Monthly Archives: June 2010

Letter To A Newbie

When I was mopping my kitchen floor the other day, I thought about my buddy Vince, who becomes an at-home dad on Monday. I first met him in the winter, when he showed up at Drinks for Dads, the Baltimore at-home dads’ group’s monthly bar night sans kiddos.

Vince had found the group as he and his wife researched the possibility that he might stay home with the baby, who wasn’t even born yet. They were kind enough to have my Lovely Bride and our kiddos over to help win his wife over to the idea.

Baby was born. Maternity leave is ending, and I thought about Vince and what I wish I had known when I took the same plunge six years ago.

To find out, check out my guest post at The Baltimore Sun’s Charm City Moms blog. I bristle at the blog’s title as excluding dads, but they make up for it with a themed “Father’s Day Friday.”

Check out the post here.

Extending The Leash

Like many Baltimore neighborhoods, ours has an alley that runs between the backs of houses. It's the shared backyard that unites the block.

Just when I think I’ve got my kids figured out – and the parenting tactics fine-tuned – they go and change on me.

I recently realized it was time to lengthen Eddie’s leash as far as where he is allowed to play when I can’t see him. “For Pete’s sake,” I though. “The boy is seven. Give him some room.” (I don’t remember my parents supervising my outside play at that age. Then again, I grew up in rural Virginia at the end of a dirt road with a 1.25-acre yard with woods on three sides and one house on the fourth.)

One of the many reasons I love our neighborhood of rowhouses is because each block has an alley. Running between everyone’s postage-stamp backyards, they’re a common living room that unites the block. They’re the perfect venue for riding bikes, scooters and toddler toys. They’re also wide enough, however, for cars to cut through in avoiding our grid of one-way streets or to reach people’s garages.

It used to be that Eddie could go only from end to end in the alley, with the manhole cover as the boundary at one end and the storm drain at the other. This still required frequent intervention and minor boundary revision, like when he and his buddy decided it was funny to repeatedly crash their bikes into the neighbors’ AC compressor unit.

Once spring weather warmed up, I looked at Eddie’s buddy’s mom and said, “I think it’s time to extend the leash.” (Co-parenting with my Lovely Bride is challenging enough – even more so with a neighbor. But our kids are joined at the hip, so we had to get our story straight and stick to it.) She and I worked out that the two of them are allowed to ride their bikes around the south side of the block and back to the alley.

And after receiving permission from elderly Mr. O, they are allowed to cut through his yard (but not on bikes – it will trample the grass) where there’s no fence separating the alley side from the street.

clubhouse picture

The "clubhouse" is a spot between tree's in Mr. O's yard where the kids like to play.

They’re also allowed to play whenever they want in “the clubhouse,” a space between three evergreens in Mr. O’s front yard (not visible from the alley).

In theory, they have to stick together, and they’re not allowed to stop as they ride. But the second part doesn’t really work, because there are four or five out of maybe 15 houses on the south side of the alley with kiddos in them. Nobody is more distractible than 7-year-old boys – especially when a good climbing tree is discovered – so there’s a good chance they’ll end up playing inside somebody’s house.

telephone pole

Wouldn't it be easier to ride your bike into the street than to squeeze between the bushes and this telephone pole?

My biggest fear is that some perv will grab him when he’s out of my sight. Second-biggest is that he’ll fail to round the southeast corner of the block, where a big bush and a telephone pole in the middle of the sidewalk make it really tempting to jump the curb and ride in the street.

But how else am I to develop the kid’s independence and judgment? He’s got to have a chance. And since this rule change, I have actually been able to bring a patio chair out to the alley and plop my behind down long enough to read the newspaper! On the day it was published, no less!

I thought the changing of the rules would be hard with my daughter. “It’s not fair!” already comes out of her lips on a regular basis. I even had my speech prepared: “He’s older, and he gets to do more than you. You’re only 4.” But she’s not nearly as good on her bike as he – training wheels really slow you down – and she seems content to climb the one good tree in the alley. I waffle on whether she’s allowed to go to the clubhouse without me – usually forgetting that the rule of thumb should be that she can’t go alone.

One thing that helps is that Eddie has a walkie-talkie set his cousins gave him last year. On better days, I talk, he answers, and harmony pervades. Other times, he gives his walkie-talkie to his hyper biker buddy or his 4-year-old brother, and communication turns into squeals and shouts. I like to think that Eddie will learn that when I say to come inside in five minutes, he ought to start climbing down from the tree in two or three minutes. So far, not so much. Now that he has a wristwatch (a little gift for having a good year in first grade), that might actually happen.

The best I can go for is constantly reminding him: stay together, stay out of the street and make sure I know where you are.

And if anybody grabs you, scream like a banshee.

Mud Pit

My son is the muddy one.

Today was just about as happy a Father’s Day as I could have wished for.

My children greeted me in bed – after 7 a.m.! – with a homemade card and pencil holder, plus a brand-spanking new grill pan and a pair of tiki torches from my Lovely Bride. Then a full morning at our new church. They’re in the middle of a really rich sermon series on forgiveness, and we have joined a small group to talk it through each week.

After leftovers for lunch, my lovely bride and I got to nap for an hour and a half! Talk about feeling like a new man – until my 7-year-old son woke me, wanting to make a papier-mache craft he found in a book. I had considered some “me-time” to redeem some mall store credit, plus we couldn’t find a balloon. But my super-finder wife came to the rescue. I didn’t really want to schlep to the mall anyway.

We filled the kiddie pool just as the neighbor kids called. They were bouncing off the walls a day before a trip to Hershey Park. We warned their mother that the “mud pit” was open. That’s the tiny corner of the yard between the sandbox, the tomatoes, the sidewalk and the garage, where making of, stomping in and squishing of mud is fully authorized and encouraged. I think our neighbor-mom-friend regretted sending her boys, or at least putting them in a new not-so-mudworthy bathing suit.

The kids had a wonderful time, and I had a great time being lazy and watching them while my Lovely Bride fixed supper. (That’s got to be one of the best things about weekends: I don’t have to fix supper, bathe children, answer the phone and pick up the house, all while trying to listen to the news.) The kids wanted to go to a restaurant for dinner, but we kept it simple with sausages on the grill. Getting the kids cleaned up for a restaurant – plus choosing where to go – that would have interrupted my Father’s Day inertia. My Lovely Bride broke in my new meshy grill pan with an awesome concoction of black beans and corn-off-the-cob!

When the time came, I literally hosed off the children before throwing them in the tub. Got them in bed, drained the mud-filled kiddie pool and now have settled in on the front porch watching the new tiki torches sizzle.

Ahhh… I wish every Sunday were like this.

Drinks For Dads

One of the best things about being an at-home dad – aside from going the pool all the time in the summer, oh, and having an active hand in the upbringing of our kids – is Drinks For Dads.

It sounds like a charity, and in a way, it is. It’s the monthly gathering of the Baltimore at-home dads group where we offer charity to ourselves in liquid form.

Each week, we gather with the kiddos for outings to the library and the zoo. But those of us lucky enough to receive a hall pass (permission from Mommy – or a night she’s not working) pick some Charm City watering hole and set up camp for the night.

We catch up on who’s potty training and who’s buying a new house. Which guy has another baby on the way and who might be going back to work. There’s the requisite amount of sports talk, but really, the topic doesn’t matter. What matters is that we take a break from nurturing our kids day in and day out, and we nurture ourselves for awhile. We find community, sympathy and advice.

One night earlier this year, there must have been a dozen of us with at least 20 children among us. One guy is a DJ with a first-grader and 4-year-old twins. One dad was born in Spain and is trying to raise his 2-year-old son bilingual. Another went back to work a year ago (hates it) after his wife said it was time to swap. And one guy wasn’t even an at-home dad yet. He found us before his first child was born, and he wanted advice on taking the plunge.

We didn’t always know each other. I met two other at-home dads in an international play group  I stumbled upon after we moved to Baltimore in 2004. I found a local at-home dads group through meetups.com, but it never panned out. A guy through that got in touch with me, and by late 2006, some dads he knew and some dads I knew got together for the first time.

Since then, we’ve taken our children to pick strawberries and we’ve watched airplanes land at BWI. We’ve kept each other’s children during moves and ski trips, and we’ve visited the paddocks at Pimlico. A documentary filmmaker has followed us and tried to make sense of it all. (Check back when the kids are grown.)

If it weren’t for these guys, I’d have gone crazy long loooooooooooong ago.

These are my people.

Am I A Fool Not To Join A Pool?

 

Our 7-year-old as a baby in 2004 in the back-deck pool. Au naturel.

With summer heating up and school winding down, I’m having second thoughts about not joining a pool this year.

Despite six years in Baltimore, there’s still enough New Yorker in me to feel entitled to walkable amenities. I want a pool we can reach by bike or on foot. I want my children to have the exposure to and comfort in water that I got growing up in rural Virginia. Swimming lessons will help, but I’m convinced we’ll get there simply by hanging out at the pool a lot.

A pool half a mile away suits perfectly, but as nonresidents, we automatically go on a wait list. This is our third year of waiting. And I nagged the pool committee enough to find we’re in the top 10 on the list. Ugh.

It sounds horribly snobby, but I understand why neighborhood residents get priority. I’m willing to wait, however, because it’s in a neighborhood that feeds into our middle school and high school. My kids’ pool buddies will be their classmates later on. And the pool is close enough that once they’re older, my kids could go there on their own.

Growing up in rural Virginia, I always enjoyed a pool at my next-door neighbors’ house. But none of their kids were my age, and we eventually joined a pool about five miles from home – one of three in the whole county. The only way to get there was to beg Mom or my big sister for a ride. I eventually spent several summers on the swim team and made good money as a lifeguard and swim instructor in college.

For the past two years in Baltimore, we joined a pool that friends recommended based on low cost and lack of pretention. The pool manager even saved me a bundle by suggesting that my son and I join as a couple. My young daughter came for free, and we paid guest fees for the half-dozen times my wife came.

This pool was laid-back in the extreme: swim classes were at posted times, but you never had to sign up. You bought lessons in bunches, and you could come whichever and however many days you want. More often than not, no other kids showed; Eddie got a private lesson. The huge downer, however, was that driving home always came at rush hour and took three times longer than it ought to.

The best thing about this pool was that it was racially diverse. In Baltimore! We quickly found that compared with New York, Baltimore is a black and white town with the occasional ethnic pocket. But at this pool, it was complete serendipity: blacks and whites swimming together!

Last year, our coveted close-by pool offered us an August membership. Summer in Baltimore completely halts then, and they must have been desperate. We had already sunk our pool cash elsewhere for the year, however.

I’m trying to convince myself that we’ll get by without a pool this year. School lets out late (June 18) and resumes early (August 30). I plan to get a lot of mileage out of our schizophrenic $6 sprinkler and the kiddie pool in the yard, which our 7-year-old has not yet declared too babyish.

Plus, we’ll be away a lot. There’s a beach week here and there, and we expect to visit the in-laws in Georgia for a week to provide entertainment to my mother-in-law after her knee replacement. Then there’s vacation bible school, and maybe a week of half-day soccer camp for Eddie and half-day dance camp for Carla. Plus, I’m looking into swim lessons at the Y. With all that, we probably can’t afford a pool membership, anyway!

Nevertheless, it’s going to be a long summer.

If the nearby pool calls to offer an August membership, you can be sure we’ll sign up in an instant.

A First-Grade Research Report? Really?

killer whale pictureAt the ripe old age of seven, my son has just completed a report on killer whales. In first grade, we have to write research reports? Already?

I fully support learning that the library is a treasure trove of all sorts of wonderful information. I like the independence of getting to choose your own topic. I’m wary, however, of the work required of the parent to help a 7-year-old navigate the thicket of information on the internet. And isn’t it a little complex for a first-grader to gather information, analyze it, synthesize it and produce a cogent response?

I refused to help Eddie type in some long complicated web address, and it took him five minutes to get all the slashes and dots and html bits punched in. I knew I had gone too far in my passive-aggressive nonassistance when he finally got one site typed in, and it wouldn’t work.

“This site is terrible! I’m no good at this! I give up!” he whined.

I knew it was time to put supper on simmer and sit down and help.

When I was a kid and wanted to join Cub Scouts – because friends at school were signing up, too – my mother refused. It takes too much work for the parent, she said. I was upset at the time and had to wait until I was 10 to join Boy Scouts. There, I got to play with work with sharp objects and fire and other dangerous things, with a great deal of independence. It was worth the wait.

With the first-grade research report, however, that wasn’t going to work.

I sat down next to Eddie and helped find the one letter he’d left out of a long web address, which he had selected from a list of a half-dozen his teacher gave him. Then we clicked on a link about orcas, and my heart sank. There was a ton of information all over the screen – plus more links – plus advertisements. All this is typical for Web sites I use, and I’m used to ignoring half of what’s in front of me. But how on earth do I help him sift through the chatter for what is relevant? Awk!

He found some useful facts about killer whales, and then we hit another bump in the road.

How do you attribute information you find on the internet?

When I graduated from college in 1995, the Web was in diapers. The 60-page senior thesis I wrote en francais (it almost killed me) was solely the product of stacks and stacks of books I lugged home from the library. Internet  research didn’t exist.

The worksheet from Eddie’s teacher had a space to jot down facts, plus a blank to write down the source and page. How do you say what page of a Web site something came from?

I went to stir supper and left it up to Eddie. This is going to take all night, and we’re going to have the worst research report in the whole class. Boy, don’t I sound like my 7-year-old? He managed to write down three facts in about 45 minutes, and I decided that was more than enough. Take that, teacher!

A few weeks later, I was volunteering in his class, and they were working on their research reports. The day’s task was to cut apart the fact worksheets and group them by topic, such as habitat and food. I saw Eddie had a page and a half of facts – more than a dozen – which about as many as his classmates had. Apparently, they had been working on the report during library time at school!

I didn’t feel like such an unhelpful curmudgeon.

A week or so later, Eddie talked about writing a first draft. This week he wrote the final draft. I can’t wait to see the real thing.

New City, New Babies

No, I’m not moving and I’m sure not expecting twins. But an at-home dad friend of mine has done both, and he’s living to tell the tale of my personal nightmare.

He went from being an artist and antique car collector to being an at-home dad to a little boy, who’s now 3. Then he and his wife pondered a move to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, so she wouldn’t have to commute to work 75 miles each way from Baltimore. Much as I hated to lose a friend, I supported the move. Then his wife got pregnant with twins, who came last September.

My friend recently got his head above water long enough to send along this poignant e-mail, which he gave me permission to post:

 “Life is feeling a little, no… Actually life is crazy right now. I seem to be living on very little sleep. I’ve been accused of being ‘grumpy,’ but actually it’s more like I’m pissed off.

“It is hard. I’m hoping once we get past the first year mark it will be easier. I get depressed once in awhile and seem to be needing /enjoying(?) wine and vodka on a regular basis. I guess I’m learning a lot about myself and not liking some of it.

“So, I learn, I grow, I change. I hope. I wonder why I can’t seem to focus on the good stuff in life more often. I guess it was bad training from my family.

“Yesterday was great. Four friends of mine from Baltimore came out and made a big delicious lunch with presents and drinks to celebrate my B-day which was the 13th. It was so nice to see everybody and talk to other adults!!! They loved seeing the new little ones and [my firstborn], who has grown. Life is good, I must admit, but I do miss doing something creative. I do mow the grass in different directions, whoopy! 

“I went crazy and bought a 16-foot-long metal car hauler/ trailer, so I will be able to haul my antique cars here. Just when I’m going to do that, I don’t know, but soon, I hope.

“I have some nasty tennis elbow pain that is really not doing well. It’s making me wince all day. I finally went to an acupuncturist last week for the first time. I need to use my arms all the time to pick up babies and stuff, so it’s quite annoying. I think I’m out of shape. The vodka seems to fix the arm pain but I can’t keep drinking like that.

“So, it goes on and on like that. I don’t want to complain, but that is what it is like at the moment: good, bad, good, bad, good, good, good, real bad, funny, good, bad, good, etc., etc.”

My friend reports he hasn’t found any at-home dads yet. So if anybody knows any in all of West Virginia – northwestern Northern Virginia or Western Maryland, even – let me know, and I’ll get you in touch with my friend.