Seattle Part 9: Far Away Daddy

November, 2014

The day I drove into Seattle, after unpacking my car into my new room, the very first thing I did was call my sons. Given their ages, it wasn’t easy to connect with them via phone, so it had to be over FaceTime. J was 5 and just starting kindergarten. (“Don’t go, Daddy,” still rang in my brain, sparking fresh tears easily). A was 3 and thriving in pre-school. Conversations over the phone tended to be about cartoons, and silly stories. As long as they could see my face and know my voice, I could make them laugh and we would stay connected.

Still, I made a vow to make it much more special than a daily phone call. I would be back to visit every month, I told them. I already had my first trip out planned in just three weeks. My best friend Kurt had already offered to let me stay there with them if I couldn’t afford a hotel. I promised my boys fun adventures. While my first trip back, in October, was fairly routine, the one in November had us booked in a local hotel and seeing sites we had never seen before, and in December I rented a car and took them to Dinosaur, Colorado for an epic weekend.

In addition to our daily calls and my monthly visits, I mailed my sons gifts as well as weekly comic strips. “The Adventures of J!” had my older son going on all kinds of crazy capers with silly endings. He teamed up with princesses and his favorite super heroes, fought ridiculous bad guys, developed super powers, and saw the world. We had a ritual of reading the latest comic strip I had mailed him together over the phone every Sunday night, and after only a few weeks, he began asking about the adventures over the phone, wondering what would happen to his comic strip avatar next. It delighted me to create this continuity in our far-away connections.

A, at 3, had to be entertained differently, and he had always loved animals, so his weekly hand-drawn comic strip became “A’s Amazing Animals!” I started with the letter A, and I drew him in the center of the page surrounded by all of the A animals I could fit. Alligator, Armadillo, Albatross, Aardvark, Army Ant. Each Sunday night, when I called, we would identify the animals together over the phone, and he began compiling a book of each letter that I sent. (Unknowingly, this weekly series for my toddler son would measure my time in Seattle almost perfectly. One letter per week until I landed at Z, ironically the same week I would return from Seattle to Utah).

I talked about my sons non-stop to anyone who would listen. Their pictures lined my bedroom walls. I ached for them. I cried for them. I knew I needed this time for healing, and I felt I deserved that time, but my heart felt torn in two being so far away from them. It was difficult not to dissolve into a ball of shame for my selfishness. I constantly thought about fatherhood and what it meant to me.

I’d had so little example of fathers in my own life. My own dad and squandered my childhood with depression and distance. My stepfather had used fists and angry words when not using fear and manipulation. My older brother had always been a bully. Outside of a few family friends and more distant relatives, the only examples of fatherhood I had were in my local Mormon congregations, and it would take me years to realize how much they emphasized obedience, conformity, and hiding who I was. Thus the ultimate example of fatherhood was a God I grew up believing in, one whose love became conditional upon my ability to be obedient and straight.

Over a period of weeks in Seattle, I explored my role as a father. I was meant to be a dad. I was a good one. My heart melted every time my children called me ‘daddy’. One day, they would be grown men, and I hoped beyond measure that they would view their childhoods with happiness and peace, with supportive and loving parents, and not the way I viewed my own, as one of conditional love, silence in my own skin, and painful growth. I wanted nothing more than for my sons to learn how to be the very best versions of themselves, and to grow up with self-love and confidence.

But I had come about my children dishonestly, in a mixed-orientation marriage where I wasn’t happy. For a time, I berated myself over this. But over time, I grew to view myself with more compassion, and less judgment. I’d done the best I could with what I had at the time. I hadn’t come out yet because I hand’t known how. And so I married, followed the path ahead of me, and that led to two children. I was grateful I had come out while they were young, and I loved them with all of my heart.

My judgment of myself grew less when I began looking at the world around me with a more critical eye. Children born into happy households with authentic parents seemed to be the exception, not the rule. How many kids were born to parents who didn’t yet know what they were doing? The results of teenage pregnancies, or one-night stands, or accidental and unplanned inceptions. More than that, how many kids were born to parents who changed after the births of their children, who grew to struggle with the circumstances of life, or debt, or stress? How many kids saw their parents divorce, how many suffered abuse or violence, how many grew up with different parents entirely? Ultimately, these realizations helped me forgive myself more quickly, forgive myself again. I couldn’t change the origin stories of my sons, the circumstances in which they were brought into the world. But I could make sure I led an honorable life from here forward, and that I continued making them my priority by also making myself a priority.

I might be far away, at least for a time. But I would speak to them every day. I would draw them comic strips, and visit for monthly adventures, and pay my child support in full. The would know, daily, that I loved them exactly as they were.

I might be far away, but I was their daddy still, and they were loved.

Pokemon Shaming

Poke Ball

“Your son is a beautiful child. He’s just so emotionally young, the youngest in his class by far.”

Mrs. Barnes pulled out a folder A, my 6 year old son, had made, and placed it on the table. It was full of his artwork and assignments.

“We instructed each child to draw a cover for their personal folders. Many children drew their families or farm animals or a picture of Earth. But look at what your son drew here.”

I looked at the cover and saw a huge green dragon, covered in spike, breathing fire. The dragon had a fierce expression on its face and its wings were spread wide. A had drawn it in crayon.

“It’s a dragon!” I said, with a hint of excitement in my voice. “One of his best, I’d say. He’s practiced hard.”

Mrs. Barnes nodded. “Well, yes, but we don’t really do dragons in this school. We try to stick to realism. All of the children are asked not to wear cartoons on their shirts and to not have screen time during the week, no television or video games. I know you are doing your best to abide by that, but everything for A must be an adventure, an epic quest. Everything is story-telling to him.”

I nodded, struggling to understand the concerns. “A is my storyteller. He’s brilliant. He remembers details and puts together elaborate adventures. He loves when small creatures save the day, Lord of the Rings style. He is also a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter in that he has particular affection for the most ferocious of creatures. I do understand that he is emotionally young. He hates transitioning from one thing to the next, he hates eating vegetables, he hates coloring within the lines. But he only turned 6 in July, and school started in September. Many of the kids in his classroom turned six several months or even almost a full year before him. He’s the smallest guy in the classroom, and he’s obsessed with everything being fair and balanced.”

Mrs. Barnes smiled, nodding and taking a few notes. “You certainly know your child well. Here at the charter school, we try many activities that focus on the five senses, healthy play, and physical movement, while putting them through the education. It is a wonderful method of learning. Here, the children plant plants in gardens, they learn about animals and mythology, language skills, hand-eye coordination, plants and culture.”

“I love your methods here. I have loved it for my sons and they love it also,” I said honestly.

“But A is really struggling. He takes a longer time to adapt than the other kids. Particularly in the afternoons, and especially during transitions. It takes a long time to get him to focus on tasks that he isn’t already good at. He takes a lot more attention than the other kids. And that’s okay, because we want to individualize the educational process for each child. But that is why we called this meeting, so we could strategize ways to help your child succeed.”

An older woman sat to the left of Mrs. Barnes, likely in her mid-60s. She was thin and wore a blue skirt and a dark blue top, both of which fit her well but were somehow billowy at the same time. Her hair was gray. She had discerning eyes and had been listening to every word carefully.

“Chad, I’m Meadow,” she said, extending a hand. “I haven’t actually met your son, but I’m one of the founders of this school.” Over the next several minutes, she analyzed A’s artwork, showing me how he was struggling with complex concepts. If he was shown a coloring technique, like say making a tree trunk with a broad stroke using a chalk-like crayon, he would instead take a regular crayon and draw the outline of the tree, then shade it in. She reviewed many of these concepts, and talked about methods in the classroom to help him, and ways we could practice techniques at home to reinforce expectations.

“He is a beautiful child, like all children are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about these adventures A loves? Where does he get these concepts?”

I proceeded to tell her about a typical afternoon with my sons. “They will choose to be some kind of animal or creature, and we go on epic quests all around the park, or swimming pool, or neighborhood. They have to collect pine cones on the hill, solve riddles to pass the old witch, find a little girl hiding in a park, dig for rocks, and create potions to save the world. A is very focused on fights, like Batman or Spider-Man style, so I always try to incorporate physical activity. He loves pretending to have super powers, so instead of laser eyes or giant fists, I try to give him powers to change colors or grow plants or see through things, and help him use his reasoning skills to get through the quests. He adapts well. It gives us a lot of ground to work from, and it is fun quality time with him. We do things like this often.”

Meadow clicked her tongue. “So he gets his story-telling from you and your interactions?”

“I’d say so.” I was smiling.

“And yet he is obsessed with adventures.”

“Well, growing up, he has had a healthy diet of kids’ cartoons. He loves super heroes. He loves Pokemon.”

“See? That.” Meadow had a disappointed look on her face. “Pokemon. He needs less Pokemon and more time outdoors. Children his age need to milk cows and slop pigs. They need to count sticks and smell pine trees and dip their toes in the water. They need to jump over rocks and learn how to catch themselves if they fall. They need what children in previous generations had.”

I was nodding, enthusiastic. “I love all of these ideas. And I’m definitely open to them.”

Prairie looked me right in the eyes. “And yet someone introduced him to Pokemon in the first place.”

There was a heavy silence in the room, filled with awkward tension, and I felt she had just told me that I’m abusing my child. She kept eye contact with me as I felt ashamed briefly. My brow furrowed in confusion. Suddenly, I was angry, but I kept it tightly contained. What kind of name was Meadow anyway?

The meeting continued and we discussed strategies to keep A invested in the classroom, to practice skill-sets at home, and particularly to help him with transition times in the classroom.

Mrs. Barnes turned toward me just at the end of the meeting. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. A isn’t eating the school lunches. I’ve tried but we just can’t get him to eat. He just kind of picks at his food. I meant to send you an Email weeks ago, but I’ve been busy with work and family. Maybe you should pack him a lunch from now on.”

And then I was furious. “He’s been telling me that he’s been eating. But if he isn’t eating, no wonder he is struggling! When he doesn’t eat, he acts more like a young 4 year old than a child his age.  His cheeks get red and he can’t focus! He needs food! He’s been super hungry when he gets home but I thought that was normal!”

Mrs. Barnes placated me. “Yes, well, let’s have you pack a lunch for him from now on and see if that makes a difference. Pick foods that he likes that can sustain him.”

I walked away from the meeting, a mixture of determination, embarrassment, gratitude, and rage. A woman who had never met my child clearly had very strong feelings about Pokemon, and another who knew him well had failed to mention that my child wasn’t eating, and failed to connect that to his struggles.

The next day, I packed A a lunch, and when I picked him up from school, Mrs. Barnes commended him on how well he had done with transitions that day. Then A and I went home and played. We jumped in the backyard, we smelled leaves, we gathered sticks, we climbed a hill, we watched the sun and clouds.

Then we went home and watched Pokemon.