The Loathsome Days of Summer

Today is the official last day of school for two of my four children. Thanks to the wonderful winter weather up here in northeast Michigan rearing its ugly head, the school season had to be extended by several days to make up for the multitude of school days missed because of snow and ice.

Only hours remain until the smoggy diesel sound echoes through the neighborhood and that big yellow bus full of excitable youth pulls up to the corner for the last time. As the school season comes to an end and summer break approaches, I start to feel this wrenching in my gut. Unlike many of my parental peers, I loathe the end of school and the beginning of the dog days of summer.

By noon tomorrow, the phrase, “I’m bored”, will be repeatedly uttered nearly every day for about one hundred days. I can plan and coordinate only so many art projects, bike rides, playground visits, trips to the beach, or fishing trips in a week. Somehow it is never enough, and sooner or later, those words will slip from one or more of my children’s mouths, “I’m bored”!

I cringe at the sound of my children’s voice as they repeat those dreadful words that scratch at my eardrums like fingernails dragging across a blackboard. The sad puppy dog eyes and moping faces do little to garner an ounce of my empathy for their pleading to entertain them.

“Go outside and play”, I say.

Our yard and shed are filled with every type of outdoor toy you could imagine. There is a sandbox outside filled with a plethora of toys, and a playhouse with kitchen supplies of all kinds to make imaginary pies and cakes. We have bikes, trikes and scooters of all shapes, sizes and number of wheels. There are Frisbees, balls, bats and rackets.

“But I don’t want to do that, dad, it is too hot”, they pout!

They droop across the couch and sag somber in the recliner, flipping through the cartoon channels and movies. Since going outside, my next suggestion to cure their boredom is to shut off the television and dig into the arts and crafts. In my office, there are three small plastic totes and one huge, four-drawer filled with markers, colored pencils, paints, brushes, scissors and glue. We have a surplus of paper, recycled cardboard, cups, yarn and jewels. There is nearly everything a budding artist needs to keep themselves busy for days on end creating. But their lack of interest and unmoving eyes locked on the television is answer enough…

“But I don’t want to do that, Dad”, the respond in petulant silence.

The park always snaps them out of their passive resistance to my efforts to cure their boredom. “Give me a few minutes to finish up my work and we will walk to the park”, I spout. But no, the park two blocks away just won’t do. The protests begin and the obstinacy continues. They want to travel across town to the park we have not been to in weeks, pack a lunch and head out on a road trip to someplace miles away, or spend the day at the beach.

“But the park in town is no fun, and we always go there, Dad”, they protest.

By now my patience are starting to wear thin, what ever writing project I have to get done, the little one has the “HOLD ME’s” and seriously needs a nap. What is worse, it is not even 11:30am.

And, as if on queue, I hear the screech of brakes, the growl of a diesel engine and the flash of dingy yellow slowing at the corner, and the raucous howls of excited youth. Oh, yes, I dread the return of the loathsome days of summer.

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Where there is Family, there is Magic

For those of you out there that scoff at the notion that there is magic in this world, I am here to tell you there is. I know this for a fact because my eight-year-old told me this morning while we were getting ready for school.

She had recently lost her sixth baby tooth, and for the second time in two years the Tooth Fairy missed collection and payment. The sad disappointment on my little girl’s face punched me right in the stomach. How dare that Tooth Fairy forget to reward my precious baby for her of hard work caring for those little teeth until her big girl set pushed them out!

“That’s it,” I exclaimed, “I am going to email that crazy old tooth collecting fairy the minute you get on the bus and let him know this will not stand!”

“HER, daddy. Girls have a girl Tooth Fairy and boys have a BOY Tooth Fairy.”

“Sorry, baby girl, daddy forgot. I’ll tell HER what for!”

I went on to blame her teething brother whom had woke that night in agonizing pain. Even expressing my own anger, blaming the Tooth Fairy for stealing all her brother’s pacifiers because we had prevented her from performing her Tooth Fairy duties. Her sad puppy dog eyes lifted from the floor and grew wide as her new bucktooth smile.

At dinner that evening, I updated my daughter on the progress I made with the Tooth Fairy. It turns out many children had lost teeth that day. She was overloaded and ran out of special coins to give them, but my little angel was the first on the list of stops tonight.

We made sure my baby girl had her box and note safely under her pillow when I tucked her in at bedtime. She hit me with that big smile and a thank you for putting the Tooth Fairy in her place.

The Tooth Fairy did not miss my daughter that night, and even compensated heavily for the mistake with three one-dollar bills, one gold dollar, one silver half dollar and two quarters. I don’t know what that crazy broad does with all those teeth, but it must be a lucrative business to be handing out that kind of cash.

My daughter’s jubilation this morning was well worth the extra effort to correct the Tooth Fairy’s mistake, and she told me something that brought me to absolute tears of joy. On the bus the day before, she told her friend that daddy and mommy were magic because we make all kinds of wonderful and fun things happen. When her friend argued there was no such thing as magic, she angrily spit back at him, “You don’t know, you have never even been to MY house!”

So I say to all the non-believers, I know for a fact that there is magic in this world. It can be found in family. Pay just a moment of attention to your children and listen close to what they have to say. Hearing my daughter’s story this morning was one of the little things that make parenting the most rewarding career I have ever had. Knowing that, despite our family being torn apart, trying cope with the separation and divorce while maintaining a loving environment, or staying strong against the many woes the world throws at us on a daily basis, my children can see wonder and magic in their parents.

If a little girl who has gone though so much in her young life like my daughter believes I perform magic, then I must be doing something right as a parent. And if your children see magic in you, even when the world is beating you down, then you are surely doing something right, too.

How my life as a “Married Single” prepared me for becoming a Single Father

Before divorce became the ultimate conclusion to a turbulent nine-year marriage, I was introduced to a term I had never heard before—Married Single. My wife and I were attending a Marriage Encounters weekend in one of many attempts to repair our damaged relationship. On the second day of the weekend long relationship seminar, the collection of hosts started to discuss what it meant to be a Married Single. The term defines a marriage where one spouse in the relationship continues the same social behavior of a bachelor or bachelorette while the other spouse is left with all the domestic duties that come with a marriage.

This term resonated hard with me. Since the beginning of our marriage, my wife continuously exercised what she believed was her right to go out on almost a nightly basis the minute I entered the door from work. She felt entitled to socialize with her friends and drink at the bar whenever she desired. After working twelve to fourteen hour shifts, six days a week, I would be left to cook dinner, clean the house, and tend to our young children.

A vicious cycle grew from her sense of entitlement and became the center of constant argument. She justified her behavior to do as she pleased by claiming she was taking care of the kids during the day with no help or support from me, and refuted my defense that I worked long hours to provide for our family. My work, she claimed, was my social life and reason for my absence in the family. And so it went on for our entire first half of our marriage.

Eventually, the long work hours and the added burden of filling the domestic role at home because of the ever-growing absence of my spouse led to serious physical and mental health issues for me. The situation worsened when she decided to get a job of her own. The added stress of juggling my schedule around her new work and play schedule brought on a heart attack scare, which was later diagnosed as a massive anxiety attack. I had to make an important life choice, and this incident forced me to decide on a career change. I needed something I could do from home to make extra cash while allowing me to continue to perform the domestic duties of a stay-at-home parent.

Most men who find themselves in midlife crisis go out and buy an expensive sports car, or run away with a younger woman. Not me. I chose to put myself in $45k in student loan debt.

With my wife working full time and continuing to have an active social life, I chose to enroll in an online college program to develop my writing skills. It had been a lifelong desire to be a writer, a dream discouraged by many members of my very blue-collar family. Making this personal life decision did not set well with my wife, who expected me to get a “real job” so she did not have to support the entire household alone.

We found ourselves in a vicious cycle once more. While the position of housewife was considered a difficult job for her, my decision to become a househusband and return to college was viewed as an excuse to be lazy and a way to avoid my economic responsibility as a father and husband. It was a double standard I could not defend myself against. And so fighting went on, through two domestic violence charges against her, more counseling to try repairing the damage our family and marriage was suffering, and the addition of two more children to our growing household.

The addition of two more children, even with all the turmoil should have been a reminder of the love we had for one another. But my wife’s desire to be independent, as well as, her growing animosity for me attempting to follow my dream of becoming a writer was too strong. The tragic story of a once loving family ended with infidelity and substance abuse.

Our divorce will be finalized in a few more months. My wife has her new boyfriend, expecting a baby they conceived while we were still together, and a new life.

The transition from being a Married Single to a divorced father raising four children was a relatively easy adjustment. After all, I had been caring for my children with little help from my spouse. The toughest part has been tending to the emotional pain of having our family torn apart. I still feel the stabbing in my heart and the nauseating roll in my stomach every time I hear my ex’s voice or see her face.

My love for her is still there, and the wound she left on my heart is still open and tender. I miss what we had, but I know there is no way to ever get that back. What I have left from all this is the strong bond of love with my four young children, and a true understanding of what a “Married Single” really is.

The Daddy Double Standard

I admit that calling myself, “Mr. Mom” is a blatant misnomer. First and foremost, I am nothing like the bumbling laid off auto worker trying to adapt to the role of stay-at-home dad Michael Keaton portrays in the 1983 movie “Mr. Mom”, nor is the growing number of men taking on this most difficult of careers.

Yes, I said it. Homemaking is a career. It is the most difficult career I have ever embarked upon, and I have had some tough ones. It may not be the most physically demanding, but the mental fatigue is a killer, and you cannot fire or replace your children when they do not follow direction.

I left a two-decade career in the food service industry to stay home with my young children and take on a new career in freelance writing. I was already apt in handling daily domestic duties thanks to growing up an only child raised by a single mother who worked hard to keep a roof over our head and food in our bellies. It did not take long for my two little girls and I to settle into a wonderful routine. Not long after taking on my new role as homemaker, I started to notice what I like to call, “The Daddy Double Standard”, which is a collection of misconceptions and stereotypes a stay-at-home father is often subjected to.

After six years and two more kids, I comprised a list of the top “Daddy Double Standards”. People I’ve conversed with about town would praise me for my bravery bringing my children to the grocery store, yet whisper criticism of the mother a checkout lane over trying to manage her children. Those same people, and even some friends, would laugh and joke when they learned that I was a stay-at-home dad. “It must be nice,” they would jest, “to stay home and do nothing all day.” Even my ex-wife held firm to this belief and continually threw in my face that, “I had it easy,” and “she had to do everything”, despite seeing the truth. My ex claimed that staying home to take care of the kids while I returned to school so I could fulfill a life long dream of becoming a writer was nothing more than an excuse to avoid my responsibility to my family. She still continues to use this weak argument for throwing away nine years of marriage.

Though there are many more myths surrounding the stay-at-home father, here are the ones that bother me most.

Dads lack domestic skills.

This is the one I find the most offensive. Dads are incapable of doing the laundry, washing the dishes, or turning on a vacuum, much less pick up after themselves or the children. They wait for the wife to get home after a long day at work, like super woman swooping in to rescue the hopeless husband and helpless children from the growing mess that is slowly devouring them. Dad is never rewarded for what he did achieve in the course of the day, just judged on what did not get done or the unsatisfactory way said tasks had been completed. Every day felt like a line from an old country song because the house was never clean enough and dinner never warm enough for her standards.

Dads are all about junk food and takeout.

Meals were another big cause for argument between my ex and I. Anyone who has ever had a child over the age of two knows how absolutely picky their little appetites will become. And those sophisticated palates vary from child to child right on through their teen years. In my former career, I had prepared meals for tens of thousands of people from all walks of life. Never in my life had I received so much criticism for my culinary skill that I have from my own children.

So it became part of the routine to prepare special meals based on each child’s preferred tastes, and we repeated a lot of the same meals throughout the week. It saved a ton of fussing from them and spared daily frustration for me. And I did my best to provide a balanced diet. However great my effort was in meal preparation, the wife always had something critical to say about it.

Dads are “No work and all play”.

Not only did I have to combat the sorely overstated lack of basic domestic skills from my ex and others, I had to live with the constant criticism of how I handled structure and discipline in the daily routine of our household. Sure, we had plenty of playtime, especially before the children started to attend school and during the summer months. As they got older, using technology like my iPad or playing videogames became part of the daily routine. But these were earned privileges, not just a means of occupying them. Homework and chores had to be done first.

We also spent time reading, playing traditional board games, doing art projects, taking nature walks, and participating in physical activities like sports. Our free time has always been used as a new opportunity for my children to learn. I have taken the time to subsidize their education whenever possible, that is why my children excel beyond public school standards for their grade levels.

Dads are not nurturers.

This one I always call total bullshit when I hear it. Sure, dads are not physically soft and cuddly like moms. Mothers have sweet, soothing voices while fathers have deep, gruff tones. Mothers say things like, “It will be okay”, and fathers say, “suck it up”.

Sure, I have those tough daddy moments now and again. I am coarse, brash and loud when the children are not following direction or listening to me. I can lose my cool like any human being when my little gargoyles get out of control. But I am here to testify that I have wiped away a river of tears, kissed away the pain of many skinned knees, calmed the screams of a plethora of bad dreams, and love to rock even my oldest child while singing lullabies.

There is no greater joy in my life than my children. From the day of their birth, after I held each one, my eyes would not leave their beautiful faces. My heart attached to them, and I never wanted to let them go. It broke my heart when my last and youngest didn’t need daddy to rock him to sleep anymore.

Some closing words of wisdom

So, to all the fathers, and mothers, who take on the immense and often thankless duty of a full time parent; don’t let judgmental pricks bring you down. People judge when they cannot do. Remember, you are awesome!

The Youngest Rules the Roost

The youngest rules the roost

As a vetted parent, I do not care how many times I have repeated the phrase, “I am in charge of this family,” I was dead wrong. The ruler of the roost is the youngest member of the family, especially if the youngest member is an infant or a precocious toddler.

My youngest offspring turned one year old this February when realized I have not been the one running the show for the last eight years. This somber epiphany enlightened me to a hierarchy I did not notice before. With the birth of each child came a passing of the torch.

Sure, I’ve tried my best to establish a routine with the children. After all, I am a creature of habit myself, and a structured routine makes the day flow smoothly. A solid routine is wonderful when the children are all of school age like three of my four, but add an infant or toddler to the mix and total chaos will surely ensue.

A set wake-up time is the first piece of the routine lost. Mornings are nice. I am a morning person. I like to get stuff done early. I’m up at least a half hour before the kids get up, school or not. I love the stillness in the house, silently sitting in my office with a steaming cup of coffee, and watching the sun erase the night sky. It is my time to think, jot down a few notes for whatever writing project is on my agenda and plan my day.

But the best laid plans, and peaceful mornings are quickly shattered when there is a tiny, hungry, wet infant demanding he or she be tended to immediately. And when said little one wakes, the entire house must wake with them. Thankfully, this does pass as they enter toddler stage. And keeping a good routine will help. I promise, the little one will adapt.

Bedtime offers a whole new challenge. Anyone with a little one knows, when the little one is ready to sleep, it is time to sleep. And there is no guarantee the little one will stay asleep, because all it takes is the drop of a pin to wake them up in a fit of rage. The challenge comes in keeping the rest of the house down to a dull roar, especially when the rest of the brood is fully energized. Let me not forget to mention that sleeping through the night is rare, even with younger school age children. Wet diapers, gas or late night feedings are constant with the infants. With the toddlers and older children there are the accidental bed-wettings, nightmares and insomnia.

Meals are challenging no matter what age the children are. Sure, meal times can be an easy routine to establish, but I can tell you from experience that none of my children have the same pallet. Each has their favorites and more than half the meals I prepare in a week will be frowned upon, poked at, or straight up rejected.

My little man is not like his older sisters when it comes to eating. Where they are selective about what and when they want to eat. The youngest is an on-demand eater. He will eat just about anything as long as you feed him every two hours, and he demands to eat first and immediately. His signal is two fingers to the back of his throat until he pukes. Entering the kitchen is enough to elicit this response, even if we have already eaten. As much as I would like to only have to plan and prepare three meals per day, I always end up taking on the roll of short order cook and my kitchen becomes Mel’s Diner.

Outings can be a whole other animal. Most of the time, the little man either wants to eat or nap right before we are trying to get out the door. Once out, he is usually happy and enjoys escaping from the confines of the house. But there is no guarantee he will remain blissful. God forbid a stranger might stare at him, or talk to him. This is a true deal breaker and demands immediate return to the safety of home.

My favorite is the, “I just pooped” face. This is most likely to happen while in the checkout line, half way though ringing up a few hundred dollars worth of groceries. But, like his siblings before, he saves these special moments for the crowded restaurant with either a broken, or worse, no changing table.

And, of course, working! This is the most challenging part of the day, and a true notification that I do not control shit. A few years ago, I made a life changing decision to leave the restaurant industry to pursue a life long dream of becoming a writer. My health and children were the main reasons for making said decision. In the age of instant global connectivity, I could work right from home.

The fantasy of sitting in my home office at my Mac Book tapping away at the keys and occasionally staring out at the lake for inspiration was stuck in my head. The op reality, especially if you have young children is nothing like the daydream I just described. It is more like an open-handed slap to the face.

It is guaranteed, just like entering the kitchen, that my son will throw an absolute shit fit if my butt hits my office chair and my fingers start clicking the keys. Stories like this one would normally take about two hours to pound out and another hour to edit. Not so with a screaming toddler pulling on your arm or trashing the office around you until surrender is inevitable and you fully submit to his will.

Speaking of which, the ruler of the roost woke from his afternoon slumber, so I must exit because it is time for another round of Daddy’s Duties.