Not When I Wear Dresses

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

This morning the Okapis woke up ridiculously early and I went upstairs to get them dressed and ready for school. I had already put Dorit’s tights and skirt on her and was putting her shirt on when Lucas said, “She’s going to look so beautiful.”

“She always looks beautiful doesn’t she?” I said.

“Except when I wear pants,” she responded.

It is so amazing how these things just pop up. Everything seems fine and then all of a sudden…

“Dorit you always look beautiful – even in pants. You’re beautiful without dresses, Dorit. You don’t need dresses to be beautiful.”

But I know she doesn’t believe me and this is why she gets so upset when she doesn’t get to wear a dress/skirt, I suspect (though the fact that she is immersed in the Tortuous Threes is also probably a factor).

Somehow us letting her wear dresses has fed this belief that she is only pretty if she wears them, that if she wears pants she is not pretty. Is she already experiencing the societal expectations of beauty? Are we somehow sending a message that makes her think she is only beautiful in dresses?

If we stop her from wearing dresses will we be punishing her and only make things worse?

One of my nicknames for both of my Okapis is Beautiful. I think they are both beautiful whether they are wearing dresses, pants, jeans, sweatpants, or pajamas. When she wears pants we shower her with extra compliments because we know it is a big deal when she wears them.

I know how important fathers are in girls developing high self-esteem and confidence, and a healthy self-image. I have been paying extra special attention to this and yet…she’s not even four and already thinks her beauty is dependent upon whether she wears a dress or not.

Before we went downstairs I tried one more thing.

“Does Mommy wear dresses?”

“No,” she said.

“Is Mommy beautiful?”

“Yes.”

“Mommy is beautiful and she doesn’t always wear dresses. You are beautiful without dresses, too.”

I feel like that had some impact, but I think I’m going to need to come up with something else to help her really believe me.

Because my little girl is gorgeous.

Just Not Enough Time

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

Gem has just taken our Okapis up to bed and I can not get the following words out of my head, “Not enough time.”

There is not enough time for my family.

There is not enough time for Gem to do all she needs/wants to do.

There is not enough time for me to hold a full-time job while building a business and still be the kind of father I want to be while trying to take care of my mental health at the same time.

But we can handle that. The problem is the lack of time is now affecting our Okapis.

There is not enough time in the day for our Okapis to go to school and still get enough time with Gem so they still feel safe and secure in their attachment to her. This is why she is taking them up to bed instead of me. To give them more time with her.

Of course, that means I get even less time with them. But, though I’m not sure she would admit this to me, we both believe if they are missing time with her and they are missing time with me, it is more important that they get time with her. So much of their sense of safety, sense of security, sense of connection, sense of self is based on their relationship with the woman who has spent literally almost all of their lives with them.

Now with school, Spanish class, gymnastics, and ballet, they don’t get enough of Mommy. Lucas, as a result we think, is having more nightmares, more anxiety about going to sleep at night, more anxiety about going to school and to gymnastics class by himself. It seems the flimsier his sense of connection to Gem is, the more afraid and anxious he feels.

I’d like to think his reaction is normal, though it is a bit frustrating because we know he can do it even when he stops trying. But it seems too early for our Okapis to begin feeling the pressure of time, the stress of time. What happened to childhood? What happened to their sense of freedom?

Maybe we’re doing too much. I’m not sure. We really want them to learn Spanish and the idea behind having them each take a class by themselves is to help foster a sense of self separate from the other and to give Gem some one-on-one time with the one who is not in class. We even thought that would help “make up” for the lack of time because of school. But maybe all we’re doing is adding stress – at least for Lucas. And this begs the question all parents of multiples worry about.

“What does it mean if he doesn’t have his own class and she does?”

What if we stopped taking him to his class, told him it was over and that we would enroll him in the next one (so he didn’t think he had “quit”)? Even though Dorit kept going to her class?

I don’t know. But I do feel like this is one of those parenting situations where it may be time to adjust our plan because it might be causing more trouble than the benefits we had hoped it would create.

I believe our Okapis – all Okapis – should be protected from the stress and strain of time for as long as possible. When they get older and really are forced to deal with that stress and strain, we’ll help them develop tools to deal with it, but I would like to postpone that for as long as possible. They’ll have a whole lifetime to deal with this challenge, there is no need to rush them into it.

I think this is an example of something we tried to help him is causing more harm than good. It’s time to cut our losses – and his – and adjust.

Off On His Own

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

I mentioned that Dorit has been sick, so sick that we didn’t want her to go to school yesterday. This was something we didn’t really have to deal with over the summer when they were at camp. I don’t think they got sick over the summer so they didn’t really miss camp unless they were doing something else. But if Dorit couldn’t go to school and Lucas was healthy enough to go, what should we do?

When it comes to separation issues, Lucas has got it much worse. Whether he is having trouble going to sleep at night or me leaving in the morning when he was younger or when we would go out and leave the Okapis with their grandparents or going to camp for the first time, he would often end up in hysterical tears. We’ve worked very hard with him on this and since camp we’ve really begun to see some wonderful progress.

Even though there was a few week break after camp, Lucas (and Dorit) handled going to school for the first time extraordinarily well. We were both so proud of him and how well he was adjusting to this new life of spending more time away from both of his parents – especially his mother.

Recently, we have enrolled the Okapis in new classes. They are taking the next level Spanish class, which they take together, but without Gem, for an hour. Even more incredible, Dorit is taking ballet classes (she LOVES ballet and it is incredibly adorable) all by herself. We had trouble finding a class Lucas wanted (he wanted soccer, but the timing was really bad. He also wants a music class but we’re afraid he is too young and don’t want him to get too frustrated too early) so we enrolled him in a “For Boys Only” class that focuses on athletics and gymnastics, on building coordination and connection with his body – but only boys are in the class (of course, the class is taught by a woman which made me so angry, but I digress as usual). He was really nervous and anxious, but went into the class and did so well – without mommy or Dorit. As (another) aside, the nice part of these classes is that not only does it help our Okapis develop some activities and relationships separate from each other, but it also allows Gem individual time with each of them while the other is in class, which is even more special now that they see her less because of school.

But taking a class by himself, while a big step, is very different than going to school by himself for four hours while mommy and Dorit are not around. Monday morning, however, that is exactly what he did. Lucas went to school and stayed there without Dorit for the entire time! Gem said he was nervous and at one point didn’t want to go, but he did it and I could not be prouder of him. THAT is a huge step and I am so happy for him.

When Gem went to pick him up from school, the teachers told her he was incredibly good (the entire class – about 12 kids in total – made Dorit a big get well card that they all “signed” – how adorable is that???) and he didn’t get upset at all.

She also told Gem that towards the end of the school day he said, “I miss Dorit.”

Of course he did. I’m sure she missed him, too. But he made it through the day on his own, by himself. Awesome.

Man, that boy tugs at my heart strings so.

A 3-D Miracle

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

“Dorit, can you see this? What animals do you see?” the eye specialist asked my little girl yesterday morning.

A pause. I was holding my breath. I’d bet money Gem was, too.

“A cat!” and the doctor looked at us both as if he had performed a magic trick.

Maybe not a magic trick.

More like a miracle.

My wife and I have been fighting one of the most important battles in our parenting lives; the fight to save our daughter’s sight. We will take any magic tricks or miracles that help her.

My little girl, my adorable, intelligent, absolutely beautiful little girl, is lucky to be able to see at all. She (and her twin brother) was born almost 2.5 months early. Both of my Okapis had something called Retinopathy of Prematurity, but Lucas’ wasn’t bad at all and corrected itself. Dorit, however, needed surgery. Eye laser surgery at 8 weeks old. In both of her eyes.

The doctor yesterday said he could see the burn marks on her retina, the little holes they “drilled” with the laser to reduce the pressure on her retinas so they wouldn’t detach. Even though we have never, and will never, be able to see them, the idea that she has burn marks from that surgery on her retinas shakes me to my core.

But even laser surgery on both eyes at 2 months was not enough to save her vision. Her right eye was significantly worse than her left and before she could even walk we had to patch her “good” eye to try and strengthen her weaker one. Her brain was ignoring the signals that eye was sending and if that continued, she would lose sight in that eye. The patching forced her brain to pay attention. It also became the worst hour of the day for Gem and I because Dorit didn’t want the patch so she would rip it off her face every chance she got. Fortunately, we found a place called Patch Pals (www.patchpals.com) and they make patches that fit over glasses, that don’t stick to her face, that have adorable little designs on them, giving Dorit a chance to choose which patch she wants to wear (ballet shoes, the sun, a cat, puppy dog, panda bear, etc.). They are essentially for my little girl, a unique accessory, like a bracelet is for other girls, except no one else she knows wears a patch.

She has been wearing patches for over two years. For two years we’ve been visiting our eye specialist every three months to have her eyes checked out. For one long stretch she had to wear a patch for 8 hours a day. Now we’re down to six – short enough so she doesn’t have to wear it during school or other classes. She has made enormous improvement, but most of her gains in vision are not visible to us. Until yesterday.

The last time we visited our eye specialist, Dorit was given the same test she received yesterday. I’m sure you’ve seen those pictures of colored lines and if you look at it carefully enough you can see that there is a 3-d looking image inside of it? It was all the craze a few years ago. That is the test the doctor gave her. Last time, she was unable to see anything. She had no 3-D vision and Gem and I were concerned.

“Don’t worry,” he had said. “Her brain will learn another way to see three dimensionally.” I didn’t NOT believe him. I just couldn’t envision how that happens.

When she saw a cat, I believed. I believed her brain was growing, learning new ways to ensure my little girl can see – despite all she has been through.

“Whatever you guys are doing, keep it up. You’re doing great! Come back in six months,” he told us instead of the usual three months.

I believed that everything we have been doing, forcing her to wear her patches every single day for the past two years has been making a difference, has been the difference between her seeing and not seeing.

When we got to the elevator after leaving his office, I gave my wife a high-five. We don’t talk about our fight much anymore, but neither of us has lost the determination to win this, to give our little girl every chance possible to see how beautiful and wonderful she is, to see all the people that love her.

“I don’t know whether to scream in excitement or to cry,” my wife said, her voice full of pride, of satisfaction, of relief.

I feel the same way.

Evolution of Me

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.

Can She Love Me Too Much?

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

My little girl loves me. In fact, the other day she told me, “I love you too much!”

And I just looked at her.

“Do you mean you love me so much?” I asked her.

“Oh yeah. I love you SO much!”

But it made me wonder if my little girl’s love for me feels like too much for her. Or maybe it is too much for me?

Her love is strong, so intense, that sometimes I get scared about how much she loves me. Is her adoration, bordering on idolization, just setting us up for future problems? Sometimes as she caresses my face, seemingly memorizing every feature, I find myself wondering, will she end up with a completely unrealistic view of love based on her feelings for me? Am I destined to fail her, to never live up to the intensity and purity of her feelings for me? What would that mean for our relationship? Will she end up with unrealistic expectations of her partner because of how special our connection is? Am I making it impossible for her to have future relationships?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

So that self-doubt sits on my shoulder, like a little devil, telling me something is wrong here, that this isn’t love, but something evil, dangerous, and I should begin to break away from her, to save her from myself. That somehow rejecting her now is better than whatever future series of failures and rejections she will experience if things don’t change between us now.

But on my right shoulder sits my little angel, represented by all of the research I have done on the subject of involved fathers and by the belief that loving her can’t be wrong. The research into girls and women with involved fathers has shown that their self-esteem, their self-satisfaction, the length of time they wait to engage in sexual activity is in direct proportion to their feeling loved by their father and the health (from their perspective) of that relationship.

Isn’t that what I want for my little girl? For her to grow up and be intelligent, strong, independent, and healthy, to make smart decisions about her sexuality rather than act out because of something she is missing? Has there ever been any doubt about that?

No way.

This battle continued in my mind, back and forth, particularly fierce this weekend when my wife relayed a story to me.

She was driving our children to school and listening to Marc Cohn’s first album, the same album she and I listened to seven times in-a-row the night we decided we wanted to give our relationship a chance, to see if maybe there really was something special between us. She told them the story and afterwards my little girl said to her, “I’m so glad you picked Daddy. I just love him so much!”

As tears leaked from my eyes after hearing that story, I thought to myself, Can love that pure be bad? Especially when that love is returned ten-fold in my love for her?

Maybe our love will have side-effects I can’t imagine right now, but my little girl will always be certain of one thing; she is loved. Hopefully, this will mean she will never have to worry about whether she is loveable or not, about how she deserves to be treated by her partner, about whether she is entitled to a healthy, loving relationship.

So while I still struggle with the intensity of her love for me, I plan to keep giving her everything I have right back in return.

Fighting My Instincts to Help My Children

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

When we started selling our house and looking for a new one last year, I drew upon my years of therapy training and experience and my well-honed instincts and sat down with my almost four-year old twins and explained to them that we were looking for a new house. Every weekend we were going to be having open houses as well as looking for our new home; I didn’t want my children to get stressed out by what they were seeing, all the strange people, all of the talk of a new home. I wanted them to understand what was happening all around them.

That was easily my biggest mistake in the moving process.

My children – especially my little girl – became so stressed, so anxious, I’m not sure she has been the same since. She became afraid to go to school in the morning, afraid every time we left, afraid we were going to move without her, afraid she would be all alone, afraid she would not have a bed to sleep in. She became afraid to go to sleep at night and began having trouble sleeping through the night, waking up with nightmares. It was horrible and I felt terrible. I knew my talk had actually made everything worse for her instead of easier.

Fortunately, once we moved and they saw their new bedroom, saw that Mommy’s and Daddy’s room was right across the hall, that they had a wonderful playroom, that the backyard was nice, that the house was safe, things got a lot better. But I vowed to be more careful about what and when I explained things to my children.

Recently, my wife, Gem, started working for the first time since our children were born 4.5 years ago. While it is only part-time in the beginning, it is a major shift for our family. A shift we have intentionally not talked to our children about. As anxious as that made me, “Mr. Talk About Everything to Be Prepared,” it has worked out much better than our move.

I remember my wife and I sitting at the dining room table brainstorming how and when to talk to our kids about this. We rehashed the tough move and the effect it had on them, nervous about making the wrong move, hurting them again despite our best intentions. Finally we decided we would basically follow their lead. We wouldn’t bring it up with them. We wouldn’t make a big deal out of this. We would go with the flow.

We did talk about her starting a new job in front of them, trying not to hide anything from them, but also not sitting down for “A Talk,” either. On her first day, I stayed home from work and spent the day with my children. On her second day, their Nana came up from Philly for her weekly visit. On day three, their Tia (Aunt) spent the day with them. Tia was going to be their primary caretaker when my wife and I weren’t around and they absolutely love her so that made my wife’s absence a little bit easier to handle.

When Gem told them she was going to work they took it in stride. A couple of weeks later Gem even brought them to her office so they could see it, see where Mommy is now spending her time away from them – the way they have visited my office countless times in the past 4.5 years.

Of course, the adjustment has been significantly harder on us and has made me wonder how families manage to do any of the things that need to get done, like groceries and other errands, when both parents work. It is terribly hard and overwhelming, so much to do in an incredibly short period of time. What’s worse, is now we both miss our children, now we both have little heartaches for the time we don’t see them, the things they are learning without either one of us around. More and more of their time is spent without either of us now and it wears on us both.

But at least, while it has been rather stressful on us, our kids have been spared much of the stress and anxiety – in part, certainly, because we spared them from “A Talk.”

Making Note of My Parental Power

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

Our parental power is not something that comes up in casual conversation when we’re complaining about how out of control our children have become. In contrast, many parents talk about how powerless they feel. But regardless of what we feel, we parents have tremendous power.

Parental power is another way of thinking about the influence we have over our children. Our children – especially our toddlers and early school-age children – see us as the model for being a man or woman, for being human. What we think, what we say, how we treat them defines how they think of themselves, how they view other people, and the health of their relationships. They strive for our attention, our acknowledgment, our love. We have an enormous impact on their lives, which for many of us can be rather frightening. Mostly we think of it negatively – what if we screw up? But our parental power can also be used for good, for helping our children get through challenging times.

The power I have as a parent became very clear recently in dealing with my three year-old son who has had enormous difficulty falling asleep (without screaming, crying and banging on the door) and sleeping through the night. My wife and I have tried literally hundreds of things to help our children, especially Lucas, sleep through the night. I joke that we are currently working on Plan R because Plans A through Q didn’t work out so well – and that’s only from when we started counting. The only one that had any real lasting effect on my children was the concept of happy thoughts. However, in the past couple of weeks something else has had a powerful impact on whether my children sleep through the night. It is my leaving them a note.

I have the pleasure (and sometimes the frustration) of putting my children to bed every night. I have often believed that one of the reasons my son has had such a difficult time with going to sleep is separation anxiety. He doesn’t get to see me much during the day because I have to work and then I put him to bed at night, leaving him in the dark. Even worse, when he would have trouble sleeping, he would often wake up early to find me still at home, but when he slept well, I was already on the train, gone. I never would get a chance to tell him how great he did when he slept well.

One morning, after Lucas had a very good night going to sleep and didn’t wake up upset during the night, I had the idea of leaving a note. I found some construction paper and some fabric markers and wrote him a note – including a stick figure (I am a terrible drawer – I can’t even call myself an artist). Later that day, my wife told me he loved it – especially the terrible stick figure drawing. The incentive of the note encouraged Lucas to go to sleep and sleep through the whole night without any problems for 10 straight nights and challenged me to keep coming up with new ways to say he slept through the night and new drawings for him to look at. Nothing else I have ever tried has worked that well (including bribery efforts).

Even more interesting, the nights where I have forgotten to remind him about the note, he has had trouble sleeping, getting upset and banging on the door. But when I remembered to remind him about the possibility of a note if he fell asleep and slept well, he gave us not even a single peep. One morning he even woke up with a jolt saying, “I want my note. I get a note!” How incredible that something I write with fabric marker on construction paper with stick figures could hold such influence, such power for my child. It is terrifying and mind-boggling all at the same time. I think many of us forget how much power we have because it is difficult for us to comprehend. I think underestimating our power leads us to not giving our children enough positive reinforcement.

I know this experience with leaving notes has made me rethink a lot of what I do and say to my children. Maybe I don’t need to reward them as much with material things as much as showing my love, my pride in what they have done and who they are. They mean the world to me and I think the world of them. They shouldn’t have to guess that – they should always know and feel it.

Now they have one more thing every morning they can look at that reminds them of how I feel – even when I am not around.