Tired at the end of a long day with Jacobi, I say to him, "Alright buddy, you have about ten minutes and it's time to get ready for bed."
He's trying to take the back off the TV remote, completely absorbed, but he still manages to say, "Almost...but not quite!"
It doesn't hit me until a few days later when we're at the grocery store. I'm pushing him in a cart down one of the isles towards the check out stands.
"We're leaving now?" he asks.
I say, "Almost...but not quite."
As soon as I said it, I realized how often I say that to him. For a split second, I thought I was imitating him. I was wrong. As with most things, he was imitating me. I simply forgot how easily he picks things up. Worse, he can pick up virtually ANYTHING I say, not just the "bad" things. I've been reminded these last couple weeks of this fantastic element to parenting. Like almost everything about parenting, it's something I didn't expect, but it's the best thing that ever happened to me. Why? Because what he does is imitate, and they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
This is still going on, but it's subsided considerably in the last few weeks. For a while there, it was in Jacobi's vocabulary hourly. This one came from Jen, although, I'll admit to using it from time to time. She would often say "remember?" to him when he would ask about something she'd already explained.
Jacobi: "Why do you put spray in your hair?"
Jen: "Remember? It's so it stays in place."
A couple days later and Jacobi is saying "'member" for everything.
Me: "How was school today?"
Me: "No. You haven't told me yet."
Jacobi: "I told you last morning. 'Member?" (FYI "last morning" is Jacobiese for "yesterday")
This one's completely on me, and it crosses into the territory of a bad habit. For whatever reason my brain, mouth, and ears process words differently. Someone will say something to me, and I'll hear them perfectly, but before I actually come to understand them, my brain tells me YOU DIDN'T HEAR WHAT THEY SAID. So I say "what?" moments before I figure out what they said. Stupid. I know.
Unfortunately for Jacobi, all he knows is that's what I say after anything he says. Sooo...
Walking through the mall
Me: "We should get moving so we can get home and see Mom."
Me: "We should get moving. Mama's waiting for us."
Me: "Are you messing with me?"
Jacobi: "What what WHAT?"
RUB MY BACK
Jen gets this one. Always the obstinate one, "Rub my feet" or "Rub my back" is Jen's way of letting me know I should rub her feet or rub her back. Sure, it's demanding, but I know it's her way of asking "nicely". It's the goofy little way she's done it since we first started dating. She's knows full well that I might say, "No...you rub your feet." Jacobi does not have this history with me. He comes across as simply demanding. Worse, as annoying as it is, I have a hard time denying his request.
He's just crawled into bed, and I've tucked him in.
Me: "Goodnight, Jacobi. Sleep tight."
Jacobi flops onto his stomach, upending the blankets I tucked around him.
His face is muffled into the pillow.
Jacobi: "Rub my back."
I do it because...well it's friggin' cute.
The funny thing about this one is that he started doing it to his teachers at daycare. When he first started going to daycare, he had a hard time going to sleep at nap time. One of the teachers went over to comfort him, and he told her "rub my back" as soon as she approached. He learned quickly that they don't jump at his demands the same way dad does...unless he asks politely, of course.
I might complain about all these little words and phrases (there's about ten more regulars that I didn't put in), but the truth is I cherish what Jacobi says even if I think they're annoying sometimes. The important thing to remember for me is that he says these things because he thinks I know what I'm talking about. He looks up to Jen and I. He uses our words as we use them not to be annoying, but because we're his parents. It's startling and beautiful, and it's one of my favorite parts about becoming a parent.
Last Saturday morning, I did something I’ve never done before. Along with my wife and child, not to mention a good chunk of my immediate family, I boarded a cruise ship set to sail into the wilds of Alaska. I’ve traveled by car, train, and airplane, but outside of a few day trips scattered throughout my life, I’ve never traveled by ship.
It’s an exciting feeling for me getting on board, knowing this “floating hotel” will be my home for the next week. I’m not afraid of water or water travel, but there’s something about knowing your “hotel” could sink into the middle of the ocean that’s a little disconcerting. But I’ll reiterate, I wasn’t really worried about that. More than anything else, I was worried about the close quarters. I’ve never been one to cuddle up with strangers. Worse yet, when I get uncomfortable, I require space, and when my stateroom is only about 300 square feet, space can sometimes be difficult to find. It’s a good thing I have a entire cruise ship to walk if that happens.
As with any other new situation, adjustments are needed, and today, I’m finally finding myself leveling out. So what’s different about life on board a cruise ship? Everything and nothing. All the comforts of home (except maybe internet) are available to me. I also have the benefit of onboard gift shops, a casino, numerous bars and restaurants, live music, shows, and movie theaters, all of which are easily within walking distance and highly affordable (as in included in the price of the room). I have to spend my own money at the shops and bars, but hell, that’s why I saved up before vacation.
The ship sails, then stops, then sails and stops again. The amenities stay aboard, and I can leave and venture into the tourist towns, or I can stay aboard (which is what I’m doing today). Herein lays another of the difficulties. My explorer instinct says “Go, go, go! Get off the boat and see everything you can see.” But I don’t really like tours, and so I wander into town, but there’s only so much touristy things I can do before I get tired and go back to the ship. As soon as I’m back aboard, I feel that call to explore again. So exhausting.
The point of the cruise is to relax, I’m learning. My explorer instinct has to take a bit of a break. There’s not enough time in any one port to soak up Alaska. The fact that I’m, viewing the scenery, dwarfed by giant mountains topped with glaciers and surrounded by icy waters is enough to sate the explorer in me. Relaxation is the key here, and I’ve had a hard time accepting that, but I’m coming around.
Now, to get over that anxiety in close quarters…
For the last two-and-a-half years, Monday has been Bro Day.
I work a Tuesday through Saturday week, so I’ve always had Mondays off with my son, Jacobi. My wife affectionately called this day, Bro Day, and I soon learned to love the moniker. Tomorrow, Jacobi starts full-time daycare (or school as we call it). Bro Day will never be the same again.
Up until now, Jacobi has been all on his own…well, with Grandma’s supervision. Four days a week, he has spent his days with Grandma, going on errands and to the park, doing what he wanted pretty much whenever he wanted. As he got older, his little brain and body were growing too fast for us all to keep up with. Something was missing, and it became apparent to Jen and I (Grandma, too!) that other kids might be the answer.
Jacobi has a few friends and cousins, but he doesn’t see any of them often enough to make a good connection. Visits or play dates were so short that by the time he warmed up, his friend was on her way out the door. Trips to the playground were the same. He loved interacting with other children, but such trips are always so hit-and-miss. School seemed like a good start.
Originally, we were on a waiting list for part-time enrollment. Our plan was to keep Bro Day intact, and have Jacobi go to school four days a week. After a year on the waiting list, we changed our enrollment to full-time, and then promptly got in. Could we go only four days a week and still pay for five days? Sure. But why throw away the money when the benefits of school are so good? What does Bro Day offer that school doesn’t?
Dad time, of course. On one hand, I’m selfish. I don’t care about school benefits. I want a day to spend with my son and do whatever we want to do. We’ll have pancakes for breakfast like we do every Bro Day, and we’ll make a trip to the grocery store. We’ll go to the park to play and walk on the hiking trails. We’ll do yard work or chores together, or we’ll build something. Sometimes, we might even watch a TV show that’s not age appropriate or play video games! Bro Day is always a blast, and I cherish the time I get to spent with my son.
If on one hand, I’m selfish, then on the other hand, I’m also selfish. Before Jacobi, Mondays were always my day devoted to writing. Jen would be working, so I could stay home and write all day if I wanted. With Jacobi at school, I can reclaim my Mondays as a writing day. The evening writing habits I’ve been keeping just aren’t getting the work done. This is something very important to me as a writer!
This sort of flip-flopping has been standard practice the last few weeks. I swear this has been one of my most difficult decisions. I can keep Jacobi on Bro Day and have an awesome day all to myself with my son, or I can send Jacobi to school and stay home and write. Not once during these inner conflicts have I thought to myself, “I’m an awesome parent!”
I’ve reached a compromise for now. I’m still going to get up early with Jacobi on Bro Day and we’ll have our pancake breakfast like usual. We might even squeeze in a short walk outside before going off to school. When he’s at school, I’ll write, and after his nap, I’ll go and pick him up early for a fun-filled afternoon. It’s not perfect, but I think it’ll work for now. The best part is that it still feels like Bro Day, however I’m seriously balancing on this fence and jumping the posts. I could fall to either side.
And please, any advice/support/criticism would be welcome!
From the driveway of my babysitter’s house, all anyone could see was a mass of blackberry bushes. The prickly brush ran maybe twenty feet out into the fields, and another thirty feet from the woodshed towards the road. There was nothing special about the bushes, except for blackberries and of course, the occasional scrape when you were running past. I was five years old at the time. The only thing I really cared about was the blackberries.
What I didn’t immediately know about those blackberry bushes—and what I would soon find out—there was a secret world hidden within it. Some of the older kids called it a “fort” and being too young to know what a fort was, I dismissed them for other activities. When I saw some kids disappear into the bushes by the woodshed, then reappear out by the road, seemingly unscathed, my curiosity finally got the better of me. Despite a warning from one of the older kids, I slipped between the side of the woodshed and the blackberries bushes.
At first, I found nothing exciting except blackberry stickers clawing at my clothes. I was going to turn back in defeat, but I noticed a slight parting in the brush in front of the wire fence marking the boundary of the field. I ducked my head inside, then the rest of my body. I slipped through the small opening between the bushes. I marveled at what I found.
Someone, likely one of my babysitter’s older sons, had hollowed out most of the insides of the blackberry bushes, leaving a cocoon of green leaves, brown earth, and filtered sunlight. To this day, finding that “fort” was easily one of the most exciting and beautiful sights I can remember. It ranks up there with my wedding day, my journey across the country, and the birth of my son.
Naturally, I wanted to give something of that feeling to Jacobi.
Every kid deserves a fort, a place outside the boundaries of normalcy that funnels the imagination. For months, I’d been planning to build something for Jacobi, and when Mother’s Day came, I asked Jen if she would like me to build it as her gift. Because she loves seeing Jacobi happy, she agreed. This worked well for me also because I wasn’t very excited about the prospect of building planter boxes. I loaded up some supplies, sketched out a vague outline of what I wanted to build, and went home to begin work.
Even though I had to do most of the construction, I knew from the beginning this would be a father and son effort. This was part of the Mother’s Day gift…get the two boys out of the house so Mom can have some peace and quiet. Jacobi and I got to work one Sunday morning. I made cuts while he scooped up sawdust and deposited it in various places throughout the garage. I predrilled holes and he slipped nails and screws into place. While I held boards together and screwed them into place, he built towers out of the chunks of 2x4 scattered around. Sometimes he got in my way, and sometimes I got in his, but we worked well together.
Over the next few days, Jacobi and I put together the shell of his new fort (we just got the roof put on this afternoon). It is a little more detailed and less chaotic than the blackberry fort from my childhood, but the wonder I see in Jacobi’s face reminds me of the wonder I felt that day not all that long ago.
What really caught me by surprise during this whole experience was not Jacobi’s reaction, but the amount of joy I get out of working with him. When we go to the store together, he listens to me and helps me—he knows we’re on a mission so we can keep working. When we’re working at home, he might not be working with me, but very rarely is he working against me. He knows there’s a rhythm to the work. He’s my son, my companion, and as his father, I hope there’s a thing or two I can teach him. I hope some day he’ll teach me something too.
If you haven’t done so, I highly recommend the fort experience. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or cost any money. It could be a few blankets held together by clothespins in a corner of the living room, or a sheet of plywood nailed up in the crook of some tree branches. It could be some blackberry bushes, hollowed out and filled with wonder. But whatever you decide to do, do it with your child. Let them help. Let you help them. So far in my short parenting life, nothing has been as rewarding as this.
Life is full of complexity. No one thing stands apart from another. Family, friends, and acquaintances, DNA and atoms, or animal, vegetable, or mineral—everything is connected. Yet, we still find simple things in our world, things that are unique. I think part of that is human nature to find the special, simple things in our lives. It’s what keeps us going through even the most trying of times.
Being a parent bears a ton of complexity, and yet, the simple things are what I value the most. After two years of parenting, these are a few of my most important lessons:
#1 Babies Grow Up Too Fast
Everyone told me this. EVERYONE. Family members, friends, and random strangers all issued this piece of advice, and after a while (the first time), it became so cliché that it became white noise. When my son, Jacobi, was born, I marveled at how small he was, and yet, part of me wanted to see what he would become, to skip ahead a year, maybe two, maybe ten just to see what he’d be like. I was so excited to see where he’d end up, that I almost missed the journey. I encouraged him to sit up, to crawl, to pull himself up, to walk, and to say his first words. My wife knew exactly what she was doing when she told me not to push, to hang back and enjoy the time I had with him when he was little. I didn’t always ignore her, but sometimes I did. After all, being an encouraging parent is a good thing, right?
But it hit me hard when Jacobi turned two. Maybe it was the birthday party, or the haircut, but whatever it was, I saw in an instant that Baby Jacobi was gone. It was the dawn of the second day, and Toddler Jacobi was on the rise. There’d be no more first laughs, no more frightening first steps, and no more lazy mornings with Jacobi swaddled and cradled against my chest. I know there will be other “firsts”, but those big firsts that come in the early years of life are amazing on a level that I didn’t understand at the time. They seemed so simple at the time, but looking back, I see how much more important they really were—not in the grand scheme of life, but to me, in particular.
#2 Seeing Your Kid Laugh Is Awesome
Emotions and babies don’t mix exactly. I couldn’t tell when my newborn son’s scrunched up face signaled an attack of gas, a misshapen yawn, or an impending bowel movement. And while I loved watching his little smiles, I always wondered exactly where those smiles came from. Was this just some muscle spasm, or was he smiling because he was happy? I’d love to think it was the latter. Even when Jacobi got older, I had trouble trying to figure out what emotions he was displaying. Was that fit of anger really anger, or was he just testing out the waters?
One thing I knew for sure was when that kid laughed, he did so because he was genuinely happy. The first time I heard him laugh for any prolonged amount of time, I was hiding behind the couch, popping out, and spitting at the air in front of him with my lips pursed (making that PFFFFFFFT sound). Jacobi loved it, and his bright smile turned to little chuckles, and then into squeals of glee. I had tears in my eyes when it was over. I was happy, too. My son had a sense of humor, why shouldn’t I be happy? To this day, any laugh I can get out of Jacobi is like gold.
#3 ...But Sharing An Emotion Might Be Even Better
Hearing my son laugh or seeing his face caught in awe at the cat is one thing, but when we share those emotions, it’s ten times more powerful. One afternoon, Jacobi and I were sitting on the couch watching TV. Mickey Mouse was dragging a bag of garbage across his kitchen floor when suddenly the bag ripped open and dumped trash everywhere. I laughed and Jacobi laughed at my side, simultaneously. At first, I didn’t think anything of it, but then I realized what’d just happened. He thought something was funny and laughed—same as me. He wasn’t watching me to see my reaction, nor was I watching him. We simply shared in the moment, something I really didn’t expect would happen until he was older. It’s such a tiny little thing, but it’s pretty cool seeing my little man’s personality take shape.
#4 Reading Is Important
As a new parent, everyone told me how important it was to read to your kids. Like I needed advice there. I’m a writer, and reading is a huge part of what I do, so of course I was going to read to Jacobi. But before he was born, I always just pictured myself reading to my son while he sat on my lap, listening quietly. Early on, this was very much the case, but even after the one-month mark, I tried a different approach. Instead of simply reading books to my son, I read with him.
I let Jacobi explore the pages. I tried reading with different inflections and accents to gauge his reactions. Once he knew how to point, I’d let him interact with the pictures and words as I read. When started to talk, I’d help him sound out words. It didn’t take a lot of effort. It was fun, and it relates to what I mentioned before about sharing moments together. Now, if we could only read comic books together…
#5 Information Can Be Your Worst Enemy
The simplest, yet most complex I could think of when I made this list was this. Becoming a parent was not an easy transition for me. My wife and I knew we wanted to have a child, and we planned for it, but actually making the leap set my world spiraling into a sea of responsibility that made me gasp. Mainly, it was “the unknown” that really put my head into a tailspin, and so I fought the unknown with the power of the known. Knowledge. Books. Childbirth classes. Online forums.
By the time Jacobi was born, I’d read probably three or four books on parenting and/or childbirth. I considered myself prepared. Of course, there’s hundreds of little things that I missed, ignored, or forgot about, and so I leapt back into the books or onto the internet whenever I needed a refresher. To this day, I still have trouble with this, which is why I think it is such a complex idea. The truth is that it all really comes from my insecurity as a parent.
I don’t always feel this way, but when I really don’t know how to approach Jacobi’s behaviors, I start to doubt myself, and so I try to figure out what hundreds of other parents or doctors have done. Ultimately (and I have to remind myself this point all the time), there are a ton of different ways to raise a child. Bottle fed VS Breast fed. Juice VS Water. TV VS No TV. The simplest approach for me is to talk with my wife and figure it out together. There’s nothing wrong with getting some information, but sometimes, all that information just covers up the parenting instincts. Just be a parent.
From Goodnight Moon to Lullaby Moon, and Red Fish, Blue Fish to Brown Bear, Brown Bear, a world of reading has been revealed to me through the magic of parenting. Children’s books have been around for a long time, but for me, they’ve really only been relegated to my past, and even though my parents were huge promoters of reading, the books I read as a child were just sort of there, laying dusty in the background of my mind. That is, until Jacobi was born and I finally brushed the dust off.
From the moment I first found out Jen was pregnant with Jacobi, one of the first baby-related things I noticed was I began to think of all the stuff. Well, not just think about it, I actually saw it. Before Jen and I made the decision to have a baby, I would pass by the baby stuff in malls and online, thinking little of it. But as soon as Jen got pregnant, I began to see it all, as if for the first time. Blankets and clothing and toys and furniture…and of course, books.
The books were immediately important to me. Why? Books were an important part of my own childhood. My parents were both readers, and from as early as I can remember, both of my parents read to me. As I got older and began to figure out the writing thing, books played an even more important role, both as a goal and as inspiration for writing. So right off the bat, before I even knew if my baby would be a Jacobi or a Jacoba, I knew books would be an important part of both my baby’s life and my own.
Of course, I should mention that the first books I ever really bought “for” Jacobi were all the parenting books. I read these not for inspiration so much as I did to mellow out the terror I was feeling as I stepped off the cliff and onto the cloud of parenting. But as Jacobi’s arrival came closer, I began to see the new world of reading spreading out before me.
Some of the first books we received came from the baby showers. At the time, I remember getting Goodnight Moon and a Susan Boynton book called Blue Hat, Green Hat. Flipping through the pages, I was wondering how I would get through the early years of reading. I wanted to read Jacobi the epic stories I loved so much. I wanted to find a children’s book version of Lord of the Rings or The Dark Tower. But no, I would be stuck reading him Blue Hat, Green Hat because honestly, I didn’t know what to expect as a parent. This was why I didn’t go out and buy my own books. I was trusting the people around me that the books we received as gifts were good ones.
At first, Jacobi’s book collection started small. The first day we brought him home from the hospital, right around the time we put him down to sleep at night, I remember looking for a book to read him. He could barely open his eyes, but all the baby books said to start reading right away. Even if the child couldn’t understand the words, the bright pictures and comforting parental voice would stimulate their little minds. So I picked up Blue Hat, Green Hat because there was no WAY I was going to sit through Goodnight Moon. The text and pictures were simple, but Jacobi, barely four days old now, was riveted. I’m sure I could have dangled anything bright and colorful in front of his face and he would react the same way, but I would like to think that it was more than that. I would like to think he enjoyed my company, my story-reading skills, and of course, the book.
While I’m thinking about early books, I’ve got a funny story about Goodnight Moon. I was so resistant to this book at first. We received two or three copies of the book as gifts, and I picked it up, looked at the simple pictures and words, and I remember thinking how awful these children books were. For the first week or two, I refused to even pull this book down from the shelf because I thought it was just a fad. But after reading Blue Hat, Green Hat for two weeks straight, I needed some variety. It really is a great book. So easy, so simple, and yet, there was something so familiar and nostalgic about the book (even though I don’t remember it from my own childhood). I was instantly converted, and while I didn’t read Jacobi Goodnight Moon every night, I read it to him enough that even now, almost two years later, I have the entire thing memorized. In fact, I recited it to him tonight before bedtime as we sat rocking in the dark. It really has become a centerpiece for all the books I have read him over the last couple years.
Reading became a regular ritual for us. At night, Jacobi would always get a story, and as he got older, we would read to him before naptimes as well. By eight months, Jacobi was actively finding books and flipping through their pages. I couldn’t have been more proud of the little guy, sitting on the couch with his blanket and a stack of books. As he gets older, his reading has evolved as well. He still clings to Blue Hat, Green Hat, but he loves a lot of the Dr. Seuss, Curious George, and Berenstain Bears books. In fact, he can almost sit through an entire reading of one on most nights. These books hold my attention a little better, but I’ll never forget those early books. They really were a surprise to me.
I debated for a while whether I should post this under “The Author” blog. Reading is a huge part of writing after all. But at the heart of it all, reading with Jacobi really is an act of parenting, even if sometimes that act spills into my writing life also. Maybe my next book will be a children’s book. Who knows…
Becoming a parent was one of the oddest adventures I have ever taken. Looking at it from one direction, having a kid was something I had given much consideration to and genuinely wanted. But from the other side, I saw that a child represented unalterable change to my relationships, my work, and of course, my free time. Having a child was something I wanted, but not for any one discernible reason. It was unknown and scary, but it was also a lot of fun planning and preparing for. And it wasn't until Jacobi was born that I realized my reasons for wanting a kid:
Growth. Not just Jacobi's growth, but my own.
In his short life so far, I have taught Jacobi many different things, but he has also taught me. He has either reminded of things that I've known all along and just never paid attention to, or he has just flat out forced me to see things his way. Both cases result in me learning something.
1. Smile When You Are Happy.
Pretty simple, and I think probably a lot of us adults might be able to benefit from this one. Jacobi smiles A LOT. Despite the "tantrum thing" I'll get to in a minute, he is generally pretty happy. I know this because for a good portion of his day, he is smiling...smiling because he is happy. As a grown up, I think it's easy to forget to just be happy sometimes.
MY LESSON: Be aware of your emotions, and when you're happy, show it!
2. Enjoy The Squirrels.
To translate loosely, enjoy the little things. We have squirrels that come to visit in our backyard (mainly because I have been feeding them large handfuls of peanuts). But I only started doing this because Jacobi would light up like a freakin' roman candle when he saw them. This, in turn, made me light up like a roman candle. Similar reactions occur around fans, clocks, and drains.
MY LESSON: Take notice of the small things around you. They might just make your day.
3. Twenty-Four Minutes of Mickey Mouse Can Unscrew Your Day.
He's not quite there yet, but Jacobi is close to reaching the big 2-year mark, and he is starting to show the telltale signs of the "terrible twos". Specifically, I've seen fits of rage that would make the Incredible Hulk skitter off like a whipped puppy. But despite his worst tantrum, Jacobi can almost instantly be cured by an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. When it's over, the 24-minutes of blissful entertainment has usually reset his rage-o-meter, and Jacobi goes back to pointing out squirrels in the backyard.
MY LESSON: Having a bad day and stomping around? Just take a little break and submerge yourself in a book, a show, or a game.
4. When $#!% Is Going Down, Just Poop Your Pants.
Seriously, just let it happen. You can't stop it. You could fight it, but it just isn't going to solve any problems long term. Jacobi understands this so much better than I do. He just gets it out of the way, and usually, he gets on with his day. I'm beginning to realize that I can deal with day-to-day problems in much the same way (unless it involves actually pooping my pants).
MY LESSON: Try to roll with the punches, and if things go wrong, just let them. Have mommy clean up later.
5. Love Your Parents.
Admittedly, this is one I didn't learn FROM Jacobi. I was reminded this BECAUSE of Jacobi, but without him, I wouldn't have been reminded, and so it's on the list. And, I'm not naive enough to think that this is a rule everyone should go by because there are some messed up parents out there. But my parents were not those kind of parents. My mom and dad have always been supportive of my sister and I. They have helped us in every way imaginable without laying massive guilt-trips on us, and I know that they would do anything they could for me, just like I would do anything for Jacobi.
MY LESSON: Remember where you came from, and be thankful for it.
Thanks Mom and Dad!