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Welcome to The Fatherhood Journey

September 10, 2014

Welcome to The Fatherhood Journey

John EngelFatherhood is a sacred journey, filled with mystery and adventure.

Reflecting on the milestones and transitions of the journey helps me create meaning from these experiences, empowering me as a father. Through ‘The Fatherhood Journey’ I offer my writings as a means to promote private and public conversations about fatherhood – to explore the mystery and celebrate the adventure – conversations that too often remain unspoken.

These writings reflect my deepest gratitude for the precious gift of children, marriage, family, parenthood and community.

I dedicate these writings to my loving wife, Lori, and our children Zoe and Adam, whose collective presence has changed my life in the most amazing ways, and to all who experience the journey of fatherhood.

With gratitude,

John

Father reclaims sacred space with new digital boundaries

January 16, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 15, 2020

Life is busy. Just ask anyone and they will reflexively tell you just how busy they are. In fact, many people will tell you how busy they are even if you don’t ask. The busier the better, so it seems; as if being busy is a marker of success. I suspect Americans are among the busiest humans on the planet. I’ve also read in many sources that Americans have some of the highest rates of stress and insomnia, too.

While I live a fairly privileged life, with basic needs readily fulfilled, stress and insomnia have long been my companions. In many ways I practice a healthy lifestyle — well balanced diet, regular exercise, daily meditation and positive connection with family and co-workers. I also live in a relatively safe community, where the threat of violence or discord is low.

Despite all these benefits, it seems that my nervous system is consistently drained and often reaches a state of overload, resulting in stress and disrupted sleep — neither of which produce my best parenting.

So, in a quest to improve my general well-being and fathering, I did some reflecting. Quickly I came to the realization that the most notable exception — to my busyness, stress and sleeplessness — is our annual family camping trip on the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermont. During that week, we settle into a rhythm of physical activities such as biking, hiking, fishing, skipping stones, reading, star gazing and campfires. My stress melts away and I enjoy my best sleep of the year.

But there’s one other important detail. During that week I fully unplug, turning off my (smart?) phone and storing it in the glove box of our car. Of course, being on vacation I also take a break from my computer, which stays at home. Without these devices, I feel liberated and my nervous system is much happier.

When at home, I seem to be using one or both devices most waking hours of the day. I use Google Calendar to organize my work and family schedules, in coordination with the work and family schedules of my colleagues. I meet with co-workers and clients on virtual conference calls. I communicate with colleagues and family through text, email and calls. I confirm travel arrangements, medical appointments and party invitations through online portals. I use GPS to navigate while driving, listen to podcasts when exercising at the YMCA, and have experimented with meditation apps to calm myself in the evening. I learn through webinars, manage projects for virtual teams with virtual tools, and store files in the cloud. I shop, bank, order library books and renew my automobile registration as well as my driver’s license online. All this and I don’t even use social media or television; I consider myself a modest tech user!

Granted, oodles of phone and computer-based activities are beneficial, time saving and kind of cool, it’s just that collectively the digital deluge is totally over-whelming.

While I’m certainly not the first father — or human — to notice that the increasing and incessant volume (pun intended) of phone and computer time in the course of our days is sucking the life out of us — to the detriment of our physical and mental well-being and relationships — I’ve reached a personal tipping point.

So, I started thinking about how I might decrease the busyness in my life through regular, self-administered doses of unplugged time. After kvetching to a counselor about my stress and insomnia, she suggested I consider the practice of keeping Sabbath. This led me to reading “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,” authored by Wayne Muller, published in 1999 and even more relevant today than when first released.

Muller writes of Sabbath as a spiritual practice — shared, in similar though differing forms, by Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others — where designated sacred time for rest, reflection and quality connection to self and others helps ensure a life where work and rest are in balance.

One Jewish practice, I learned, is the use of a Sabbath box. At the start of Sabbath — sundown on Fridays, for example — symbols of work, such as keys, wallet, phone and pen, are placed in a box to make way for reflection, prayer, shared meal and celebration.

This simple, yet profound, practice reminded me of placing my cell phone in the glove box during vacation, and inspired me to create new boundaries with my digital devices, in an effort to restore some balance to my life.

I now have my work email turned off on my phone, most of the time; occasionally turning it on when away from my desk, and otherwise reserving work email for when I’m at my computer. Additionally, I recently started turning off my phone at the end of work on Friday and placing it in a desk drawer (a type of Sabbath box), just before celebrating the week’s end during our Friday family dinner. Sometimes I leave the phone turned off for part or all of the weekend, which has spilled over to week nights when I also park the phone in the desk, helping me disrupt the habit of mindlessly reading news feeds. I’m also more intentional about scheduling a block of time on the weekend — and not at night — when I work on computer related household tasks such as online banking and coordinating family schedules, so that my brain is able to enjoy digital free space most of the weekend.

As I have been making these changes I have certainly felt the urge to reach for the phone or laptop, but have replaced that urge with a commitment to engage more with our rapidly aging kids, Zoe and Adam, and my wife Lori. I’ve noticed feeling more connected to the three of them and to an increase in meaningful conversations, at the dinner table, in the car and just whenever.

In the big picture, less digital time might not seem significant but, so far, it seems to be having a positive impact by offering me a bit more breathing space in my day, more connection with family, a bit less stress and — hopefully — better sleep in 2020.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Father reflects on the first snow, and the second

January 12, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 18, 2019

Living in New England suits me well. I savor the unfolding of each new season, though I could do without the month when winter sloppily transitions to spring.

With spring’s arrival, tree buds emerge, then blossom, over the course of many weeks, along with flowering shrubs and plants, too. In the summer, the longest day of the year arrives following six months of imperceptible, daily increases – on the order of two minutes per day – of sunlight. Hints of autumn color can be found starting in late August, long before their October peak.

But, winter – more importantly, the first snow – is more abrupt. It unmistakably blankets the ground with softness, clings to pine boughs and deciduous branches in our yard, lines the rails of the backyard fence, hides the wood pile, pens the chickens in their coop where they wait patiently for the ground to be scraped clean, blocks the entrance to our drive after the plow has cleared the street, and sparkles – when the sun finally reemerges.

Snow balls, sledding, skiing, snowboarding, fort building – even shoveling – are more exciting after the first snow, than in March, when we have had our fill.

The fact that the first snow arrived this year on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, in such spectacular fashion that school was cancelled on Monday, made it extra special for our 7th grade Zoe and 5th grade Adam, not to mention every other child in town.

Monday, after learning that the nine inches of freshly fallen snow meant a 5th day in a row of no school, Adam customarily consumed two waffles and an ample supply of butter and maple syrup, then headed out the door at 7:30 a.m. Aside from brief mid-day lunch and mid-afternoon hot chocolate breaks, he came in for dinner after 5:30 p.m., having spent more time in the snow than he would have spent inside during a regular day of school.  Zoe enjoyed inside activities as well as a vigorous ski along the bike path with her Mama (Lori), who enjoyed an unexpected day home from work since her scheduled patients all cancelled.

I was less enthused, however, because the virtual nature of my work meant that conference calls and computer related projects beckoned my attention. So, I worked from my home office, situated in our basement, sulking and irritable for much of the day. By late afternoon, Adam and I headed to a hill behind the local middle school where he carved some turns on his snowboard and I ran up and down the hill and did a few laps in the adjoining field, both for daily exercise and in an attempt to elevate my mood.

As I retired that evening, I conceded that while the first snow had arrived, I was not quite ready to fully enjoy it. Much to my surprise, though, I awoke the next morning to an additional nine inches of snow, and another school cancellation. Adam and Zoe were thrilled with a 6th consecutive day of no school, but I felt I was playing the role of Bill Murray in the classic, comedy film Groundhog Day.

In the film, a blizzard arrives on the heels of Groundhog Day and while others seize the opportunity to celebrate, Murray’s character sours on the turn of events. The next day he awakens to learn he is stuck in a recurring cycle, forced to relive the same day, again and again. Only when he learns to embrace life and commit to being a force for good in the world does Murray’s character breakout of the recurring cycle, and onward with his new lease on life.

So, I was relieved to awaken on Wednesday and find that no additional snow fell while I slept, that schools were indeed open, and that I was saved from a perpetual state of snowy, Groundhog-Day-like-existence. And while I can’t say that I fully embraced this year’s first snow – or the second – the winter solstice is still two weeks away, which means I have plenty of opportunities ahead to try again.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Family finds fitness and much more at YMCA

January 12, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 27, 2019

Healthy living is a core value in our family. When we relocated, from Boulder, Colorado, we considered a number of communities in New England, before deciding to move to Northampton, MA. We were attracted by the extensive network of bike paths, abundance of local food production, access to forests and trails, a culture of higher learning, and a multitude of resources for raising a family.

Still, during our early years in Northampton, Lori and I struggled with the reality that raising two young children, Zoe and Adam, in the absence of local friendships or family, was challenging. In particular, finding ways to remain physically active – something Lori and I had come to take for granted while living in the outdoor recreational mecca of Boulder – was essential to our well-being and sanity.

Fortunately, Northampton is home to the Hampshire Regional YMCA. Once we learned that Y membership included access to free child care – through the Child Watch program and its experienced, well-trained providers – we quickly decided the cost of membership was a worthy addition to our frugal, family budget.

It was not long before Lori and I came to appreciate that the Y focused more broadly on healthy living, including spirit, mind and body, and was not just a place to exercise. So, over the years, in addition to regular cardio workouts in the gym and laps in the pool, we have enjoyed yoga and meditation classes, family mindfulness retreats at the Y’s summer camp facility, and blissful sits in the steam room during long New England winters. As a bonus, since Y memberships include reciprocal benefits with many YMCA’s in the U.S., Lori and I have exercised – for no additional cost – at other Y’s in Massachusetts as well as in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Florida and Illinois, when traveling for work or visiting family.

As Zoe and Adam, teen and tween respectively, have aged, they have increasingly benefitted from the Y’s focus on youth develop, including swim lessons, open gym, open swim, the youth lounge and gymnastics program. These activities have offered a positive, social setting to develop their growing bodies, build friendships, and be part of a larger community committed to wellness.

One of the greatest – and unexpected – benefits of the Y, for Lori and I, is the way the center acts as a hub for social connection. Every visit to the Y offers an opportunity for brief yet enriching connection with friends, kids of all ages, other parents, professional colleagues, and acquaintances, reminding us that we are part of a larger community committed to healthy living. And for many years, Lori has taught Pilates classes at the Y, offering her both a circle of colleagues and connection to many throughout the community.

Recently our family participated in the Y’s 8th Annual 5k Run. The weather was glorious, mid-40’s and sunshine, with colorful, fallen leaves underfoot as we paced our way along the bike path and looped around picturesque Look Park. Lori and Zoe helped set-up for the event. Zoe, along with friends from the Y gymnastics team stationed themselves on the course to cheer runners and walkers. Lori, who has recently returned to running, logged her best 5k time in decades. Adam and I ran together, and he out sprinted me at the end to log a personal best time.

After the course cleared, we gathered inside to hear race results. More importantly, the race director shared words about the Y community and the importance of the event. I was astonished to learn that in the prior year, the Y had devoted over $270,000 toward scholarships and discounted memberships, in order to help make the Y accessible to even more children and families.

I left the event with even greater appreciation for all the Y has to offer. Initially we joined the Y as a place to workout, but we’ve chosen to stay for the many ways it helps us sustain a healthy lifestyle, including connection to the community we now call home.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Father bids farewell to kind neighbor

October 24, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 23, 2019

For more than eight years our family has called Sumner Avenue home. Located a short walk from the many conveniences of Florence Center, and along the bike path, which our family uses daily, this one-block neighborhood is a gem. More than 20 kids from this block and nearby houses have buzzed about the street and adjoining yards these past years, offering a steady stream of activity and laughter, leaving my wife Lori and I delighted to be raising our Zoe and Adam in such a tight knit neighborhood.

Throughout our time here — and long before — our immediate neighbor, Mike Ryan, has been an anchor for this little community. Mike grew up on this street, eventually moved out of the house and then, more than a decade ago, returned to his childhood home to live with his aging parents, where he remained after their passing. Now, a week after Mike’s abrupt and untimely death, we are all feeling the absence of his soft and kind presence.

With great pride, Mike maintained his property impeccably. His garage was a well-kept, orderly workshop, functioning as a base of operations for maintaining his house and completing minor car repairs. Year-round, he was visible to all as he mowed his lawn, trimmed the bushes, gathered fall leaves and cleared snow off his drive. He seemed to find purpose and joy in these activities — perhaps, in honor to his parents or to help maintain the appearance of the neighborhood or to keep physically active — maybe all three.

But it was much more than a well-kept yard and house that endeared our family to Mike. Rather, he became an extended family member — an uncle next door — who generously supported us, in countless little ways, making our lives a bit easier and richer.

When we traveled, Mike often made sure that our backyard chickens had fresh water and plenty of food. After nor’easters pummeled us, Mike would employ his snow blower to clear the mounds of hardened snow left by city plows at the ends of neighboring driveways. Often, when one of our cars required repair, he shuttled Lori or I to or from our mechanic’s garage. He delighted in walking Zoe and Adam, in their younger years, to the school bus stop and back when, on occasion, work schedules interfered with our parenting duties. He generously loaned me use of his tools whenever I was in need, including a standing agreement that I could grab the extension ladder, lawn mower, snow blower or other items without asking, going so far as to give me a key to his garage to make this all the easier.

Over the years, though, Mike’s chronic ailments slowed him down. A neighbor boy, Rohin, began to mow his lawn. Our son, Adam, shoveled his snow this past season, and recently knocked on Mike’s door asking permission to rake his leaves this fall. We routinely brought him homemade baked goods, produce from our garden and fresh eggs, both in gratitude for his generosity, and as a way to stay connected, keeping a watchful eye, along with other neighbors, on his health, especially since he lived alone.

This past summer, while routinely chatting over the picket fence that separates his drive and our garden, Mike confided to me that he was considering selling his home and moving to an apartment. He said it was becoming more difficult to maintain his house and yard and that he did not want to wait until it was too much for him to handle, but at the same time, he noted, “I love this neighborhood, and don’t want to leave it.”

Days before we found Mike lying on his front porch, clinging to life in the chilly morning air, I picked the final tomatoes of the season and knocked on his door. He thanked me, promising to put the tomatoes to good use. We briefly chatted about the weather and seasonal changes, as we have so often done, then I was on my way, unaware that it was to be our final conversation.

Now his house is empty, his car sits unmoved in the drive, and we miss him. Struggling with the knowledge that he will not return home, we cling to memories of his daily presence on Sumner Avenue. At the dinner table our family shared stories about the many ways that Mike was a special person in the life of our family and neighborhood. Lori recalled that a few years ago she met a woman, who upon learning where we live, asked, “Does Mikey Ryan still live over there?” The woman was Mike’s kindergarten teacher, who fondly recalled that in her class — more than 50 years ago — he was a sweet, kind boy. Now, and for years to come, we too — our family and neighborhood — will recall Mike as sweet and kind.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

 

Choosing joy of life over fear of mortality

September 25, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 25, 2019

Our kids are getting older. Now 10 and 13, our Adam and Zoe fill our lives with more joy than I ever imagined could be true before I became a father. As my wife Lori and I watch them mature and widen both their experiences and horizons, it’s a breath-taking honor to be their father.

Of course, we too are getting older. I confess to having thought more about mortality — my mortality — in the few years since reaching the age of 50, than in the previous half-century. At times I feel profound sadness and grief, not just at the thought of my own death (which is hopefully far away) but, even more, from acknowledging that one day I will no longer be physically part of Zoe’s and Adam’s life, nor they part of mine.

We deeply and genuinely enjoy being together as a family. When we are apart, which is not often, we all feel that something is amiss, and when we reunite, whether at the end of the day or when one of us returns from an outing or travel, we are delighted to be together once again. As a family, we have come to accept this being together, being apart and being together, as the natural rhythm of our lives. But, ultimately, it’s the overwhelming fear of not being together again that hurts me the most.

Increasingly, I have been wrestling with these inner tensions, as Zoe and Adam rapidly age, and as I listen to Lori, with feelings of helplessness, as she experiences similar angst. So, it was a blessing to have recently heard thoughtful words from a family elder, which have provided me fresh insight. At a family gathering, following the lively energy of Happy Hour, replete with much wine and nosh, and the excitement which accompanies a Labor Day barbeque, when New Englander’s cling to denial about summer’s end, I sat in the growing quiet of the evening.

Next to me was a family member, nearly my father’s age, who was recovering from complicated and painful surgery to remove cancerous tumors from this body. I have come to know and respect him as a private man, publicly reserved with his thoughts and emotions, and with whom, therefore, our conversations have tended to be matter of fact.

I noticed a softness in his eyes and a gentleness in his demeanor. Following my curiosity, I asked him, “How have you dealt with the difficulty of your recovery?” Without hesitation he said, “It is what it is. And, I’m getting better.”

I’ve not warmed to this trending phrase, “It is what it is,” another cliché that crowds our daily conversation and covers over opportunities for genuine connection. But, in this case, seamlessly paired with the phrase, “And, I’m getting better,” I heard both acceptance and empowerment, not the helpless resignation I tend to associate with “It is what it is.”

Moved by these simple words and his genuine sentiment, I sense in myself growing acceptance with an uncomfortable truth of fatherhood. I cannot control that Zoe and Adam are aging, that one day they will take flight and then soar high and far, nor that Lori and I are growing older — it is what it is. But I can practice redirecting my attention to the joy of fatherhood, marriage and family, and to the realization that, in so many ways — it keeps getting better.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Parents create new ritual, for connection

August 29, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, September 28, 2019

As parents, finding time to connect with each other is challenging. With our children, Zoe and Adam, rising 7th and 5th graders, it seems that my wife, Lori, and I spent more quality time together — alone, just the two of us — in the first three years of our relationship, than in the nearly 13 years since the birth of our Zoe.

We know we’re not alone. For many, the parenting journey in our highly-mobile culture where parents with young children, ours included, are geographically distant from family support systems where cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents can support each other in the important, daily work of raising children.

And so, for many, child care gaps are filled with a mosaic of paid support, in the form of baby sitters and nannies, as well as after-school, school vacation and summer camp programs, all adding to the cost of running a household. In the bustle of this lifestyle, Lori and I have worked hard, and struggled, to maintain quality connection, often too drained by the workday, ever-present commitment to Zoe and Adam, basic household operations and steadfast commitment to individual health and well-being.

Along the way, our sense of quality-time has evolved. Now, 15-minutes sipping morning tea on the breezeway before the kids awake, a quick trip to the YMCA to share a single lane to swim laps, and a 30-minute after dinner walk on the bike path serve as essential moments for being together — for connecting, sharing and listening to each other, without interruption.

While these moments of connection help sustain our relationship, we have yearned for longer periods of time, a full day or weekend, to enjoy our favorite outdoor activities, explore a new place, and simply be together as a couple. And while we have enjoyed a half-day or day together on a few occasions — even a weekend for our 10th wedding anniversary — extended time together has been a relatively unfulfilled aspiration.

So recently we decided to take a weekend trip together, while Zoe and Adam enjoyed time with their Granny and Pops, Lori’s parents, who during the summer months live less than two hours from our home. The trip was to visit Lori’s brother and family, in Charleston, South Carolina — to which a direct flight was non-existent, the heat index was over 100 degrees, and the woods and waterways around their home were inhabited by rattle snakes and alligators, two of my least favorite creatures.

But we were on a mission, determined to create a new ritual — a getaway weekend around the time of our August wedding anniversary — something we can plan and look forward to each year. So, we focused on the positive; and it was fun! We enjoyed rare time with Lori’s brother and family, tasty cuisine, uninterrupted adult conversation, and local sites, including Charleston College (where Lori’s brother and sister-in-law teach), an amazing 400-year-old Oak tree, and the only commercial Tea growing operation in the United States, which, as daily tea drinkers, we found especially interesting.

Throughout our trip we missed Zoe and Adam, and tearful FaceTime calls made it obvious that they missed us, too. Still, we believe that nurturing our relationship — day to day and with occasional trips — is essential to not only sustaining our relationship, but to thriving as a family too. So, while our family of four most enjoys being together — at home and for adventures — Lori and I are already creating a list of possibilities for next year’s getaway weekend, for just the two of us, where the weather is moderate, without snakes and gators.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Enjoying family vacations, and post-vacations too

July 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 24, 2019

Family vacations can be wonderful. Of course, there’s no guarantee, but time away from home and daily routines can foster closer connection, a sense of adventure and a refreshed outlook on life. Vacations can also be exhausting – including planning, packing, travel time, adjusting to new settings and returning to regular schedules after the trip.

Fortunately, as our kids, Zoe and Adam, (almost 13 and 10, respectively) have aged, our family vacations have been more wonderful and less exhausting, though our quest for adventure often produces some of both. Our recent four-day weekend at the family beach house, near the Connecticut shore on the Long Island Sound, offered a welcome balance that has often eluded us during our get-aways.

Amidst the warm sunny skies, cool evenings and great beach conditions, the highlights, for me, included a number of family one-on-one moments.

Lori and I enjoyed an early morning paddle (in kayaks), with the water calm and conversation easy; our bodies were refreshed by the exertion, our souls nurtured by the connection. Zoe and I walked to the lighthouse, where we sat alone, watching boats navigate in and out of the harbor, talking about features of the shoreline and fishing. I waded out to the sandbar with Adam, at low-tide, where I watched him skim board, together noticing snails, seagulls and the setting sun. And, I enjoyed a solo paddle – one-on-one time with myself – tracing the same route Lori and I followed; my mind’s inner dialogue rich and random as I traversed choppy seas.

For all the simplicity and slow pace of the weekend, though, back at work on Monday morning my brain was moving slowly, very slowly. I struggled to regain the momentum I had before our trip. After a mid-day run and lunch I was still low-energy. Instead of caffinating myself or forcing myself to work, I lay down on the floor of my office, on my back, and relaxed for a few minutes, before returning to an afternoon of computer work and phone calls. For the rest of the day, my mind and body were still moving at a slower rate than before our travels, not slow-motion, but rather a very calm, thoughtful pace.

The next day, Tuesday, while leading a team meeting at work, missed deadlines and disappointing progress on a major project left me irritated. Instead of blurting statements that likely would have been hurtful to others and counter-productive to our team’s efforts, I was able to able to voice my frustration in a clear and reasonable manner, which, in turn, created space for others to share their disappointments as well and, ultimately, a renewed focus on next steps.

At home on Wednesday, I made an unpopular decision, that led to great disappoint for one of our children, whose name is withheld upon request. I was confident in my decision, listened carefully to the repeated objections, and was able to remain calm until the situation was resolved, which took less time and energy than usual, for both of us.

So, while it was the ideal mix of rest, activity and connection with others that led to a wonderful vacation, it was a decidedly gentle return that has, so far, helped ensure a wonderful post-vacation too. And while this is more reminder than revelation, I am inspired to think carefully about the post-vacation that will follow our annual family camping trip in late August. I am envisioning a recovery day, or two, at home, so we can land, unpack and prepare for a smooth return to work and school. And, I’ve already scheduled a 30-minute post-vacation rest, during my lunch break, on the first day back in the office.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.