Parenting is hard. It’s even more difficult when you get to be a parent, in person, twelve weeks a year. It’s still harder when you’re the father, pressing back against cultural assumption that you are in fact a complete asshole. But this is my reality. I’ve come to a point where I recognize the opportunities this presents and for the most part, I’ve settled in for the next decade of combating the twisted foreign landscape that is my ex-wife’s mentality. I have taken a path less traveled by most divorcees and elected to meet my son half-way. Realizing there is little he is able to do at the age of 8.5 to change his circumstances we have developed code words, signals and probably nonverbal communication neither of us is aware of in order to acknowledge the present and hope for the future. Choosing the high road is hard.
I’m constantly in search of new and impactful ways to solidify the memories he is creating of our limited time together. Yes, because I’m selfish and I want him to someday comprehend the fact he has been provided with two impressions of me: the false one created and maintained by his mother and the real one that he experiences with me. He already demonstrates he can differentiate between the two. But still, it makes me feel better.
This past summer I tapped into something my son and I share: a love of reading. It’s been amazing to watch him progress in his love of literacy. While most parents don’t see just how intelligent their children are, or rather, play it off in some humble fashion when compliments spill out in front of them, I am consistently surprised at my son’s cognitive abilities. The breadth of his imagination is so vast that at Disney World I had to explain that Kylo Ren was in fact an actor in a costume. Not the real angsty teenager from one of our favorite movies. So watching him dive into characters in books is truly a joy. I unashamedly relish in it in a way that his female source cannot possibly appreciate.
When school breaks for the summer months we usually receive a recommended reading list for his age-group/grade level. To entice the students’ appetite for book binging they assign point values to the books, which parents are to make record of as the children polish them off. My boy recognized it as a contest and last summer break chose to plow through books that, while on the “recommended reading list”, were pretty far beneath his capabilities. I’m talking, finish a “book” in less than an hour level. “But dad,” he would plead, “if I am in the top three I get a private ice cream party!” Reading the most books, to him, trumped what he was actually learning in exchange for an icy sweet treat. Never underestimate what a child will do for dessert.
I wasn’t upset with the school for the incentive. We had the same thing when I was that age. We were awarded with personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut for every five or so books we finished. But, this summer, I opted to fight the good fight. I wanted him to read, of course, but stuff of substance, with depth and feeling. I wanted to see just how far down the rabbit hole I could make his little brain delve. The Magic Treehouse just wasn’t cutting it. Because his imagination is so open, and because he is more than capable, I began to gently nudge in the direction of classics I still hold dear. Arcs like A Wrinkle in Time and The Secret of Nimh. Adventures I didn’t even know existed until I was in fifth grade. Now I could vicariously relive the first time reading about Mrs. Brisby sneaking sleeping powder into Dragon’s food dish. And two years ahead of schedule!
When he arrived at the onset of the season, I had already planned my approach. I was going to subtly mention these stories while we made visits to the library. Even read one or two myself so he might be interested simply because dad was into it. I already knew I would find a host of books sent along by his mother that he was supposed to read first. Sure enough, the same series we explored last year was tucked away in his things. I enjoyed those stories as much as my son did. But it was time to move on. Possibly more irritating was the fact they were not on the recommended reading list, but because his mother insisted he maintain the literary skills of a kindergartner, he was determined to read them. If any of you have a valid argument against, “Mom said I have to,” I’m all ears.
I rolled my eyes behind unwilling negotiation and cut a deal. If he read the first three books sent by his mother, which would only take a Saturday afternoon, he would read one of my choices next. The boy complied, and for the time I was sated. As the first Saturday afternoon approached evening, I viciously chewed my fingernails with anticipation. Sunday he could take A Wrinkle in Time, a bottle of water, march out to the treehouse and prepare to have his mind blown.
Much to my disappointment, he showed no interest. “It’s too hot” and “Can you and I just have a lazy daddy/Connor day” were the responses. That second one, that’s like twisting the knife when it’s partnered with puppy dog eyes. My wife smirks when she hears that line drop because she knows I’ve already lost before I’ve begun to argue. It’s a fine line that we walk as teachers of our children. You can’t prod them too much or they’ll outright reject your ideas for the sake of rejecting them. You can’t go too easy or they’ll never get motivated to try new things. Not to mention, there were plenty of days I’d wished my father had just sat on the floor with me and joined whatever activity I had in mind. Parenting is hard.
Through gentle persuasion he eventually started the book. It took him forever to finish. The length of time to read it was not out of difficulty, it was born from his stubborn resistance to trying something new and challenging. For as smart as he is, he’s lazy when it comes to pushing himself. But he finished it. And he loved it!
Discussion questions were of little use, he came up with them unprompted. “Dad, they defeated the giant brain, but what about the darkness? Did they defeat it too? The book doesn’t say.” I salivated with every thought-provoking word he uttered. I was ecstatic, and proud, and glad to share something we both loved. We discussed the book for nearly an hour. He even admitted he was sorry he pushed back when I suggested he read it. I guarantee there weren’t any other kids in his class that grabbed that book over the summer.
Satisfied I had him hooked, I wanted him to choose his next textual adventure. Until, that is, he became resistant again. He started asking me things about movies, TV, books and video games. Things like, “Are you sure this is appropriate for me?” As though I was taping his eyeballs open and forcing him to watch Freddy Krueger films. What instigated these questions? Then, it was revealed to me through not-so-gentle prodding that in one of his nightly conversations with his other parent, he shared his excitement for finishing Wrinkle. In turn, he was told that he needed to read the books he’d been sent with, and not to read any more books that were inappropriate for his age.
WHAT?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO FIGHT ME ON?!
There are endless paragraphs I could write about arguments I’ve had with my ex-wife over the single most ridiculous items you could think of. To intentionally prevent her own son from challenging his reading ability for the sake of the possibility of continuing to drive a wedge between the well-established relationship I have with him is by far one of her lowest points. Adding insult to injury, she decided she would, for the rest of the summer, send him care packages with new “appropriate” books to “help speed the summer along.” Y’know, because living with dad in the summer is basically like being shipped off to prison.
From over 1,000 miles away, overcome with insecurity and co-dependent retching, my son’s mother was making the most desperate moves I’ve seen to date. The books in the “care packages” were not in any way related to the suggested reading material from his teachers. They were far too easy for him to read. They possessed almost no imagination. They did not prompt him to ask philosophical questions like “Does love ultimately conquer darkness?” Moreover, the packages included things like pictures of his friends from Texas, new t-shirts…in other words, things. Material things that he could hold onto, to let him know just how much his mommy loved and missed him. Each unboxing came with brief tears and “I miss my mom” -isms. That’s how she loves him, with guilt and things.
I realize at this point you might say, “Christian, aren’t you being a little oversensitive about this? Don’t you think you’re overreacting just a bit?” I’ll tell you, NO! No, it’s not an overreaction to watch your own child be manipulated for the sake of the other parent’s mental and emotional needs. What’s worse, this is precisely what those actions are intended to incite. It’s like watching a psychological thriller unfold in front of you and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop it. I can’t get angry with my son, he’s doing what he has to in order to survive. It’s not as though he can simply tesseract out of the awful circumstances he did not create. I can’t yell at my ex because then I’ll be willingly filling the asshole role she’s prepared my son to experience.
So what do I do when something I love and share with my own flesh and blood is corrupted by the uptight insecurity of his other parent who’s too afraid our son will actually love me? Nothing. I write and spill my guts out on a blog because screaming into a pillow doesn’t quite cut it any more. What do I do? I smile to myself wryly because I know at the end of this road filled with potholes of undeserving emotional torture there is an oasis of love and hope. There is a place on this road where we will be able to share books and Star Wars and treehouses and bike rides and my child will not have to live in fear of hurting his mother’s feelings. I know this place exists. I’ve seen it in glimpses of self-medicated illusion.
As for the memory of this experience, my boy will always remember I was the one that encouraged him on this path. Someday, if he hasn’t already in a subconscious connection of neurons, he will understand who truly supported him, and who intentionally held him back in a vain attempt to hurt….his father? He’ll remember the fact we had to make up code words just to let the other one know we were thinking about them. That’s how deeply entrenched that fear of disappointing his mother has gotten. He’s afraid if he loves me, she won’t love him any more. He’ll remember I suggested a book to him with a main character that shares the same qualities he does. She’s stubborn, capable of great things, possesses an insatiable curiosity, an eye for the weird and supernatural. She’s searching for her father and in order to do it, she has to face the Black Thing. She has to fight through her anger and forgive her father because parents can’t fix everything.
What do I do? What will I do? My spirit guides counsel patience. My wife counsels love. My actual counselor, he tells me there isn’t anything I can do. And you know what? He’s right. There isn’t anything I can do, but there is someone I can be. I can be the father that leaves books from the library on my son’s bed in hope he’ll decide to open the cover. I can be the father that demonstrates love over resentment. I can be the parent that takes the high road, that meets him in the middle, that tells him I understand the road is rocky, that I promise I’ll still be there at the end and when we’re done slogging through this seemingly endless nightmare we can both forgive each other for not being able to do more.
What do I do? I get up each day and promise myself I will do everything I can to teach my son how to keep using love to fight the darkness.