of our sons?

No. We aren’t over-protective. We are risk-averse, admittedly, but who in his right mind is risk-agreeable when it comes to their own kids? We aren’t Free-Range parents, either.

We are, simply, parents.

My wife and I are doing everything we can to prepare our kids to live life well. We also are doing everything we can to make sure they enjoy a happy childhood, and we’re in no hurry for that to end.

Confession: My greatest fear is that something catastrophic will happen to one of my sons, and I won’t be there to help them.

I’m not paralyzed by this fear. I don’t sit in the dark and rock back and forth, contemplating the horrific potential of the havoc rendered by the forces of darkness.

But the fear is there. I can’t deny it. It might not be rational, especially when you consider the statistics behind this recent Washington Post headline: There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

Still, I want to protect them. I need to protect them. It’s more than a sense of responsibility or duty. The compulsion is visceral. It’s fierce. It’s real, and it’s not going anywhere soon – if ever.

This urge to shelter them from the harshness of the world is something I’ll have to work through as a father. As they grow, so too will I.

Part of being a parent is learning when and how to let go. It’s gradual, sometimes imperceptible, but eventually – they let go of their need for reassurance. They no longer feel the urge to look over their shoulders and make sure we’re still there. They let go and move on, alone in the world but ready for what comes.

When that happens, I’ll have to be ready to let go, too.

Not yet, though. Not just yet.

Maybe in one more year. But right now … it’s a mile too far.

Free Range Parenting

One day, he won’t look back to make sure I’m there. I need to be ready for that day. I’m glad it’s not here yet, though.

Ray Rice is a Jerk, but the NFL Doesn’t Care if You Boycott

Ray Rice – jerk. Simple enough. He cold-cocked his fiancé in a casino elevator. He’s out, cut from the Baltimore Ravens and, at least for now, banished from the NFL.

About that banishment, though: Took you long enough, Roger Goodell. Oh, and way to go with that whole two-game suspension thing.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m hearing rumblings that some fans of the NFL are so disgusted, they’re turning their backs on the game. Which … OK. But who are you hurting, really? Only yourself.

And that brings me to a Facebook message conversation I had this morning with my friend Aaron Gouveia, publisher of the Daddy Files. Aaron is a lifelong New England Patriots season ticket holder. He wanted to name both of his sons Tom Brady Gouveia, but opted for Will and Sam – one Mike short of a linebacker trio.

Parents want to be able to tell their kids the right things when it comes to athletes gone bad. Me? I just tell them that athletes are human, too, that some of them do bad things, and that just because they can run faster and do other incredible things on the field or court, it doesn’t mean they can’t fail at life.

Aaron seems to be feeling a little guilt, though. He was having a tough time reconciling his love for the NFL with feelings of disgust toward the way Goodell has bungled the Ray Rice case.

I tried to talk him down over the course of a half-hour Facebook conversation. Here is a slightly edited version of that back-and-forth, reprinted with Aaron’s permission. Enjoy this glimpse into a couple of twisted minds, each of whom was determined to get his point across on a complex issue:

Aaron Gouveia: I’m trying to work up a Ray Rice related column, but it keeps turning into the same thing – I am a hypocrite and I am part of the problem because I have no plans to stop watching football even though I know I should.

Carter Gaddis: Why? Why should you stop watching football?

AG: Because the NFL is clearly covering this up and covering their asses. They all but condoned domestic violence both with that 2-game suspension and by letting guys like (Ray) McDonald and (Greg) Hardy continue to play.

CG: So, speak out against the NFL’s domestic abuse policy. Why punish yourself? You love the game. You love the sport. You love the Patriots.

AG: I stopped buying Barilla pasta, would never set foot in a Chick-fil-a, etc. All because I don’t want to support a company with those warped morals. Yet I’m going to watch football.

CG: But you didn’t stop watching the Pats after Aaron Hernandez turned out to be a murderer.

AG: The Pats cut Aaron Hernandez immediately. They didn’t hesitate to make the right decision even before their hand was forced.

CG: I don’t think you can conflate the Chick-fil-a thing or Barilla thing with this. I’m with you on both of those things, by the way. But this is different because no one’s human rights are being infringed upon. There have always been criminals on our courts and our fields.

AG: These other teams are allowing known criminals to play. (Greg) Hardy was convicted for (crap’s) sake.

And Goodell is lying. He’s flat out lying.

CG: Call him out, then.

AG: That’s the problem. I can’t call him out and continue to support the product that makes him so powerful.

Season ticket holder, watching the games, buying a new jersey, purchasing the Red Zone channel.

“I’M SO MAD AT YOU!!! Now here’s my money.”

CG: You’re over-thinking it, though. This isn’t a human rights issue. You can enjoy the product and still rage against the policies.

AG: I can. But I don’t think doing that gives me any credibility. Because if I’m really that upset about it, I can rail against AND stop supporting it. Except I don’t want to.

CG: To turn your back on it would be extreme. And unrealistic. It wouldn’t prove anything.

AG: I think it would. It would prove that even a diehard NFL fan is so sick of what’s happening he quit the NFL altogether.

CG: The only one who suffers, the only one who cares, is you if you boycott the game.

AG: Exactly. Which is why the NFL never has to change because too many people feel like I do – they’re upset but not upset enough to walk away.

CG: Anyway. Change has happened, though. Drug policies. Safety policies.

AG: In name only.

CG: No, these are real changes.

AG: (Ray) McDonald was allowed to play after being arrested for beating his wife WHILE THE RAY RICE FIASCO WAS HAPPENING.

That’s not change.

Also, think about this …

If an NFL player goes out and levels his girlfriend in an elevator today, what happens?

6 games suspension.

CG: Nope. The Rice thing now has changed that. This is fluid.

AG: No. That’s the new policy. Went into effect 8/28.

CG: That is out the window.

AG: Hopefully, but not yet.

CG: Rice has been suspended indefinitely and kicked off his team. So … out the window.

AG: I know. But under the new rules created because of Ray Rice, the person who does this next is currently subject to 6 games for a first offense.

In the end, the only real way to tell the NFL consumers are fed up is to stop watching the games. Stop buying tickets. Stop purchasing jerseys. And unfortunately, I’m just not prepared to do that because I’ve gone to almost every Patriots home game since the age of 6. My dad has had season tickets for more than 40 years. Tickets I’ll one day inherit. Tickets I hope to pass down to my son, along with a love for the Patriots. So while I can shout my outrage to the heavens about how the NFL handles domestic violence among its players, I’ll be a hypocrite if I do anything short of walk away.

CG: Rage on, dude. Trust me, no one is going to think any less of you because you still want to watch football. If anything, criticism means more coming from a devoted fan of the sport. A dissenting voice inside is more effective than a voice in the wilderness.

Aaron Gouveia and me at Cape Cod this past August. He's a fiery New England sports fan, but the NFL's stupidity regarding Ray Rice and domestic violence is making him feel guilty about watching and supporting football.

Aaron Gouveia and me at Cape Cod this past August. He’s a fiery New England sports fan, but the NFL’s stupidity regarding Ray Rice and domestic violence is making him feel guilty about watching and supporting football.

What do we tell the children?

What do we tell them?

What do we tell the children of Gaza as the tears stream down their faces, leaving tracks in the layer of dust that settled on their cheeks after bombs turned their homes into craters?

What do we say to the terrified children of Syria, where the innocent years have been smothered in bombs and blood?

What words are there for the lost and desperate children of the American border, where they stream across in their thousands, running from death, hoping for a new life?

What do we tell them? What can we do?

We see the images on TV, hear the horror even in the refined, detached voices of the men and women assigned to cover it. How can we change the channel? How can we look away?

How can we not, though?

It is easier, safer, to turn away from the horror than to stand up to it. Chores and errands demand our attention. Games and movies beckon. The lawn needs mowing. The baseball team is heating up down the stretch. Football is starting. School is around the corner. Vacation, birthday parties, a trip to the zoo.

All of this is here, in front of us. This is our reality. All we have to do is change the channel. All we have to do is click over to BuzzFeed or Upworthy or Reddit or Facebook.

Get lost in the fun.

Forget the faces. Forget the agony. Forget the blood.

Forget those children.

Hey, sorry. We all have problems.

Besides, they aren’t my children.

But yes.

Yes, they are.

They are mine.

They’re yours, too.

These children? We can’t see their faces, hear their cries, and relegate it to that place in our minds where unpleasant thoughts go to hibernate, waiting to stir when poked and prodded by our demons and thrust into our nightmares.

We can’t do that. We can’t just ignore it. Can we?

But what do we tell them? What can we do?

If I was there, if I didn’t have my own concerns and problems and distractions, if I could drop it all and run to them on the Rio Grande and in Gaza City and Aleppo, I would tell them that there is more.

That this is not all there is in this world, that life is still beautiful. That there are flowers and toys and music. That somewhere on this planet, a kitten purrs and a toddler laughs and laughs.

That even though the world allows little boys to be blown to bits on the beach as they play soccer;

even though men with guns and foul faces force little children to trek across dangerous Central American  fields and treacherous waters in a blind search for something better;

even though it is unspeakably awful now and sadness, despair and anger are their close companions … there is hope.

There is more.

I would tell them: Don’t give up.

You are precious.

And I would take them in my arms and hold them close, and cry with them until our mingled tears soaked the dry and fractured earth.

 

Once More … For Oren

Give Forward

Oren Miller, founder of a Facebook dad bloggers group almost 800 strong. He and his family need our help. Now is the time to act.

They were in the car together, Beth behind the wheel, husband Oren Miller by her side. This was life now. A trip to Johns Hopkins for radiation treatment, a necessary precursor to deal with a cancerous invader in Oren’s brain before the rest of it could be dealt with.

The rest of it is stage 4 lung cancer, which has spread and is life threatening. Very life threatening. But that would have to keep. First, the brain.

Oren’s phone rang. It was me.

My editor at TODAY Parents had agreed to let me write it up live. When a group of dad bloggers get together to make something this big happen, it’s news. Especially on the Friday before Father’s Day.

What was so big that the parenting arm of the TODAY Show immediately responded in the affirmative to my inquiry that afternoon? The fundraiser, of course. Using the wonderful Give Forward platform, Oren’s fellow blogger and Marylander, Brent Almond, had set up an online fundraiser on behalf of the Facebook dad bloggers. This group, this extended family of fathers and writers from all over the world, would do our small part to help Oren’s family.

Oren Miller

L-R: Oren Miller, his wife Beth and friend and fellow blogger Brent Almond, together on Memorial Day weekend — hours before Oren’s cancer diagnosis.

The idea was to raise as much as we could to help them enjoy a nice vacation getaway before Oren began his treatment in earnest. We figured $5,000 was a nice, round target.

Brent posted the link to the fundraiser late Thursday evening. By Friday morning, the amount raised had slid right on past $5,000 and was bearing down on $10,000 before noon. When it reached $13,000, I emailed my TODAY Parents editors and told them news was happening.

Important news. News that illustrated the strength and power of these things that bind us in that Facebook group. Fatherhood. The creative impulse. Passion for our roles as caregivers, and compassion for others.

It had to be shared, this wonderful story that arose from such a terrible thing.

I say terrible, because that’s what it was. And is. Yet, Oren’s grace and dignity in the face of this awful circumstance moved thousands (here it is in his words, powerful words, words that will make you cry and wonder at the strength of this gentle father and caring husband).

That Friday afternoon, as Beth and Oren wheeled their way toward Johns Hopkins for his radiation treatment, I reached back into my professional past and tried to wear my journalist hat for an interview session. We chatted, he and I. He sounded tired, of course, but all I heard was music in that thick Israeli accent of his. His responses to my forced and awkward questions were as graceful as you would expect, if you know him.

And then he put Beth on the phone. I wish I had known Beth before this. She sounds amazing. She also let me know how much the group has meant to Oren during this time. I wrapped my TODAY piece with a great kicker quote from Beth, but it was cut in the final edit. Here is that quote now, in its entirety:

“Right now, this is the [worst] time you could ever imagine,” she said. “The only time in those early days in the hospital I saw Oren smile was when he was keeping up with what was going on with the group. I don’t think he would have made it out of the hospital if not for that. I really don’t.”

The fundraiser goes on. The goal has been increased to $30,000, and as of this writing, we’re past $26,000. It’s more than a vacation fund now. It’s money they can use for medical bills or any other needs that will arise as they fight this. The founders of Give Forward have generously agreed to donate $25 for every post the dad bloggers publish (up to 40 posts), an additional $1,000. Click here to donate, if you like, or simply to leave Oren and his family a message of love and hope.

There is no moral here. No feel-good story, no happy ending. Not really. There is something, though, and it’s this: We can do good in this world when we act together out of compassion and love. What else is there?

Oren Miller

Oren Miller and family.

 

The Field Trip

He came around the corner, distraught, and found me in the family room.

His face broke.

Tears gathered and fell.

“Mommy just told me you can’t come on the field trip.”

Small sob.

“I want you there,” he said. “I want you to go. I want to be with my daddy.”

He wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his face into my shirt.

I put my hand on his head and told him I was sorry.

“I have to work,” I said. “I want to go, too. I wish I could. But I have to work.”

I told him we could make our own family field trip. I told him to think of adventures we could have on the weekend.

The tears stopped. He stepped back. Our own field trip? That sounded promising. He seemed to feel better.

I did not.

_______________

The next morning I got into my car and began my commute as usual. I fought the traffic along the expressway and watched the sun come up.

When I reached the exit for my office, I kept going. My son wanted me there. I was going to go on that field trip. It wasn’t far, just up the interstate at the state fairground. A place where old Florida has been reconstructed out of antique buildings that were moved there from their original homestead sites. It’s a pretty, shaded village, a living set torn from the pages of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel.

I maneuvered through the downtown morning rush hour traffic and made it to the fairground ahead of the kids. I parked my car. I talked my way through the gate. The guard said he had a son, too. He understood.

When the bus arrived, I stood there smiling. Excited kids filed off and I looked for my son. He bounced off the bus chattering to friends, excited to be there. Then he spotted me.

“Daddy!”

He ran to me and grabbed me in a hug.

“You’re here! I can’t believe it! This is awesome!”

“I know, bud,” I said. “It is awesome. It really is. Hey, let’s go look at that old train station. It looks pretty cool.”

We explored the village, ate some kettle corn, pet some farm animals and had a great time making a memory.

_______________

No. That did not happen.

I battled the traffic, took my exit, and showed up to work. He went on the field trip with other chaperones, other kids’ parents.

We will have our own, personal field trip. But it’s not the same. I know it, and he knows it. That’s why he cried.

I wanted to be there. I should have been there. I could not be there.

It didn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right.

We can’t have it all. I know that. We understand reality. There is school, there is work, there are hours apart. Our family handles it as well as we can, just like every family.

But sometimes, if only for a day, it might be nice to have a little more. Sometimes, it would be nice to be there.

Tampa Sunrise

Tampa sunrise from the office. Beautiful view. Somewhere out there, there’s a field trip happening.

I Asked, He Answered: What My Son Really Thinks of Me

At 6:17 a.m., I walked into my older son’s bedroom and flipped on the light. His face was turned toward the lamp, so he squeezed his eyes shut tighter and twisted his head into his pillow. I sat down on his bed and said good morning.

“What time is it?” he mumbled into his pillow. I glanced at his alarm clock.

“It’s 18 minutes after six,” I said. “Time to get ready for the bus.”

“Six-eighteen,” he said. He’s learning time and money in school, and he’s getting pretty good at both.

And then, because I read a story about the impressions our kids have of us, and because I saw a commercial the night before that showed kids mimicking the behavior of their parents, I had this question buzzing around in my mind as we began our morning wake-up ritual.

“Hey, let me ask you something,” I said. “How would you describe your dad?”

Now, this wasn’t fair of me and I knew it. He was still basically asleep. His mind was primed for another day of second-grade exuberance and angst, possibly still full of Frozen songs from our little movie watch party of the night before.

I asked anyway, even though I wasn’t sure I would like his answer.

As drowsy as he was, he did not hesitate.

“Sweet, kind, funny, courageous,” he said. After a pause, he added, “Likes to play soccer.”

It was as if he had tapped into my mind and pulled out the exact words I would have used to describe him. Except I would have added a few.

Smart.

Empathetic.

Sensitive.

Energetic.

Loving.

Feisty.

Independent.

Loves to read.

Good at math.

Loves animals.

Loves to ride his bike.

Loves vacations.

Loves his family.

On and on I could go. His answer was not what I expected, but it instantly lifted me emotionally and mentally. I could not stop smiling when I told my wife what he said, and even the morning commute to work couldn’t get me down.

When I think of some of the words he might justifiably have added to his description of me − strict, grumpy, always tired, yells too much, hard to please, sometimes makes kids eat healthy food − I feel exhilarated, but a little guilty, too. Even though I would describe myself differently, he chose to accentuate the characteristics that place me in the most favorable light as a parent. The guilt sneaks in because his act of lifting me up with unvarnished praise also served to remind me that I have a long, long way to go to be the parent − the person − I need to be for him, his brother and their mother.

I won’t let it go to my head. I know that if I ask the same question at a different time (say, when he’s being forced against his will to spend 10 more minutes on homework instead of watching Clone Wars on Netflix), his answer might be vastly different. But it did feel good to hear it. It does feel good.

Nothing wrong with a little parenting validation from the most relevant source there is, as long as I keep it in perspective.

 

How Will Our Sons Remember Me?

Boys, I don’t know if you’ll ever have kids of your own. I imagine you will. I don’t know whether I’ll ever meet these theoretical grandchildren of mine. I hope I do.

If you do have kids, and if I’m gone by then, they’ll probably ask about me.

“Tell me about your dad,” they might say.

What will you tell them?

What am I doing now to create a legacy worth remembering, memories worth sharing with your own children?

I know what I hope you’ll say:

“Your grandfather was smart, kind, patient and funny.

“He loved to read, and he loved to write. He read to us and made up stories with us as the heroes and helped us with our homework. He played video games, too. He was just a big kid at heart.

“He taught us how to throw, catch and hit a baseball, and how to kick a soccer ball. He taught us to care for animals. He took us to nature parks and movies and arcades.

“He loved to visit Disney World every bit as much as we did when we were little. As I said, he was a big kid his whole life.

“He could really sing, and he taught us to appreciate music. He couldn’t dance even a little, but he was funny when he tried.

“He always told us to ‘be good, be nice, be you and have fun’ every morning before school.

“He loved Mom more than anything in the world, except maybe for us.

“He showed me how to live with grace and dignity, and every day I try to be the kind of man he was.”

That’s what I hope you’ll say.

Here’s what I fear you’ll say:

“Your grandfather loved us, but he had no idea how to relate to us – or to anyone – in a mature, meaningful way. He really was just a big, immature kid his whole life.

“He liked to call himself a writer, but he never published a book and he would put us to sleep with boring stories about covering baseball for a newspaper.

“He played video games, for God’s sake. And he dragged us to Disney World so many times I get hives just thinking about Mickey Mouse.

“Oh, and don’t get me started about all the times he tried to live vicariously through us with Little League baseball and youth soccer. He just didn’t understand why we didn’t care about playing or watching sports. If he had the sense God gave a ferret, he’d know we hated sports because he constantly shoved them down our throats.

“Sure, he could sing a little, but not as well as he thought he could – and he made an absolute idiot of himself whenever he tried to dance.

“He was like a parrot with that ‘be good, be nice …’ blah, blah, blah every day before school. What did that even mean, anyway? As if platitudes could replace genuine communication and empathy.

“As I say, your grandfather loved us – probably – and I think he meant well. But every day I live my life trying not to be like him.”

____________________________

Here’s the thing about legacies: They are impossible to forecast. Memories are fickle. Even if I do everything right in your eyes from now until the day I’m gone, I have no way to know how I’ll be remembered by you.

Chances are, boys, if you do have kids one day and they ask about me, the things you tell them and the tone of voice you use will be determined by things that have not yet happened, by moments that have not yet been lived. You are just now beginning to form long-term memories. This is Chapter One in your story of me.

All I can do is to attempt to live up to the ideal, while remaining mindful of the possibility of disappointment. If I’m fortunate, my true legacy to you will not be the memories and stories you share about me, but how your children remember you. Because if you grow up to be worthy of emulation in the eyes of my grandchildren, then I’ll consider this a job well done.

Let’s Talk About God

“Every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: It is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.” – Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

God

Detail of Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco at the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.

Our first summer in Florida, I was 13 years old and wheelchair-bound after corrective surgery on both feet. My parents sent my brother and me to vacation Bible school at the Presbyterian church up the road from our Palm Beach Gardens apartment complex. There, in the Sunday school classroom, as I sat in my wheelchair with my feet in their twin casts sticking straight out in front of me, a young man with shaggy brown hair, bad acne and huge glasses asked me if I would accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.

If so, he added, my soul would be saved and I would be guaranteed a place for all eternity in the Kingdom of the Lord.

That sounded OK to me. So I said, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

And he said, “Praise Jesus. You are saved today.”

So, I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

__________________________

Sundays at our house have always been reserved for rest. If not rest, Disney World. If not Disney, Busch Gardens. Or laundry. Or yard work. Or the community pool. Or grocery shopping. Or anything except church.

Put simply, we don’t go. We are among the 20 percent of Americans who a Pew Research Center poll identified as having no religious affiliation. That’s not to say we are not religious. Beth certainly is. She prays regularly, and she believes in the traditional, organized-religion definition of the Christian God.

I don’t share her beliefs. I suppose I would have to be lumped in with the 33 million Americans who identify themselves as atheistic or agnostic. I don’t know what that means, though. What I do know is that I don’t know what happens when we die.

I also know this: Neither does anyone else know. But you know what else? That doesn’t matter.

Religion isn’t about that. Or it shouldn’t be.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology whose work influenced George Lucas as he created the Star Wars universe, makes as much sense to me as anyone I’ve read or listened to when it comes to the purpose of religion. He said it exists not to reveal the meaning of life, but to help us find a way to live life with grace, to discover within ourselves an accord between what we experience and the questions and concepts that transcend our experience.

Campbell said God was, in fact, a metaphor for the things that transcend thought. I think what he meant was that because we exist in the field of time — we’re born, we live, we die — it is incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, to grasp the concept of eternity.

And that’s about as deep as I want to go with that. As I say, I don’t know. I want to know, but I also am not arrogant enough to believe that I have the answers. That said, nor will I at this point in my life acknowledge that anyone else truly knows, either. That’s what I believe.

Which brings us to our sons.

__________________________

Beth wants them to go to church. We have found one that might serve, at least for now.

I have qualms.

On one hand, I want our sons to learn about organized religion, about spirituality, about humanity’s attempts to make sense of it all.

On the other hand, I believe that much of humanity’s strife — today and throughout history — has been caused by organized religion. As Campbell said, practitioners of the individual religions get stuck in their own interpretations of their chosen metaphors. That is, they fail to read the sacred texts or hear the sacred stories as poetry. Instead, they read it and hear it as prose. It is, Campbell said, a purely literary problem.

I see people in the public eye espouse views in the name of their religion about topics such as homosexuality, and it is clearly a bigoted way of thinking. Here’s the problem, though: They don’t think of themselves as bigoted, because they simply are adhering to the things they learned from their religious leaders. They are wrong to think that. Hiding behind specious lessons does not excuse the ignorant. While I might not know the answers, I do know this: Any religious teaching that is used to objectify and dehumanize other people is deplorable. I hope our sons never think that way.

Some of my favorite people in the world are deeply religious, and so sure in their convictions that it sometimes makes me wish that I could give myself over to the rapture and let the joy wash over me like a baptismal font.

It’s tough, but our sons need a frame of reference. They need to be exposed to these ideas — and at 7, our older son is probably as impressionable as he’ll ever be when it comes to ideas about spirituality.

It’s tricky. I bought our older son a book the other day called The Kids Book of World Religions, and he sort of freaked out about the drawing of Jesus on the cross. He needs to know what that means, that the resurrection is emblematic of the “death” and “rebirth” we all must experience as we transition from one stage of life to another (I am aware there are those whose interpretation of the crucifixion differs from this one). I Googled [talking to children about religion] and found an entire blog dedicated to the subject, along with this Washington Post story about the author of that blog. This is not a problem unique to us.

It’s necessary. We want our sons to make informed decisions about how they choose to think about spirituality in the future. We’re going to expose them to different ways of thinking, to different paths. We’re going to let them make their own decisions when they’re ready. You’ve got to start somewhere. So … we’ll start by giving up our Sunday rest or recreation to explore the spiritual.

And we’re going to hope that when (if) they choose their paths, they find grace and peace and love. Above all else, we hope that.

Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s Pieta, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.

I’m a Dad, a Husband, a Writer … and I Want It All

I want it all.

I want to be there – actually, physically, there – for my sons. I want to be a life partner and best friend for my wife, and I want her to be those things for me, too. I want a career that pays me what my work is worth and provides the kind of personal and professional gratification that comes from making a meaningful contribution, whether from a business perspective or culturally.

I want all of that.

And I want this, too: I want to write fiction that resonates with someone. I want to write short stories like O’Connor or Fitzgerald and novels like Irving, Chabon or Russo. I want readers. I want readers that want to buy my work in order to read it.

I want that, and I want to play FIFA soccer on my PS3 while I drink cheap red wine or expensive English beer. I want to watch Mad Men and enjoy a nice glass of bourbon every now and then.

I want to play softball again, and I want to go on dates with my wife. I want to go to Walt Disney World every other weekend, and I want to fly to Cape Cod every August.

I really, really want to go back to London. Paris, too. And I’d like to see Rome and Florence one day.

I want it all.

I’m a dad. I’m a husband. I’m a writer.

I want all of the things behind those three curtains.

What? I have to choose?

Says who?

Here’s the problem. I do have to choose, just as men and women have had to choose since the rise of the original American middle class. That began about a century or so ago, when technology and progressive ideas about how the working class should be treated combined to thrust this country into an unprecedented era of relative ease and prosperity. It wasn’t always easy. Not everyone prospered. But on the whole, the world has never seen a society like ours, wherein individual aspirations are – in theory – paramount, and we are free to shape our government in order to create an atmosphere conducive to the pursuit of those aspirations.

A fiercely independent spirit – that’s the American ethos. That’s why we want it all. But who am I kidding? The past three generations – the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y – have collectively believed they are owed it all. We aren’t.

We are, however, owed the freedom to pursue happiness. The freedom to conduct that pursuit is an inalienable right, I believe.

So, what would make me – a dad, a husband, a writer – happy?

I want … it all.

Is that too much to ask?

_________________________

There’s been a lot of public discussion lately about this topic, along with another subject that is directly related to our family, women as primary breadwinners. I think those two topics are connected.

Here is an interesting piece that ran Thursday in Bloomberg Businessweek. Alpha Dads: Men Get Serious About Work-Life Balance.

Here is a piece on the Pew research study that concluded that in 40 percent of American households, a woman is the primary breadwinner. That’s how it is now in our house, and I could not be more proud of my wife. Breadwinner Moms.

And here is a link to the blog of an online friend of mine, Scott Behson, an academic from Cornell who researches and writes extensively about family work-life balance issues. There is a lot of good stuff there on this topic, including a guest post by yours truly about why I asked off the baseball beat in 2005. Fathers, Work and Family.

I hardly ever ask for comments, but I would love to know how you do it. How do you make life’s pursuit of happiness work for you? How do you decide what to sacrifice and what will absolutely never fall by the wayside? Our family doesn’t have any big secret. We just do it day by day and work hard to stay on top of all of our responsibilities at home and at work.

Sometimes it’s great. Other times, it feels like our heads are going to explode.

There’s been some backlash lately about the term “work-life balance,” but for us, it really is a balancing act sometimes. For instance, we both took today off in order to attend Jay’s first-grade class play and Chris’ preschool graduation ceremony, which began a half-hour apart and took place a mile apart this morning. There was no way either of us would miss those events, but we had to sacrifice a precious vacation day to do it.

What sort of decisions have you had to make in order to strike that balance? What have you missed? Is it even realistic to think about “having it all,” whether you’re a man or woman? I’d like to think so.