On Loss, and Bowling

The summer weather has been incessantly muggy, the air clinging uncomfortably close as it blankets my small corner of the world in its drawn out, tropical exhale.

This past Tuesday gave a brief reprieve from the incessant heat in the form of a torrential downpour, one that lingered throughout the day, providing frequent, eccentric lighting that Dr. Frankenstein would have been itchy to utilize. It was a day to sleep in, to listen to the percussive precipitation on the windows and the roof, to cuddle up with a book and a endless cup of coffee.

My sister called me in the midst of this heavy mist; my phone reports that it was about 8:30am, but the day stretched on under a soggy grey canopy that gave no indication that time was passing.  Lightning flashed, and the gods rolled another strike as thunder crashed just a few miles off to the south west of my quaint Victorian homestead.

My grandfather passed away. 

This had not been entirely unexpected.

The day before this I had gone to visit my grandfather for what I had surmised to be the last time. The longer we linger in this world, the less certainty we have regarding our duration, and I approached the journey back “home” with this in mind. My partner’s kids have been with us for the summer, and nearly every day I spent with them we did something meaningful and memorable. I had already explained to them that this day was a little different, and they understood that the trip was important to me despite my inability to provide much more than a skeleton of reasons as to why. We all loaded up into the truck and drove the 90 miles back in time to a small, slowly dying town which I am traditionally loath to visit.  
The kids headed off to the school park with my sister, and I reset my course for the small town care center.
Over the last few years it has become increasingly difficult for me to visit care centers, hospitals, or zoos, without thinking of them as prisons for their respective inmates.
Presently, the thunder roars again, low and throaty enough to set off someone’s car alarm a block from me. Nature is the real queen of the jungle, the rest of us are just listless quarry.

At the care center, attendants pushed and prodded at my grandfather, taking his vitals and trying to get him to stay awake. I stood in the hall, listening, the door dividing us for 15 minutes before I could go in and say hello, and goodbye.
My grandfather had been old for my entire life, but he always was smiling, happy, a great friendly oak tree, my hand tiny in his massive palm even now. Here, at 89, he looked sick, grey, tired. Bloodshot eyes, and frail despite his 6′(+) frame.
He was always a great, gentle lion, and now with the thorn of life wedged firmly in his paw I felt like a tiny, helpless mouse. I couldn’t save him from the steady step we all march toward the infinite, but I could hold his hand for a little while and let him know he wasn’t alone while he walked.
I thought back to my grandmother, who had passed away 12 years prior. I thought about the last time I saw her, bathed in florescent light, surrounded by medical accouterments. I thought about how out of place she looked, a warm friendly beacon set among the harsh medical sterility. I thought about how hard it had been for me to really comprehend what she was going through at the time, with my shortsighted 17 year old periphery of experience, eyes mostly downcast, the thick lenses I always wore providing only the most basic situational clarity. Because of her, I had always excelled academically. Because of my pride, or perhaps the comfort of the shelter she lovingly provided, I was still largely emotionally absent from the end of life realities, myself never really having to deal with true hardship before that. Without life experience, without adversity to test our limitations, we do not flex or evolve the parts of ourselves we so lovingly protect. My great grandmother (her mother) had died the year before, so I had been to a funeral, but my grandmother was a cornerstone in my life, and I lacked the experience to properly navigate loss with grace.
Something about the last decade of my own life had given me more to utilize in this attempt to connect now with my grandfather, even though I still felt like I arrived at the care facility empty handed.
Sitting with him, I wanted to say something meaningful. I wanted to I tell him that it’s alright to go. I wanted to ask what he was holding on to. I wanted to tell him I didn’t want him to hurt. I sat with him without saying anything and concentrated on just being present. With my grandmother, I had stumbled through motions of an end-of-life-goodbye without having the tools, without knowing what tools to ask for or look for. This time I sat and was present, and understood that was all it took to offer comfort.
My father arrived to my grandfathers room, then my mother. I hadn’t seen them in the same room since they had gotten divorced, back when I was in college. For a decade, I think the lack of closure had been sitting with all of us, and I could feel some of it slipping away as we banded together for this common cause.
I thanked my dad, for giving my grandpa the tools he needed to have an independent life as long as he had. I thanked my mom, for being an absolute artist as a nurse and care coordinator.
I finally rose to leave; I had to budget my spoons enough to get back to home with the kids. I told my grandfather I would see him on Thursday, and he smiled at me; I think we both knew I wouldn’t. I hugged my mother and father, and left.
My grandfather passed away early the next morning, per Kelly’s call notifying me of this. When I had visited the day before, they had been waiting for a doctor’s order to be able to discharge my grandfather to his home. My father had even spent the last several days building a ramp so they could get him up the steps and into the house.
My grandfather had waited to leave our earthly realm until he could do so from his own bed: comfortable, away from the foreign sterility of the medical facility. He held on long enough to say goodbye to everyone, and then he was gone.
Back at my own home, reflecting on the last 24 hours, I sat on the porch and watched the plump grey clouds bumbling through the atmosphere. I felt the static dissipate through the air. I always feel more connected to the world when it rains. 
My partner’s two girls, 11 and 8, came out to sit with me. They’re both capable farm kids, but that primordial sliver at the base of our brains still makes them jump when the thunder cracks right above our heads.
“Have you ever heard that thunder is just the sound of the gods bowling?” I ask. They nod, and we discuss this, briefly. The 8 year old dances in the rain for a moment, then jogs back to us. I tell them how much I appreciate the car trip they took with me the day prior, and let them know that  my grandfather has passed. Their great-grandmother had also just passed away a couple of weeks prior, so while I don’t want to burden them with unnecessary layers of grief, I do want them to know how much it meant to me to get to see him.
The 11 year old hugs me. “Great-grandma will show him around,” she says, eyes motioning skyward. “I bet they’ll be friends.”
The 8 year old nods. “Maybe they’re the ones bowling.”
farmers hands

Parental Spheres of Influence: A Venn Diagram

 

I have written on finding your Tribe before, and one of the reasons they are so important in our current day and age is that your Tribe is seldom composed solely of your biological family members. Ten thousand years ago is a different story, (as we then lived in groups of about 200 and most people have more Facebook Friends than that) but today we look for tribe for the same reasons people banded together then: for survival, to better understand the world around us, and to define our place within it. Family does that today, but they usually tell you who you Ought to Be, according to Tradition, Expectations, and Social Obligations that you as an individual aren’t usually consulted in determining.

Family can be constricting if views don’t align, as they frequently don’t, leading to generations of rebellious acts by children, teenagers, young adults. It is practically a rite of passage to disagree with your parents, and by extension, the socio-political forces that shaped them into who they are.

Ecological systems theory is fascinating, btw. Urie Bronfenbrenner  is one smart cookie. John Bowlby’s summary is worth noting in that link, as well.

Anyway…

I was a really good kid, to the point of being boringly so. I welcome any disagreement on that fact from my own parents; they’re still supportive enough of me to read my blog, despite my utter insistence on candor. 🙂 But I remember, on at least one occasion, where my behavior was met with a phrase: “I hope you have a dozen kids just like you,” a sentiment I was sure was more of a curse than a blessing in the context in which it was given.

Life has given me a series of obstacles lately, and I have been able to face them. Some scared me, some I felt unprepared for or was completely surprised by, some tested me in ways that hurt, but I have found that  (eventually) being honest with myself as well as with those around has been the best course of action every time. Even when friendships crumbled and disintegrated, even in the face of unstable employment, or walking into social circles with established norms that made me uncomfortable, being honest with myself led to making decisions–important decisions– which do effect a larger sphere beyond my personal bubble.

Over the holidays this past winter, I met my current partner’s children. I had put a hard line on the appropriate time frame for that when we met: I didn’t want to meet them for at least 6 months, because I don’t believe it’s ethical to have people just passing through children’s lives. Temporarily being a transient is fun as a young adult, but it is detrimental for children not to have a level of stability in their lives in terms of who is in it. This is one of the reasons we push so hard for equal parental rights in this country. Stability is key for kids, and if one parent is working/traveling all the time, then child rearing falls disproportionally on the responsibility of the other parent.

Now that they’re with us for the summer I get to know them as people on a daily basis and build on the limited time we had over holidays and their “Spring Break.” They get to know that I have their backs, and I get to learn about what makes them tick. Adjusting to a routine where I am responsible for cooking for kids, helping them play catch up with their studies, and serving as emotional mediator and validator have not been as difficult as I had thought they would be. Establishing boundaries and treating one another with respect work worlds better with children than the same approaches do with some adults. Occasionally temper tantrums happen, but after taking a break and stepping away from a problem for a few minutes it’s a lot easier to reassess in a helpful way. Mostly, we’re all just cool.

As someone who has never been interested in having kids of my own, I can fully say that that outlook is actually serving me really well now. Because I scrutinized reproducing for so long, I got to cover lots of hypothetical situations. Some benefit me now, and some of those thought experiments are so far off base that the reality of having the kids here has taught me to relax and go with the flow, as we cannot be prepared for simply everything. If I were “baby crazy” or had my own kids, I wouldn’t be able to give my efforts and attention to my partner’s kids in the same way that I can now. I’m able to be a protective grizzly mama but I’m also able to step back, assess resources and try to fill in gaps as an additional adult concerned for their well-being.  It surprises me how easily adults are expected to be pitted against one another: teachers vs parents, some family members vs others, former partners vs present partners. Just like every other endeavor, groups should be pooling their resources and advocating for those who are affected, not fighting over how their own best interest comes into play while utilizing the marginalized group as pawns.

This article/study gives an overview of just how extensively “outside adult relationships” (meaning both children’s parents as well as other adult figures) can benefit children.

Research finds that the presence of one or more caring, committed adults in a child’s life increases the likelihood that children and youth flourish, and become productive adults themselves. These individuals have been called “natural mentors.”

Additionally, according to science (and the Art of Manliness), fathers are a necessary component in their children’s lives, although too often they are portrayed as “optional.” The linked article covers many reasons  the father’s presence is important, but my favorite is their impact on verbal ability and fluency of the children.

As Paul Raeburn highlights in his book Do Fathers Matter?, recent research suggests that dads actually play just as an important, if not more important, role in the verbal fluency of their children. Professor Lynne Vernon-Feagans and her team conducted a study to measure parental influence on early childhood verbal development. The surprising result from this study was that fathers, not mothers, had much more of an influence on a child’s verbal adeptness.

Vernon-Feagans hypothesizes the reason dads have more of an influence on a child’s verbal development is that because fathers frequently don’t spend as much time with children, they’re not as attuned to their current verbal development as mothers. Consequently, while mothers will use words that the child is familiar with, fathers will use unfamiliar words, thus helping the child broaden their vocabulary and learn new concepts.

This video is very touching in how all the adults are able to support one another after both parents have remarried. It shows parents getting along with step-parents, as opposed to vilifying them to the children, or being jealous of them, although the parents speak very honestly in addressing their awareness of the potential/societal expectation of these kinds of things.

Relationships are multifaceted: the road goes both ways.

You are always responsible for You, whether you agree with the circumstances you find yourself in, or not.

In conclusion, I’ll borrow the words of wisdom from the same Art of Manliness Article:

I know that sometimes parenting can be discouraging. You might think that you really don’t have much of an influence on your kids. I hope these studies and reports have shown you otherwise. Your role as a dad is immensely important. So focus on being the best dad you can be. It’s not enough to just be there. Read to your kids. Get involved at their school. Roughhouse. Encourage them to take risks. Stay fit. These small things have a huge return on investment for the well-being of your children.

And if you’re a mom going through a divorce, know that while it’s natural to want your kids as much as possible, if your husband is a good guy (through an objective lens, not through the lens of the acrimony created by your split), it’s ultimately in your children’s best interest to share custody equally.

 

Tantrums: How our Tempers Tattle on Us

Temper tantrums aren’t just for two year olds, they’re a common practice among children and adults of all ages. In one significantly cartoonish example, in the year 2016 we have a United States Presidential Candidate that limits his tactical approach to an pretty fair split campaigning between throwing tantrums and telling outright lies. But, have no fear: there are ways of addressing this significant shortcoming, broken down into tidbits of advice here. But one of the most basic aspects you need to be aware of when dealing with someone throwing a tantrum is this:

Most people who throw tantrums love attention; they are loud because they want to be heard. The more attention they seek, the louder they will be. This is why a small sentence, like “I understand”, can easily calm the other person down. Keep in mind that understanding does not mean agreeing with the situation. You also should let them know that you are also hurt with their tantrums and that you could help them deal with the situation better.

Tantrums, otherwise known as temper tantrum, meltdowns, and hissy fits, are emotional outbursts, and can occur at any age. Especially in young children, they are a product of not having the tools or neural connections to deal with complex scenarios. In adults, they can be indicative of something more serious like malignant narcissism, defined by  Edith Weigert (1967) as a “regressive escape from frustration by distortion and denial of reality”, while Herbert Rosenfeld (1971) described it as “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized”.

In the rich and prominent these experiences are referred to as Acquired Situational Narcissism, something which “develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society. Fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.”

Children idolize their parents similarly, and little pitchers have big ears; kids learn most from what we don’t intend to teach them. And we have plenty of tools that we never seem to think they see. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the adoration of children for the adults in their lives would justify those adults to curate an inability to treat the children respectfully, but socially we participate in this strata/hierarchy of importance all the time; an affliction that continues because we allow it to.

We expect these in children, to some degree, but it has become normalized it in adults as well. 

“I’m not so sure adults are that far away from kids,” Deffenbacher adds, noting that tantrum-throwing adults often “go pounding through the house, hitting and throwing things.”

Not surprisingly, people with a low tolerance for frustration are more likely to throw a tantrum, experts say. Childhood experiences may play a role as well.

“Often adults who throw tantrums are those who were told growing up, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way,’ ” Sandler says. “They were never heard.”

And there’s some evidence that ill-tempered children become ill-tempered adults.

The journal Developmental Psychology reported in 1987 on a 30-year study of 200 people who threw temper tantrums as children. Those with severe childhood tantrums tended to have temper and mood problems later in life too. Men with tantrum histories were found to be more likely to have erratic work lives and to divorce their partners. Women tended to marry men with lower job status, to divorce and to be ill-tempered mothers.

Social media are an especially potent group of enabling mechanisms for adult temper tantrums; Facebook is a favorite utilized by those who are least socially adept at monitoring their own behavior. Those who are most prone to lash out and quick to be unnecessarily critical are the most likely to respond to “internet trolls” that we are, by now, so familiar with.

In everyone, tantrum-throwing can be a product of an environment that houses a pattern of bad behavior that has been learned. Rudeness that has gone unchecked. Plenty of adults make excuses for their own bad behavior, passing the buck for checking their own social responsibility. This establishes a normalcy for both the bad behavior of initially throwing a tantrum to get their own way, as well as the resulting negotiation and excuse-making to legitimize the continued behavior.

Why are we so ruthlessly critical of one another? Insecurity is at the root of most attacks, according to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., health psychologist and author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. “There are intense debates around so many aspects of parenting that mothers are constantly having to choose which side of an issue to come down on,” she explains. “Once we do, we take it personally when someone disagrees with us because it feels like a rejection of not just our choice but who we are and how we parent. As a result, we get defensive and want to lash out.”

There’s also the false perception that what happens online stays online. “The Internet gives us distance; people act as if it’s just a virtual space where everyone has multiple lives and there are no real consequences,” says Kalafatis. Of course, that distance is an illusion. The mom you make a snarky comment to on Facebook today may very well be standing next to you on the soccer sidelines tomorrow.

In fact, what we do online affects our offline behavior in ways we might never imagine. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that having a close network of friends on Facebook with whom you regularly share positive information about yourself (“I’m loving this new nail color!” or “I married the world’s best cook”) can prompt you to be less considerate when communicating with others in person.

“We call it the ‘licensing’ effect,” says Andrew T. Stephen, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. “The positive feedback you get from a tight-knit group on Facebook boosts your ego and leaves you feeling good about yourself and your life. And the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to ‘cut yourself some slack’ and devote fewer resources to self-monitoring and self-regulation.” Cue the mom who doesn’t bother to hold back her righteous opinions.

To find out what kind of coping skills you have to counteract your own stress, there is a questionnaire with an excellent list of comparative actions here.

Staying calm, reducing stress, and learning to communicate effectively seem to be our best weapons against this onslaught of rude reactions. We can only hope and express vigilance against the green-eyed monster of Tantrums.