Today I’m featured on WhatToExpect.com in a post dealing with the moment it first hit me I was a dad. Hint: it involves Lionel Richie!
Hope you like it!
Today I’m featured on WhatToExpect.com in a post dealing with the moment it first hit me I was a dad. Hint: it involves Lionel Richie!
Hope you like it!
“Do you want to go wake Mommy?” I asked Sienna with a grin.
The little girl opened her eyes wide and beamed.
It was last weekend and I’d either let Elaine sleep in or she’d taken a nap. Regardless it was time to wake her from dreamland so a little girl could climb a bed like the North Mountain in Frozen and jump into her mother’s arms. I walked down the hall to the bedroom. Sienna ran already calling, “Mommmmy!!! Mommmmmyy!!” Little does she know Elaine can sleep through almost anything, even the stomping down the hall and calls of her daughter.
I turned the knob and Sienna squeezed through the doorway well before I opened the door to allow myself in. She hit the bed at a run.
Elaine awoke dazed and sat up, but when she saw her daughter scaling the bed, she smiled with utter warmth and joy. And that’s when the shrieks and squeals began because, well, Mommy was home and awake and nothing ever tops Mommy being home and awake. Nothing.
Once Sienna reached the top of the bed she jumped fell into Elaine as if her mother were a pile a pillows, not a human being who might suffer broken ribs, poked eyes or, as happened in this case, have the wind slightly knocked out her leading to an “OOMPH!” One day Sienna will know she needs to be more gentle, but not yet. Right now she’s all id, a ball of energy that wants her mommy and nothing was going to stop her.
Elaine and Sienna proceeded to play a game called “Tent” in which Mommy holds her leg straight up under the covers and Sienna does a fake scream and fall and then gets wrapped up in the blanket. She could play this game for hours or days or years. It’s a great test for endurance. Perhaps they should make it a challenge on Survivor. I mostly watched and took everything in because those squeals of pure elation got me thinking about something and once “Tent” was over, Sienna had scrambled off the bed and run down the hall and Elaine had gotten up, I took Elaine gently by the shoulders and said it.
“Did you hear those shrieks and squeals when she saw you?” Did you see how happy she was to see you? That’s because of how much she loves you. It’s NOT because you’re working during the week and she doesn’t see you as much as me. It’s because you’re her Mommy and she loves her mommy. Every day it’s, ‘Mommy?’ and I have to say you’re at work. The girl worships you. She adores you. You’re her Mommy and even if you were home all day, she’d still shriek and squeal when she sees you. You’re that special to her.”
Elaine’s eyes watered and she thanked me because yes, she does think she’s failing as a mom (she’s not…not by a long shot) and yes she does feel guilty that she’s not home enough and that Sienna maybe, just maybe, loves me more than her (so far from the truth!). Elaine is a wonderful mom, an amazing mom who can invent a silly game like “Tent” and play it over and over even if it’s starting to hurt her hip. She thinks about Sienna constantly. She thinks that Sienna’s existence and beauty and sweet nature proves that a higher power exists. And only an incredible mother would do and think such things. Elaine is just that and Sienna and I are both extraordinarily lucky to have her in our lives.
My mom doesn’t like to be photographed. It must be in the genes because I don’t like to be photographed either and unfortunately it means I couldn’t find a nice picture of the two of us on my computer when I decided to write this blog an hour ago in honor of Mother’s Day. So I guess you’ll have to deal with a great pic of Grandma Lynne and Sienna and why not? She’s a terrific grandmother – kind, generous, tolerant, stern when she needs to be. She’s such a wonderful grandmother that Sienna asks to see her almost daily. Lucky for her, Grandma works across the street. Unlucky for her, Daddy has issues he needs to deal with about going outside, but he’s working on them.
Daddy’s got a lot of issues that stem from many things in his past, but none of that’s important right now because I want to talk about how far my mom’s come in learning how to deal with a child suffering depression and anxiety, how much she’s been there for me, how she never stops believing in me or fighting for me even when I sort of take things out on her (we do tend to hurt the people we love, unfortunately), and how without her, I doubt I’d be as kind or generous or tolerant or stern when I need to be as I am. She’s taught me so much these past 2+ years when it comes to raising Sienna and she’s been there so many times when I’ve broken down and needed help. She gets a text or a phone call about me having an anxiety attack and she runs, not just for my daughter’s sake, but for mine…because she loves me and she’ll do anything for me. She’ll stay there all day playing with Sienna in the living room while I recover in bed if need be.
I know she feels guilty about not protecting me enough when I was younger or maybe pushing me a little too hard. I know that I’m still not able to completely let go of those things – yet – that sometimes they infiltrate my system and try to break and punish me, tell me lies about myself. My mom tells me the truth. She tells me she loves me. She tells me I’m talented and have enormous worth. And even if I can’t accept it at the time, I’m trying to let those words and feelings in.
Mom, you have nothing to feel guilty about. You were a 1st time parent dealing with a child who had and still has a chemical imbalance in his head that was exacerbated by certain things. We know a lot more about depression now today than you ever did when you raising me.
And here’s the real truth. I treasure you. You’ve unconditionally accepted Elaine and love her with all of your heart. You adore Sienna. You cherish me. And I thank you for that. I thank you for everything. I don’t say it near enough. I love you and I treasure you. Because you’re my mommy.
Happy Mother’s Day to my phenomenal wife and devoted mom, both truly special people.
Twas the first day of May and Elaine and my mother sat casually feeding Sienna eggplant rollatini in a pizzeria down the block form our apartment when out of nowhere the scariest creature on the planet zoomed by Sienna’s head. No I’m not talking about a rat or a killer bee or a king cobra. No great white shark decided to make a side trip from the ocean to have a slice of pizza. I’m not even talking about that insidious varmint known as Elmo. I’m referring to an ordinary housefly.
It’s amazing what strikes fear into the hearts of toddlers. According to eyewitnesses (Elaine and my mom), Sienna screeched and jumped into Elaine’s lap, clinging to her neck as if it were the last life preserver on the sinking Titanic, and buried her face on her mommy’s shoulder when the fly first buzzed her head.
“It’s just a fly, honey,” Mommy allegedly said. “It’s gone. Nothing to worry about. No more fly.”
Reports say it took some time for Sienna to calm down and release her mommy from that death grip.
“No fly,” said Sienna. “No fly.”
“That’s right,” echoed Elaine. “No fly.”
Then that monstrous beast streaked across the room and Sienna was back in Mommy’s lap, tears streaming, knuckles turning so white as she gripped Elaine that Mommy began to turn blue. Time and again a terrified Sienna would calm down and then hurl herself at Elaine when that fly flew overhead. Even when they reached the safety of the apartment Sienna would occasionally ask to be held while shaking her little head and assuring herself: “No fly. No fly.” This was something I witnessed when I got home and Elaine made me aware of the evening’s events making sure to always spell F-L-Y so as not to upset out daughter. I watched as Sienna peeked her head around the corner, looked at my wife for comfort, asked to be picked up and said, “No fly. No fly.”
When night-night came, Sienna seemed okay. It was Elaine’s night to put her down and our daughter laughed and played under fluorescent blue stars until my wife told her to climb into bed. She fell asleep, but apparently that devilish fly haunted Sienna’s dreams. As we sat on the couch listening over the baby monitor we heard our daughter whimper and then cry out as if a serial killer were after her in her sleep: “Help! Stop! Mommy! Daddy!”
Elaine went in first. She picked a drowsy Sienna up, held her to her chest, sat down in the rocking chair and rocked. But the little girl screamed and squirmed, screamed and squirmed. I went into the darkened bedroom and asked my little girl if she’d like to lie down on the floor with Mommy and Daddy.
I don’t know if she was awake or asleep when she answered, but it doesn’t matter. The three of us lay on the floor, Sienna between Elaine and myself. She sucked her thumb. She held her blanket. She fidgeted and fussed. Elaine and I ran our fingers through her hair and stole glances at each other. Finally I decided this was a night Sienna needed us, her parents, even more than ever. She needed to feel safe. We brought Sienna to our bedroom, placed her head on a pillow, shut off the light and got into bed. It was barely 11 pm so I had to take half a melatonin otherwise I would have lay there staring into the blackness.
I asked Sienna if she’d like me to sing “Rainbow Connection” which happens to be her current favorite song (I’m so proud!). She said yes and I dutifully complied, the words flowing over her in the darkness, lulling her to sleep. Little snores escaped her tiny nose. In her sleep she slipped across the pillow and landed with her face in my back. And I loved it. I loved being there for my daughter even if it meant having barely enough room to keep myself on the bed. I lay there feeling warm and important. I lay there feeling like vital father.
It wasn’t an easy night. Fitful sleep for all of us. Sienna periodically moaning, asking for help as that ghastly fly plagued her dreams, Elaine and I waking up at each whimper. According to Elaine, when she got up for work at 5 am, she had to leave a mewling and suffering little girl filling her with heartbreak. By the time Sienna and I awoke around 8 am, all was well with the world, both the actual fly and its nighttime apparition gone from our toddler’s mind. Elaine’s mom came over and she and Sienna had a grand time going for a walk and picking dandelions as Daddy tried to do some work – actually write a blog for the first time in forever as Elsa and Anna say in Frozen which we’ve now watched at least 10 times.
Sienna’s napping now and it’s peaceful. No bad dreams. No flies. The previous night is over but it left me with so many lessons and feelings.
One lesson is obvious: it’s way too early to introduce Sienna to Brundlefly.
The other lesson is that caring for my terrified little girl gave me sense of joy and love I haven’t felt in at least a month due to a depression relapse.
Who knew an ordinary fly could do so much?
What simple things have frightened your little ones so? How did comforting them make you feel?
I hate and fear my birthday. Yes it’s just a day like any other, but it’s one that so clearly marks the passage of time, one that depression sufferers such as myself tend to use to focus more than ever on the “failures” of the past and of time “running out” than on the now. Normally I feel sad on my birthday, distraught that I don’t have the money, the elite job title, the house, and I obsess over my life’s crossroads. What if I accepted the cool girl’s party invitation in junior high school instead of chickening out? What if I’d taken that film publicity job I’d been offered following my junior year internship instead of imagining my parents’ wrath at not completing college (I learned years later that the secretary during my time there became a vice president)? A few blogs ago I wrote about how I especially dreaded my birthday this year because it would be my 40th and how since Elaine would be at work late into the night, I felt intensely apprehensive that I’d spiral into such narcissistic despair that I wouldn’t be able to be there for Sienna, but I never wrote about the day itself and how I met that challenge.
On the morning of my 40th birthday I decided to take my 22-month-old daughter, Sienna, to the movies. I wasn’t sure if 22 months was too young for a child to go to movie theater, but I didn’t care because I knew if I didn’t get out of the apartment, I’d dwell until misery swallowed me. There was, of course, only one movie for us to see (cue Miss Idina Menzel):
Elaine’s not a big Disney fan, so I saw Frozen alone when it first opened, but since that day Sienna and I have probably watched the ”Let It Go” clip on YouTube about a quadrillion times, so I thought seeing it on the big screen would blow her mind; plus it was the sing-a-long version so I knew if my daughter yelled at the screen or ran around I’d at least be surrounded by similarly frazzled parents with their rambunctious children. In hindsight this was also a massive undertaking since I’m anxious any time I take Sienna outside, always imagining people talking about and judging me for being a stay-at-home dad, but on my birthday, a clear, crisp February morning, I bundled her up, strapped her into her car seat and told her it was adventure time.
As we entered the multiplex Sienna looked around and took in everything, particularly the luminosity of the theater lobby, big white bulbs overhead, red blinking lights announcing theater times. “Lights!” she repeated on a loop. “Lights!”
“LEGO Movie?” a fiftyish man with a bushy red mustache asked when we reached the counter.
“Nope. Frozen,” I said. “Taking my daughter to her first movie.”
“Good choice.” He smiled and gestured towards Sienna who wore her most serious expression. “And in that case we have something special in store for this little cutie. Just head over to the concession stand and let me know she’s a first-timer.”
I did so and after many congratulations, we received a free children’s popcorn. We walked down the hallway and passed a huge cardboard advertisement for Muppets Most Wanted and Sienna quickly ran up and touched Animal’s face. She LOVES Animal, especially his solo during the Muppets’ rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I had to sneak in a quick shot.
The theater was packed and by “packed” I mean crammed with empty seats. Seems 10:25 AM on a Monday is a perfect time to take your kids to the movies, especially if a film’s been out seemingly forever. I chose an aisle seat behind a wheelchair area giving us plenty of legroom in case Sienna needed to run around. I had no idea what to expect from her. Would the movie’s volume scare her? Would she sit for more than 10 minutes? As I said: adventure time.
I placed her in a seat and made sure I could access everything: popcorn, water, Cheerios, diaper bag, Elmo doll (wish she’d lose that thing! Not an Elmo fan!). Then I had to snap a pic because she looked so darn small and cute and befuddled!
The lights dimmed and we sat through ads and previews (“GREEN!” Sienna yelled happily whenever a preview card appeared) and then it was magic time.
First a clever, Oscar-nominated Mickey Mouse short in which Mickey, Minnie and the gang break through the screen and into a CGI, 3D world. “MICKEY MOUSE! MICKEY MOUSE!” Sienna announced, pointing at the screen. I told her it was indeed Mickey and ran my fingers through her hair. Then it was time for the main feature.
I don’t know how she did it, but Sienna sat through nearly the entire movie as if she were a film critic (or maybe she’s just like her mom who gets distracted and sucked in by any type of moving image, including commercials—she could be talking to you while walking into a room, but upon noticing the flickering TV, she’s an instant zombie and you actually have to snap your fingers to get her attention. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating…you don’t always have to snap your fingers). Getting back to Sienna, she stood up once and nearly fell through the space between the seat back and cushion, but then she resettled on my lap. She got a little antsy near the end of the film and ran around for maybe 15 minutes, but most of the time she looked like this:
We sang along to “Want To Build A Snowman?” and she pointed out all sorts of things like “SNOW!” and “HORSE!” and “WOLF!” to which she gave an accompanying, ”A-wooooooo! Wooooo-woooo–wooo!”
And when those opening, almost hypnotic notes of “Let It Go” began she jumped up and squealed, singing along as best as she could and mimicking Queen Elsa’s movements, arms thrust in the air in triumph. I sat there not thinking about my birthday, turning 40 or the past or future, but concentrating only on my daughter, on our special time together.
When the film ended we stayed through the second rendition of “Let It Go” and headed back into the lobby. I thanked everyone for being so kind and then decided I needed to get Sienna a plush Olaf to mark the occasion of her first movie. We drove to 4 stores, but no one had anything Frozen-related leaving me highly disappointed, but Sienna none the wiser. I think I wanted that Olaf doll more for me than for her. I think I wanted it to salute my taking action against my anxiety and depression on a day where they’re often incapacitating. At least I have the pictures and memories.
While seeing the movie with my daughter was incredible, I’d like to say that I was able to completely avoid my usual birthday doldrums, but I can’t. By the time my mother took Sienna and I out to dinner, I felt deflated and downcast. When Elaine came home after I’d put Sienna down for the night, my chest was tight and I felt sad and alone and near tears. She asked me if I’d seen all the hundred+ birthday wishes from people on Facebook, but I hadn’t checked because I knew I’d concentrate more on who DIDN’T wish me a happy birthday than on who DID; just another evil aspect of depression.
But then I recounted the morning: the empty theater; Sienna checking out the ad for the new Muppet flick; our daughter getting that first taste of movie popcorn and, like a pro, grabbing fistfuls without taking her eyes of the screen; Sienna standing on my lap, our arms raised, our voices nearly drowning out Queen Elsa’s. I broke into a grin thinking of how proud I was of Sienna and how happy I am to be a dad and how although I couldn’t completely shut out my demons, I stunted them by taking my daughter to her first movie, and how for a good portion of my 40th birthday I was able to just let it go.
Ok. The title of this blog is a bit misleading. I didn’t have any coffee. Peter (if I can call him Peter – I completely forgot to ask, but I think he’ll be okay with it) did and he did offer me a cup, but I’m not a coffee drinker, so I passed. Plus I was plenty nervous so I think I would have passed on any beverage he offered.
When I spoke with Peter, the final keynote speaker at Dad 2.0 (you can read Michael Moebes’ recap of Peter’s speech here), at the conference, I mentioned that his references to needing to limit technology when it comes to parenting reminded me of Neil Postman, the late father of Media Ecology, creator of the master’s program I attended at NYU, and author of plenty of revered books including the brilliant Amusing Ourselves To Death. When I said this, Peter responded, “You know, so many people say I sound a bit like Neil Postman, but I’ve never read any of his work. Do me a favor, send me a list of books I should read. Better yet, here’s my number and e-mail. Let’s meet up for coffee sometime in NY.”
Stunned, I took the info and wondered if I’d ever do anything with it. I mean, we’re talking about a man who travels the world as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, an author of 3 books, the founder of the Internet sensation, Help A Reporter Out (HARO), not to mention the father of a 9-month-old. Why would he want to spend any of his precious time talking with me?
So I debated and worried and worried and debated and finally about a week and a half after leaving New Orleans, I sent out an e-mail and soon enough we set a date, time and place.
We met at a Starbucks but then quickly went next door to Peter’s apartment building. Peter, looking comfortable in jeans and a blue sweatshirt (thank God I didn’t dress up!) offered me coffee and then immediately began cleaning up bottles and toys and all sorts of kid paraphernalia. I gave him a copy of Amusing Ourselves To Death and he thanked me saying he couldn’t wait to read it. Then he offered me a seat and said, “So what would you like to talk about?”
I had no idea. I figured based on our conversation at Dad 2.0 and me giving Peter a copy of Postman’s book that we’d discuss media, but what came out of my mouth was, “How do you deal with failure?”
SIDE NOTE: This is where I’m going to have trouble. I don’t know if it’s because of my depression or my meds or letting things build up so long that they eventually led to a severe nervous breakdown, but my short-term memory isn’t wonderful, so I can’t repeat things verbatim. I’ll paraphrase and write about the conversation’s themes, but I so wish I could write exactly what he said.
Peter talked about how many times he’s failed at business and in life and how each time it happens it angers him and at times he misplaced that anger, though he’s learned no longer to do that. Unlike me who’s crippled by failure, by even the THOUGHT of failure, Peter’s able to learn from his mistakes and move on. Naturally this led to a discussion about fear because I’m so afraid of, well, everything, but especially of failure. Peter, who continued to pick up a stray toy here or there and put it away leading me to think this man is just a dad like any of us dads, talked about how fear helps us learn and move, that when I got up on that stage at Dad 2.0 (and I was touched to know he saw me speak), he knew biologically that my pupils dilated and blood rushed to my legs because it’s a natural fight or flight instinct. He said he needs fear to keep going. That’s why he skydives. He needs to feel that fear and he needs to overcome it. He talked about how fear, if you let it, can imprison you, but it’s not worth it because life is so short. Not trying because you’re afraid makes you a self-fulfilling prophecy (something my therapist’s tried to drill through my skull about a zillion times). I told him how I had to be taken into a back room because I was hysterical after my reading and he said it makes sense, that it was the adrenaline pumping through my body and it needed release.
“But what about everyone else?” I asked. “How do you not worry about what they think of you?”
“What’s the point of worrying about what people who could care less about whether you exist on this planet think? Look, some people think I’m a douche. Sometimes I AM a douche. But who cares? I’m me.” He’s right. So’s my therapist. So’s my wife. So is everyone who’s ever told me this.
I sat curled up in a ball on a chair in Peter Shankman’s living room. Toys littered the floor. A playpen stood in one corner. Every once in awhile Peter’s phone or computer beeped as he got a text or e-mail.
“You’re giving too much power to other people,” he said. “The power needs to come from within. You have to like yourself even if you don’t believe it at first. Eventually you will.” Again echoing my therapist.
We swapped stories about our pasts, our troubles, bullies, depression. Peter was self-deprecating and down-to-earth. His eyes blazed with triumph when he talked about how he’s taken up cross training and iron man to help get the good chemicals flowing in his brain. He urged me to do the same even if it’s just walking on a treadmill at home…just get those good brain chemicals flowing.
He also advised me to start enjoying the little things.
“You see that cat over there?” he said, looking towards a a small white porcelain cat waving at us from the windowsill. “I bought that for 2 bucks in Thailand. It’s supposed to bring good luck. I love that thing. Probably the best thing I ever bought. I just smile and laugh every time I see it.” I thought about an episode of The Amazing Race where teams had to search through hundreds of little waving porcelain cats to find a clue. The little things.
He also said, and this I love, “I don’t understand why people can’t just be nice.” I couldn’t agree more.
That’s something I never expected to hear from a person in his position, someone I imagined to have wealth, fame and power and I said as much. He explained that that’s all an illusion, that if we went outside and asked 30 people who “Peter Shankman” is 30 people would have no idea, that he has no real power to change the world and that he lives comfortably, but he’s no billionaire Wall Street guy and he feels like he doesn’t even belong in their company.
“Look,” he said. “You did something big just by coming here. Plenty of people came up to me at the conference and asked to meet, but you’re one of the few who followed up. That impressed me.”
But did it impress me?
As our time neared an end, Peter brought out this sweet-looking grey-black cat and talked about how much he loves him, how the cat loved him unconditionally and I choked up a bit thinking about my own love of cats, my lost Zeeb who died when he was just 9. Again, the little things. And let’s not forget the big things like our wives and children. We have people who love and depend on us. We have a lot to live for.
I stood up, put on my jacket and Peter walked me to the elevator saying that he’d be more than happy to meet up again. I thanked him profusely and said I’d definitely send him another e-mail.
The elevator door closed and my chest began to hurt. All of a sudden anxiety flooded my body. Or was it anxiety? I thought back to what Peter had said about the adrenaline rush after my reading and how I did something big just by going to meet with him, how it impressed him.
Perhaps I did indeed impress myself as well.