Long-Distance Parenting

Dear Mr. Dad: My ex and I share custody of our son (age 6) but she recently moved a few hundred miles away so I sometimes don’t get to see him for a few weeks. In between, I really miss him and I worry that he’ll forget who I am or won’t want to see me when we finally get together. I sometimes feel like giving up. How can I stay connected when we’re apart for so long?

A:  Great question, one that also applies to single moms and anyone else who has to spend extended periods of time away from their children (military servicemembers, for example). As hard as those separations are, the good news is that not being together physically doesn’t mean that you can’t be together emotionally. The even better news is that while it’s not easy to keep those bonds strong while you’re away from your son, you can—and do—play an important role in his life. And it’s vital to both of you that you not give up. Here are some steps you can take to stay involved.
[Read more…]

Why You Should Wrestle with Your Daughter

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve got twins—one girl, one boy—and we love to wrestle together. I always thought I was treating them the same, but a few days ago, my wife told me that she thinks I play very differently with them—very physically with my son and much more gentle with my daughter. I started paying attention and I have to admit that she’s right. So now I’m wondering: is there any actual reason to be more gentle with my daughter? And should I be more gentle with my son?

A: No and no. Assuming you’re playing in a safe way and the kids are having fun (you should always take your cues from them), there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be just as rough and tumble with your daughter as you are with her brother. As the father of three daughters, I can assure you that little girls are just as sturdy as boys. In fact, based on science, one might argue that girls are actually sturdier. Although more males are conceived, more die in utero. And while more boys than girls are born, boys are more likely to be arrive prematurely and they’re more susceptible to disease and death. Boys are more likely than girls to die from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and less likely to survive the first year than girls. As they get older, boys are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and many other conditions.
Despite all that, we still have this idea that girls are delicate and need to be physically coddled. That’s an idea that starts from the very beginning. What’s the first question people ask when someone has had a baby? Boy or girl? We ask because we want to know how to treat the child in question. Parents (both dads and moms) encourage independence and exploration more in boys than girls. They typically (and unconsciously) allow boys to cross the street by themselves at younger ages and wait a few seconds longer before picking up a boy who’s fallen than a girl. And, of course, they wrestle more with sons than daughters.
[Read more…]

Babies Can Sometimes Bring out the Worst in Us

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a new dad and I sometimes get incredibly angry when my son cries. Of course I haven’t acted on my anger, but I’m feeling really guilty that I get so mad in the first place. I’ve always been a pretty patient guy, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such intense feelings before. Am I a bad parent?

A: Babies have an amazing capacity to bring out feelings in us that are powerful, unfamiliar, and sometimes scary. On the positive side, we get to experience being on the receiving end and the giving end of unconditional love—something I don’t believe exists between adults. On the negative side, there are the feelings you described. We’d all like to believe that we’d throw ourselves in front of a moving train to save our children, but every once in a while they make us so furious that we think (very briefly) of throwing them in front of the train. I know that sounds horrible, but here’s a reality check: Everyone has feelings like that. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying to you or doesn’t have children. So, no, you’re not a bad parent at all.

That said, while there’s nothing wrong with feeling intense anger, it’s what you do with it that can be a problem. Here are some suggestions that can help you get your anger under control.

[Read more…]

New Mother Has to Go Back to Work Too Soon

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I just had a baby two months ago. I’ve been off work under the Family Leave Act until now and would like to take the remaining 4 or 5 weeks. But, unfortunately, we really need my salary to make ends meet. The prospect of leaving my baby (my husband needs to work full-time too) is making me miserable. I’m feeling like a terrible mother and I have no idea what I can do to feel better about this situation.

A: You may find this hard to believe (I certainly did), but the United States is one of only a handful of countries in the world without a paid family leave policy. Combine that with a tough economy and the social pressure many new moms feel to go back to work, and it’s no wonder that the average maternity leave is only 10 weeks. It’s even harder to believe (but true), that about 16 percent of new mothers taken between one and four weeks of leave, and a third don’t take leave at all, rushing back to work as soon as they’re physically able. That’s according to the latest data from HRSA (the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

I’m sure some of those new moms are happy to be working again, but I’m betting that a lot more are, like you, miserable, beating themselves up for being bad mothers, and wishing they could quit their job. You’re not in an easy spot, but here are a few ideas that should help:

Talk—and listen. A lot of couples in your situation tiptoe around the elephant in the room: money (or the lack of it). You and your husband have to buck that trend and start talking about finding a reasonable (and fiscally responsible) way of making sure that everyone’s needs are met, or that they’re at least taken into consideration. That means listening to each other carefully and respectfully and acknowledging the pressures that each of you face.

Get your childcare situation in order. Fear that the baby won’t be adequately cared for is what many new mothers—and fathers—find most unsettling about going back to work. Since you need your husband’s income as well as your own, make finding a trusted childcare provider a top priority.

Relieve some of the pressure. Most couples, regardless of how enlightened and egalitarian they want to be, end up slipping into “traditional” roles after becoming parents. And because women put so much pressure on themselves to be good mothers, you may try to do more around the house than you can handle. Don’t. If your husband can’t take on any more, you can either hire someone to help out (which, given your financial issues, doesn’t sound very realistic) or learn to relax your standards. Does the house really need to be immaculate? Also, be sure to schedule some couple time or “me” time. A few hours alone with your husband—even if it’s just renting a video and snuggling up on the couch—will really help.

Spend more time with the baby. Since you and your husband will be working, you’re both going to miss your baby and you’re both going to want to spend time with him from the moment you walk in the door. Negotiate first dibs with your husband—especially if you’re still nursing: your breasts may be ready to explode by the time you get home and you’ll need the baby to do what babies do

Gen-X Grandparents? You’re Not Alone.

Dear Mr. Dad: My 24-year old son and his wife are expecting their first baby in a few weeks. I’m really happy for him and I’m looking forward to meeting my new granddaughter. The problem is that I’m not even 50 yet and I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m going to be a grandfather. I take good care of myself, look pretty good for my age, and just don’t feel like a grandparent. What can I do?

A: This is definitely not your grandparents’ grandparenthood, with its images of grey hair, round-the-world cruises, and senior citizen discounts. Unfortunately, no matter how young you feel, how much you work out, how great you look, or how much of your hair you have left, there’s still one thing that will make you—and everyone around you—painfully aware that you’re getting older: that adorable tot running up to meet you at the front door screaming, “Hi, Grandpa!”

Becoming a grandparent at a young age can be a real shock to the ego—something a lot of us would prefer to keep safely in the future. But, if it makes you feel any better, you’re far from alone. According to AARP (which used to be called the American Association of Retired Persons—and which you can’t join until you’re 50 anyway), the average age of first-time grandparents is about 47, which almost no one considers “old.” A recent study of GenXers (those born between 1964 and 1980) by MetLife found that only 27 percent would consider themselves “old” before age 60. 35 percent said “old” is 60-69, and 25 percent said they wouldn’t be “old” ‘til after age 70.

No matter how much you prepare yourself, once that first grandchild shows up, your life will change in some pretty serious ways. Here are some steps you can take to make the transition a little less jarring:
[Read more…]

Single-Parent Sex: Getting Caught with Your Pants Down. Literally.

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad and have been going out with a wonderful woman for quite a while. She sometimes spends the night, but last time, my 8-year-old daughter walked in on us while we were making love. I don’t think she was there very long, but she was crying and seemed frightened by the whole thing, and my girlfriend didn’t take it too well either. What should I do? Did I just scar my daughter for life?

A: Ah, yes, the joys of single-parent dating. Bedtime stories are done, the kids are asleep, you and your lover slowly make your way from your candle-lit dinner to the bedroom for a little adult time—clothing optional. Things are going marvelously, wonderfully, delightfully… Then, out the corner of your eye, you see a teddy bear in your doorway—and it’s attached to your child. What a way to ruin the mood.
Chances are you haven’t done any long-term damage to your daughter. But in situations like these, it’s important to respond right away—even if you’re convinced that she wasn’t watching for very long. Young kids can be confused by entangled, naked bodies and the accompanying sound effects, and may worry that mom or dad (or both) are fighting and are hurting each other. Here’s what you should do:

  • Stay calm. Yelling at a child to “get out of here!” could frighten her even more and convince her that you were doing something bad.
  • Don’t let her go away alone. If she runs away on her own, go after her. If not, take her by the hand and lead her back to her bed. Then, sit with her and reassure her that you weren’t being hurt or hurting anyone else. If you think she’s mature enough to understand, tell her that adults sometimes express their love for each other that way. But don’t be surprised if you get a sarcastic snort. Even very young children have seen a lot more than we had back in the day and they usually know a lot more about things than we give them credit for. If she asks for a more sophisticated explanation, give her one, complete with the proper names for the organs involved. But don’t go overboard.
  • No apologies (unless you screamed at your child). Your child may have gotten the message earlier than you would have liked, but she needs to know that sex is a normal thing that grown-ups sometimes do. If you act embarrassed or ashamed (and you very well may be), your child could end up with the idea that sex is, well, something to be embarrassed and ashamed of. If you want your child to have a health attitude about sex as she gets older, that’s exactly the wrong message.
  • Talk to the other adult involved. Making sure your child is okay comes first. Once that situation is resolved, you need to check in with your girlfriend. If she’s thrown her clothes on and is slipping out the back door, don’t let her go—you guys need to have a chat. Yes, getting caught in the act can be disconcerting, but it shouldn’t affect your relationship. Although it might make her think twice before agreeing to sleep over at your house ever again.
  • Use protection. No, not that kind. Your choice of birth control is your own business. The protection I’m talking about is called a lock: install one or make better use of the one you already have.