Setting a Good Example for my Family

I am deeply challenged and a little conflicted around my role as a father and husband.

One of the difficulties I face is around proactivity, and this has affected both my marriage and my fathering. My own father was a highly disciplined athlete and a very responsible person. I don’t know why, but his intense discipline did not transfer to me. Perhaps because the fundamentals were broken early on and there was no fully formed personality to receive the lesson? Hard work is about others, and I was perhaps a bit self-engrossed….

He was very diligent; always busy with projects and things, and I was often the willing little helper. But somehow, somewhere, I was more inclined to the reading, the contemplation, and the time alone. He was an active relaxer, I am not so much that way inclined.

Fathers and husbands need to be the more active relaxing type. I think, actually, it is essential, because there is so much to do. Once we have families, homes, and careers, the to-do-list never stops piling up, and if we are passive or not willing to put in the hard yards, we can easily frustrate our partners. More dangerously, though is that we set a poor example of diligence for our children.

If we cannot proactively get stuff done, without being nagged by our wives, then possibly our sons will learn these lessons:

  • •It’s the woman’s job to decide what gets done and when
  • •Men should rather avoid work than do it.
  • •Relaxing comes before getting stuff done.

These are not lessons that will get a young man far in life.

Our daughters will learn that:

  • •Men are frustrating and lazy
  • •Men are untrustworthy
  • •Women have to be the ones in charge

I also don’t want my daughter learning that stuff.

The family unit is a functional one when we all know our roles and fulfil them. I am not saying there are specific gender based roles; far from it. But I am saying that our behaviour needs to demonstrate a sense of responsibility and care for the family and the home. And we should not be nagging each other to get stuff done.

That said, it’s not all about finding work to do. Some guys need to stop doing stuff and come down off the ladder for a few hugs. My dad probably fell into this camp. We were mates, if I was doing stuff with him, but that was also the only way I could get time with him. He was so busy doing alterations to the house, re-wiring the house, planting trees, repainting the house, building gates and stuff, that my main source of companionship with him was to do stuff with him. If I had not done that, we would hardly have connected.

Maybe that is why I defaulted to almost the opposite side of the spectrum…

My family get hugs, and time, and reading together, and playing games, and silly daddy dances and weird songs and all that stuff. But the work around the house does not get done so well.

I need to find a balance, where there are hugs aplenty, and weird daddy stuff galore, but where my wife comes home to a neatly tended garden as well, and globes replaced and concrete water-blasted and stuff.

Neither my father nor I were in balance.

I have to find a balance where my children are deeply loved and fully satisfied with time well spent, but also where daddy is seeing putting in the hard yards for the good of the family home and the things we own and care about.

 

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The Parenting Challenge – Daughters

I was terrified when we found out that our first baby was going to be a girl. I guess there is some familiarity when the baby is going to be the same gender as you, it kind of feels like “OK, I can manage this.” But when it is the other gender, my response was “Oh heck. I am clueless! What about this? What about that? And all the unknowns rushed at me at once.

Although the managing of baby stuff quickly got easier, these thoughts still surface sometimes as my “little love” grows bigger and bigger. We face so many normal challenges that everybody faces, and I have my awesome wife to guide her (and me) through so many of those. I do have some insecurity around being her dad, simply because she is so precious and so dependent on me as her father to set the standard for the men she will allow into her life. 

I guess it weighs on me that I have been through stuff that is very likely to have an impact on the accuracy and integrity of my role modelling, and I am especially keen that she does not accept as “normal” from my example, things that are in fact not normal!

I always remember that she is not mine – that I am a steward of her future character, capacity and charisma. I am responsible to prepare her for her future, so all of my parenting has 5 simple goals

  • •ground her spiritually and emotionally
  • •help her develop her creative talents
  • •help her find a career/passion that will sustain her
  • •help her develop into the best possible partner she can be for her husband
  • •help her develop into the best mother she can be for her future children

To a large extent the goals are the same for my boys, but there is a subtle difference in what the foundation stones are, for some of those things.

My role as her father provides a reference frame for her to connect with the idea of God, and to develop appropriate boundaries around her relationships with other boys and later on men.

As with each parent, we hope that the spiritual path we are on will be chosen by our children. In Christian terms, that is always a personal individual choice, and in that context, it is my example that will give her a sense of what the fatherhood of God is meant to be like. She will view God as her Father in a very similar way to how she views me as her father. If I am capricious, untrustworthy and unappreciative of her beauty (both internal and external), then her relationship with God will inherit those insecurities. If I am trustworthy, gentle, kind and loving, then she will transfer those perceptions into her relationship with God.

I know I am not perfect. My quick temper is not ideal, and I know it is a product of my experiences. I am working hard to manage that so that she expects measured and gracious responses even under pressure, from the men in her life. I want her to have the strength of character and the determination – and the independence – to reject utterly a relationship with any man who believes violence – even in words – is an option.

My wife and I do not always model a perfect relationship, and that is OK. Couples have their issues. But how they resolve them and find common ground again is a vital lesson. Lessons in forgiveness, in grace and in mutual support are seen and learned here, in a marriage. We have work to do in this area, too.

I am not a very consistent person, as I have described. This is a particular challenge as the keeping of promises is such a critical thing (A casual mention of an idea can also be treasured and failure to remember it and deliver can cause great heartache.) It is important for me to improve my vigilance around the words I say and realise that there is a gentle little heart setting great store by the things I say, even things I say off-handedly.

It is also important for me to manage my response to manipulation. I have written of my very quick and harsh responses to manipulative behaviour, and little girls seem to adopt that behaviour almost by default – the tears, the whining, the sidling up to you with intent… – she is learning how to relate to men, and it is my responsibility not only to guide her away from manipulative behaviour, but also to do so gently and affirmatively so that she does not become afraid of men. I have to therefore watch my instinctive response to manipulation carefully and moderate it accordingly to her.

 

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Protecting Innocence

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, one of the many themes that dominated my early years and caused endless confusion and insecurity for me, was my early and inaccurate awareness of sexual matters.

Lets be blunt – by age 6 I had been forced to have sex. I had seen a male erection and learned first hand what it could do. I had seen ejaculations and had them explained to me in great detail by a gross and evil man.

These things utterly ruined me. I cannot fully express this; I am sure a psychologist may have the proper words for what I am describing here, but the exposure that I endured to sexual matters was entirely destructive to my normal development from child to pre-pubescent teenager to teenager to young adult.

If I had to guess why, I would say that the destruction of normal boundaries had a lot to do with it, but also, I think, the upending of the process of natural development. As a body matures, so does a mind. They are all linked by the same chemical and hormonal changes. As a body develops, the questions and answers appropriate to the level of physical development get answered by parents, friends, the jokes that are getting told, the stories and the interactions with the opposite sex. Its kind of an ecosystem.

But it is balanced, in a natural kind of way.

Untimely exposure undoes that balance.

One of my earlier girlfriends told me that her father used to walk around the house naked, and she and her sister had no option but to see him naked. They had grown up with that. She was promiscuous and available to anyone keen, and severely damaged by this – she said so herself. It caused all sorts of insecurities and nightmares for her, and made her very very curious about what male bodies did. This, before she was 10.

I can echo that story. I masturbated because I had been shown how, and I was masturbating before I was physically actually ready to do so. In the ordinary scope of physical development this is not even possible! But there I was, my mind full of ideas and awarenesses that were more “mature”, or “adult” than my own body’s context.

What is the point?

I have children, and I have some choices to make about what they will see and be exposed to while they are growing up. It is an important issue, and it needs to be agreed. My wife and I have discussed this often, and we have agreed to err on the side of caution. It also applies far beyond the purely sexual and physical realm, so we have creates a list of things that to us , are undesirable  for our children to see. It might change with time, as they grow older, but the principles which have made up this list will not.

Our children will not:

  • •See us naked, or even in our underwear
  • •See each other naked or bath together beyond age 6 or so
  • •See each other use the toilet
  • •Watch any intimate scene on TV or a movie, even a suggestive one.
  • •Watch any violence involving guns, physical assault or gender based violence e.g. man on woman
  • •Watch or see any adult-themed criminal investigative show
  • •Watch cartoons that involve graphic rebellion against authority, parenthood, etc, violence or magic themes
  • •Where it is allowed, we will watch with them, and ask questions and explain difficult concepts so that we determine what becomes their understanding

Our children have had nightmares where we have not taken these precautions, so we have realised their importance even at that level.

Their innocence is deeply beautiful and precious. We don’t care if we are regarded as too cautious with this. There is no reason to destroy innocence or compromise it for any reason. Why? It is only there once, and for a short enough time anyway.

We do not believe that we are preventing knowledge, or closeting our children away, or even keeping them from things that will affect their popularity with other similarly aged children. We believe that we are merely governing the timing and exposure of new information to young minds, so that what is learned has a context, and is appropriate to other aspects of development.

 

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Expecting a child to be a child

As I posted recently, my eldest son was getting a raw deal from me, and it breaks my heart to admit it. But lets look at an aspect of that that I have been pondering

I believe I am projecting too strongly onto him, aspects of my own personality and my own journey. It is not a deliberate thing, but thank goodness for my wife who is deeply sensitive and caring, and can help me to see this early on and so prevent damage.

Even now, I have this fear that in one of my less guarded moments, damage has been done. Sometimes I lie awake sleepless thinking about him, and hoping and praying that he is strong enough to handle my fumbling attempts at fathering…

The main issue at the centre of this this concern of mine, is the fact that I have had to be so ruthless with myself for so long, that it is a deeply ingrained habit to not allow any quarter, any leniency. It has been a huge contributor to my recovery from sexual abuse, and I am convinced there is a strong link here. It has been powerful for me, but it is not necessarily good for everyone else…

My ruthlessness with myself and my character has manifested in a number of ways:

- I never permit myself excuses for character issues. I stand up and I take it on the chin, hard. And then I get up and I punch back (not in retaliation, rather in dealing with issues head on and straight away.)
– When I am criticised, I don’t make excuses and avoid it. I accept the criticism 100%, and thank the person for it. Then I go away and I ask myself “Is there anything true in what this person said?” If there is, I OWN it and I do something about it. This way, I don’t lose opportunities to improve by judging the messenger.
– Because I am, and probably always will be slightly insecure, I read too much into some situations. Nonetheless, I always process those situations to look for potential issues, so I am constantly vigilant (I learnt a new word the other day – hypervigilant. Apparently this is a known side effect for people who have suffered abuse)

Back to my precious boy. I expect a lot from him, in terms of looking after his bigger sister and his smaller brothers. I expect him to be kind and gracious and generous and thoughtful. These are good things. But I realise that I expect too much from a 4 year old! He is still learning so many things for the first time. He needs space, and affirmation, not constant corralling and control…

It is wrong of me to demand levels of vigilance from him that I am still working on for myself.
It is wrong of me to demand that he always be the generous, thoughtful, mature  one. He is entitled to receive, as well as give. And its OK if he wins out of the deal! Its ok to have an immature response as a 4 year old.
It is wrong to demand restraint, from a little guy who is still setting up his own borders and boundaries
It is wrong to raise my voice against my child. A raised voice is the enemy of a child, and it is proof that the adult still somewhere deep down, believes in violence to solve problems.

He needs to figure many things out for himself, and what he needs from me is affirmation, not stern guidance.

I am taking my wives observations on board, and – yes – being ruthless with myself about this. This is important. Too important to “take some time to figure it out” My little guy is precious and awesome, and he deserves for me to appreciate that and show him constantly how awesome he is. The lessons will come, and if he trusts me, he will come to me.

But if he does not trust me, where will he go?

So my primary goal with him now is to make sure we trust each other. Specifically, although I want him to realise its a quid pro quo and he must also be trustworthy, I want him to be sure that he can trust me. I want to be trustworthy in his eyes.

That means some very simple things:

- be affirmative
– be predictable
– be clear
– be always kind and gentle.
– be honest, and keep promises
– always have his best interests at heart
– initiate fun and do things that stimulate and excite him
– honour his position in the family. He also has rights, not just responsibilities.
– if I must challenge his behaviour, I will do so by calling him forth towards his best version of himself, not by criticising him.

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Busted Antennae

Sometimes, I still feel like I am still an angry person. Maybe the right word is frustrated. I don’t know. But I am realising that this road back is harder and more consuming than I thought. And I thought it was hard already…

As husbands go, I think I am OK. Most of us do. We acknowledge that there is room for improvement, but we generally feel like we are doing ok, under the circumstances. In the circumstances. In spite of the circumstances. Always, there are “circumstances” that we use to justify our imperfections. Maybe it’s our wife. Our upbringing. Our work pressure. Our health. Whatever. Always, its “out of our control”…

In my case, it’s the way my wife “talks to me”. And the multiple demands she “places on me”. I have to be honest, somedays it drives me a bit “nuts”. But that is not to say she is wrong and I am right… that’s the point of this post!

To backtrack a bit, my love language (the way I am tuned to receive expressions of love) is  something called “words of affirmation”. It is my primary way of showing love, and it is the way I like to receive love. When a person has a harsh tone, or does not say please, or speaks unkindly, or does not use my name, I get ratty. Very ratty. Very quickly.

I am built to be loved with words. I also – to a lesser extent, but it’s still measurable – enjoy quality time with someone.

It’s a complicated thing, a relationship. I guess if you meet and fall for someone who speaks and receives love in the same language as you, you probably will have no idea what I am talking about, in this area anyway. However, where this is out of kilter, this is a biggie. A very biggie. It’s the foundation; the place where core expectations met or unmet, result in trust or a lack of it. Where deep desires and needs are either met or not met, and our emotional tanks are filled, or start to run low. (Our emotional tanks are the reserves we have to keep going when times are tough).

Speaking the other persons love language is very hard. It feels like a lot of effort for little return. To us, it feels like a duty, because there are no automatic feelings of love and affection associated with it. No internal feedback loop that makes us feel like we are getting it right. My wife’s primary love language is acts of service, and she gets a great deal of satisfaction out of doing things for others, and having things done for her. She feels loved, when things get done for her. But I don’t feel loved when things get done for me. I am appreciative, of course, but my heart doesn’t go boompity-boom. And she doesn’t feel loved when nice things get said to her. She feels appreciative, of course, but her heart doesn’t go boompity-boom.

Here’s the real problem though. I don’t feel like I am being loving when I make the effort to do things for her. And she doesn’t feel like she is being loving when she makes the effort to speak kindly to me. We both feel like we are being manipulated by the other person to be something we are not. She is feeling manipulated by my demand for kindness in her tone and the words chosen. And I feel manipulated by the constant need to do things for her. We feel manipulated because we are feeling forced to do something unnatural to us, because it’s what someone else wants.

But as I discovered today, this is not the case. And perhaps, this is why I won’t be so angry in future! I have been reading this all wrong. I have been feeling criticized and attacked because my efforts at loving her seem to be meaningless to her and unappreciated by her. I have become frustrated and angry that so much effort on my part is wasted.

I control my words carefully, because they are important to me. I believe in their power to bring life and joy, or shame and darkness. So I exert huge control emotionally to always choose the right words. A control that taxes me and leaves me exhausted at times from the effort of it. And I am sometimes very angry and frustrated that all this effort is tossed in the bin. My anger and frustration comes out in my own tone of voice and my unwillingness to then do things for her. Why should I? My tanks are empty. I am not feeling loved. In fact, I am feeling the exact opposite. So why on earth should I?

But – and this is the most important discovery – my wife is not criticising me. Hearing that, is entirely MY responsibility. What I hear, is on me. I am the one filtering them according to my attitude and mindset. My wife is speaking words. How I hear them indicates my state of mind, not hers. It’s my antennae that are preset to the wrong frequency, or just plain busted. With the old presets, or busted antennae, I hear “You are not good enough”; or “You are such a failure at this”.

But with a new preset, or a new set of antennae, the same message can be received as “This is how to love me, if you really want to”

Forget tone of voice. Forget preferred love language. What do I really, really need? I am married and I am eager to please my wife. So, simply put, I need to know what my wife will feel loved by, and I need to do that thing.

And she is telling me, loud and clear every day, but my busted antenna are just picking up the same old static.

I’ll let you know how this turns out.

 

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Forming new relationships

I am not strictly ordinary as far as middle aged men go. Having relocated twice internationally, I have found myself not once, but twice, in a new country with no friends locally, nor even any acquaintances with shared values and shared histories. Its not like I relocated when I was younger either; my first relocation was at age 39 and my second at age 42.

The closest I ever came to a close recent friendship was with an old work colleague – the one who hired me in the Middle East, whom I have known for 19 years now. But we each moved on geographically and now live very far apart. Even at the height of our friendship, we lived in different cities and we have never shared a common faith.

Now I am older, and I am struggling to form friendships with other men. If I am honest, there is a measure of busyness and complexity of life getting in the way, and to some extent there is also a lack of reciprocation. But mostly it is fear. I am afraid.

I fear that I will be rejected, that what I have to offer in a friendship is too narrow and too limited to be of interest long term. I am in a comfort zone; (which by the way is not very comfortable, but it is more comfortable than the unknown) a comfort zone of mediocrity. I am comfortable with an “initial fly-by” and the establishment of a basic acquaintance. I can crack open beers and throw a few pieces of cow on the BBQ, and we can chat forever.

But beyond the first impression I am fearful. What do I have to offer? My conversation is limited in terms of areas of local interest. I am widely read and aware internationally. But most people are not interested in Middle Eastern trends, or American politics, or Greek economics, or Vatican reforms, or whatever. The topics of conversation locally are sports, DIY, and such. I do not have expertise in these things.

I am also hesitant because my marriage and family demand so much of my time that I wonder if I can even sustain a friendship. They take time, and effort, and so much energy is spent working through my marriage and family responsibilities that I wonder what would be left. Would I be the guy that always says “Thanks for the invite, maybe next time?” I don’t want to be that guy.

The bottom line is a continuing feeling of not being able to sustain a friendship. That is not to say I cannot sustain friendships. I have friendships that are 40 years old; I have been best man at 7 of my friends weddings. For all my tumultuous relationship past, there have been deep and core relationships that have been awesome. Relationships I can do. But new relationships, across culture differences and at this stage of my life, seem to be harder than they ever were. I don’t fully understand this, if I am honest.

Even as I write, I can see how I am making excuses here. It’s the product of fear. Probably irrational, probably unnecessary, but fear nonetheless.

I need friends. I need interests outside my marriage and family. They are key to me being whole and wholesome. Key to being interesting to my wife and children!

So here’s to overcoming that fear and working this one out!

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Building the Marriage Team

Basically, I suck at it.

Bottom line, I have never been good in teams. For many reasons, some discussed here already, I am awkward and not very charismatic. My boundaries and borders were all messed up by the abuse, and I have spent my whole life trying to figure out the impact of all of that!

So whipping up other people’s support has never been my strong suite. Wooing them onto a team where we work fluidly together, has never been easy. And in hindsight, it alway seems to be me that was the stumbling block to unity and synergy… Teams are a discipline for me, a thing I have to approach very methodically and carefully, or my natural urge to go solo takes over and I quickly become very unpopular.

In the workplace, I learned very early that team membership was key to success, and was constantly frustrated that my intellectual assent did not turn into immediate results. Forming a team, and being a part of a team, I learned, was very different to knowing that it was the right thing to do.

Getting married was a rude awakening to my lack of understanding about team. Initially my assumptions were that my new wife was joining MY team, and that obviously did not go down well. We lived in constant place of frustration as I had expectations which were not met, and she had expectations which I couldn’t even see! Then I tried joining HER team, and all that result in was frustration and anger as we miscommunicated constantly about what was best for the marriage and our family.

We are slowly getting to the place where we are a team together. Eventually I realised that we were to build a new team, a team created by us together, and that we were not to “morph” a previously existing team or concept. That has led to great progress but also to new challenges.

A new team means a new understanding of roles, and in a marriage there are many roles. We are still, 7 years on, hitting major speed bumps around our roles. I am focussed on providing (work) and relating (evenings and weekends). I have not yet developed DIY skills but am getting there, and that adds gardening and repairs and modifications to my portfolio.

Her technique of giving me a new role in our relationship is to hand it over. The end. My way of learning a new role is to do it together, and then to do it myself. I also value kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness in communication, which because of our constant low-level frustration, is not often there. So we have a few stumbling blocks there, and as I have written before, being taken for granted or being manipulated sets me off quite nicely like fireworks.

That brings out the worst in me as I fight for perceived fairness, and understanding, and kind words.

That said, my poor wife is not often wrong in her view on things, but we have the obstacle of our default settings that prevent easy and quick resolution of issues. Both of us are defensive, both of us on our guard against the preconceptions we have of males and females, from our pasts.

So we are on our way to building a new sense of “normal” for us. A new understanding for us of what the husband does, what the wife does, and how we go about creating a smoothly functioning harmonious team.

But honestly, its easy to do that when the waters are smooth. They say smooth water never made a skilful sailor, and that is very very true for marriage. Its not about the easy times. Its about how we deal with each other when the waters are rough; when we are tired; when we are frustrated and insecure; emotional or hurt. Its how we connect in those times that is the true measure of our “team”, and I have to say we are a long way from ideal there. Its my responsibility to lead the way, and I am still working stuff out.

My main challenge is to be better at it each time it happens, and my deepest hope is that our children do not see and copy our failings in this area. I pray for grace that they see the good times and the successful times , and that they miss, or overlook our failings. I hope they do not remember them and tuck them away as “OK” ways to deal with their future partners.

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