It’s Father’s Day: part 1

It’s an odd coincidence that I chose to start this blog a couple of day’s before Father’s Day. It’s also ironic that ever since I started working on this my older daughter F’s attitude and behavior have deteriorated so rapidly. While taking a break from thinking about this essay just now, I read a headline that screamed, “Obama Asks Men to Be Better Father’s Than Their Own”. I’m a pretty good father, and in many ways I do struggle to be better than my own. At the same time, I struggle with many of the same faults that he had- and I wonder how much of this is learned and how much is just in my blood. My father died nearly three years ago, and I have never properly mourned his loss- I know that. I used to talk to him a couple of times a week- and in some ways I still do.

As a father I often project myself into the past and have this odd experience of feeling that I literally am my father. At these time I feel a powerful sense of deja-vu and almost feel that I am inside him looking out. Sometimes this happens when I am playing with my kids in the way that my father would play with us. I only have a few photos of being with him when I was young but they trigger powerful sense memories. He would sometimes lay on the floor and flip us over his head with his legs. My twin brother and I screamed with excitement and fought with each other to do it again. My children are the same way, and as I am giddy with joy in these situations I viscerally step outside the experience and feel that I am him- That I am him watching my children- or that I am him playing with me as a child.

On the flip side of that joy is the experience of his rage. My father was a loving parent and a real mensch. However, he wasn’t perfect. He was cheap beyond reason and while he was usually pretty good at keeping his temper in check there were times that he would simply lose it. He would explode with rage when pushed on issues that he didn’t want to be pushed on.

I identify with my father more than my mother, despite probably being a little more like my mother than my father. It might be the fact that I am more innately like my mother, but tried to model myself after my father, that I can get more inside his behaviors than hers- that I can see him in me more so than i can see her in me.

In many ways I’m a lot like my father and my daughter is a lot like me. So when she’s being difficult in a way that I was difficult as a child, I will often concentrate with all of my energy to keep my anger in check. I try to step outside of the situation and realize that she is a child and I am an adult and that I have a powerful responsibility to act like one. A lot of the time I’ll be able to do it. As I groggily changed her sheets when she wet her bed, I was conscious of not even appearing angry because I could remember the shame that I felt as my father threw a towel on my soggy sheets. He wouldn’t yell at us, and was understandably annoyed or tired and probably wasn’t aware of how his mood would affect us in a long term way, but i can still feel his sense of frustration as he got me ready for bed again. As an adult I could totally connect with that energy and I would have to correct myself and make a major effort to be positive. I knew deeply that the negative energy at that vulnerable moment wasn’t insignificant. I knew that I still carried scars from that unconscious behavior. I worked hard to connect with my own childhood feelings to find ways to mitigate the damage that my unthinking adult behavior might have on my child.

Yet there are times that I will lose control and yell at my daughter with a force that simply isn’t fair. When my rage takes over, I find that I can feel empathy for all three of us at once- my father, my daughter, and myself, which helps me to calm that rage. Still, it’s hard to stop the feelings that arise, and at times i simply lose control with F.

There was a period last fall where her defiance got out of control. She was 6 and a half and acted like a 14 year old. She refused to do her school work. She screamed at us, refused to get ready for school, refused to eat what we made for dinner, ate candy when she was told not to, hit her sister and snatched things from her. She refused to take responsibility for anything. It felt like we were in a constant battle with her, and it was almost impossible to have calm in the house. I knew that losing my temper in these situations was the wrong way to go, but I was also at the end of my rope all the time, and my temper got shorter. Regrettably I lost my temper and yelled with way too much force more times than I care to remember.

I also knew that it was our responsibility as parents to fix the situation. One night, a few months into “the terror” she was trying to goad me into fighting with her but I wouldn’t do it. I breathed in deeply and simply asked her why she was trying to get me to fight with her. She screamed and threw things, yet I felt an odd determined calmness. instead of reacting I kept telling her that I wanted to understand what was going on because her reactions made no sense in terms of what I was asking. Finally she broke down crying, and made it clear that she hadn’t felt listened to in a long time. Things had spiraled into a bad place. It was true that we weren’t listening so well, but I tried to help her understand that she also had to be responsible for communicating in way that we could hear her. She seemed to have had a 100 lb. weight lifted from her 45 lb. body by the end our talk.

The defiance leveled off and we got an explosion of anxiety to replace it. A week after our breakthrough F refused to leave the house because she was afraid. She wouldn’t go in the diner because there were cops in the diner and cops had guns and she was afraid of guns. She wouldn’t go anywhere. It was a difficult situation to handle. We didn’t want to be prisoners in the house but the feelings were clearly real so it was hard to force her to do things without ignoring the reality of her terror. She wasn’t putting on an act, she was literally terrified. She started to pick at her fingers and soon they were raw and bleeding all the time. She looked like she’d just seen a ghost most of the time.

The fear quickly spread to school. She was sick with a fever the following Monday and despite being well the following day, refused to go to school. The difficulty of the situation was compounded by the fact that we had a 2.5 year old to get to daycare as well, and F’s reaction to being pushed to do something that scared her was extreme. I knew that some of the behaviors/ issues stemmed from the existence of her sister, but that understanding didn’t make things any easier to deal with. There wasn’t so much anger in the house anymore but there was a lot of frustration.

That day I finally got her to school, but the nurse called within the hour to send her home with a stomach ache. I knew enough to realize that I couldn’t let her stay home. The following day I literally dragged her screaming into school. Everyone had a hard time understanding what was going on because they knew F to be a powerful leader. The behavior baffled everyone from the teachers to the administrators to the the other students. The principal heard the commotion and offered to make F her assistant for the day. After that I was able to get her to school but every day was a struggle. She was terrified of seeing a TV because of her fear of guns, and they sometimes watched movies at lunch when it was cold. Every resteraunt and store has a TV now so navigating the city became more difficult. Over the next several months the anxiety and defiance every so slowly diminished with the occasional powerful flare up.

It has been a tough year emotionally. The desire to be a wonderful father smashes up against the realities of life. Time constraints, financial pressures, creative pressures, and other family pressures conspire to make even the best laid plans go a little haywire. In addition to struggling to stay calm and positive while being buffeted about like a matchstick in a hurricane by F’s powerful emotions, I tried to read what I could about the best ways to deal with the situation. In addition to helpful advice, these books that dealt with defiance made me feel a little bit less alone in my struggle.

One friend suggested that we get F evaluated by a HANDLE expert. Handle is an acronym for something that I can’t remember. The quick explanation is that it’s a way of evaluating how the mind and body are working – and where there are weakness’s that might be contributing to emotional and behavioral issues. The evaluation very quickly revealed simple things like the fact that F’s eyes were not working well together, and in fact were competing. When she put on glasses with one red lens and one blue one she saw red and blue rather than purple. When the eyes are working well together they mix the colors. The extra work needed to process information from the separate sources can be exhausting. So we were given some simple exercises to help strengthen that ability. There were also issues with balance. F is incredibly graceful yet the tests revealed that if she wasn’t either at rest or moving at the speed of light her fight or flight response was triggered. It took a month but last weekend the exercises seemed to be taking effect. i=It was the calmest most pleasant weekend we had had in as long as I could remember. I found myself going hours without being frustrated. It wasn’t a perfect week but it was as good as it has been in a long time.

As I stated at the start of this essay, F’s behavior issues have flared back up a bit, but they seem to be getting back on track already. Tomorrow is father’s day. I look forward to it.

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