Saturday, January 31, 2009

Becoming a Dad

This blog is called Kids, Kites and Karma. My working subtitle is "Messages for Dads". You deserve to know why.

To place my comments for this and future posts in context, I think it may be useful to start with a bit of personal history. I grew up in the 60s and 70s at a time when the "western" world was going through what has sometimes been referred to as the dawning of the
age of Aquarius; the era of flower power, free love, anti-war protests, ban the bomb and Woodstock. Living in New Zealand, we were not as connected to the events that shaped this new age as were Americans, Canadians and people living in western Europe. But we were affected and moved by the space race, the Cold War and Vietnam. One of the older sons of neighbours who lived across the street went to Vietnam to support the Americans in an artillery unit. The New Zealand Army also sent field ambulances and medical staff. We were certainly not immune from this war or its direct effects. But it was easy to let others deal with the details.

I was the 3rd of 4 children (in order - boy, girl, boy, girl) born between 1954 and 1960 to parents who had been young children during the
Great Depression of the 1930s. Their world view was significantly coloured by their experiences during that part of their life and the messages that were given to us when we were young came, predictably enough, directly out of our parents' experiences of economic hardship and personal struggle. My father left an unhappy home life at 16 and articled as an accounting student, taking night courses while he worked. My mother trained as a primary (elementary) school teacher. They married in their early 20s and started a family almost right away.

Life for my father seemed hard to me. He worked long hours as an accountant and in his time away from the office he put enormous energy into figuring out how to provide for his family in the long-term. He bought real estate knowing that it was the only asset that could be relied upon to increase in value. As an accountant in public practice, he met business people from all walks of life and learned early on what it took to be financially successful. He was also very active physically, playing competitive tennis for many years, and taking up running for fitness in his 30s before it became "cool" for adults to invest in their health through physical fitness.

My dad cared deeply about his kids, but like most men of his generation, the details of raising the kids were left largely to mum. Dad was the disciplinarian and we lived with the constant possibility of being "corrected" through corporal punishment. In our house that usually meant a three-foot length of bamboo. I remember being terrified of the possibility, so I absorbed the internal message that it was good to avoid punishment if at all possible. I actually remember only two instances of being "corrected" with the stick, at least one of which was richly deserved. But the psychological effects of the threat of punishment have had a persistent (and largely negative) influence on my life. I learned how to lie to avoid detection and those lies became part of my normal way of engaging with figures of authority, including my teachers.

As a male child, I absorbed the messages that boys don't cry, that life is hard and that you can't expect work to be fun. We were also strongly encouraged to find jobs that offered secure income, good pensions and long-term stability - in short, we were encouraged to find low-risk, solid return jobs. Government jobs (including teaching) were touted as good examples of this. Obviously, I took this to heart, almost 25 years into a public service career. Success in school was a highly prized goal - all four children finished high school and went on to university. Three of us finished at least one university degree. All of us entered careers that would not have been possible without a degree. I ended up spending almost 10 years in post-secondary studies and acquired four university degrees before I started working in a permanent full-time job.

How I ended up in Canada is properly the subject of a different blog entry. Suffice it to say that I arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, in August 1979 as a graduate student at the University of Alberta and found a way to stay. I got married and put down roots. As I reflected, at considerable geographic distance, on my childhood experiences, I resolved that if I ever had kids of my own, I would deliberately not be the kind of father my own father had been.

Seven years after we got married, my wife and I decided it was now or never. We had two sons, born not quite 23 months apart. When my first son was born, I was struck by the enormity of what we had done - we had just created a new, autonomous being for whom we were responsible. In the following days and weeks, I realized that I was the custodian of a small person who had his own identity, personality and potential. I saw immediately that I did not own this little person - I was his custodian and mentor until he could assume full responsibility for his own life.

This realization led to a series of logical conclusions, most of which will be covered in subsequent posts. But the main decision I made at that point was to try to be a better dad than my own father had been. That meant making some deliberate decisions about how I would raise my sons.

I have to say at this point that I was ill-equipped to be a father. I had no experience with infant children and had read almost nothing about what to do in those first few days and weeks after our first child was born. I had attended pre-natal classes with my wife and I had read one of her medical textbooks related to embryology, so I had a lot of head-knowledge about the development of the fetus and I knew, more or less, how to change a diaper. Beyond that, it was all rather scary and mysterious.

What did I learn in the months of preparing for this amazing and life-changing event? First, that you can't ever really be prepared for it. Second, that it is preferable that you really WANT to be a dad. Third, that even if you don't really want a child, you can CHOOSE to be engaged in the raising of your children. Fourth, that once you father a child, your life changes permanently, even if you don't want to be a parent.

What would I like to tell the world about being a father?
Want it (ideally)
Prepare for it
Share in it
Enjoy it

Next post - cholic and how to survive it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Welcome to My Blog

I've been here before, but with no clear purpose other than curiosity. The last time, I was playing with the Google toys, but had no sense that what I was doing might be useful to anyone other than myself. I don't even remember when that last time was.

I have a sense of having moved a considerable distance in my life since that first tentative toe was dipped into the blog pool. For instance, both of my kids are now past the point where they need me to give them advice about much... not that I ever had to, even when they were still legally my responsibility. But now, with both of them in university, I am even less needed as either a father or a confidante. We still have fun and enjoy each other's company. It's just much less frequent, since they no longer live with me.

I wonder if this is a sign of successful parenting? I know their mother and I made some sound decisions when the boys were little - saving for their education was one. It is this decision and others like it that will be the substance of this blog, at least for a while. I believe some of the wisdom of my years may have value for others - particularly young fathers. I hope a few kind readers may help me to sort out exactly where this value lies.

I reserve the right to detour from time to time into topics that interest me in my life today, but mostly the point of this blog is to put some ideas into writing and let others tell me if they make sense.