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Security Versus “Story-worthy” Risk: A Father’s Look at Tomorrow

Posted by Ben Weaver on Oct 19, 2015 in Fatherhood, Musings, Success Guide

There exists some conventional wisdom that the average person changes careers seven times over the course of his or her life. Though I doubt the veracity of the claim, it stews in my current state of mind, “Four more? Is that what the back 40 of my life is going to be like?” As I ponder my future prospects, I wonder if I even have it in me.

See, I was one of those people who thought he could do the one thing he did (in my case, teaching) until he was ready to retire on a modest pension with his house and student loans paid off. Fresh out of college and a year of AmeriCorps doing volunteer teaching, I was going into my first teaching job like most other liberal saps, sure that I was going to “make a difference.” Even after a couple of years of teaching in a decades-old trailer with mouse holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling in Orange County, Va., I was undeterred. Oh, those little fuckers were going to undergo some serious transformation under my watch! Like so many other young and idealistic morons, I was going to CHANGE THE WORLD.

Yeah, okay. After a decade or so of teaching mixed classes of special ed, I had few illusions left to shatter. Sometimes little Norman just wasn’t going to pass his standardized tests no matter how many times you tried to get him to compose a five-paragraph essay on the social impacts of our First Amendment freedoms, especially if he hasn’t developed a full grasp of the alphabet by the time he’s in 8th grade. If Walter hasn’t learned by 17 that it isn’t appropriate to masturbate under his desk, he’s probably going to be beating it in a cubicle until they fire him from increasingly low level jobs for the rest of his life.

I was at peace with that. No, not changing the world…but have you heard that little parable about the little girl throwing the starfish back in the ocean? It is dumb, and I hate it, but yes, sometimes you just need to make a difference to one to make it all seem worthwhile.

Somewhere around year number 13 into teaching, something went terribly wrong. Many, many teachers got laid off, and the special education staff was slashed almost in half. One summer, after six comfy, complacent years teaching 8th grade civics, I got called to the principal’s office and asked if I wanted to take over the school’s program for the emotionally disturbed.

Say, when you put it like that, it sounds like you’re moving up in the world! I just knew getting that ED designation in grad school would make me an attractive candidate for a management position! Then I found out that meant everyone else who was doing it quit, and I would be the only one teaching three grade levels of bat shit crazy, potentially volatile kids all in the same room and be responsible for all their casework plus four SOL subjects per grade level.

I laughed in that man’s face. “I’d rather work construction” were my exact words.

So that’s what I did, starting my own business doing home improvements. I really didn’t know shit, but I’m a quick study. I’ve often said I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in life if not for a ready willingness to get in over my head. By and by, work and opportunity came my way, and I did my best to take advantage of it. By year number three, I had two regular employees and was subbing out lots of work. Things were great, and money was flowing but….

I was terrified. Shit, what if I lose this contract? (I did) What if I can’t pay the mortgage on the house? (thankfully never happened) What if the wife leaves, and I’m the only income? (she did, and I am) What if I accidentally shoot myself with a nail gun, and it lodges into the part of my brain that controls my ability to get erections? (somehow dodged that one) These are the things that keep men up at night and wear on their souls!

It all wasn’t without its merits, however. Having had a chip on my shoulder toward authority since gestation, I am well-suited to being my own boss. I don’t like taking other people’s shit or suffering their mistakes, and for the most part, I didn’t have to…with regard to work, at least. Want to take the day off to do paperwork and send the crew out to work? Want to have a beer with lunch? Want to be able to fire people who get on your nerves? Verily, I say, it is good to be the boss.

As much as I loved the freedom and self-satisfaction, when a job offer came my way with the promise of a big steady paycheck and the accompanying security for Henry and me, I jumped right on it. Daily travel? Oh, yeah, I love travel. Thirteen-hour work days? No problem, I hate sleep anyway!

In the heat of demonstrating that can-do, positive attitude and holding faith that things will work themselves out, one can easily look past the detriments of a life of hard labor on the road: maintaining a 50/50 custody arrangement is exceedingly difficult, as is maintaining relationships.

– Time to yourself? Good luck with that! You’ll feel guilty that you didn’t spend time with the friends you never see anymore.
– Want to see your kid at least once during the work week? You’ll hear about it because you can only work a 10-hour day in order to pick him up from preschool before it closes, never mind that you worked through lunch.
– Certainly don’t get caught up about knowing where you’ll be next week or the week after or trying to plan a life around work because it isn’t going to happen.

Not to say that I don’t enjoy certain aspects of life on the road. Visiting corners of the world I haven’t yet seen, finding holes in the wall serving up the local specialty, spending time outside through the beautiful Virginia seasons… all of these things are easy to find pleasure in. As well, like a Siberian husky, I need and crave the physical exhaustion that accompanies a long day of labor, when the persistence of thought abates and my mind can be empty. Some people do yoga; I prefer shoveling gravel and tossing 80-pound bags of concrete. I swear, it makes me a better person on so many levels.

But life on the road sucks when all you really want to do is be there for your kid as he grows up. I’m over leaving tears on the pillowcases in shitty hotel rooms at this point, but I do wonder how I’ll make it work in the long-term. I know I only have about eight more years until he hates my guts, then another five to eight before he figures I’m less worthy of contempt again, if I’m lucky. The knowledge that these days of endless hugs and unbridled enthusiasm will not last forever is unsettling… but, then again, so is the prospect of homelessness.

Every once in a while I’m put in a position to make a decision between security and the gambit of potential greatness versus utter failure. While I’ve certainly done things for the sake of security, none of them are story worthy. The times I have said “fuck it” have always been my defining moments, for better or for worse. While I still don’t know for sure what the resolution to my current situation will be, I remain certain of this much: a life without risk is a life unfulfilled.

 
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Wait, This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen So Fast! Confessions of a reluctant father

Posted by Ben Weaver on Aug 17, 2015 in Fatherhood, Men

One night, when I was four or five, I was watching a National Geographic special about great blue whales with my parents. At one point in the program, there was a feature about their mating rituals and I asked Mom and Dad, “What are those whales doing?” My parents, being the young hippies they were, gave me an honest answer employing the words “penis” and “vagina.”

I was appalled. My mom still recalls with glee my reply: “Gross! I might get married, but I’ll never do that!”

At some point about 20 years later, that turned into, “I might do that… but I’ll never get married!” Then around 30, it turned to, “Okay, I can do that and get married and it’s probably okay… as long as we don’t have kids.” You can probably see where this is going.

I think it’s fair to say that I entered into fatherhood reluctantly (possibly an understatement). Yes, I am aware it probably makes me sound like a bad person. Here’s the thing:

I liked my little life the way it was. I liked playing in a band; I liked going out and enjoying meals unencumbered by screaming (usually); I liked having a beer with breakfast on Sundays after sleeping as late as I cared to; and I didn’t really want any of that to change.

When I and my now-former wife first met, we were both on the same page: between don’t want or unsure if wanting to have a kid. After a while, the reproductive urge set in, and she became dead set on having a baby, preferably many of them. Through no small amount of convincing, I agreed to try.

After trips to the OBGYN, the general consensus of our prospects for a successful pregnancy reminded me of a monologue from the Coen brothers’ classic, Raising Arizona: “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase…”

The actual doctor’s response was, “Well, stranger things have happened.” Upon hearing this, I was a little more encouraged. My little reptilian brain started churning, and I realized that we could be trying for months before it might happen. Months, possibly years, of babymaking sex were all but a guarantee!

When she started ovulating the next week, we went for it. Twice, actually. A few days later, when her monthly visitor failed to promptly show, she went to the Rite-Aid and confirmed with a 3 pack of EPTs that she was indeed with child.

I was blown away! What about “stranger things have happened,” not to mention the months, possibly even years, of coitus non-interruptus?!? Also, we’re having a kid! Holy shit!

In my mind, this all registered, and I was proud and happy, but, at the same time, it seemed surreal: I was going to be a dad, bearing the responsibility for not just the survival of another human being but also making sure he or she didn’t grow up to be an asshole.

Like everything else in my life, I felt like I would have to experience it in order to wrap my head around it and failed to find much use for advice books and the sage wisdom of the Internet regarding fatherhood. This was a point of contention. My future ex-wife was cool about things during the pregnancy for the most part, but she considered my approach to be head-in-the-sand. Regardless of the number of books I did or didn’t read, I was poised to confront fatherhood head on… as soon as the kid actually arrived.

The day came and, after 9+ months of anticipation, I was ready for it. The thing is, though, is that it scared the hell out of me when I held him, when I bathed him, when I took him to the store… I was so acutely aware of how fragile his existence was and how very much it was in my hands.

I also never knew my gag reflex was so strong until I changed a diaper. A couple of times I narrowly missed vomiting on my infant son, opting to catch it in the clean diaper instead. If you have ever had to bear the expense of disposable diapers, you know that was a tough call. Like, “How much does a bath cost?”

Here’s the part that makes me sound like an asshole: his mother was (understandably) obsessive about him and didn’t want to let him leave her side ever, and, generally, I was just fine with that arrangement. When she started classes a few months after he was born and I had him by myself for a few nights while she was in class, I was completely freaked out the first few times–my mind jumping from whether or not I would do something to jeopardize his well being to wondering if I could get him to stop crying if he started up, or ohmygod what if he just stops breathing!!!???  

I thought it would just come naturally, like so many other things, and I was a parental mess.

It was a hard first year. It wasn’t until he was about six months old that I began to feel at ease with him, and it wasn’t until he developed something of a personality shortly thereafter that I truly bonded with him. Not that I didn’t love the kid and wasn’t willing to lay down my life for him from birth, but, honestly, he was a puzzle to me. As I learned how to understand him, how to make him laugh, how to play with him, I began to see the beauty of the whole fatherhood thing and derived joy from it. My time with him became pleasurable rather than a fulfillment of responsibility.

When Henry turned 3, my wife became my ex-wife. She moved to a friend’s house and later to an apartment of her own, and we agreed to a split 50/50 custody. Though the dissolution of a marriage is one of the more difficult life events I can imagine enduring, it had its upside in that my relationship with my boy has grown immeasurably.

Maybe it was the closeness fostered by the, “Looks like it’s just you and me now, kid” talk (as I cried fat, sorrowful tears blubbering to someone who couldn’t be bothered to look away from his Elmo phone) or the emergence of communicative faculties which have allowed us to develop a personal relationship or our mutual love of pho and southern fried chicken. Whatever it was, I’m deeply grateful.

Finally, I understand all the clichés and platitudes people employ when describing the experience of fatherhood. It IS the hardest, best thing I’ve ever done; I DO see so much of myself in him; and, now five years in, I can’t imagine a life worth living without him in it.

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