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Lessons harvested from a summer beach

December 17, 2011
The Fatherhood Journey: Lessons harvested from a summer beach
as published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we introduce a new monthly column on fatherhood by John P. Engel of Florence, MA.

The morning sun sparkles on the smooth sound. Gulls circle overhead, swooping to pluck minnows from the clear water. The worn, wooden jetty, draped with barnacles and poppers, emerges from the retreating tide. I imagine my wife, and her tanned clan of brothers and cousins, jumping off this edifice countless times many years ago.

In his mother’s footsteps, our almost 2-year-old son, Adam, confidently traces his feet along the slippery deck. Then, in a blink, just beyond my reach, he’s down face first in wet sand, next to a beached jellyfish. His wail pierces the morning calm. After being held in my arms and having his face de-sanded, he rushes to the dry side of the jetty and begins walking the plank, again, reassuring me, in his toddler voice, “Careful, no fall down!” After a few minutes of reclaiming his pride on the balance beam, I coax him toward our encampment, where a small collection of sand toys are littered on the beach, awaiting his wildest imagination.

I plop myself in a chair, stretch my arms and take in the view. I exhale and feel a moment of relaxation. This lasts for almost 30 seconds, when my son grabs my hand, and in a way that cannot be denied, says, “Come Dad, dig big hole.”

As much as any Dad on vacation can dream of kicking back and reading a few pages, or catching a few winks, the little boy within me, along with my son, conspire to engage me in the boyhood ritual of digging a big hole.

I recall when I was about 8 or so digging big holes in my backyard. Big meant a hole that would reach through the earth and pop out in China. Lucky for me, Adam does not yet know about the spherical nature of the earth, or about China, and so big simply means big enough to jump into, and climb back out of, repeatedly, until someone gets hurt.

The day before, I learned that a hole roughly 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep is about perfect. With a sense of profound purpose and reckless abandon, I with my 2-foot shovel and Adam with his bucket-size shovel share this glorious moment, digging in the sand. Just as we near completion, my nearly 5-year-old daughter, Zoe, decides she wants in on the action and jumps in the hole first.

Indignant, Adam screams, “No, my hole, my hole, my hole.” After my failed attempt at mediating a peaceable solution, I realize the only course of action, if I am ever to return to my chair, is to dig a second big hole. With Zoe’s consent and in her preferred location, right next to her brother’s hole, I begin digging. Soon, they are both proudly jumping in and out of their respective big holes.

As I return to my chair, Zoe says “Let’s connect them with a tunnel.” Already in action, as she announces her idea, Adam is quick to counter her creativity with his well-rehearsed refrain, “No, my hole, my hole, my hole.” In my chair, a smile registers; our daughter is clearly in touch with her feelings, and, then, my brow wrinkles; I fret we are creating a cave boy.

The space-connection conundrum

Recently, while hosting a gathering for fathers, two themes familiar to fathers (and mothers) emerged from our conversations: The seemingly contradictory need for both more personal space and more connection to others. On the one hand, these fathers lamented feelings of father isolation – a type of aloneness that includes feeling disconnected from one’s spouse or partner, children, childless friends and other fathers.

They (we) spoke, with angst, about the hectic nature our action-packed lives and the simple ease of days gone by, before parenthood, when dinner was a pleasant mix of food and uninterrupted, fulfilling conversation with our wife or partner that lasted well into the evening.

Listening to their stories, and my own, we yearn for deeper connection with those we hold most dear … to dig tunnels in the sand.

On the other hand, these same fathers craved more personal space: alone time when they (and me) are beholden to no one, left to engage in lofty endeavors, such as reading the newspaper, while sipping a cup of coffee or tea, without the need to change a diaper or fix the garbage disposal.

To dig a big hole in the sand.

The midday sun warms my helmeted head. My legs pump, slow and steady, up a half-mile stretch. Sweat drips from my brow. Adam and Zoe take in the scenery, water bottles in hand, as they sit wedged in the double-seated chariot I pull behind my bike.

Halfway up the climb, screams erupt from the 80-pound cargo that trails behind me. “Stop touching me, Adam.” In the bouncing of my rear-view mirror, I see lots of touching, pulling and pushing, as more screaming echoes throughout the entire time zone.

I’ve learned, the hard way, that defusing these moments is best accomplished by stopping the train, turning to my passengers, and inquiring about the situation, with a gentle, nonjudgmental tone, even in the middle of a hill, on the side of the street, in the August sun.

Poised, in a rare and elusive moment of groundedness, I notice that Adam is merely trying to hold his sister’s hand. Returning from Zoe’s first day at a new preschool, Adam has reunited with his beloved big sister and full-time summer playmate. He simply wants more connection; he is digging a tunnel.

My spirited, high-energy Zoe, who is known to wilt in group-settings, is clearly over-stimulated by her morning experience. She wants more personal space; she is digging a hole. The tension melts away when Adam says, “I missed you sister.”

Slowly, I turn and continue cranking up the hill, stuck in high-gear, sweat dripping. My mind wanders to the precious moments that lie ahead, when, following lunch, Adam and I will snuggle with a book; then, lying next to Zoe, I will hear stories about her new school. After quietly closing the doors to each of their rooms, I will dig my own big hole in the sand.



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