By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT
It took my parents 20 years to figure out their relationship had harmed everyone involved. Because of their absorption in work and activities that kept them away from each other, I was taking care of myself and my sister from a pretty young age; I had keys to our house by 4th grade because our parents were rarely home for dinner – let alone when we got home from school. A home cooked meal consisted of three yogurts or a bunch of peanut butter crackers and toasting Oreo cookies so they melted in my mouth.
This seemed normal to me until I started visiting friends’ homes during college. I came to understand that my sense of worry and anxiety came from the lack of stability in my family. Trying new things – even things like new foods or clothes – was scary. Being a child in the sense of just having fun was not something with which I was very familiar. As I got older, that only got worse. Fun? I had enough trouble saying it, let alone letting myself have any. My idea of a good time was an exhausting and intense emotional conversation with someone about our childhoods and relationships. I always thought real fun was maybe something they covered in school but I had been out sick that day.
Fortunately I met an incredible woman (who thankfully became my wife) at college. She not only was an expert at enjoying life, but she provided stability and had unyielding confidence in me. This made it possible for me to take risks by trying new things (now, I love Indian food) but also to take the risk to be someone better than I was. It is the difference between surviving life and actually living it. When she and I went on a road trip together, we would take the more scenic route and explore. I never would’ve even considered that as a possibility before I met her. During the 11 years she and I were together, I had come a long way. Then we had twins.
In the beginning, I found it difficult to relate to each of them. I’m a pretty good conversationalist but there was not much I could say that was going to get them to talk back to me in those first few months. I was happy to hold them, but that kind of gets old after awhile. I didn’t know what else to do.
My wife, however, always seemed to know exactly what to do to interact with our children. I would sit and watch her, amazed at how she would tickle them, make funny noises and laugh with them. If I hadn’t known any better I would’ve suspected she had Jon Stewart and his writing team creating material for her. She seemed to have an endless supply while I had trouble coming up with one good line. She would keep doing things until they responded and then she would do it over and over and over again because they never tired of it. Before I knew it she had a full repertoire. She never worried about whether she looked foolish or not and, of course, she never did. I could see their eyes aglow, beginning to associate absolute and utter joy with Mommy, making the two synonymous. How come the baby I was with always seemed less happy than the baby with her? I couldn’t help but wonder what they were associating with Daddy.
I knew I needed to try and do what my wife was doing, but it was so hard to let myself go like that. How did she do it? When I asked, she said she didn’t know, that she had never thought about it. Then I realized she had never thought about it because there was nothing to think about. One evening she was holding our son, Lucas, who was only about five months old and always sat up straight and didn’t seem to like to bend his knees. She started calling him stiff boy and he smiled. Then she dropped her tone of voice and called him stiff boy again. He started to giggle. Then she did it again while tickling his neck with her nose and he laughed for the first time. An absolutely glorious sound. She didn’t plan that; it just happened. She was following her instincts and our boy’s reactions. She wanted to connect with our children and was willing to try whatever it took to make that happen, to make them happy. In the end, their laughter made us all incredibly joyful.
For several months I had trouble getting past the sense of not wanting to look foolish, of being too serious. I was afraid they would think their Daddy was an idiot if I tried to make them laugh and failed. Better to be a little distant than to fail in front of them. But this distance prevented me from building the kind of relationship with my children that I wanted. I had to try something, but while my wife’s instincts led her to making Lucas laugh for the first time, mine told me to do nothing.
Instead of doing nothing, though, I tried the things she did that worked. Yes, I was a thief. I stole her material. It didn’t work quite as well as when she did it, but I started to get a reaction from them. Like good chocolate, I wanted more and that wanting challenged me to practice being spontaneous, to get used to the feeling of going with the flow, to break through the layers of having to be proper, serious and composed and let myself be free, let myself be me.
The first time they really laughed at something I did was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had as a father. I was playing with a ball and bouncing it on my hand and then on the floor. The first time I did it, they giggled. Not being dumb, I did it again. They giggled louder. After the third time they started to laugh. Then I started exaggerating my actions and they laughed even harder. I kept doing it and the three of us were absolutely hysterical. We were laughing so loudly my wife actually had to check in on us to make sure we were okay.
One of the best aspects of coming home is slipping out of my shell and being myself with my children. Last night at dinner with our faces only a foot apart staring intensely at each other, I smiled and winked at my little girl. Since she couldn’t wink back, she raised both of her eyebrows up and down as if saying, “C’mon, top this Daddy.” I responded by only raising one eyebrow. Knowing she couldn’t do that, but not giving up, she used her finger to push her eyebrow up and down and then we both laughed and my heart felt like it filled my whole body.
Positive reinforcement made an incredible difference for me. The more they responded to what I did, the more I was willing to risk being myself, risk looking foolish, because what’s important is my relationship with my children – not looking cool and distant. I was very lucky to have a role model right in my very home who is by far the best person I know at enjoying life. Thankfully, it looks like our children already are taking after her.