Investing in Family

In a much earlier post, my first, on whether or not parenting is worth it, I described a simple cost/benefit analysis of parenting: the benefits, though often brief and intangible, far outweigh the costs, which include all our time, money, energy, and sanity.

Physically, emotionally, and economically, parenting doesn’t make dollars or sense. The list of personal returns for parents is short. But the list is long and substantial if we take a different perspective than our own, to consider returns that don’t come directly to us, ones that come to our kids and our family.

Before taking out student loans in college we had to sit through a little seminar on financial management. The instructor skimmed over the basics and then spent most of the time on what was clearly her favorite part, the secret to success and fortune: compounding. If we invest early on and take advantage of compounding interest we can be millionaires by sixty.

I’m not sixty or a millionaire, but I believe that family is an investment too. We invest in our children’s health and future, and in the future of our relationship with them. We invest in our marriage. I mentioned here that the same forces at work with financial investments apply to investments in family as well; as with money, compounding interest is the secret to creating rich relationships with loved ones, to finding family success and fortune.

The problem is, it’s often one or the other, family versus career, and we have to find balance. Finding balance was a main theme of my twenties, and it continues to be a challenge. Keep in mind that my kids are seven and under, so I’m not an expert. I’m just trying to plan ahead. Here are a few thoughts that are helping me along the way.

First, now is the time to invest. Young kids seem pretty resilient and it’s tempting to write them off, to give them an IOU or a rain check for our time and attention, to address concerns as they come up. The problem is, we need to prepare for the storms, save now for a rainy day. As we teach them, play with them, and hang out with them while they’re young, we build a foundation of support that they will later rely on, or so I hope. When they’re older, and the going really gets tough, and they may not want to have anything to do with us, they’ll have the resiliency and character to get them through.

Second, investing in family can be simple. Puzzles, books, board games, and walks all count. Doing chores together counts too. We need to spend regular, everyday time with our kids.

I think one of the drawbacks to the industrial revolution was a separation between work and home. Back when everyone was a farmer, work time and family time were inseparable. I can imagine mammy, pappy, and the kids all felling a tree together one day, and the next day raising the barn together. Back before cities and careers, mam and pap spent exorbitant amounts of time doing basic chores with the lads and lasses.

Don’t get me wrong. Hospitals and manufacturing and education are great. But our kids lose out when they never see us work, or when they don’t work with us to achieve a goal and high-five afterwards, or when our time with them has to be structured around an activity or special event. We need to do boring things together too, if only to teach them how to whistle while they work, and how to keep working through setbacks.

Third, once in a while, we need to do something epic. Day to day, I learned a lot from my parents about the importance of work ethic, faith, and a positive attitude, but on our road trips and campouts we got to experience awesome things together.

The Grand Canyon is epic. After driving for hours through desolate, flat desert, you arrive abruptly at the edge of the world. Standing on the rim, you’re a mile high, with a hundred miles of chasm in either direction. Your view is overwhelmed by millions of years of geological history. In an instant you see how great and ancient the earth is, and how infantile you are in comparison. The word infinity gains new meaning.

Trips to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Big Sur, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Banff are burned in my memory. And I shared them all with my fam. In addition to the simple, regular experiences, we need powerful, memorable ones with our loved ones too, if only to connect with them on another level.

Our kids are like startups, and we have to invest much, early, to ensure their success.

Thinking While Parenting

Since I officially became an adult, I’m trying to spend more time thinking and less time not thinking (see here). It sounds simple enough, but thinking is nearly impossible in a house that’s being ambushed and taken over by kids.

If ideas are light, parenting is a merciless black hole, the antithesis of thought. There’s always a distraction, a child in distress, an offensive noise or sound, to counteract an idea just as it forms in our mind. Because of its mass and gravitational pull, parenting consumes but doesn’t reflect light.

Living on the event horizon of a black hole is problematic for two reasons. First, life disappears with little to show for it; fewer thoughts produce fewer memories (again, see here). Second, the result of not thinking, day after day, is learned thoughtlessness, a habitual state of unconscious reaction. Unconscious habit is the path of least resistance, one with a deep rut down the center, and we go where it takes us.

The path of default reactions takes us to the Doldrums, a parenting Slump, where the days are dreary and mundane, our kids are noisy and pesky, and the future is bleak. Unconsciously, we end up interpreting our experiences through the lens of self, in terms of our own wants and needs (see This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace). Parenting becomes a drag, a responsibility that we willingly accept, but one that gets in the way.

To break free, we have to realize that we created the black hole. We are the masters of our family universe, at least until our kids turn into teenagers, i.e., klingons. We have to get our acts together and take control of our mind and our inter-stellar situation.

Taking control requires creativity. For example, when the kids plug the sink and flood the bathroom, we can react in one of two ways. The first comes easily and without thought. It is driven by our exasperation at having to clean up another mess. It involves stern looks, harsh tones, and some form of punishment. The second comes with some difficulty and mental effort. It is driven by our desire to make the best of things, and to teach our kids to do the same. It involves instruction on the main functions and capacities of a toilet, and a demonstration of how cleaning up can be fun.

To think while parenting, we have to parent outside the box. When your kids give you a flooded bathroom, make an indoor slip-and-slide.

Recently, my wife went out of town and I had our third-dozen kids to myself for the weekend. One day, our girls tried to make pixie dust, spilling flour, sugar, and food coloring on the kitchen floor and then dancing through it and across the house. The house didn’t float away to never-never land. And I was not Peter Pan. I was Captain Hook.

Next time, I want to be Pan the Man. I want to be positive and make the best of the situation.

Thoughtful parenting leads to a conscious decision to be better, to change, to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive, to remember how fortunate we are just to be alive, to have these brief moments with the people we love most. It leads to a change in perspective, where instead of focusing on the darkness we focus on our family, brilliant stars, radiating light.

Time Travel and How I Got to Be Thirty

Living the dream in 1986.

At the turn of a decade, I feel obligated to ask myself where the time has gone. It just vanished. One minute it was here, the next minute it wasn’t. Why is that? Why does everything seem like it was just yesterday? Why do I feel like I’m prematurely old, like I’ve time-traveled from twenty to thirty? Also, why can’t I grow a beard?

Here’s one thing I’ve learned in thirty years: time only slips by when we let it. Looking back on my life, the slowest moments were the ones I thought about the most, for better or worse. Thinking is the key to pausing the clock.

It worries me that my memory is foggy, or gone, of things that happened less than ten years ago. My wife will tell me a story from our trip home one summer, and I’ll have no idea what she’s talking about, like I’m hearing it for the first time, even though I’m one of the main characters. In my twenties, I got used to having my nose to the grindstone, so much so that a trip with my family was just another task on my list. I developed a habit of efficient thinking, sparing brain cells only for thoughts and ideas that helped me get something done.

This all changed in the middle of graduate school, the busiest years of my life. Three things happened: I camped, hiked, and spent more time with my family; I stopped watching TV every night; and I kept a journal. As a result, my life has more details, and I can actually remember them.

Life is like a book. If we never stop to think, it is gradually compressed into a few brief pages, an executive summary, and, looking back, that’s all we have to represent it. But as we ponder on our days, weeks, and years, simple experiences gain substance and value, life grows, and pages are filled. Reflecting on life is one of the secrets to making life full of memories and meaning.

But reflecting doesn’t mean just stopping to smell the roses; it means stopping to watch ourselves smell the roses; it’s not just lifting our gaze from the path that will fall under our next footstep and seeing the trail ahead; it’s stepping off the path to a different vantage point, one that reveals our last thousand footsteps and our next thousand, including our destination at the top of the mountain.

It’s not enough just to seize the day; any other life form can do that. When a dog escapes from the backyard, it holds nothing back, running, jumping, slobbering, wagging, living life to the fullest. Even dogs can seize the day. It’s not enough to squeeze our day for all it’s worth, if we don’t savor it, internalize it, understand it, remember it. Making time count involves using that thing which sets us apart from any other animal: reason, or critical thought.

After we make the most of our day, we have to make sense of our day. Then, we can learn from our mistakes and recognize and appreciate the roses or the inspiring vistas that we didn’t know were there. Not only will our story be full of details, but it will have a theme.

So, at the dawn of my fourth decade, I’m going to step back and reflect on where I’ve been, how I got here, and where I’m headed. What is my theme? And what will it be going forward?

The products of this reflection will appear here as soon as I have time to write about them. For now, I’ll share some advice, which, having completed my twenties, I now have the authority to do: take some time to think. Turn off the TV, or the computer, and talk over the day with a friend, or a child, or a spouse, or with yourself. Think into your journal, or in prayer. A decade from now, you might be glad you did.

Farewell to Minnesota

CSCC

By now, Minnesota is long gone. We barely noticed the Minnesota corn fade into Iowa corn as we rolled south on our annual trip to California – south on highway 35 to meet 80 in Des Moines, then west on 80 for 1,700 miles, through Lincoln, Laramie, Salt Lake City, Reno, and finally dropping down into the heat and smog of the Sacramento Valley.

Unlike previous summers, this trip will have a different ending. When August comes and we make our way east, from the west-west to the mid-west, we won’t return to the unemployed, student-poverty, cramped-apartment life. Those days are finally behind us. Soon, our student debt will be dwarfed by a home loan, the most money we’ve ever not had, and we’ll begin the perilous tenure-race-track. But we’ve landed a job, and a house, and we couldn’t be happier.

When we arrived in the Twin Cities five years ago we were overwhelmed with an ambiguous feeling of excitement and anxiety. Our excitement evaporated with the summer heat, leaving only an anxious first winter ahead. My wife and I exchanged many frown-smiles with eyebrows raised during those first few months. It was a new type of adventure. Though we had lived far from home, on both coasts and overseas, for short periods of time, this was a 2000 mile move to a place we knew only from Jeff Foxworthy jokes.

With time, we learned there was more to Minnesota than notorious winters and an excessive number of lakes. I quickly learned about real winter camping. Not California-winter camping, where you drive 3 hours to find snow and then go sledding all afternoon in a t-shirt. I’m talking about stay-by-the-fire-or-freeze-to-death-in-minutes winter camping; why-am-I-doing-this?-because-it’s-awesome winter camping. None of my camping adventures deserve more hyphenated adjectives than those. Combine the thrilling winter options with the infinite waterways, available after the thaw, and you have an outdoors that doesn’t disappoint.

In addition to the excessively cold, persistent, harassing winters, and the lakiness (it’s like the entire state is sinking into a water table, and it’s only slowed by the annual freeze), we also discovered other people who didn’t seem to mind their location, some of them foreign and some native to the state.

First, we were blessed to find a dense collection of quality people who shared our lot – non-resident, diaper-changing, post-undergraduates, the majority unfamiliar with negative 20 degrees. This is the graduate-student-family-housing demographic, a mix of couples and families of different stages, ages, backgrounds, home countries, climates, languages, religious and political perspectives – extraordinary diversity.

Second, we were blessed to know some true Minnesotans, all of whom enjoyed the winters, or at least claimed to. These people have conquered the debilitating cold like vikings. They’ve mastered the long winters that bring grown Californians to tears. Their down-to-earth, hearty optimism was inspiring. Among the residents and non-residents, we found some of the best people we’ve ever known.

So, most important to the state are the people. At first, nothing could outweigh climate in our judgement of the place as a suitable home. It was unsuitable. Even finishing graduate school seemed tentative. But the people are worth their weight in gold viking armor. They’re worth their weight in farm-fresh cheese curd, and they turned the scales for us.

If the kids had immediately fallen asleep after we waved farewell to the messy old apartment complex, I might have had a moment to reflect on the great people we knew and the great time we had. Now that I have a moment to reflect on it, I’m sad, even a little teary-eyed. To the state as a whole – I’m sorry for making fun of you behind your back. To our friends – farewell, it was great, keep your stick on the ice. And to anyone considering or worried about moving to the land of lakes, especially the city of twins – it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

Why Kids Are Always Crying and What To Do About It

You may have noticed that kids cry, uncontrollably, for no apparent reason, all the time. It’s one of the defining features of being a kid – totally losing it, just because. If your kid doesn’t exhibit these behaviors, there might be something wrong – you should consider seeing a psychiatrist.

At this point, my wife and I have stopped asking why, partly because we don’t have any spare brain cells for such a deep and perplexing question, and partly because we’ve realized that kids just aren’t adults, which is why we call them kids. They haven’t grown up yet, physically or emotionally, so they lack experience and reference points, making it impossible to distinguish between a life threatening emergency and something small and trivial. Because they’re emotionally tiny, every molehill is an emotional mountain.

In addition to lacking perception, kids are emotionally hyper-responsive and indecisive. In case you hadn’t noticed, they can swing from giddiness to despondency and back in a matter of minutes, even seconds. I think the clinical term is spazoid. They’re still calibrating their emotional reaction mechanism, which seems more like an on/off switch than the dimmer or a dial of a non-spazoid grown-up.

And now, finally, the point of this post – what we’re supposed to do about this emotional roller coaster. I think we have three options: 1) pull them off because they’re too short for the ride, 2) smile and wave from that spot where they let parents wait and take pictures, or 3) take the seat next to them.

The first option seems easiest, the second I’m not sure about, but the third seems best, especially as our kids transition from the merry-go-round to the Matterhorn. Our job is to support their emotional growth, teaching them to distinguish between mountains and molehills and adjust their emotional dial accordingly.

The problem is, this requires having a little-person perspective. As rational, logical adults, it’s hard to understand where our kids are coming from. We need to step into our toddler’s Stride Rites or baby Robeez. We need to get down on our hands and knees and see life from an infant’s viewpoint. Then, things might make more sense. We have to be the mole.

On a less positive note, I just remembered a third and more common reason kids cry – to make us crazy spazoids. It’s not an emotional roller coaster, it’s emotional warfare – their objective is to hijack our sanity and their strategy is a sensory assault. In this case, the second option above, smiling and waving, is probably best.