Stop discriminating against my kids; but I don’t blame you

Unruly Kid in Restaurant
This is the exact opposite of my kids.

I can’t even count the number of times we’ve been to a restaurant and felt like our kids weren’t welcome or were something “to be managed” by the staff. It’s really annoying as parents who try very hard to teach our kids how to behave in public, how to speak for themselves, and how to know what to do when the unexpected happens.

But more often than not, public places regard all children as problems that need to be contained or ignored. Restaurants are the primary villains in this case, but I’ve experienced it in shopping areas and museums as well. Restaurants have seated us in terrible spots, not given my kids plates or silverware, servers overlook my children when ordering and speak only to the adults, and managers have even tried to give us the bum’s rush as the restaurant starts to fill up. We eat out enough to know better, and I used to work as a waiter so I’m keen to certain signals restaurants send to patrons of all stripes.

The most recent example comes when I took the two kids out to a local place we eat at regularly. I’ve noticed that we always seem to sit in the same room. We go about once a month, so it can’t be random. This time I was alone with the two kids and we were seated in a different room which already had one child in it and quickly filled with other families with children. (On the way out I peeked into the room where we usually sit and there wasn’t a single child in it.)

I ordered an appetizer at the same time we placed the dinner order, and the kids’ meals came out right on top of the appetizer. Not cool. The food runner offered to bring them back to the kitchen for a while and bring it out with my entree. Nope. I’m not going to have my kids’ meals sitting under a heat lamp. I don’t want that for them any more than for my meal. So, we made it work. I told the kids to skip the fries on their plate, eat the main part of their dinner and enjoy the appetizer as their side.

Enter the manager. He comes over to apologize and made it worse. He explained that they like to rush the kids meals out to “help out” the parents to give the kids “something to do”, and “as a dad” this manager thinks that parents appreciate that sort of thing. Then he offered to comp the appetizer. I refused, and I thanked him for the offer. I told him I would have preferred to be asked if I wanted the kids’ meals rushed. I politely added that I was actually now even more insulted than before. I may be a dad out to dinner alone with my two kids, but what gave this restaurant staff any indication that I needed them to make dining decisions for me? Nothing. My kids sat in their seats, still and with their butts on the chair itself. We talked at a normal volume and I interacted with both of my kids directly. Neither was looking at a screen or rocking a chair or running around or shrieking. They also both ordered their own meals and drinks.

Despite all of this, I don’t blame the restaurant or the manager. First, they tried to make up for the initial mistake. It only made things worse, but they tried. They also have a lot of children come through that place, especially on weekend nights, and for the most part children are not very well behaved in restaurants. I know this first-hand as a server and as a customer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a dining experience interrupted by an unruly child. I don’t have any more patience for it today than before I had kids, and before kids people would tell me to wait until I had some to make judgments. Well now I can, and honestly parents, you suck at teaching your kids to behave in public. Your kids lack manners and they lack basic social skills like making eye contact and speaking loudly enough to be heard, but softly enough so only the people in your party can hear you.

The fact is kids are an afterthought for most parents when they are eating out in a restaurant. It doesn’t matter if it is fast food or fine dining. Well-behaved kids are the exception and not the rule. Same goes for most other public places. My wife and I work on manners and boundaries every single time we are out with our kids. We pre-load them with rules and expectations. For example, we might say, “This people in this restaurant are here to eat a peaceful dinner. If you don’t want to use your manners, we will sit in the car until the rest of the family is done. ” I’ve only had to follow through once with each child. Now when either of us makes that statement, the kids know we mean it.

Of course there will be some exceptions. To me, those are the ones where the parent(s) is/are trying to do their best to contain the kids. The kids deserve a learning curve. I respect those parents and I sympathize with them because I’ve been there. The ones I don’t have patience for are the parents who seem to not know their kids exist at all during their stay. The kids make a huge mess for a server or bus person to clean up. They actually create a dangerous situation for themselves, other diners, and the servers when they run around unchecked. Finding “grown-up” time can be hard for parents, but the restaurant/mall/museum, etc. isn’t your time to check out because the place itself is contained. In this case, it is not the village’s responsibility to look after your kids.

Because of this, why would restaurants want to welcome kids? Kids often create more problems than they’re worth, because they don’t eat anything with a decent margin. They’re too young to drink alcohol, and they aren’t behaved. Parents often don’t tip enough either because the meal is often a function instead of an experience, or they’re too exasperated by the end of the meal to figure out what 20 percent is. I had a parent tell me once that I was a very good waiter, but he only tipped on the adult entrees and beverages. The restaurant I worked at didn’t have a kids menu, so the kids shared a petite adult entree.

But my wife and I are not those parents. Our kids are not those kids.  Restaurant workers who notice that get a huge kudos from us, and we tip even better for those servers who make sure our kids feel as welcome as they make us.

Fatherless for 22 Years and Counting

It was 22 years ago today that my dad died of massive coronary. I didn’t get official word that he¬† died until a couple of weeks later, though.

My folks were divorced and I hadn’t talked to my dad in a long time. I decided I wanted to call him, and maybe see him, after being out of school for about a week. I hadn’t asked to do that in a long time, and in a strange twist of fate, I happened to call his place of employment looking for him 22 years ago today. The man on the other end of the phone told me that he had died the night before, and that he was just finding out about it. I was stunned, of course. After a few more questions, I found out he had changed to a different work location. They weren’t very helpful when I called there, so I had reached a dead end.

I went on with life for the next few weeks. I didn’t know what to think. It could have been a trick. It could have been true. I put it out of my mind and went to visit with family for a week or so. But when I came home, my mom had the death notice from the newspaper where he lived and it was true. It’s one of those moments you’ll never forget living through. You remember everything, and I still do. I remember the exact layout of the room we were in, how we were sitting on the couch, and the look on my mother’s face when she had to break the news to me. I remember which lights were on, for goodness’ sake.

It was also a moment that changed my life forever for another reason. I found out that I have a hereditarily high cholesterol, as do all the men in my family. It’s something I’ve battled since, and while I’ve avoided a heart attack, I have not won the battle with myself and my ability to stay fit and keep my cholesterol low.

In the years since my dad died, I went through a long grief process, but most of the pain of loss is gone. That was until this week when I had to explain to G about why my dad was dead. G is 5. He has lots of questions. Those questions are often very pointed. He’ll make a good trial attorney someday.

G and I were in the car when he started asking about it. A few minutes earlier, while we were still at home, I was trying to teach him how to snap and whistle. I showed him a neat snapping/clapping trick that my Uncle Bob taught me a long time ago. G loved it.

He got a little confused when he asked about it in the car, and he asked when my dad showed me that. We had to do some sorting out, for example, my stepdad isn’t my actual dad. The snapping trick was shown to me by my uncle. My dad is dead; my uncle is not. Then the questions started about my dad, and suddenly I was back on that couch in my living room watching my mother say the words, “Your dad did die, Tim.” Suddenly, the pain of loss was poking its way back into my gut for the first time in over a dozen years.

“How did your dad die, dad?” G asked.

“He died of a heart attack,” I answered.

“What’s a heart attack?”

“It’s when your heart stops working, and your blood doesn’t get pumped through your body anymore,” I said, trying to make the words accessible to him.

“Why did he have a heart attack?” G asked, apparently satisfied with my previous explanation.

“He didn’t take care of himself, G. He drank beer, smoked cigarettes, and didn’t sleep a lot.”

“Why didn’t he take care of himself?”

“He didn’t know any better. He didn’t know he had a high cholesterol that was going to make his heart stop.”

“So he died because of his cholesterol? What’s cholesterol?” See what I mean? I’m being cross-examined here.

“Cholesterol is the stuff in your blood that we say is bad and you and I have a lot of it. That’s why we can’t eat certain foods because they’re bad for our blood,” I explained.

“And he didn’t know those foods were bad for his blood? How come no one told him?”

“No one knew the foods were so bad. He didn’t know they would hurt him,” I said.

“Well we know, dad, so we won’t eat those, right?”

“Right.” And that’s when I changed the subject, but the feeling of loss hasn’t left me since.

I’ve now reached an age my dad didn’t. He never saw his 35th birthday.

I’ve lived without my dad almost my entire life anyway thanks to a combination of familial missteps, but his absence has always been noticeable. As a boy, I missed him because he wasn’t at my ball games and such. As a teenager, I missed him, but I didn’t fully know why until I was older. I needed a dad to help toughen me up and point me in the right direction (advice about girls would’ve helped, too). As a young man, I missed having that grownup relationship men have with their dads. As a father myself, though, I miss him more than I thought I would. And the conversation with G really brought that into focus. G has a great relationship with my stepdad (Gramps), as do I, but even G notices the absence of my natural father.

So, wherever you are, dad, just know that I’m thinking of you today, as I do each year on this day. You weren’t ever really a big part of my life, but you’ve left a big whole that no one will ever fill.

All This “Mom Rah-Rah” Crap is Pissing Me Off

I’m sure I’m just being a whiny crybaby, but I’m getting pissed off at these “family” resources that do nothing but focus on moms. They claim they are all about being family- or kid-friendly, but their content is all mom-this and mom-that. It seems as if dads don’t exist at all, or they show up and give their best Joey Lawrence impression, “Whoa!”

I’m tired of being considered a member of the domestically hapless sex. I’m not some gelatinous blob who is lavished with child adoration because I can make fart noises behind my knee. I’m not the guy who goes golfing every weekend because the thought of being around my kids is frightening. I’m not an idiot who thinks food comes out of the kitchen heater thing ready for me when I come home.

I am a man. I am a father. I am daddy.

There are plenty of others like me, too. Take my good friend Aaron Gouveia over at Daddy Files (@DaddyFiles). He’s the father of Will, a great toddler who occupies half of his attention. The other half is focused on his wife, MJ. Both parents work. Both dote on their son. They are equal partners in their household work, which includes caring for an raising Will.

Aaron is a major advocate for the dad’s role in the family unit. He believes in being actively engaged in his son’s life, and that dads are not to be discounted by the hyperactive “momculture”. His recent post, “Men Need Friends, Too“, argues that “Girls Night Out” is a celebrated tradition, but any suggestion of a “Guys Night Out” is akin to a remake of The Hangover, and that’s not right. It points out the double-standard that exists in the popular opinion of marital fairness.

I’m not an idiot. Despite people like Aaron and me, most of the moms in the world are moms to their children and their husbands alike. They do the majority of the domestic work in addition to whatever other occupation they might have whether it is full time child rearing or VP in the corporate world.

I get it. Today’s mom is the maid, cook, coach, counselor, etc. Guess what? That’s not much different than any time in history, except that women now have the additional responsibilities that come with a career. And, believe me, I’m not advocating that women should all stay at home. My wife has always made more money than me, she has a master’s degree and I do not, and she holds a higher position in her career than I do. And I’m proud of her for accomplishing all of that. I’ve pushed her to continue to reach for her goals while we have started a family that includes two kids and a dog.

What I’m saying is I’m tired of the double-standard that mom is the only person who grocery shops or cooks dinner or does laundry. I’m tired of magazine’s like “Parents” and “Parenting” throwing a bone to us dads once a year in June to say how great we are, but then only talk about women’s issues in their newsstand content the rest of the year. Obviously, a majority of their readership is women, but their articles could at least make an effort to include a dad perspective more regularly.

There are Twitter accounts that claim they are “family” services, but then all of their promotions or chats are mom-centered or even use a hashtag with “mom” in it. I wouldn’t mind this if there was a “dad’ conversation, too, but there isn’t. But that’s not to say that dads don’t exist or have their own community. There’s The Good Men Project Magazine, the #dadstalking Twitter chat hashtag, and more. These are not the mainstream.

It’s time dads got some regular credit for their contributions. Dads want to be part of the parenting conversation, and yet they face their own glass ceiling. They want to be marketed family products without a feminine undertone. Gender neutral is fine. Really. It’s OK.

Momsculture: stop ignoring us. You want our help. You want us to be involved. You want a partner. Then let us. Stop keeping us at arm’s length. And for goodness’ sake, stop celebrating yourselves for doing a job that is as old as time. Celebrate yourselves because you’re a quality person with dreams and accomplishments. Then celebrate us dads for the same reasons.

The Beach and I Are Not Friends

The beach and I are not friends, but we tolerate each other. Let’s say we have and understanding.

20110619-021704.jpgWe just wrapped up a weekend in a very nice Wilmington hotel where we visited both Wrightsville and Kure beaches on North Carolina’s Cape Fear Coast. It was a mixed experience. We had lots of fun with the kids in the sand and surf, but it comes at a cost that is almost unbearable for me. I’m just not a fan of lugging half a living room and a galley kitchen to sit and bake on the sand.

This all goes back to when I was a kid and it was just me and my mom. We would venture to the beach for a day and I would be done by about lunchtime. About that time she would be turning her chair to get a better angle on the sun.

We would bring her trifold chaise lounge that weighed 15 pounds, a metal cooler that had a 1962 vintage. All I got was a towel and a plastic pail and shovel. Lunch consisted of soggy and sandy tuna sandwiches and soggy chips. Boo-hoo, right? Call the whaaaaaa-ambulance! Yeah, yeah.

Well, it sucked, and I’ve hated the beach most of my life because of it.

Not all of my beach experiences are bad ones. I have lots of good memories on the beach, even as an adult and a dad.

So now I have a challenge to figure out what it is I like about the beach. I’m beginning to realize that I like to put on sunscreen before I get there. While there I want something to do like build a sandcastle or go on a seashell hunt. And I want to bring as little with me as possible. That last part is crucial. I also want to find a beach that is a reasonable drive, has nearby parking, and isn’t too crowded.

Because all I really want is my kids to have good memories of their childhood’s on the beach so they will one day enjoy the beach with their own kids.

20110619-021904.jpg

Maybe we’re just not fish people

We had a sincere moment of grief in our house today. Our 4-year-old son’s pet betta fish, Mac, died. Technically, it was Mac II, but our son, G, doesn’t know that. The first Mac died within a few hours of joining our family due to poor tank chemistry.

betta fishMac was a beloved pet for about two months. He was G’s first pet that was truly his own and he loved taking care of him. My wife, Susan, and I loved that G was taking responsibility for feeding him every night and reminding me every Saturday to clean his little one-gallon tank.

In recent weeks, though, cleaning the tank was low on the priority list. I had a few other pressing matters and I wouldn’t clean it every Saturday. This weekend, Susan tried to do me a favor and cleaned his tank. She did everything right except one thing. The water was too warm, and she inadvertently cooked Mac. He was dead, and we had to tell G.

Neither of us wanted to because we knew we were deliberately breaking his heart. We could have just done what we did for Mac I and just replace him with a new fish, but I felt it was important to give G an understanding of death.

I went into the family room and told G we needed to go upstairs to look at Mac. G knew Mac was sick because Susan had said so earlier when he wasn’t as lively as he had been. Upstairs we went and I showed G that the little fish that lived in a tank next to his bed for the past few months was now dead. G has a basic understanding that death is final. He got a taste of that when my grandmother died last year, but it has always been an abstract.

He looked at Mac, and looked at me and started to cry. He stopped before the tears and said, “We have to tell mommy.” G ran downstairs saying, “Mac isn’t living anymore.” I called him back upstairs because we needed to give Mac a little send-off. I scooped Mac’s lifeless body out of the tank into the cup he was in when we bought him. I told G we needed to send Mac to be with the other fishes. You can probably predict what happened next.

We walked into his bathroom, and I put the cup in G’s hands. I told him that we have to send dead fish back to the rest of the fishes. I know this may sound cruel, but not far from our home the area sewage treatment plant which discharges clean water into a local river and we’ve talked about this before.

Immediately, G was in tears. He missed Mac, well – Mac II, and we hugged while he sobbed in true grief. I asked him if he wanted to get a new Mac. He agreed, so we got in the car and went to the local PetSmart. He picked out a nice new Mac. This one even looked better than the last Mac.

As soon as we got home, G was excited to get the tank set up for the new Mac. We emptied the little tank. I rinsed the rocks and plastic plants, and I filled the tank with new water. I put in the water conditioner, and I set Mac in the water while he was still in his little cup for a while so he could get adjusted to the water. Everything was just right.

We returned to our evening activities, which included a ham dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday. By bedtime, though, it was clear the new Mac, Mac III, was dead. Susan told G that he was just resting because he was so happy to be in a new home. But she knew better. We would be going back to PetSmart to take advantage of their seven-day guarantee to get a Mac IV, but this time would be more like the first.

As we considered what our next move would be, Susan said, “Maybe we’re just not fish people.” Maybe.

My daughter’s first laugh, or is it?

Before our daughter was born, I was sure that I wouldn’t be as excited about “firsts” the way I was when our son was born. In fact, I was so adamant that I have almost all but tried to ignore the firsts just so I could stick to my preconception. It was a misconception, I’m discovering.

Then came the first time she looked at me and laughed. It was a real laugh, and it totally caught me. I spoke to her some more, and she continued to laugh. I was so enchanted.

I picked her up and walked out the front door to see my wife and son playing outside. I called to my wife, signaling her to come quickly. Thinking there might be something wrong, she made haste across the lawn.

“Watch this,” I said, and I held our daughter above my head and got her to laugh again.

Then came my wife’s uncensored response.

“Oh, yeah. I know,” she said. My face clearly changed from unbridled joy to disappointment. “Uh, well, yes. This is her first laugh. You’re right,” she added, trying to reassure me.

Well, I believe her first response. Clearly, it wasn’t our daughter’s first laugh. But it was the first time I made her laugh, and that means a lot. It’s apparent that she and I have bonded, because I know that not any man can just walk up and get her to giggle. At least, not yet…

Another year gone

Like most people, this is a time of year to reflect on the personal events and accomplishments of the past 12 months. For me, it is particularly important because my birthday falls very close to New Year’s Eve, and therefore I have the distinction of turning a year older with the turn of a calendar.

Some might think it is economical to have my birthday coincide with New Year’s so that any birthday resolutions I might make would coincide with any New Year’s resolutions. That is one advantage. But I generally don’t make resolutions, per se.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t evaluate the past year, however. In fact, I feel as though I do that to a much deeper degree than many others. At least, as far as I can tell from others have shared over the years.

For most of my life, I’ve been told that I (1) had great potential or (2) didn’t live up to my potential. The former is obviously more positive than the latter, but as I look back on life, I realize that both are meant in their own ways to inspire me to achieve this potential. Honestly, I have to agree with anyone who has appraised me as underachieved in the potential department. At this time of year, especially, I wonder what that potential is and if I’ve reached it. Since I still hear those remarks from time to time (now in more coded forms, but still positive), I don’t believe I have reached that potential yet.

I find myself thinking of the many, many things I wanted to do with my life, and wanted to be. I can still do many of those, provided I am afforded the length of years I will need to accomplish them. But I feel behind.

There are those who would say that I’ve made a mark in the people I’ve helped in the newspaper business or the children I’ve taught. That is true, but I feel like I should be doing more. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this feeling that I should be known for something great. Perhaps it is ego, which mine is big, or perhaps it is just approval-seeking-behavior. Are the two exceptionally different? I don’t know. I’ve never known. That’s what bugs me, especially now.

I look at the kids I teach, and the kids I’ve had in previous years; I look at my wife; I look at my son, and I know that these people count on me for various things. They learn from me, and I from them. It is a symbiosis, but is not something that quells that yen. For I don’t think that what tugs at me is something noble or ignoble. It is not something that would win me any international merit prizes (save for fiction). It is just something that would give me some measure of renown beyond my own circle of friends, colleagues, family, and acquaintances.

Who knows? All I know so far is I wasn’t able to achieve this mysterious potential in 2008. I don’t know what’s in store for 2009. If I reach that potential this year, great. If I do, what next? Perhaps that’s the point. Potential is something that can never be reached. Maybe it is meant to be the thing we cannot get because once we get it we stop trying.

All I know is that I feel like this world expects more from me. I hope I can live up to that expectation.