Holding On Until She Lets Go

I gave myself a treat this week. The other night I drove up to Connecticut to watch my Sweetie Girl perform in a musical. But instead of going home afterwards, I stayed in a B&B and then spent a few hours with her.

Now I know some parents of 13 year olds complain how their kids don’t really talk or answer questions, but I barely got to say anything at all over the four hours we spent together. My lovely daughter told me every single detail about the musical and her friends and the scenery and audio and sound effects and each individual actor and their issues and concerns and strengths and weaknesses and which songs were her favorite and which performances were the best and all of the melodrama and so much more.

Periodically, I would marvel that this was her first time at sleep-away camp and while she genuinely claimed to miss us, you couldn’t tell. She made new friends and gave her entire being to this musical with rehearsals frequently taking up 5-6 hours of her day every day.

And not once did she complain. Not once did she say it wasn’t worth it. She LOVED it. I mean, this girl of mine L O V E D every moment. What was in the Spring an interest is now a burning passion; being on stage and performing. It is incredible how much she is like her daddy in that way.

But what was amazing to me is that when I showed up to get her, she ran to me to give me a hug. When we walked outside, she held my hand. She gave me a big hug and kiss when I left. She is 13 years old and not embarrassed by affection with her Daddy.

And every time it happens, I wonder if this could be the last time. Could this be the last time she holds my hand in public? Or the last time she runs up to me to give me a hug?

But considering my past and trauma, this surprisingly isn’t me being pessimistic or negative. No, this is me trying to savor every moment. My little girl is not so little anymore. She’s a full-fledged teenager. Of course she held my hand when she was 4 or 6 years old. The fact that she still holds my hand at 13 (and a half) years old could easily be construed as a miracle.

And it feels that way every time. I don’t (really) care that she is now taller than me, that she texts her friends and barely responds to mine. When my daughter wants to hold my hand when we’re walking together I thank my lucky stars and I hold on until she wants to let go. When she runs up to me, I brace myself to catch her the best I can and swing her around, not quite like I did when she was 5, but good enough for government work, and for her to know I love her.

And honestly, that is one of the best feelings in the world. It is a moment when I can feel her love, where I am 100% in the present, where my past is just a faraway spot in my rearview mirror. It is a moment where her love for me, her Daddy, and my love for my Sweetie Girl swirl together in powerful vortex where we both feel better, feel special.

It is amazing to watch our children grow up and see how independent they become and how they learn how to handle new situations. That’s what makes it even more important to celebrate, embrace and bask in those moments when they still show us affection and love just as freely as they did when they were younger.

As I was leaving, I thanked her for such a special day and she smiled at me, that beautiful smile that reminds me so much of her mother, and she thanked me for such a special day. A day of driving and eating and talking. And of hugs and holding hands and reminding each other we love each other. And of musicals, of course.

I’m going to hold on to this day as long as I can–especially the feeling we had together. Those are the days that make being parent the most amazing job in the world.

They Need Me Differently Now

We came home from the City a little late one night last week and our kids were exhausted. For some reason, my son doesn’t want to sleep in the car, can’t seem to let himself slip into slumber. But my daughter, Dorit, when she is ready to fall asleep can do so anywhere, at anytime. That night she fell asleep and snored most of the way home.

Gem and I talked about our day and evening, enjoying the time we had in the City with our family, knowing this felt like one of those days we’ll remember for a long time. Days like that are so special, knowing something so joyful had happened that we will talk about it for some time to come. “Remember when…?”

When we arrived home, I went to help Dorit out of the car, but she woke up and ended up walking to the house.

And my heart sank a little bit.

It’s funny how you can not think of something, but then something happens and you realize it has been percolating in your brain for a long time. I love my children and I love being a Daddy. I love my family and the life Gem and I have created and built together. It is far and away the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t imagine who I would be if I wasn’t part of this experience.

But my children are ten years old and they are growing up, becoming bigger, more independent. I clearly remember coming home from car trips and even though Dorit might have been sleeping in the car on Gem’s side, I would run over because I wanted to be the one to carry her into the house, to carry her into her bedroom. I wanted to be that Daddy and it felt good, being there for her in that way.

I remember when we were trying to help her sleep through the night without a diaper. I would wake her up before I went to sleep, walk her to the bathroom, and then carry her back to her room and gently place her back in her bed, almost as if she had never left it. I remember the way her body would mold to mine, holding me with her whole body, melting into me and feeling that was one of the most spectacular feelings in the history of the universe. If someone had told me being a Daddy felt like that, I would never have been so scared about becoming one.

A couple of days ago, we were once again out a little late and Dorit was exhausted, so exhausted she didn’t even want to leave. I said if we got into the car to go home I would carry her into the house if she wanted (do you see what a selfless Daddy I am?). She nodded her sleepy head and we got into the car.

When we got home, I helped her out of the seatbelt, vowing to savor every moment and I lifted her up and remembered that my little girl is ten years old and I might need to work out more than I do. I can remember when both of my kids could be in my arms on my chest at the same time. Now it is a lot harder to carry my Sweetie Girl out of the car. There was no way I was going to be able to carry her upstairs (unless I threw her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes). I felt heavy, like I had lost something I could never get back.

But when I put her down she didn’t look disappointed. She didn’t look like I had let her down because I can no longer so easily lift her up. She looked at me, like I’m her Daddy and I always will be. That night we sat at her bed and talked about some of the things that have been worrying her. I listened and I gave her some things to think about and even made her smile. We hugged, that delicious feeling of arms wrapping around me and some comment about the level of scruffiness on my face.

And always I love you.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, Sweetie Girl.”

As I closed her door that night I realized the rest of what has been percolating in my brain lately. She may no longer need me to carry her from the car and into bed, but she still needs me. My children still need me. Even though they are getting older and more independent, they still need me to care for them, to love them, to support them, to guide them through this crazy experience we call life.

Yes, they don’t need me like they used to, but they still need me, still need their Daddy.

The way they need me is very different now, but still pretty darn wonderful.

Happy Valentine’s Day to My Son!

I went card shopping for Valentine’s Day last night. I found a beautiful card for my Sweetie, who I have loved for more than 20 years. I found a beautiful card for my Sweetie Girl, who I have loved for over 10 years. But you know what I found out?

They don’t really make loving cards for boys.

I am lucky enough to have a Sweetie Girl and a Sweetie Boy (they are twins). I love them both very much, but also very differently. My son is so much like me in so many ways. He is sweet, intelligent, incredibly sensitive to other people and very perceptive. He is utterly unafraid of affection and I don’t think he even knows there is an issue for many men about hugging and kissing. We hug every morning before I go to work and when I get home and when he goes to bed and any other time we can squeeze a hug and kiss in. We are not shy in my family about showing our love. In fact, if you come over, be prepared. We love and are pretty out in the open about it.

The card for my Sweetie Girl includes an emphasis on no matter what she does or how I feel or what my day is like, I love her no matter what. Sure, it had pink and purple and maybe even some flowers, but frankly, she won’t care that much about that. She needs reminders that our love for her is always present, no matter what she does or how angry we get with her.

Is it not cool to say that to a son?

Truth be told, I don’t think he worries about the unconditionality of our love the way she does (she got that from me), but I would’ve loved to give him a card that said something very similar (without the words “To My Daughter” on it). But all I could find were funny cards, joking about love and cards with superheroes on them.

I spend a lot of time in the world of fatherhood, with people who believe like I do, that fathers are extremely important to their children and that all dads have so much to offer their children just by being present. I try to help moms and dads make sure dads can be involved and get comfortable enough to be involved. I read dozens of articles about parenting and fatherhood every week.

Last night reminded me we still have a long way to go. The fact that we still think as a culture that it is not acceptable to show love and affection to our sons the way we can with our daughters means more boys will grow into men uncomfortable with giving and receiving love and affection.

But not my boy. I love my boy and he loves me and I hope the whole world knows.

Is This Really the Best It Can Be?

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

My wife, Gem, and I were trying to catch up after long days at work. After school she had taken our kids, eight-year old boy-girl twins, to get some clothes for the Spring (even though it snowed this morning) Concert.

“Dorit had so much fun trying on clothes,” she told me. Our little girl really does enjoy being “on stage” (just like her Daddy) whatever the stage happens to be.

“Imagine what it will be like in a few years,” I responded, thinking of my wife and teenage daughter going clothes shopping together, trying them on for each other, and cleaning out the store.

“No, this is the best it is going to be.”

“What do you mean?” I asked in shock. How could this be the best it could ever be for my Sweetie Girl?

“She’s not looking at her body. She’s not staring at the things she doesn’t like about herself, any imperfections she may see. She’s just enjoying playing dress up.”

“Oh God…” And I felt such sadness. My little girl is…I don’t know how to explain it.

She’s not perfect and, in fact, sometimes she makes me insane, seriously out of my mind crazy with the way she can so easily ignore me or blatantly lie (or as my wife likes to say “reframe the truth”) right to my face.
But God I love that girl with every fiber of my being. I love the way her smile lights up her face and reminds me she gets her beauty from her mother. I love how witty and smart she is and how she is the most emotionally intelligent girl I’ve ever met. I love how much fun she can be and the look she gets when she is focused and committed to doing something she has never done before.

And while it terrifies me, I love the way she looks at me as if all the love in the world begins in my face. I am her first love and I take that honor quite seriously.

I tell her every day how beautiful she is and how much I love her. I don’t just tell her when she is dressed up. I tell her when she is in her PJs and especially when she is naked getting ready for or just coming out of her shower. I hug and kiss her and tell her I love her every day before I leave for work, when I return home and when she goes to bed (please don’t worry, I do the same for my boy…promise).

In fact, I have read the research that shows that girls with involved fathers, girls who feel their fathers are invested in their relationship can actually begin menstruating older, start having sex later and are at a lower risk for teen pregnancies. Girls with involved fathers are also less likely to have eating disorders, to have low self-esteem and to actually be happier as adults.

I ask my little girl frequently if she knows how much I love her because the research is clear; she has to feel my love, my commitment to her for these benefits to come into play. If she doesn’t know how I feel, what I feel doesn’t matter very much.

But maybe I’ve been deluding myself, thinking I could somehow stop single-handedly what happens to so many young girls in America. Maybe I can not love her enough to prevent her from seeing herself as not good enough. Maybe society’s message of the unattainable model perfection is too powerful, maybe my little girl can’t escape that unscathed.

But I know I have a power of my own. The way she looks at me as if the sun and moon rise because of me is one of the scariest things I have ever experienced. How easy it would be to abuse that power, to hurt my little girl, and I am sure I have hurt her unintentionally. But as long as I am her Daddy, I vow to use my powers for good, to give her unconditional love that, if it can’t stop the inevitable, can maybe mitigate enough to lessen its impact.

And even if that doesn’t work, she will always have a hug and kiss waiting for her because she’s my Sweetie Girl. Society can’t take that away from us.

Codeword Strawberry

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

I can’t explain how frustrated my wife and I were with our 6.5 year old daughter. It was a feeling of helplessness like I had never known before. Her…I don’t even know what to call them they were so beyond tantrums. It was almost like she had a mental breakdown and she just became this screaming, yelling, out of control being. And once she started there was no way to stop her or bring here back from the ledge. Gem and I were exhausted, drained, and losing hope.

We tried so many different things. We gave her timeouts. We took away privileges and toys and books, anything we could think of that she likes. We tried to reward her good behavior with treats and toys. Nothing really worked. We tried to cut her off at the pass, to prevent her from “losing it” but that worked inconsistently at best and was exhausting. We tried teaching her about her emotions, about “articulating” (a word she really enjoys saying), and while that had potential it also came up short.

After a particularly terrible couple of days when her behavior escalated to “losing it” for the first time in front of friends we had over, we sat down with Dorit and had a little chat. I’m extremely fortunate in that I have a very special connection with my little girl; she is truly a Daddy’s girl and I love pretty much every minute of it. We have always been able to communicate – especially about complicated emotions. But I had no idea she could communicate enough to help us help her.

‘Sweetie Girl, what’s going on with you?” I asked trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.

“Daddy, I just have to let it out,” she said simply. And I knew we were on to something.

My little girl’s emotions were utterly and completely overwhelming her – especially when she wasn’t getting what she wanted. Essentially, her emotions were so powerful and had out-developed her development of tools to manage them. When they overwhelmed her, she lost all control. What we needed was to help her be aware at the moment she felt that churning of emotions inside of her and to give her something to articulate easily and quickly.

“You know what we need, Sweetie Girl? We need a codeword.”

Her twin brother went through something similar awhile ago and we gave him a codeword to tell us when he started getting upset, but before he threw a tantrum. It worked and he doesn’t even need to use it anymore. If Dorit had a codeword, a single word she could say out loud to let us know her emotions were getting the better of her, than we could help talk her down from the ledge. In the process, she would hopefully learn to be more aware of her emotions and learn how to deal with them in a healthier way.

After I explained to her my idea, I asked her what codeword would she want to use.

“Codeword Strawberry!” Since strawberries are her favorite food that actually made a lot of sense.

Dorit has been using Codeword Strawberry for over a week now. I asked her last night how it was going and she said, “It has changed MY LIFE!” in that lovingly melodramatic way she has. When I relayed that to my wife, she readily agreed. It has changed all of our lives.

When my little girl starts to get all caught up in her emotions, she almost always says “Codeword Strawberry!” to alert us that she is getting upset. Sometimes that alone, sharing her sense of being overwhelmed with us, is enough to help calm her down. Sometimes we have to talk to her and help her talk about her feelings. Sometimes we just give her a hug. Sometimes we just distract her and she relaxes. If she doesn’t remember to use it, either my wife and I reminds her, but even her brother has jumped in to say, “Codeword Strawberry, Dorit. Codeword Strawberry.” Amazing how two words can empower us all.

Now we have had many more days without her outbursts than with them and all of us feel something we haven’t felt in awhile….Hope.

Best Part Of My Life, Daddy

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

On Sunday we went to the mall with my Okapis. While Lucas, my 3-year old son, got a haircut with Mommy and Abuelita, I got Dorit, his twin sister, all to myself. And it was lovely. One of the biggest frustrations I have during the week is not only do I not get enough time with my Okapis, I don’t get good time with my Okapis. I get the worst time of the day with them, the time when they are their most tired and that is the most structured. They need to eat. They need to take their vitamins. They need to change into PJs. They need to get nebbied. They need to brush their teeth. They need to go to bed. They need to do it within 1.5 hours of me coming home. I just don’t understand why it doesn’t become a lovefest every single night.

I also almost never get time alone with either of them. We keep meaning to change that, but keep running into challenges. Of course, the time I had with Dorit was lovely; we even got a chance to look at some clothes for her. She is ridiculously smart, very observant and does wonderful things with her tone of voice – not only does she pick up new vocabulary very well, she is astute enough to mimic the tone, as well, appropriately. I don’t get to see that side of her enough at home, but at the mall with all of that stimulation and the fact that she has been there more than I have because she goes with my wife – especially when it is cold or wet – it really comes out. I was having a great time when Lucas, my wife and her mother met up with us.

Then it was as if I had disappeared.

Before I knew it I was standing alone, and the transition from special time with Dorit to being invisible was jarring. I was so taken aback by the shift from being The Daddy to all of a sudden being what felt like nothing. I get special time with my Okapis – we call it Los Tres Amigos time, but I don’t get one-on-one time and was amazed at how special, how enjoyable it was and then, as I was just getting warmed up, it was gone.

I did recover and even got some nice one-on-one time with Lucas when we went to buy little basketballs to play with in our backyard. Then we quickly grabbed some lunch and afterwards, I was left behind at the table while everyone else started walking to the car. It was that same sensation of no longer being visible. I was carrying the loot we had purchased (my wife calls me “my pack mule”) and trying to catch up, when all of a sudden Lucas dropped back and wanted to hold hands with me. So my wife took the cup I was holding and I held hands with him. Then Dorit fell back so she could hold hands with me and I gave the bags to my mother-in-law. I went from wonderful individual time to a jarring sense of invisibility back to being The Daddy again, holding hands with my beautiful Okapis and loving every minute of it.

“This is the life,” I said to them.

“This is the best part of my life,” Dorit said.

“It’s the best part of my life, too, Sweetie Girl.”

And another weekend sadly came to an end in the Okapi household.