His First Dress

My four-year-old son’s obsession with dresses, fairies, and princesses. And my quest to cherish.

We were walking home from his daycare when I told my four-year-old boy that if he wanted a dress, we could get one. It was a hot day and I was carrying him because he was particularly sluggish that afternoon. His arms were squeezed tightly around my neck in a way that was both too warm and satisfyingly sweet.

My son was completely unamazed by my words even though I had been preparing them all day while pretending to work. He would have been more amazed if I’d asked him if he wanted to go get some ice cream. He squeezed my neck even tighter and said, “I want a dress right now.”

It took some time to come to this. It had been months of us playacting and him always being the girl, of him putting a towel on his hair and asking me to tie the towel into a pony tail, of him pretending to wear a dress and heels, of him asking me to call him a girl’s name. At first, I tried to distract him from these interests. I’m not the most masculine of men and I don’t really fit the husband stereotype (I’m the one most likely to say: “Honey, let’s talk more about our feelings…”), but I still had this unexpected instinct to steer him towards the Batman action figure instead of the Barbie dolls. Batman, Superman, Spiderman — they were completely uninteresting to him. Wonder Woman was where it was at. Those beautiful bracelets. My boy was attracted to dolls, to fairies, to My Little Pony, to pink sandals, to purple nail polish.

When we go by a pretty woman on the sidewalk, especially a woman in a dress and heels, he looks up at her so intently that he’ll sometimes stop walking or bump right into a telephone pole. (I thought that kind of thing only happened in cartoons.) After she goes by, he’ll point at her and he’ll say, “I like her,” with the word ‘like’ rolling off his tongue for achingly long. Sometimes, when I ask him to elaborate, he’ll tell me something he likes about her — usually her hair, sometimes her shoes or that red dress. But most of the time, he can’t articulate what it is. When a friend of mine was walking along with us one time, she commented that he must have a crush on the woman. But it’s not a crush. It goes deeper inside him than just crushing.

But first, let me back up.

Before he was born, my wife and I wanted a girl instead of a boy.

Wait. Let me back up some more.

I was single for most of the decade before meeting my wife. It wasn’t perfectly easy — I definitely had bouts of loneliness and depression — but I loved all that juicy time and space I had to write during those years. I had a day job to pay the bills and I went to the cafés and bars in the evenings and weekends to write fiction. I was very comfortable in this life. I even got pleasure from being that weird guy writing in the corner of the bar ignoring whatever sporting event or mating ritual was taking place around me. When I met my wife, we remained independent for quite a few years, living apart, careful not to step on each other’s solo projects. This is all part of another story, but for now just know that I was used to being particularly greedy about my time. And then she got pregnant.

At the ultrasound, the young technician guy who was rubbing that gun-shaped device on my wife’s pregnant belly said, “Yep. That’s a boy alright.” I don’t think he was supposed to tell us before the doctor came in but he was too excited when he figured it out. He tried to show us the penis on the screen, but it was all blur to me. For my wife, the disappointment was short-lived — she already loved that baby inside of her, boy or girl. For me, it was messier. I walked around during the rest of the pregnancy thinking how much I didn’t want a boy, thinking of those bullying boys I once had to deal with as the most sensitive kid in the class. Were those mean little shits what typical boys were like to raise?

This period got dark for me. Which is why I not-so-creatively call it “our dark period,” especially when my wife and I are out with other potential parents. I like to think that I talk about this time to help open the conversation for anyone to talk about their own fears. Or maybe I just like to scare young, potential parents. Or maybe I just like to talk about it so I don’t forget. The darkness was more than just not wanting a boy, it was also a fear of having any kid at all. It was a terror of losing my personal space, my creative space, losing this whole life I had created for myself.

I started to feel a dread about my wife and this threatening boy in her belly. I wanted out of this situation so badly that I hoped for a miscarriage. (I hate to think about it now.) I wasn’t kind to my wife during this period either. Not in aggressive and violent ways, but in cold, quiet ways. When I came home from work, I wouldn’t look her in the eyes when talking about my day, as if I’d been cheating on her. I thought that the only reason I couldn’t leave her (them) was because I was a coward. I just didn’t have the courage to run off and be a deadbeat dad like other horrible men (whom I secretly admired).

I was scared of destroying this image of myself as a writer, novelist, or whatever I thought I was. And this dumb kid — even worse, this dumb boy! — was going to destroy it. Everything I was, was held in that fragile space, and it was about to fall apart. And I thought that would be the end of me.

During those months, I spent many nights drinking and roaming around through the supposedly bad parts of town. I fantasized about getting beaten up, being sent to jail. I wanted a one-way ticket to anywhere else.

We went through lots of therapy (individual and couples) to keep our marriage together during those months.

In a way, my fears were valid. I did lose a ton of time and space from my creative life. Those available hours disappeared. I just didn’t realize what would replace them. The value of this new thing. Which is not something you can ever know in advance, but I especially didn’t believe it would go that way. And I did find a way to keep writing and creating things, even if the number of hours per week changed dramatically.

When my son was born, the worrying disappeared. In an instant. He popped out and all I wanted was to take care of this kid. Boy or girl, tough or sensitive, it didn’t matter. He captured me and I was happy to be caught. It’s not that things got simple — raising a kid is a crazy mess of complicated—but at least this existential crisis fell away.

A few years later, when my son began doing these stereotypical girl things, I started thinking about my previous fear of having a child — in particular, the fear of having a boy. Some days, he even says, “Dada, I wish I was a girl instead of a boy.” Some days, he says it like he is about to cry and it is heartbreaking for me to hear it — just this idea of wanting to be something different. Maybe it is worse because I know that feeling. In my 20s, there were many mornings when I woke up wishing I was not me. What if I caused this thing in him from all the crazy inside of me? What if I passed that sentiment on to him? Maybe I was to blame for how he was acting now. Maybe it was some defective chromosome I should’ve been tested for before deciding to have a kid. I walked around with a new ache about things not being quite right.

My first instinct was to fight for the boy he should want to be. He needs to be fully on board with this boy thing — even if I have to learn how to play stupid boy sports to make it happen. It was bizarre coming from this place of never feeling masculine to suddenly feeling like I needed to stand up for my gender. But I didn’t know where to start. What did masculinity look like in the 21st century? I sure didn’t know.

One day my wife painted his fingernails and it bothered the hell out of me. “Get that shit off your fingers!” is what I initially thought. Though, fortunately, what I said was closer to: “Wow, I love those purple and pink nails.” I guess I thought that I shouldn’t let my wife do this to him. That she was pushing him to be this way and I needed to stop it. But I also saw how proud he was to show me those delicately painted fingernails.

It was a disorienting period. I carried a big pile of conflicting and contradictory feelings, for him, for her, for me, with no way to think it through.

And then it got simple again. I’d love to have some profound insight or some wisdom about how this all changed, but the change was not an intellectual thing. It happened while playing with him on the floor one night. Us both on our knees on the living room floor alongside some of his stuffed animals and plastic food objects. He was telling me that I needed to be Diego (from the cartoon, Go, Diego, Go!) so that he could be Diego’s sister, Alicia, and he had a bandana resting on his head to prove he was a girl. He handed me one of his stuffed cats. “This is our cousin, Dora,” he told me. “Now let’s go rescue that pretend pizza over there who has to poop real bad.”

Nothing particularly profound about a pooping pretend pizza, but it was just the particularness of these scenes we were reenacting each night. And his joy in playing out these stories. It was a privilege. To watch him explore the world.

Who the hell was I to tell him another way? Blame stopped making sense. What is blamable here? This is being alive.

As with any kid, his behavior doesn’t fit neatly into a stereotype. One time we got him a set of snap-together jewelry — a big jug of beads—because he seemed to be fascinated with jewelry. On the first day, he actually did focus on making jewelry. Necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings. But then he decided the string of beads he had created looked more like eels and squids and octopi and other sea creatures. He lost all interest in the jewelry part of things. For the next month, he spent about two hours a day playing on the rug with those sea creatures. There’s a zebra eel, a tiger eel, a blue squid, a baby octopus, an electric butterfly eel. There is also a troublemaking scuba diver who always bothers the sea creatures. My boy makes me play the role of the scuba diver. I sometimes try to have the scuba diver learn from his mistakes and become nice, but my boy wants the troublemaker to keep causing trouble. I don’t know why.

All this pretend troublemaking causes me to think about my shy boy as he gets older and who might be the real troublemakers in his life. Will he find a group of sensitive kids to play with? Or will he be disconnected from the others? What will they think of the pink butterfly wings he got for Christmas? (Or was it Hanukkah?)

My wife and I are working through this experience in slightly different ways, and fortunately, our different ways seem to support each other. While she is reading more books about families in similar situations, I spend more time on the floor with him, playacting however he wants to play.

Some parents tell me it’s just a phase —
many kids behave this way.
It’ll pass.

One dad told me that his son was into pink until the second grade and now he’s the most boyish boy of all his friends. Everything changes after kindergarten. Other people explain that the way transgendered and transexuals are being treated is getting better and better. That the surgery for converting a penis into a vagina (!) is a lot easier than the other way around. There are gay support groups that are available. There are good books on the subject. We get lots of feedback and it is mostly supportive and full of good intentions. We’re clearly living in a different time and place than when I grew up in Atlanta in the 1970s. I appreciate all this feedback and support.

But my instinct at this point — even though it is counter to how I normally, obsessively deal with issues—is not to dwell on how ten-years-from-now might go. Now is the time to linger on the simple joy of witnessing a kid experiment with who they want to be — untethered to what it means. Or what it doesn’t mean. Fuck all of this projecting and anticipating and categorizing. Just be here right now.

I’m not saying I know the right way to do this stuff. I totally don’t. Similar to my writing life, I have no idea what I am doing when I’m doing it. But when I’m with my boy and I let him go in his own direction without pushing him to go faster or slower, it feels right to me.

Be here right now.

The afternoon I offered to get him a dress, he didn’t even want to go get ice cream like we usually did after daycare; we went straight to Goodwill. There were other girls and moms in the girl’s section and so I tried to stall my boy by looking at some of the half-broken toys that we normally love to explore, but he pulled me to the dress aisle like he had been shopping there a thousand times before. He is normally very shy in front of strangers, but he walked with authority next to the other kids and parents in search of a beautiful dress. He picked two pink dresses with flowers on them, one skimpy dress that seemed inappropriate even for a girl, and a white one that seemed only fit for a wedding. “Dada,” he said as he handed the white one to me. “I love this one the most.”

Another girl plucked at her mom’s skirt and when the mom leaned over, the girl said, “Why is that boy looking at girl things?” If my boy heard this question, he didn’t seem to react. The mother dodged the question by showing her daughter another dress. But the question made me want to squeeze my boy tighter. I picked him up to give him a better view of all the dresses on the two long racks.

Once we got home with the dresses, he took off his shirt and shorts right away. His mama — my wife — wasn’t home, so together my boy and I stumbled our way through the art of putting on a fancy, fluffy white dress. (Over the head??? Do you step into it??? Where does this string thingy tie???) I zipped him up in his first dress. He had this smile on his face that was far bigger than ice cream. He took a few steps towards the center of our living room, in a way that seemed both more awkward and more graceful than usual. He inhaled one deep breath and then spun in a circle. We both watched his dress float out around him, and then come back to rest.

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Next Story — What Two Years Feels Like
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What Two Years Feels Like

The passage of time isn’t remarkable just because you have kids. Regular, child-less folk are on the big time-passage journey too, only they don’t have to compulsively (and obnoxiously) post milestone photos on Facebook to remind us all that we’re getting older. But when you do have kids, time means something… different. It doesn’t mean something better or deeper, but different. It’s consistently profound. There is a constant reminder — second by second — that time is marching forward. As a parent, you have a front row seat to one of the most incredible time lapse videos of all time. And it blows your fucking mind. And makes you feel so tiny, so helpless, and, sometimes, so sad.

Having a puppy isn’t so different in theory, only the visible toll and mark of time is condensed in a way that makes the emotion of it easier to grasp. Imagine having a 16 week old puppy for a year. And then a 20 week puppy for a year. All that puppy goodness stretched out for an incredible amount of time. You exist in the puppydom so long that when it finally moves on, you have to sit down and mourn. You have to pack up all those puppy toys and puppy foods and say goodbye to that puppy. It wasn’t a few months of puppy, it was YEARS. (Are you really thinking about how profound it would be to have a puppy for a year? Go Google something stupid cute like a baby retriever and imagine having that for a year. GO! But then come back, obviously.) But when it’s a tiny human, there are so many more layers. Heart swelling, soul crushing layers.

Today is Aut’s second birthday. The small boy, the one who baked in my belly during a bombing and came into this world silently, is two. Two is so tiny. Two is so big. Two is not enough cupcakes. Two is too many vaginal diseases. Two seconds are useless. Two words are devastating. Two is complicated and transitional and frustrating and hilarious. And that’s just for me.

Last week he suddenly looked big. My first reaction was to panic that he was losing his cute. I scrutinized him for a few minutes and then decided that he was still cute, but definitely taller. Less baby, more opinion and sinew. He’s starting to understand words as more than indicators. They have meaning and gravity and tone. He knows when he’s done something terribly evil and then makes a choice to apologize or laugh like a menacing sociopath. He feels scared when something isn’t right and he feels real feels when we are careless with our words or ambivalent to his deep, soulful need to hear the.same.fucking.book every night before he sleeps. But he’s also just two. He is insignificant in so many ways to the world. He doesn’t produce letters or numbers. In most third world countries he’s not even old enough to contribute to the child labor force. He thinks the most important thing in the world is throwing rocks in the beach and the most devastating is finding out Fi and Katie aren’t coming over. He thinks the big boy potty is a chair for reading books in the bathroom. He has no idea what hunger is. He doesn’t know what loss is. He hasn’t even been here for 1,000 days.

But then there’s me. I know what two years is; I’ve experienced two years on the bright side and the dark side. I know, logically, that time passes at the same rate no matter how happy or sad you are, but it’s an argument that holds no weight in times of either. Two years ago I was rolling on a ball at Brigham and Women’s Hospital willing this baby boy to get the lead out and join us. At that moment I couldn’t see past the baby. The puppy. I couldn’t see past being a new parent. I didn’t see a reality on the other side of being a mom for the first time. If I knew then what I know now, here’s what I would know…

Babies are the beginning of people and while that makes a nice quote, what it really means is something so heavy and burdening that if any of us took the time to really think about it, we’d realize what an incredible honor and responsibility that is.

Two years of anything can give you the kind of perspective that makes you ashamed you ever opened your mouth to say something rude on a broad range of topics. Like Birkenstocks.

Time will march slowing and quickly forward and somedays it will grip you with so much happy that you think the world is perfect. Hold on to that.

Most of the things that matter don’t matter at all. And you won’t ever be able to keep that perspective, but you have to keep reminding yourself. Potato chips can be good for you. Watching Frozen can be educational. Bedtime isn’t immovable. Tiny human beings need to be tended to day-to-day and moment-to-moment. Sometimes that means kale, sometimes that means ice cream and popcorn for dinner.

Be as hard on yourself as you think your child should be on himself. You’re someone’s child too, you know.

You’re going to be fatter than you ever thought possible. (Maybe I’m glad I didn’t know that then, honestly.)

Saying “fuck” in front of your child may not be appropriate, and might make your mother insane, but it’s not the worst thing a parent has ever done to a child.

No amount of Xanax will ever lessen the full-body anxiety of watching your child try to make friends. It’s a physical, all over kind of pain.

Two years is such a long time when they are screaming, but such a short amount of time when they are telling you about their day.

You’re going to lose sight of what you thought mattered and then you’re going to realize it maybe didn’t matter. And then you’re going to become indignant. And then you’re going to mourn. And then you’re going to rally. And that cycles over and over.

Everything is finite and that is so comforting and so scary.

Becoming a parent is terrible, but it opens you up to a 4th dimension. It’s not a better path, it’s not a preferable path, but it’s a totally different one. It’s immersive and total. It sets you on a different track than the one you started on. And there are always times you want back on the other. You watch a train pass you going faster and looking fancier and you will always take a moment to wish you were on that train, but you’re not. And there are people looking out of that train window at you too.

This morning on my way to work I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Today someone is happy with less than what you have.”

Two years feels like training for the next two. And the two after that. Two years feels like a beautiful, fucked up, anxiety-ridden, laughter-filled, angst-y trial period for trying to understand what matters to me and how to balance what matters with what’s necessary. Like dishes. And exercise.

Two years didn’t fly by. It plodded along at a metered pace. Somedays I wanted to last forever, some days I wanted to start drinking at noon. (And some days I did.)

Two years feels like a good start to feeling happy with exactly what I have.

Caroline Beaulieu is a girl who lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband and their small boy. She has a mediocre day job and blogs on occasion at www.halftruthofawholelife.com.

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Next Story — Parenting, Mental Illness and Losing Myself
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Parenting, Mental Illness and Losing Myself

Shawn Henfling

Parenting is perhaps the most difficult journey most of us will ever embark upon. Step-parenting adds a degree of difficulty often under-appreciated and certainly overlooked in the annals of modern parenting. Step-parenting with a mental illness is akin to herding cats blindfolded in a rain storm amid an avalanche of catnip-infused yarn balls during a laser light show. Given the high number of divorces in our society, there are a plethora of step-parents out there wading through uncharted waters and doing the best they can. Knowing the statistics on mental illness, many of them are having similar struggles and they feel alone, isolated and like a failure. I know exactly what that feels like.

I’m not sure when my depression started. Knowing myself and my behavioral history, I have to assume it was in my teens. I simply wasn’t self-aware enough to realize I had a problem. In my mind, I simply hadn’t found anything in life to make me happy. I drifted from one thing to the next, from college to college, major to major, and job to job. It’s difficult to have drive and motivation when you essentially feel dead inside.

Fast-forward a few years and I met the woman who is now my wife. I was still not seeking treatment or aware that I had a problem. My mood swings were the stuff of legend and my temper equally so. Still, I was sure they were caused by other people and just “part of who I was.” I loved Christine, and despite everything, she loved me back. I’d frequently joke that my family was like a Kool-Aid packet. Dump in a pitcher, add water and VOILA! The reality is that it has been far from simple.

I have never done anything but my best for Austin and Nicole. Never. From the very beginning and as we grew to tolerate, then like, and finally even love each other, I believed every move I made was in their best interest. I was frequently wrong, but my intentions were pure. Early on, I still hadn’t realized I had a problem. They bore the brunt of my mood swings and Austin especially knew just how to push me over the edge. Despite my intentions, I was often a terrible parent. Not only didn’t I know my children, but I didn’t know myself. I had no idea who I was and I’m now convinced that you can’t be an effective parent in that situation.

My relationship with Christine grew and regressed at occasionally alarming rates. Through my depression I had emotionally isolated both us and the kids. Still, I didn’t realize I had a problem. As the disease progressed and my ability to function as an adult and a parent regressed, I began to realize that the issue was me all along. There was no overnight change. In fact, my efforts at change were so misguided that I slipped further and further from the man, the parent, and the husband I wanted to be.

I knew I had a problem but refused to acknowledge that I needed help. I’ve documented my struggles here, here, and here, so won’t rehash them. My own warped sense of masculinity, pride and ignorance to the reality of depression led me astray. The more I struggled, the further I slipped. The further I slipped the more I struggled.

My ability to parent was nullified by the disease and my stubborn insistence that I “handle it” on my own. There was Christine and the kids and me, off to the side. I couldn’t be included in much because there was no telling how I’d react. I imagine being around me was akin to finding a box of old dynamite. You pretty much stay the hell away. I was never happy or smiling, but at times I was tolerable. One misstep, however, sent me into an explosion of either anger or despair. My children wanted little to do with me. That pain drove me further into the abyss and kept my family at arm’s length.

My suffering was mine alone, at least that was how I felt. The battle was for me to wage and affected only me. That misguided thought process was not only selfish but self destructive. I often remarked to my wife that they treated me like a handyman and not a member of “their” family. I realize now how hurtful that was and that I was projecting my insecurities onto them. I was slowly becoming aware that I had a problem but still stubbornly believed I could handle it.

Almost two years ago, I nearly committed suicide. Despite isolating myself emotionally and often physically from everyone, I still needed them nearby. When everyone went to see family for Christmas, I stayed behind. I sat alone on the couch one night and tried to decide between life and death.

I haven’t mentioned much about parenting so far, and with good reason. I wasn’t a parent. As the disease progressed, I was less a father than just some guy that lived here. Sure, I played taxi occasionally but I had no real connection with Austin or Nicole. Austin and I were constantly at odds, and spent weeks without speaking. My emotional withdrawal was a pseudo abandonment to Nicole, and Austin moved out just to get away from me.

Around this time last year, I finally realized I needed help. I spent another night alone contemplating suicide and finally broke down. I knew the damage I had done and was still doing. I knew I had little time to make things right. Most of all I knew that I needed them more than they needed me. I didn’t have the luxury of trying to “just be happy” myself. I knew the man I wanted to be, the man I had to be, and to get there I finally had to admit I couldn’t do it alone.

That brings us to the present. I’m not quite getting all of the help I should, but for now it’s enough. My mood swings are for the most part under control. I smile. Nicole and I get along better now than we ever have. Given that she is a teenager, I’m considering that a huge win. We’re moving to a new town and the stress of the move hasn’t yet triggered a new depressive episode. I’ve invited Austin and his girlfriend to move into the new home with us. We’re all excited about the future and its potential.

To the parents and step-parents battling a mental illness every day, you aren’t alone and there is hope. Get help and don’t stop until you find something that works. Let your family assist you on the journey. Finally admitting that you need help isn’t a sign of weakness. Just the simple act of acquiescence and acceptance takes courage and conviction. Bring your family back into your circle. Try to understand it isn’t just you suffering the effects of your mental illness. Everyone around you and close to you is affected as well. Make the necessary changes and reap the benefits of a more full life. It won’t always be easy, and you’ll sometimes take a step back. As Dory says, just keep swimming.

If you or someone you know are in a crisis, don’t wait. Call for help. 1–800–273–8255.

This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project. Follow them on Facebook for more.

Shawn Henfling is an aspiring photographer and writer, step-father and husband. Despite warnings from his entire family, his wife has managed to put up with him for three years, though she’s learned to keep a safe distance while they’re in public. Inappropriate and embarrassing juvenile behavior is never far away.

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Next Story — No Need for Words
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No Need for Words

Shin Yu Pai

Several weeks ago, in the middle of having his diaper changed, my son peered up at me and spoke his first two-syllable word: butter. My husband Kort still asleep in bed, I wondered whether the boy had uttered the brief sound or my imagination had merely conjured it. Standard early-morning mental fuzz could not account for this self-doubt; it sprang from a deep longing, ever since the day of my son’s birth, for him to speak in familiar language.

At 20-months-old, Tomo is considered speech delayed by some medical professionals and parents. My friend Odette’s son, who is just a few months older, wheels off everything from dump truck to meltdown. Meanwhile Tomo’s firm grasp begins and ends with “dad,” which both substitutes for my own nickname and applies to an unending string of objects in his immediate world — milk, tiger, toy, ski sweater.

Thankfully, Kort and I have learned to anticipate Tomo’s needs by reading his chirps and vocalizations. But I harbor fears that his inability to speak may render him unable to connect meaningfully with others and, worse yet, may engender lifelong social anxiety. Before Tomo was even born, I braced myself for the possibility that he might be treated like an outsider. As a mixed-race child, he would be marked by physical differences. Speech, I hoped, would empower him to connect in spite of these visible markers.

For me, such anxieties are not the stuff of neurotic fantasy; they stem from a disquiet that loomed over my early years. As the child of immigrants, I had no common language with my Taiwanese mother. Struggling to bridge the silences and misunderstandings that passed between us, we could only share big emotions. Subtlety of expression, for all intents and purposes, did not exist.

As an adult, I turned to poetry and Buddhist texts to lend nuance to life’s innumerable shades of sorrow and joy, finding comfort in words that could capture and perhaps transform even the most mundane experiences. The Songs of Milarepa gave me hope that the most transgressive acts could become deep spiritual teachings. I turned to Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to guide me through the end of a first love relationship. The precision of Ono no Komachi’s and Izumi Shikibu’s verses — not to mention the tenderness in the Zen poetry of Ryokan — suggested to me that the lyricism of everyday language could be its own upaya or “expedient means to liberation.”

This love for poetry and story serves me well as a writer, but can nevertheless foster an unhealthy attachment to words. When putting together a poem, I agonize over how to say things just right. So when Tomo resorts to using body language instead of speaking, the part of me that privileges words has to take a deep breath.

For a while, I overcompensated for Tomo’s silence by filling the space between us with language of my own. I named the objects he touched and wrote words in crayon on his sketchpad, trying to cultivate his ear and eye for language. I talked to Tomo in English, Taiwanese, and Spanish, likely cluttering his developing brain with more information than it could sort.

When Kort went back to work full time after being home with Tomo for nearly a year, Tomo was inconsolable. He wailed into my ears, stood on my lap, and pushed away my embrace. I made promises, assuring him that his dad would come home. He resisted every aspect of our usual routine: fighting diaper changes, refusing to bathe, and all the while crying for his other parent.

After several days of struggling, I gave in. I wept while holding my son and chanting to him softly, “I’m here with you. I’m here with you.” His tiny body relaxed as he put his head on my shoulder and settled into sleep. In that moment, I understood that my incessant chatter — a deliberate effort to avoid the long, sad periods of disengaged silence that I had experienced with my own mother — didn’t serve any purpose for Tomo.

My son felt far from me, until I showed up for him without words.

Though he rarely speaks, my son listens and responds. When Kort sneezes, Tomo runs across the room to hand him a tissue. When I complain of hunger, my little boy extends the hunk of cheese he’s been gnawing on and offers it to me. He communicates compassion in his own way — through actions and gestures. He has taught me that the fixed nature of words cannot capture the minute, complex, and transitory events that unfold around us. The pointing finger, no matter how elegant in its gesture, is not the moon.

Rather, nuance can be found and communicated in complete silence.

It was a relief when a friend of mine — herself a parent with grown children — assured me that all my son’s needs were met. If there were an urgent need to speak, she said, he would let me know. Tomo will ultimately develop at his own pace. No amount of coaxing will accelerate that process.

Now and again, my son utters a random word, just as he did that morning on the changing table. Two weeks ago it was raisin. I jot the word down every time, letting go of any narrative that might connect one to the next. But the writer in me remains curious to see if he and I will someday make a recipe with these words, or better yet, a poem.

More likely, teenage or grown-up Tomo won’t take much interest in that compilation of words. Instead, the fragments of language will primarily serve as benchmarks for my development as a mother. They’ll remind me of how I tried, at first against my own instincts, to listen deeply with all my heart.

This piece was originally published on Tricycle.

Shin Yu Pai’s essays and nonfiction have appeared in The Stranger, City Arts, The Rumpus, International Examiner, Thought Catalog, and other publications. She is the author of several poetry collections including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2008), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). For more info, visit http://shinyupai.com.

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Next Story — Embracing the Hum of Parenthood
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Embracing the Hum of Parenthood

Joe Medler

We occasionally find ourselves dissatisfied. Not unhappy, just — blah. We feel like we are failing. Our whole lives are on display and in the way at all times.

We have a small kitchen that has been blocked by gates since moving in over two years ago. The dumping ground it has become makes us feel bad. As has the general disarray of our modest home tasked with holding the detritus of a life being lived by two toddlers and two parents that both work full time.

The fridge is a mess. There is a paper explosion starting in a basket on the counter that bursts forth perpetually until it occupies half our counter space, at which point we just plow it back until it so overwhelms us that we take a day off to organize, starting the process over. There’s been an empty bottle of olive oil on the counter for weeks, months perhaps. The bags that sit inside the gated area reach out into the room and are scattered between the edge of the kitchen and the door leading to the garage and are so permanent that any topographical map of our little home would have to include them as permanent features.

The TV’s on. The monitor’s on. Every godforsaken screen is covered in dirty, sticky toddler finger prints and I won’t guess what lurks in the back of the cabinets. The top of the fridge. Oh, the top of the damned fridge.

Adding to this is the general unwellness of parenthood. It’s true. Your spirit soars with the magic of new life, new life designed to inspire your heart to give up on all self-care in order to bathe this child with love and affection and the endless hours of work it takes to present them clean and fed and rested to the world, leaving you 36 hours from a shower in either direction, at all times. This defies all logic, but it is so. Your back is in constant pain from the terrible posture required of you nearly constantly. You are fat from a diet of kid’s foods often, healthy grown up foods rarely and copious amounts of coffee. Coffee binging that leaves you so dehydrated that it hurts to pee and you say things like, “man, I really need to start drinking some water.” You sip another coffee, pour the water and put it down only to find it the following weekend. In the very place you’ve been looking past all week. Full.

Then there is the noise. It keeps you a bit crazy these days. Exhaustion has a sound, and it sounds like whining about how tired you are to everyone in ways you find embarrassing way too late. You are a cliche, and that hurts when you’re aware enough to notice it. But how could you when you are so distracted by your obsession with avoiding mirrors. I mean, you look grey. There, I said it. I’m fat and I’m grey. To cope with this I eat candy. Lots of it. So what. The only people I’m starring for are my kids and they don’t care. Well the lady of the house too, but she’s in this with me.

My children’s voices and the things they say take my breath away dozens of times a day. They are magical, truly special creatures and I assume my honesty in writing is about the only thing that can keep each of them from being re-elected as President of the United States. But I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if they overcame that too. They’re that amazing. But the reality of each day is that your toddler can be amazing 36–48 times a day and still leave you with hours upon hours of really challenging behavior. Challenging behavior that comes with tears and maniacal comic-book-villain laughs and screams just to scream, just to startle you into looking, only to find a giant ear to ear grin on this little boy that just screamed like he was being stretched by Prince Humperdinck’s henchman. All to the soothing sounds of the most infernal and dastardly aural creation the world has ever known: The Fresh Beat Band. Actually we haven’t really watched them in a couple years, but I still hear them. Everywhere.

The mess. The exhaustion. The noise. The work. This hum that so annoys me each day. This hum that I can’t stand at times. This hum that causes my wife and I to lose patience with each other far more often then we’d care to admit. This hum that we so desperately wish to quiet will one day fully dissolve. Already the nights are longer, and the boys are bigger and if pressed I can become sentimental about 3 AM wake up calls for feeding and tiny fingers that looked like a doll’s.

The thing about this hum, this hum that I have a really hard time embracing and complain about far more than I ought to is that it will someday disappear. The corners will be clean, as will the counters and the floors. The TV will be on to entertain only us and the noise of a full house will dissipate and be replaced by more pleasant and welcome noises. We will be allowed to enjoy silence, sweet sweet silence. The exhaustion won’t ever fully go, but it will get more manageable.

The hum will fade, like all other things, to history. When it does I suspect I will relish the clean and the quiet. It will allow me all the free time I’ll need to look back and appreciate all that was done here — to appreciate the times I couldn’t appreciate fully in the moment, and to fully embrace and love the hum that I’ll never get the privilege to be enveloped in ever again.

Joe Medler lives in New Jersey with his wife, who is far too good for him and his too sons, who are far too active for him. His work has been featured on Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Mom Babble and Sammiches and Psych Meds. You can follow him on Facebook and read more of his work at Developing Dad.

This piece originally appeared on Developing Dad.

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