In which Mark Greene puts himself under the parental microscope, and finds more than one Mark Greene.
I remember helping my son get to pre-school. A bright fall morning looked like this: I would get him up, find his clothes for him, feed him, talk with him about which colors match which levels of emotions (his choice of conversation not mine), make his lunch, (add a little cartoon in there) and take him to school on the C train here in New York City.
As we walked into the class room each day it would hit me. That little window of five pre-school hours was the gateway to a new phase of my life; when I would have to turn back to my own interests. And in that moment, I looked back towards the person I was before my son came into my life. A person, I don’t think fondly of. A person my son changed for the better.
When we are stay at home parents, men or women, babies and toddlers rewire everything we are. They make us confront our fears and our appetites. They force us to see ourselves, reflected with absolute clarity in the mirror of our emotional reactions. All the coping methods we have acquired; various self medications, distractions, personal martyrdoms and often, hidden angers, that we have squirreled away and held so dearly when our world allowed us those luxuries.
But babies don’t care about those constructs. Babies quickly force us to a crisis point; to engage or retreat as parents. We stand in a tsunami of external needs, re-wiring all that we are. It is in the demand for relentless and selfless service to another that we discover in how many ways our pre-baby selves will rise in protest. And in the blink of an eye, we are confronted with the choice to give those things up.
To understand this rewiring at its most basic physical level, just walk alongside a toddler for a few days. You stay bent over to hold the tiny hand that reaches up to you. You walk so very, very slowly. You turn and pause and walk and bend, and turn, and kneel and stand and so on. It hits you physically, in your lower back, your knees. Emotionally, there is no distant destination you are charging toward. Parks become vast empty places with swing sets and jungle gyms that are impossibly distant. Cars drift by. Oh, look, a leaf, etc. It is not an easy thing to slow down for anyone. But to slow down for your tiny bright-eyed toddler, and to do it for years is a test of who we intend to be.
The panic I first experienced as a new parent made me feel like an animal trapped in a cage, pacing. Sometimes it was full blown. Sometimes it was just a low level anxiety. And getting out for the night or an afternoon didn’t seem to help much. It was a deep state of alarm, that panic. It stuck with me.
Being a full-time father changed me. It made me a better person. A better human being. In part, because it forced me to confront the source of those gut-churning moments of panic. And there were a lot of them. They still visit me. They are a sign of something fundamental; a protest against the very rewiring of who I am. Ask any full-time mother or father. Raising a child is an assault on the self-centered side of ourselves. A side that does not go quietly into that dark night. A side that does not actually go away at all.
The person I primarily used to be — I’ll just call him PreDad — is a mystery to me now. I look back through the fog of the changes and can only catch partial glimpses of him. He’s a person who spent a lot of time feeling out of touch — with himself, with his wife, with the world at large. As an artist and a writer, PreDad did a number of very creative things, but there was a lack of unified intention, of focus, of clarity. For him, finding meaning in the world was elusive. His view of things was muddled.
I recall quite clearly, holding my sleeping son once when he was a year old and watching the clock move mercilessly slowly; the second hand ticking by, dragging the hours out. Maybe some people can just naturally sit with a baby for hours on end, but PreDad was not one of those people. I still remember the internal pressure of PreDad’s panic. Some part of me was screaming that being still and quiet was destroying me; leaving me a shell of myself; that having my tiny son in my life was erasing me.
Sitting there with my sweet baby son, I couldn’t force things to hurry up. The part of me that was PreDad had to sit still. He had to wait. He had to serve another life and another person without tracking the rate of exchange for some pre-negotiated beneficial outcome. PreDad was a particular kind of man. A deal maker. A side stepper. A negotiator. But in that time and place, he could only sit there feeling panic-stricken, disempowered, isolated and shut off from the world.
In that bleak moment, I really only had a couple of options. I could stay in that mode, that version of myself, and I could fail as a father, or I could change, tap into other versions of myself; versions of me that created more flexible ways of being. I could tap my nurturing side to hold my sleeping child. I could tap the calm center of me to slow down and let change come. I could become attuned to processes instead of outcomes. I could value journeys instead of results. I could make myself see that being still was a gift to my son and myself. The gift of time in which we could reach new understandings about the world; to arrive at our own appropriate steps forward together.
I like to believe I have changed a lot. And that I am continuing to change. I had to become more open and flexible internally; more able to be in and stay in the moment, instead of tracking a laundry list of tasks and issues. I had to become more at peace. More calm. More, dare I say it, spiritually aware. One mantra I came up with for a while in those days was the following: “Whenever I get angry, I lose.” PreDad’s scorekeeping mindset struggled against some kind of more holistic awareness. The evolution of the PreDad continues.
For the record, writing about parenting might suggest that I somehow think I have my act together, but I assure you that I don’t. PreDad and all my other more cantankerous selves are right here with me. Every single day, PreDad lurches up in me and tries to wrestle my parenting interactions to suit his needs. He wants my nine year old to LISTEN. To BEHAVE. To HURRY UP. You gotta love that PreDad. He’s consistent.
But even PreDad can’t avoid the power of change that a child brings. He’s benefited, too. PreDad sure doesn’t seem muddled anymore. When he gets a few hours to do something, he knows what he wants to say. He speaks with immense clarity. In fact, he’s writing this article right now. When he gets a few hours, he writes, he draws, he creates, he’s getting it done. But, unlike before, he has a unifying purpose to his work. Proving that even he can’t avoid the power of change that hanging in there and staying engaged with your child can create in people. And because of his clarity and capacity to drive processes, PreDad is actually getting invited back in these days.
I don’t want him raising my kid, but I do want him driving my personal passions. As much as PreDad is about me, he serves a powerful role in balancing a parent’s life. He comes storming back in and asks, What is your purpose beyond being a father? What will you make, now that you have some clarity? What are you going to become next?
I assign PreDad a visual symbol. Perhaps a guy in a red shirt? Then there is the nurturing version of myself. The image of a growing plant? Okay. Then there are other selves. The version of me that loves to play. A jester or a clown? So when I find myself telling Gus to HURRY UP. I can just visualize my Jester and shift to that mode. If I want Gus to HURRY UP and get his shoes on, I can suggest, “Let’s play the animal guessing game while you put on your shoes.” It shifts everything internally and externally and the shoes cease to be the only focus. Then, whether the shoes go on faster or not, you’re playing the game, not just standing there watching your kid put on his shoes AGONIZINGLY SLOWLY.
The trick, I think, is becoming familiar with our multiple internal selves and moving them to the forefront as needed. Once you identify the first two or three versions of yourself, other less obvious sides of yourself will emerge. You can learn to call on any of them when you need them. They’ll come. Really. And as you embrace this idea of multiple selves, you will discover something else very important. That our multiple selves are neither good nor bad. They are contextual.
I may label PreDad as bossy, but if I am in a burning building, PreDad is the guy I want. The Jester would do me little good. We need to accept and hold all our internal selves because, in balance with each other, they all bring important strengths. And the balancing of these strengths are what will help free us from the unwelcome influence of panic.
Panic is what happens when we have too few choices, when we try to use one way of being for a life that is complicated and ever evolving. Employing our different internal selves brings all options into play. PreDad included.
And so, the cycle of life is playing out. A part of me that once responded with terror and panic now returns, reborn, calling for new interpretations of how life can be lived. Other, more spiritual parts of me buffer that forceful self from my child, who continues to school me in patience even as he models impatience. Our internal landscape is peopled with complexity, and all of these parts of ourselves, these different individuals that make up the whole of who we are, can help us manage the cycles of change.
Get a powerful collection of Mark Greene’s articles, in his book, REMAKING MANHOOD–Available now in print and on Kindle Reader for Windows, Macs, Android, iPhones and iPads
Remaking Manhood is a collection of Mark Greene’s most widely shared articles on American culture, relationships, family and parenting. It is a timely and balanced look at the issues at the heart of the modern masculinity movement. Mark’s articles on masculinity and manhood have received over 100,000 FB shares and 10 million page views. Get Remaking Manhood IN PRINT or on the free Kindle Reader app for any Mac, Windows or Android device here.
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