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Father reflects on entering the sandwich generation

April 28, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 26, 2017

Recently my mother took ill. She has been in relatively good health and recently celebrated her 75th birthday at her 55-plus, residential community. So, when my sister called to report my mother was in an ambulance, and possibly had suffered a stroke, I was surprised, and scared.

Fortunately, my mother’s condition quickly stabilized while she received a few days of great care in the hospital, followed by a week in a rehabilitation center. She then returned to independent living, where she received a couple of weeks of home care visits.

And so I found myself, along side my generational peers, a member of the sandwich generation, pressed between the need to care for both young children and aging parents. And while I initially felt some panic and stress from this double responsibility, I also have come to appreciate a few unexpected gifts, which accompanied this unexpected, yet predictable, episode.

First, I am grateful for my sister’s astute perception and quick action. She was speaking to my mother by phone and noticed my mother was struggling to speak and think clearly. Immediately suspecting a stroke — despite the fact that my mother has never experienced one — she called the front desk at my mother’s residential community and requested a room check. They shared my sister’s concerns and called for an ambulance.

During the following days of treatment, I chose to support from a distance, attempting to balance work, family and supporting the process in the way I thought I was best equipped. My sister texted a string of hourly and daily updates and put me on speaker phone as soon as a doctor or case manager entered the room.

With the support of my wife, Lori, who has more than 20 years experience as a health care professional — including rehabilitation of stroke patients — I was able to ask key questions and advocate for care in ways that were helpful. Even my father, more than 20 years divorced from my mother and who has a past, scary, stroke history, was able to offer timely advice to me, which I immediately put to use when on the phone with the cardiologist.

Our family is no stranger to pain and separation, bearing bruises from past hurts and unresolved conflicts. Yet, during this brief episode, we pulled together to function as a team, effectively managing a difficult situation, an unfamiliar — yet welcome — experience.

With my mother quickly returning to her daily routines, my focus has shifted forward. In many ways, we were fortunate — this time — since the impact of her stroke was relatively mild, a great blessing indeed.

But I also learned that she had neglected to put her legal affairs in order, an unsettling thought in the wake of this recent scare. First, I felt some judgment about my mother’s inactions, followed by resentment with the thought that I was the person best positioned to support her with putting together end-of-life plans. Then I realized that Lori and I had not fared any better in this endeavor.

To Lori’s credit, she has been encouraging us to create a will and other health care plans – pushing, prodding and pulling together resources. But I have presented a string of excuses — for years — thus preventing us from completing basic plans designed to ease the burden of managing important life and death circumstances.

Reflecting on the recent situation with my mother has created greater urgency for me to work with Lori to put our own legal plans in place. So, with our 10 and 7 year-old Zoe and Adam clamoring for our attention, we have been discussing and learning about the basics of estate planning, including health care proxies, advanced medical directives and living wills, as well as financial powers of attorney and wills.

And while we have yet to fully complete the process, it feels good to be working on it together, especially knowing that we are putting important protections in place for each other, and for Zoe and Adam. It also feels good to learn important information that will be useful as I seek to support my mother with her own legal planning.

This recent experience, both caring for our young children, and supporting my aging mother, helped us grow closer as a family, not pull us apart. And while the road ahead will surely be more complicated, I am learning that life in the sandwich generation includes unexpected blessings, too.

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

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Bonding through haircuts (and burritos)

April 3, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 29, 2017

“Your hair is getting too long.” I remember those words, delivered more with shame than care, when I was a kid. Parents, teachers and coaches alike – back in the 1970’s – found it both duty and right to ensure that boys’ hair remained tightly cropped.

Perhaps they were just defending the status quo – a post war 1950’s version of American culture – ensuring that kids from respectable families and communities did not venture down the path of longhaired, counter-culture types.

Nonetheless, I clung to my medium to slightly long hair style – like most of my peers – throughout my school years and college, venturing for a few tumultuous years in my late 20’s to a ponytail of respectable length, before shaving my head bald. Since that decisive moment, I have been a fan of the good old, fashioned buzz cut (an 1/8 to ¼ inch in length) the preferred look of – my father’s era!

My reasons are pragmatic, mostly. It’s very easy to manage – I’m in and out of the barber chair in under 10-minutes (and for a fraction of what my wife Lori pays for a hair styling, although her hair is lovely), only a drop of shampoo is required for each washing, and I never have bed or hat head.

My son Adam (and daughter Zoe) have only seen me with short hair – and occasionally a clean, shaven head. Not surprisingly, while I fully support Adam’s hair choices, and at age 7 he certainly has a strong opinion on the matter, he generally prefers to join me for a buzz cut, accept when he would rather not.

So, wanting to avoid the hair battles of my childhood, I incentivize our outings with lunch – buzz and burritos, and in seasonable weather – bike, buzz and burritos.

And though we relish our hair outings, we both lean toward a DIY approach to life, often musing about owning gear for do-it-yourself hair trimming.

So on a recent outing to a local big box store where we trolled the isles for plaster of pairs and petroleum jelly (materials for Adam’s upcoming school science fair project), our eyes locked on a spectacle of great desire.

The words, “VIRTUALLY INDESTRUCTIBLE HAIRCUT TRIMMER,” and “For your clipping and trimming needs” boldly appeared on the bright black and yellow package, along with an image of a man giving himself a buzz cut.

Adam’s eyes (and mine) instantly registered impulse buy.

We quickly justified the purchase, reveling at the 15-piece kit, lifetime warranty and industrial power cord. The rigorous product testing (documented by online videos) sealed the deal. Never missing a teachable moment, I coached Adam through some quick calculations and he soon realized the cost of the clippers was less than two barbershop visits, such a deal!

Arriving home, we immediately set up shop in the kitchen. Fresh in my mind was Lori’s voice of disapproval, as she is still haunted by the hair cut – that went badly – which she received from her father as a child. So, I decided we should start by having Adam cut my hair. He eagerly complied.

I had seriously under-estimated the pure joy this activity would offer Adam, and me. After a few successful swipes through my hair with the clippers, Adam gleefully cried, “We’re professionals!” Moments later, welling with a sense of pride at his craftsmanship, he proclaimed, “ This is a new skill!”

About the time Adam had my head looking quite – in process, Zoe and Lori arrived home, stunned by the kitchen scene. Adam grinned widely for his audience. We wrapped up and took a lunch break before the next customer.

To my surprise, Adam insisted on buzzing his own head, while I held a mirror. It was slow going, but his sense of determination was formidable.

The whole affair was a smashing success, until the very end. As I cleaned up his neck line, tears of protest erupted as he screamed, “That hurts!” It turns out the cutting edge of the clippers gets hot after cropping a full head of hair, who knew? Lori glared with a look of “I told you so!”

After a few hugs and strategizing that next time we should let the clippers cool before finishing touches, we were ready for those product-testing videos.

After watching a pair of the clippers survive being run over by a truck, dropped three stories onto concrete, and whacked across the infield with an aluminum bat, we were even more confident our purchase would provide a lifetime of father-son haircut bonding.

And, following our next buzz cuts we will perfect our do-it-yourself burritos!

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

 

Compassion is solution to parenting puzzle

February 23, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 22, 2017

Lately I have been puzzled. My wife, Lori, and I are blessed as parents of two loving children, Zoe and Adam, who are absolutely wonderful with each other — in a best friends sort of way — almost all of the time. And when they are not, it’s exhausting!

“He’s touching me!”

“She got to be first last time!”

“He’s cheating!”

“She won’t leave me alone!”

At ages 10 and 7, respectively, Zoe and Adam’s behavior is more common than perplexing, as most parents attest. The mystery, for me, is: Why are humans — of all ages — especially during times of conflict, apt to focus more on assigning blame, and less on compassion. Fortunately, reflection on seemingly unrelated events has offered me insight.

Recently, a couple of families in our close circles have been experiencing horrendous hardship. From afar, Lori and I have provided emotional support to each, grateful for the opportunity to express our care. And, after a week when circumstances were especially intense, I was feeling drained — my mind was foggy, my energy low, and I felt irritable.

I started distracting myself by reading online political news, junk food for my unsettled mind. I was instantly reminded of the raging public discourse, in the both local and national media, which I had mostly filtered out in the past couple of months.

Then I began to realize the parallels in these recent experiences. During the run up to the 2016 Presidential election, I became deeply immersed in the campaign issues and outcomes, as did millions of Americans. For many, myself included, the campaign was emotionally intense, and then the outcome left many of us overwhelmed — with foggy minds, low energy and feeling irritable.

That I felt similarly after investing emotional energy in both the election and friends in crisis left me puzzled, until I was reminded that compassion literally means “to suffer together;” to notice human suffering and to feel the impulse to alleviate it.

To suffer with another, for me, is infinitely harder, and generally less appealing, than holding someone responsible, especially if I can blame and find fault in someone else, which I was drawn to do in both the election and with those who were the source of our friends’ struggles.

Then I thought of Zoe and Adam, and the puzzle pieces clicked together. I began asking myself: How can I more intentionally practice and model compassion for them — especially when they are in conflict with each other — rather than assign responsibility, or blame, which I am prone to do.

There is growing evidence that practicing compassion has many benefits, including more caring parenting, marriages, friendships, workplaces and communities. It also makes people more resilient and happier.

So, while holding myself, and others accountable is both noble and necessary for helping right injustices in the world, I am realizing the equal, if not greater, need to practice compassion. My hope is that doing so will both make for more peaceful families, and more civil societies.

For more on compassion visit greatergood.berkelely.edu

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

Finding political voice, as a family

January 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 25, 2017

I’m not a fan of political marches. I find crowds and chanting masses unappealing. And, I am dubious about the lasting impact of such gatherings.

My stance is partly a function of my introverted personality; I prefer less social stimulation, not more. But it’s also a function of privilege. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class, Christian raised, English speaking, college-educated, American male, my civil rights and liberties have never been in serious jeopardy.

But when my wife Lori and I began to learn of the Women’s March in Washington, scheduled for the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. President, we felt that marching – as a family – was a moral imperative, though we opted for a local event.

So, on a sunny, unseasonably warm Saturday morning, after returning from our son Adam’s 8:00 a.m. indoor soccer game, we rested, refueled and quickly made a sign. Crafting symbols and words on a large sheet of cardboard – peace, love, hope and light – we offered aspirations for the next four years. Then we drove to a point near the start of the march and set off on foot to assemble with the others.

Like many, we were largely silent during the march. Mostly we read the eclectic mix of signs, listened to chants, and marveled at the turnout, which stretched, one lane wide, along a mile of city-street. Parents carried babies and pushed strollers, children and adults of all ages lifted signs, some rode in wheel chairs, others on bikes, while still more waived from the curb.

We stayed close together, our family sign resting high on my shoulders, and Zoe and Adam beamed at the occasional site of their elementary school friends. As we approached the town center, the crowd’s energy surged and I felt an unexpected surge of emotion, tears briefly welling up in my eyes as I appreciated the significance of the moment – for our family, community and nation.

By the time we reached the end point, Zoe and Adam were far more interested in food and restrooms than protest speeches, so we found lunch and then headed to a nearby playground before returning home.

That evening, dinner conversation offered a few moments for reflection. When asked about what they noticed at the march, Zoe remarked that there were so many signs, and recalled a chat about women’s rights and human rights. Adam observed that there were so many people and that they were well behaved.

So while we were far from the sea of people who gathered in Washington, D.C., I believe the collective expression of those with whom we marched left indelible impressions on Zoe and Adam, which means while this was our first march as a family, it won’t be our last.

 

Holidays are a time to celebrate gifts that endure

December 28, 2016

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 28, 2016

For many, gift giving is customary this time of year. And while we honor both Hanukkah and Christmas traditions in our home, my wife, Lori, and I place simplicity and moderation ahead of excess. Still, Zoe and Adam, our 10 and 7 year-olds, are wildly enthusiastic about gifts.

And while Zoe is more focused on the joy of gift giving these days, Adam, brimming with innocence and curiosity, is in tireless pursuit of a comprehensive understanding of the gift supply chain.

Back in October, he and I teamed up for our annual chimney-cleaning project. Adam’s job is to stand guard in the doorway, making sure the plastic bag we duct taped to the bottom of the stovepipe remains fastened, preventing soot from filling our living room. Apparently, while I was perched upon high, ramming a circular brush attached to a 16-foot pole up and down the pipe, Adam was pondering the physics of chimney travel.

Back on the ground, we celebrated the success of our collective efforts. Then, Adam, with a bit of a grin, asked: “How does Santa fit down the chimney with our presents with that metal pipe in the way?”

Pausing, and grinning in return, I said, “Great question. Maybe he uses the back door.”

“Yeah, but how does he get in if the door is locked?” he asked.

I just shrugged and we moved on to lunch.

About a month later, Adam advanced the conversation.

“Dad, how do the reindeer fly around the world in one night?”

I reminded him of the paradigm shifting idea he postulated last year, namely there must be more than one Santa and more than one set of reindeer, and that together they are able to get the job done in one night, a blue print for a Santa franchise.

Wiser in the ways of planetary science this year he reasoned, “Yeah, because since night-time comes later some places than others that means they have more time to get to all the houses.”

These musings reminded me of my own childhood, when at a tender young age I tried to make sense of the mysteries of the Santa tradition, wanting to debunk its validity, while still clinging to hope that it was real.

But access to high-tech tools and big data have bolstered Adam’s methods of inquiry far beyond my wildest childhood dreams.

For example, he recently picked up my iPhone, pressed the main button and spoke, “Siri, Is Santa Claus real?” Fortunately Siri, the artificial intelligence voice embedded in Apple products, generated the same type of inconclusive response that my parents offered when I was a kid.

Undeterred, Adam reframed his question, “Siri, What is Santa?”

A week later, after considering additional data — the steady flow of delivery trucks in our neighborhood — Adam shared his updated thoughts. “I don’t think the elves make all the presents. I think they order some from Amazon and have them delivered by a UPS truck. That’s how they can get so many presents to all the houses on time for Christmas.”

I don’t know when Adam’s fascination with the Santa tradition will end, but I will be sad when it does. And, I hope one day he will experience the joy of this tradition, as a father.

In the meantime — amid the crazy, commercialized, high-tech gift industry of our rapidly expanding global economy — I will cherish the enduring gifts of joy, curiosity and family.

And, despite my commitment to go local, I am considering adding shares of Apple, UPS and Amazon stock to my wish list.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

 

Together, father and son find their voices

November 23, 2016

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 23, 2016

Speaking our truth can be difficult, especially when we are hurting. So my 7-year-old son, Adam, recently reminded me.

Adam, along with a gaggle of neighborhood friends, had been playing a pick-up game of soccer in our front yard. As is sometimes the case — especially Thursday afternoons, when fatigue from the school week has frayed bodies and nerves — conflict emerged. Disagreement over rules — someone feeling slighted, someone else feeling blamed — is a predictable outcome of competitive contests, in our neighborhood and in general.

This time Adam felt blamed, unjustly in his mind. I watched the scene unfold, and giving him space to work through the conflict, I observed both sides of the issue. Each had merit. Finally, Adam and I made eye contact, and I offered a gentle head nod and hand gesture, letting him know I was available.

As we sat on the edge of a lawn chair, beyond the view of the crowd, Adam buried his face in my chest. Sobbing, he said: “I don’t know why they are being mean to me.”

“That must feel icky,” I replied.

“Yeah,” Adam murmured.

But it’s what Adam said next that melted my heart.

“I can’t find my words. I don’t know what to say to them.”

For years, my wife, Lori, and I have been instilling in Adam, and big sister, Zoe, that using our words, rather than hitting, screaming or being mean to each other, is the appropriate way to work through our differences.

So, Adam’s reminder was timely and beautiful; I too was hurting and struggling to find my words, like many, in the wake of the recent presidential election.

In that moment, I recognized that before either Adam or I would be able to find those words, we needed to be more grounded. We moved to the back yard, to be alone, where we briefly played. Inside Adam enjoyed some quiet time in his room, while I took a work call. Then, together, we prepared a supper that included two of his favorite foods – corn bread and mashed potatoes.

Later at bedtime, he was still feeling tender and wanting closeness. So, in the protective shell of his lower bunk, snuggled under the blankets, we revisited the soccer conflict. Talking through the details of his experience, we quickly identified words he could use next time he faced a similar situation. His sense of relief was instantly visible.

And then, as Adam slept, I found a quiet room where I began to write.

I reminded myself that when I listen to, and am present with, someone who is hurting, it is empowering for both of us.

I acknowledged that the vitriol of the recent presidential campaign profoundly demonstrated people — in families and communities throughout the country — are hurting; that as a nation there is a great need to listen to each other.

I resigned myself to the fact that Donald Trump had won the electoral authority to be president, but observed that he has not demonstrated the moral authority to lead our country.

I redoubled my commitment to call out and denounce words and acts of hate and division, however subtle or extreme.

And — as a father and community member — I recommitted myself to finding and using my voice in ways that uplift all that is kind, compassionate and just, so that together we can nurture our children to be the parents, community members and presidents of tomorrow.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

Father votes for hope, not nostalgia

October 26, 2016

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 26, 2016

As the presidential race approaches Election Day, rhetoric – from candidates, pundits and voters alike – has reached a fever pitch. My kids Zoe and Adam, at ages 10 and 7, are befuddled by both the hype and some of the more disturbing messages that have reached their young ears.

Filtering both the extreme and mundane, what continues to hold my attention is one of the election season’s most persistent themes – a steady beat of cries that the country is in disastrous condition and only getting worse. Some voices from this chorus are calling for a return to life as it was in the 1950s.

While I was not alive, let alone a father in the 1950s, my historical understanding of that era provides me with some insight about what my experience of fatherhood might have been like, in that most laudable decade of modern America. Granted, fathers probably were not writing columns about the experience of fatherhood, and since Al Gore had yet to invent the internet there were no Daddy Blogs – or Mommy blogs, for that matter – to peruse on smart phones, while children frolicked on play dates.

But had I been writing such a column in the 1950s, here are some important topics I may, or may not have, considered.

I might have expressed concern over the dangers families faced while traveling in automobiles, since protective child safety seats had not yet been developed and adult seat belts were not yet standard equipment.

Revolutionary as it was, I would not have been writing about the 1955 patent of a cutting edge chemical known as BPA, which for decades thereafter poisoned infants and children through contaminated baby bottles and Sippy cups until the FDA banned its use in these products, in 2012.

While it would have been socially unacceptable, I might have written about the customs of the day that relegated fathers to roles of provider and protector, denying them the opportunity to nurture their children and share equally, with mothers, in domestic chores and homemaking.

I would have been more than remiss, had I not written about the trauma experienced by people of color who were both routinely denied basic civil rights and subjected to extreme violence when trying to simply create a better life for themselves and their children.

I certainly would have written about the plight of women and mothers — and by extension families — who at the time had relatively little political power, limited professional opportunity, and were subject to persistent sexist norms. Though I probably would not have written about the domestic and sexual abuse women experienced because, as a country, we did not even begin seriously addressing these heinous crimes until the 1970s — and later.

And it would have been beyond taboo for me to write a column about the challenges parents faced when helping their gay, lesbian or transgender children triumph over discrimination and intolerance.

So, while I am not immune to experiencing fear-based nostalgia, calls for returning to bygone eras remind me that we humans often yearn for something we don’t have — and even harder for something we fear losing — all the while neglecting to appreciate what we

already have gained. And this leaves us ill equipped for the hard and necessary work of identifying goals and actions that will guide us to a future that unites, not divides, us.

So as a father — in 2016 — I both celebrate, and seek to build upon, the gains we have made since the 1950s, regardless of who is president, because for me, hope trumps nostalgia.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com