The Story of Your Life Is Your Legacy

Dear Mr. Dad: My father died when he was 48. He was a great dad, affectionate, playful, and a fine role model. And he had life insurance so the family was provided for. But when my brother and sister and I were going through his stuff after the funeral, we realized that we barely knew him. He was always interested in our lives, but almost never told us anything about his own—the things he did as a kid, what he liked, or anything. I’m 47 now—just a year younger than my dad’s age when he died—and I’m very involved in my children’s life. But I don’t want to make the same mistake my father did. How can I be sure my kids will know me after I’m gone?

A: Although both of my parents are, thankfully, still alive, I’ve been thinking about this exact thing for quite some time, and I know we’re not the only ones. As parents (and especially as dads), when we talk about providing for our children, the discussions tend to focus on the financial—insurance, college savings, and so on—and we overlook the kind of intangibles you mentioned. But giving our children the knowledge of who we are, our life experiences, our triumphs, our failures, our family history, and our personal philosophy is a gift that’s just as important as money. Maybe even more so.

Just think of all the knowledge we have about our kids: We know how much they weighed when they were born, when they rolled over, when they took their first steps, the name of their favorite stuffie, who their friends are, what size shoes they wear, whether they wet the bed or not, who their favorite—and least favorite—teachers are, what they like to read, the trouble they got into, and the story behind every scar—real or imagined.

But how much do our kids know about us? Probably not a whole lot. And that’s a mistake. By not telling them about ourselves—where we came from and how we became who we are—we’re doing them a tremendous disservice. At the very least, our stories can bring us closer together. Stories let them know that we’re not just lecturing them about life, that we’ve actually lived it, that we’ve had experiences that are similar to theirs, and that we really understand them.

Just to be clear, this is not about teachable moments or being a good role model. There’s definitely a place for both, but this isn’t it. This is simply about introducing our inner selves to our children. The first step towards that goal is to remind ourselves of our stories. What was life like when you were growing up? What were your earliest memories? What were your favorite subjects in school? How did it feel when your first romantic relationship ended?

Kids absolutely love these stories—especially the ones where you’re less than perfect. Mine, for example, still enjoy hearing about when I got caught shoplifting in 3rd grade, the many times I got my butt paddled in the principal’s office as punishment for a variety of misdeeds, or when I tried to force-feed a pet sand dollar ground beef because someone had told me it needed protein.

Write down as many of your stories as you can think of. You might even want to start a blog. And remember, it’s not always about the past. The experiences you have right now—things as mundane as what you did at work today—are all part of your living legacy.

Mozart Shmozart

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve got two children, ages 1 and 3 and I’ve heard that it’s possible to boost their IQ by exposing them to certain kinds of music. My wife says I’m crazy. Is there any possibility that she’s right?

A: What you’re talking about is the “Mozart Effect”—the popular idea that listening to music by Mozart would make children smarter. I don’t have enough information to say for sure whether you’re actually crazy, but I can tell you that while exposing your children to music is a great thing, it’s not going to make them any smarter. Unfortunately, that inconvenient fact hasn’t stopped all sorts of companies from claiming otherwise—and from separating a lot of parents from a lot of their hard-earned money.

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Economic Recovery? Not Around Here

Dear Mr. Dad: I lost my job more than a year ago and have been unable to find another. My wife works part time, but doesn’t bring in nearly enough to cover our expenses. We have no health insurance, burned through the little savings we had trying to stay current on our mortgage and other bills. Now we’re faced with having to take money out of our retirement accounts to make ends meet. I’m so embarrassed by this whole thing that I can barely face my children. What can we do?

A: I’ve been (and still am) in almost the same situation and I definitely feel your pain. The good news is that you already took the first step: acknowledging that there’s problem. The bad news is that you’re in for a bumpy ride. Here are some steps that should help.

  • Buy some throat lozenges and get rid of any weapons you have around the house. I’m only half kidding. This may be the most frustrating and infuriating experience of your life; you’re going to do a lot of screaming (hence the lozenges), and you don’t want to do anything to hurt yourself or someone else. Believe me, it’s tempting, though.
  • Ask for help. Start by talking with your mortgage company about refinancing your home or modifying your loan. But be prepared for an exercise in twisted logic. My lender told me that I made too much money to do a loan modification but not enough to refinance. There were other options available, but I didn’t qualify because I was current on my mortgage. Apparently, being a responsible adult and paying my bills meant that I couldn’t get help. Defaulting, however, would have made it a lot easier (try to avoid this).
  • Look into the Making Home Affordable Program. This actually encompasses two separate programs, HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) and HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program). The rules can be complex and seem designed to exclude as many people as possible. In my case, conveniently placed loopholes made me ineligible for any program. Check your eligibility here: makinghomeaffordable.gov/
  • Apply for insurance through healthcare.gov. But hurry: If you don’t make the February 15 deadline, you may have to wait until October to enroll. Ready for more twisted logic? My income was so low that I wasn’t eligible for Obamacare and had to enroll in Medicare. But then Medicare denied coverage because I have money in IRAs. If I take it out now, I have to pay penalties.
  • Apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). Check your eligibility here: snap-step1.usda.gov/. Also look into local food banks.
  • Ignore the media. Every day there’s a new story about the booming economy and dropping unemployment numbers. I’ve seen precious little evidence of that. Plus, those statistics are carefully manipulated to exclude all the people who have given up looking for work, who are working part time for economic reasons, or who are under-employed. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics—the agency that calculates the “official” data—the true unemployment rate is roughly double the official one.
  • Use your situation as a lesson—if you can talk about it without scaring your children. Being in horrible financial straits (which, hopefully, won’t go on too much longer), made me a lot more sympathetic to homeless people and others who access government benefits.
  • Get past embarrassment. You and your wife worked for many years, and a lot of the taxes you paid has gone to help people in need. Now it’s your turn, and there’s no shame in getting the help you deserve.

The Pain of Pain

Dear Mr. Dad: My son is a freshman in high school, and until the beginning of this school year, he was a happy kid, with lots of friends and plenty of extracurricular activities. But over the past few months, he’s changed. He’s lost a bunch of weight, is sullen most of the time, and has taken to wrapping himself up in an oversized, floppy hoodie that covers everything but his face. After school, he goes to his room, and barely communicates with me or my husband. He also seems to have lost all contact with his friends. We’re really worried that he’s doing something self-destructive, like cutting himself. What can we do?

A: I appreciate your email, but you really need to contact your son’s pediatrician or family doctor. Sudden weight loss, mood changes, secretive behavior—including major wardrobe changes—are huge red flags, and your doctor will be able to put you in touch with an appropriate mental health professional.

Your next call should be to your son’s school. You want to find out whether any of his teachers have noticed the same kinds of behavior changes as well as whether he’s being bullied.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of data on the percentage of kids who deliberately hurt themselves, largely because they tend not to tell anyone. But studies I’ve looked at estimate that between 10 and 25 percent of adolescents and teens engage in some kind of self-injury at least once. Girls are thought to be a little more likely than boys to self-injure, but that might be because some of what boys typically do (such as punching walls, getting drunk, and engaging in risky behavior) isn’t always seen as self-injury. But both boys and girls cut, bite, or burn themselves—and baggy clothes are a good way to hide the evidence.

How much do you know about your son’s social life? Did he recently break up with a girlfriend or have a major feud with friends? According to various surveys, many teens self-injure to get reactions from someone, to feel more in control, to express depression or anxiety, and to stop bad feelings.

Maybe the most horrifying part of this is that many kids who injure themselves learn how from websites that actually encourage self-harm and even suicide. What a revolting thought. The good news—if there is such a thing—is that, according to Dr. Mathilde Ross, a psychiatrist at Boston University, most self-injurers aren’t suicidal and generally outgrow the behavior in their 20s.

Whether your son is harming himself or not, though, he needs help right now. And again, even though you and your husband are clearly concerned, neither of you is the right person for the job.

While you’re waiting for an appointment with the pediatrician, spend some time reading some of the resources at selfinjury.com. At the same time, pay very close attention to the way you’re responding to your son. It’s not going to be easy, but try to stay calm. Showing concern is fine, but expressing shock or horror, making threats, or getting angry will only drive him further away than he already is. He needs to know that you love him and that he can trust you. Engaging him in even the smallest conversation is a good sign that you’re on the right track.
An important part of a teen’s development is pushing boundaries and making mistakes. If your son knows he has a safety net, he just might use it.

I Know You Love Me, But I Need to Hear The Words

Dear Mr. Dad: My dad is an engineer and has always looked at the world in a very logical, no-feelings-allowed, Mr. Spock kind of way. I guess that’s just his style. The problem is that I don’t think he’s ever told me that he loves me. He’s always been a great dad and I have no doubt that he does love me. But as I get older—I’m nearly thirty—I start second-guessing myself and I really need to hear the words. I tell my kids all the time that I love them. Why won’t he tell me? Do you think he ever will?

A: Whenever I get an email like this, I’m nearly overcome with sadness. It’s tragic that your dad has never told you that he loves you. But I’m encouraged that he’s found other ways to get the point across and that you’ve gotten the non-verbal message. That still leaves your questions. Going in reverse order, yes, I think he will tell you, but it may take a little work on your part. As to why he hasn’t said those three magic words, there are quite a few explanations.

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Pregnancy: Is There Sex After Sex?

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m an expectant father and my sex life has completely disappeared. We’re not very far into the pregnancy but my wife seems to have lost all interest (admittedly, her throwing up a few times a day probably has something to do with that). Are we EVER going to have sex again?

A: My money’s on Yes. But you’ll have to be patient. In the first trimester, many couples experience a drop-off in their sex life. Sometimes it’s because of the mom-to-be’s nausea. Other times it’s because she’s worried that you won’t be attracted to her changing body or that having sex will hurt the baby or cause a miscarriage (that’s extremely unlikely). In some cases (though not yours) the guy truly isn’t attracted to his partner anymore or thinks that she isn’t feeling attractive and wouldn’t be interested in sex anyway. And in some cases, the whole idea that you’re about to become parents sinks in, and one or both of you starts thinking about your own parents, in bed, naked…. That can be a real mood killer.
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