Sunday, May 24, 2009

Just Another Sunday Morning

It's Sunday. Like most Sundays, this morning we went to church. As a Christian and someone who knows he has a lot to be grateful for, I want to make sure my family goes to church. I believe church is a place you go to worship God and give to others, not some religious club you drop by as if you're making God's day by showing up or doing Him a favor because you didn't sleep in on Sunday morning. I want my kids to grow up with the conviction that church is important, not as a religious duty, but as a gesture of love and faith. I want them to view church as a place where they go to focus their hearts and minds on Jesus Christ and to encourage other people. I don't want my kids to see church as a place where people go to critique sermons or pass judgment on whether or not the church is doing enough to make their attendance worthwhile. In short, I want my children to understand church the way I believe the Bible presents it: It's about a community of people who love and serve God and each other, not a place to catch up on gossip, judge people who aren't as "righteous", look down on other churches that do things differently, or get attitudes because someone had the audacity to make a decision you don't agree with.

All that being said, getting to church on Sunday mornings is, for our family, often difficult. Gone are the days when it was just Meredith and I. Before kids, we'd get up and enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee before getting dressed and heading out the door. No longer! Now getting to church by 10am is a logistical operation that requires D-day like planning. Quiet cups of coffee have been replaced by shots of caffeine quickly gulped down in between shouts of, "Finish your breakfast"; "Hurry and brush your teeth"; and "Get your hands out of the toilet!"

Of course, I'm just a field commander. The general in this weekly mission is my wife. After doing more than her fair share to get the Howard crowd up and moving in the morning (she makes the breakfasts, lays out the clothes, changes the baby, gets the kids out of bed, and so on), my wife starts delegating so that she can get herself ready for church. Like George S. Patton standing before an American flag, Meredith shouts directives with authoritative specificity: "Emerson, finish eating and get upstairs! William, outta those pee-pee drenched pull-ups! Carson, take Daddy's underwear off your head and put Mommy's tampons back in the box! Daddy, get 'em dressed while I'm in the shower! We're going to church, so move, move, move!" Then, like a dutiful soldier, I attempt to carry out my assignment.

The only problem is, the troops under my command don't possess the same appreciation for military discipline (nor fear of Mommy) that I do. While General Patton takes a shower and does her hair, I'm chasing naked fannies up and down the hall, desperately trying to apply diapers and Incredible Hulk underwear to my two boys. Meanwhile, my daughter drags herself down the hall at zombie-like speed moaning, "Daddy, I'm so tired," and "Daddy, why do we have to go to church?"

Finally, after cornering and clothing my sons, it's on to the teeth brushing. This is a delicate and often gross undertaking that takes time and experience to master. Standing my oldest son, William, on a stool in front of the mirror, I try to hold his chin with my left hand while attempting to brush his teeth with my right. Then commences a series of head-bobs and neck turns not seen since Muhammed Ali retired from boxing. For a while the head-bobs work, leading me to apply toothpaste to every part of William's face except his teeth. Finally, over shouts of "Daddy, no!" and "Daddy, my eye!" I finally insert the toothbrush into William's mouth. I barely touch a tooth before the entire upstairs rings with screams of, "I have to spit! I have to spit!" At last, I get paste to enamel and brush like there's no tomorrow. All the while, William stands in front of the mirror, foam running down his chin like a rabid dog. Once Cujo's done, it's on to Carson. Now I'm done play'n around. I pick little man up like a football and hold him tightly under my arm. Applying paste to his brush as he screams and kicks, I quickly brush his teeth too. I totally ignore his cries for mercy, my heart hardened by the naked fanny chase and Cujo's foaming.

Eventually, we get the kids and ourselves dressed and in the van. After buckling in the kids, Meredith situates herself and secures her to-go cup of coffee. I take a moment to get the nervous tic in my eye under control. Then the real fun begins: the 45 minute ride to church. Sure, there are closer churches, but the people we know and have a history with are at a church 45 minutes away. Plus, the Bible says that Christians are supposed to suffer. That being the case, what better way to affirm my religious devotion than a long ride in a mini-van with three small kids first thing on Sunday morning?

After nearly an hour of hearing Carson scream because he's dropped his milk and refereeing arguments between William and Emerson over whether or not William is a big boy or a baby, we finally arrive at church. Praying the communion planners have replaced the grape juice with actual wine, my wife and I herd our tiny Howards inside, do our best to keep them from getting restless through the first few hymns, and wait anxiously for the speaker to announce that the kids are, "dismissed to go to class." Then, along with about a hundred other parents who've been desperately awaiting the same green light, we rush our kids off to kids' church. When Emerson was a baby, it was hard to leave her in the nursery. It tore our hearts out to see her crying and reaching for us. We'd linger in the hall a few moments, then peek our heads around the corner to make sure she was okay. Now, it's almost like the drop box at Blockbuster. Just drop 'em and go! Get 'em in, and get out! If they're not dying, they're okay. Like prisoners let out of their cells for a few precious moments in the yard, we rush back to the sanctuary for some needed encouragement and adult fellowship. Repenting of the numerous curse words that crossed my mind and, perhaps, my lips earlier in the morning, I settle in for the preacher's sermon and to pray for strength to endure the ride home.

I have great kids. The trials of Sunday morning are just part of parenthood reality. Why do Meredith and I put ourselves through the ordeal of getting out the door to church every Sunday morning when we could stay home? Why do we opt for yet one more hectic morning in a week already packed with them? Because we believe God is real. We believe He created us and He loves us. And we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he died for our sins (and trust me, I have a lot of sins). More than that, I want my kids to grow to believe it too. Is going to church the only way you teach my kids how much God loves them? No. In fact, it's probably not even the best way. The best way is to model God's love for them on a daily basis, showing them the same unconditional love and acceptance that God shows me. But I believe God teaches us about His love as we love and help each other. I believe the church is supposed to be the number one place where we see that love lived out.

I also believe that parents need help. What better place to find help and good role models for my kids than among people who sincerely love God and want to follow Christ? More than that, what better place for me to find the kind of friends who will help me be the man I need to be for my kids. I need to be around men who have faith. I need to be around men who are as serious about loving and being faithful to their wives as I am. And I need to be around men who are working just as hard as I am to raise kids who'll love God.

When all is said and done, it won't be the church that decides whether or not my kids become Christians, as much as it will be what they see in me. When my children look at me, will they see a religious hypocrite who just plays the church game, or will they see a man who finds peace and happiness, even in the tough times, because he really believes God loves him and will always be with him? Will they dismiss faith after seeing a man who merely allows religion to be a part of his life, or will they want to be like the father for whom God is the center of his life?

No, I don't go to church because I feel it's a requirement. I load up the ole mini-van and go each week because I know my family and I need it. So next Sunday, I'll chase the naked fannies and struggle to brush Muhammed Ali's teeth again. I'll make sure my kids are in church on Sundays. My hope is that my kids will believe God is real because their dad lives like He is. Church can't take the place of a sincere faith modeled by a father for his kids. But I hope that by making church a priority, I'll be better equipped to be that living model each and every day of my life.

Monday, May 18, 2009


It's just after 4 a.m. I'm the only one in the house awake. I've found that I can get some of my best work done between four and seven in the morning. Of course, getting up at 4 a.m. usually means being in bed by 9 p.m. the night before. That's usually not a problem. My kids see to it that I'm pretty exhausted by that time anyway. Yes, I've become like one of those old people you see on the local news who, when asked how they've lived so long, responds that they go to bed every night at sunset and arise the next morning before dawn. Only I'm not as sure that my schedule will result in personal longevity. Right now, it's just a matter of survival. A starving man eats when he can, not when he wants. An ugly guy dates any girl who will go out with him, he doesn't hold out for a super model. (Unless he's a rock star or a multi-billionaire--just ask that really homely guy from The Cars who looks like he gave up being a cadaver to pursue his musical career.) And, to be sure, a dad can't sleep or work whenever he wants. No, you do it when you can. The best time for me to work? Start early before the little ones wake up. The best time to sleep? Whenever they do.

Having kids is like life on caffeine. It's active--fast-paced. If you only have one or two small children, there's a chance you might get them down for a nap at the same time and find at least a few moments of peace and quiet. But with three or more, peace and quiet happens almost as often as meeting Bigfoot or hearing Donald Trump talk about his feelings. With two you can play man-to-man defense. With three, you're a man down. Your kids have got a power play that lasts until someone goes to college. Forget scoring goals, you just don't want to fall too far behind. You and your wife just do what you can to hold it all together.

The epicenter of life's craziness is our house. Our oldest, Emerson, is only six, so none of our kids are old enough yet to just turn lose in the neighborhood. If they're not at school or a friends house, they're usually in the house or the backyard. All that kiddie energy is consistently unleashed within the confines of our humble abode. Sometimes, when I come home from work, I just sit for a moment in the driveway, staring in fear at the front door, not knowing what awaits me on the other side. Sometimes, I'll lean the seat back in my car and try to steal a fifteen minute nap before I go inside. But that can be risky. If your distraught wife who has been eagerly awaiting your arrival catches you sleeping in the car when she desperately needs you inside to help with the kids, you could find yourself on the receiving end of a verbal lashing and in real danger of physical harm. I've found it's safer if I pull into the parking lot at the community clubhouse for some quick Zs.

Eventually though, there's no getting around it, you have to go inside. Before we had kids, my wife used to greet me with words like, "Hi Honey, how was your day." Now "Thank God!" tends to be the standard welcome. Often, it's accompanied by a take your child or die expression that leads me to believe that, when she hasn't been chasing after the kids, my wife has spent much of the day thinking of ways to hurt me for giving her three kids, then leaving her alone with them while I escape to a world where people don't watch Sesame Street and grown-ups take showers before leaving the house.

Yes, our home is a different universe. It's a world where Cheerios crunch under every step. It's a place where even adult conversations revolve around topics like poo-poo, boo-boos, Spiderman, and Hannah Montana. Laundry multiplies like a virus, engulfing our home in a pandemic of dirty underwear, spit-up on shirts, and food-stained trousers. Toys seemingly drag themselves into the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, my bed... Shoes need marriage counseling, refusing to live in pairs even after you go through great lengths to find them and get them back together. Then there's the food: Half-eaten sandwiches left on the couch; Goldfish between the recliner cushions; partially-licked lollipops plastered to the kitchen table; and my son Carson's favorite game--Find my banana before it rots and stinks up the whole freak'n house! It's challenging, especially if you're a clean freak. In fact, if you're obsessive compulsive, it's enough to cause a conniption. It's especially tough when you have kids Carson's age. He wears and catapults as much food as he eats. Once, I walked into the kitchen to find a group of ants encircling his highchair, bowing before it, and chanting "We're not worthy, we're not worthy..."

It's a crazy world... a messy world... a challenging, and often sleepless world. But it's a world I'm glad to live in. As a parent, you just have to learn that life is about windows of opportunity. There are windows when you can work. There are windows when you can sleep. And there are windows when your wife might kill you if you don't realize it's time to take the kids and give her a break. But there are other windows as well. There are only certain periods in life when your kids will want to rush you, jump on you, and bombard you with "Daddy, play with me...," or, "Daddy, come see...," as soon as you walk in the door. One day soon, you won't hear yourself walking on Cheerios. One day soon, there will be no toys to avoid stepping on, shoes to match, or bananas to race against time in search of. Is it hard sometimes? Yep. Do you and your wife need those times when you take a few moments to let chaos reign so you can just sit together on the couch and talk to each other? Definitely. Does the occasional beer or glass of wine help? In my case, sure. But one day, you'll miss it. Like everything else, this stage of life is a window. So take it for what it is: the good, the challenging, and the exhausting. Enjoy it! Pretty soon, it'll be just too darn quiet behind that front door.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

More Precious than Jewels

Today is Mother's Day. It's a special day on which moms are deservedly praised for the incredible gifts of God that they are. After all, if it weren't for mom's wisdom and warnings, who knows how many of us would have run with scissors to our death, lived our lives disfigured with pupils that froze cross-eyed, or endured the emotional trauma of being pulled from the burning wreckage of a near-death accident, only to have it discovered that we weren't wearing clean underwear. It was mom who'd lie down in our beds at night to make us feel safe after a nightmare. It was mom who'd pick us up and comfort us after we fell and skinned our knee or scraped our elbow. And, of course, it was mom who intervened to make sure that dad didn't kill us when he arrived home from work to discover the car covered in graffiti or find the garage on fire. Who can count the number of times mom did her best to make a hamburger "just like" the one at McDonalds, only to be met with the thankless weeping of a small child yelling in anguish, "That doesn't look like a Big Mac!!!" Even today, as a forty-year-old man, I'm often accused of being a "mamma's boy." All I can say is, yes, I am! I do have a deep sense of loyalty and attachment to my mother. But what can I tell you, she earned it.

Now that I'm married and have kids, I get to appreciate mothers from a whole new perspective. As a kid, you have no idea how hard your mother worked or how much she really loved you. You simply enjoyed the end result of mom's love and affection. It's like going to a movie and watching the released cut. You sit there and enjoy your bucket of buttered popcorn, never giving a second thought to all of the behind-the-scenes work. You just have fun watching explosions, car chases, high-powered gun fights, and the occasional Jedi vs. Sith showdown. Of course, if you're married or have a girlfriend, you also have to watch more than your fair share of romantic chick-flicks, a number of which now qualify as torture under the Obama administration. But that's another topic for another time. The point is, you don't think about all the hours of editing, filming, writing, takes and retakes that the people making the movie endured. No, you just watch and critique the film.

When you're married to a mom, it's like being on the set. I see how hard Meredith works to make our house a great home. I've witnessed the late nights when every bone in her tired body is aching to go to bed, but instead she sits up hours after the kids have fallen asleep to make sure that the invitations to their party look just the way they hoped they would. I know how hard she works to pull off play dates, sleepovers, birthday parties, or just the daily efforts she makes to ensure that the kids feel special and loved. It may be many years before my children understand just how lucky they are to have Meredith for a mom, but rest assured, I'm well aware of it.

To tell you the truth, I just don't know how moms do it. I deeply love my children too. But there are times when I just can't take it anymore: the noise, the mess, the smells, the bodily fluids, and, worst of all, the sleep deprivation. Somehow, Meredith can go a whole week of being up all night and still keep on going. Deny me a good night's rest more than one or two nights in a row, and there's a real chance the police will find me running down the street naked at 5 a.m. yelling, "I'm Batman!!"

Let's face it, when it comes to parenting, women are just tougher. In fact, I have long held to the theory that if men had the babies, everyone would be an only child. Most guys would be arrogant enough to think that we could handle pregnancy once. But about the time we faced that first bout of morning sickness or noticed our ankles swelling up like softballs, we’d be begging God to kill us and swearing never again! While women suck it up and go, barely even complaining—only asking for the occasional back-rub or troubling us for the once-a-week late night run to the grocery store—we men would be reminding every soul within moaning distance of the walk through hell we were enduring. Let’s not even talk about contractions. Heck, if I eat a steak I’m in the bathroom groaning for twenty minutes. Second child? I think not. We men would have one kid, rush to get vasectomies faster than you can say "Supercuts," then gather at our favorite bar to outdo one another with labor stories rivaling our granddad’s account of the Korean War.

Every so often, it's good to have an experience that reminds you just how grateful you should be for your wife. This past week afforded me just such an opportunity. Meredith asked me if I would mind her taking off to Daytona Beach for a few days to hang out with a couple of friends. Knowing how hard Meredith works, I just couldn't say no. She departed last Monday morning, leaving me to play single dad for a few days. The experience was kind of like going off to boot camp at Paris Island. You know it won't be easy, but until you're actually being screamed at and denied rest as you try to master tasks you have absolutely no idea how to accomplish, you really can't understand what you're about to get into. I had to do it all: breakfasts, prepare lunches for school, tend to the baby's every need, make sure William got to his doctor's appointment, see to it Emerson didn't forget the gift for her friend's birthday party, handle dinner, bath times, housework, make sure the soccer uniforms were clean... and accomplish all of it while constantly being reminded, "That's not how Mommy does it."

Fortunately, my kids are pretty well behaved. But at ages six, three, and nineteen months, even well-behaved children are a handful. Throw in the occasional kiddie meltdown, and the week was, to say the least, challenging. It felt like a domestic version of Survivor, only with no hope of being voted off the island. Meredith finally came walking through the door four days later to find her unshowered, unshaven husband crouched defensively in a corner, the words "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy" running over and over again in my mind. Simultaneously, my children rushed across the toy-cluttered room to embrace her with a joy not seen since General MacArthur returned to liberate the Philippines.

That's not to say I didn't appreciate the week. In addition to making me very grateful for my wife, it also allowed me extra time with my kids. Emerson, God bless her, did what she could to help. She tutored me on how to handle many of Mommy's daily tasks. William and I got to play a few more games of basketball and wrestle more than usual. And Carson, well, I think he just enjoyed having Daddy around to play and climb on while we watched Barney on PBS. The fact is, I wouldn't trade the week for anything. I don't intend to ever let Meredith leave town again without taking either me or the kids with her, mind you; but still, I wouldn't trade the week.

The Bible says that a wife of noble character is more precious than jewels. I'd have to say that's true. Meredith is a great wife and an amazing mother. One day a year to honor her is certainly less than she deserves. Instead, I want to get better at reminding her daily just how much I appreciate and need her. As dads, we need to remember that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is making sure they know how much we love and are grateful for their mommy. It takes more than words; it requires action. They need to see it in the way we help mommy, look at mommy, and how often we hug and kiss mommy. They need to hear it in the way we talk to mommy and in the things that we say. When we blow it, lose our temper, or treat mommy in a way that is hurtful, our kids need to hear us apologize and have a front row seat to witness our humility. Our sons are watching us to see how a man treats a woman. Our daughters are watching us to learn how they should expect to be treated one day as wives. The best way to make sure your little girl never marries a jerk? Show her daily that her mom certainly didn't settle for one. The best way to raise secure kids? Show them a loving marriage.

Yep, an awesome wife is more precious than jewels. So this Mother's Day, I hope we didn't just give our wives a nice gift and a day off. I hope that, in addition, we reminded them (and will remind them again, tomorrow, and the next day, and the next...) that they, themselves, are the gift that God has given us.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Re-Thinking the Meaning of Dad

Parenthood is awesome! I wouldn't trade being a dad for anything in the world. It's an adventure. Not that the adventure always takes the turns you want it to. Parental life's a series of ups and downs. One minute your kids are saying and doing things that convince you they must be angels straight from heaven. The next they're saying and doing things that make you envious of species that eat their own young. Fatherhood's not easy, but I can tell you from experience, it's better than the alternative.

Being a dad is full of special moments. They're not the things that make for great headlines or that necessarily translate into interesting stories at parties. But, as a father, you understand that they're the moments God made life for. Take, for instance, this past weekend. William had his normal soccer game. This week, his team had a much-anticipated confrontation with the dreaded Purple People Eaters. If you ask me, a name like Purple People Eaters seems a little intense for three-year-old soccer. I guess their coach figured that if they couldn't beat the other teams, at least they could give them nightmares. Well, as I helped William get ready for the big game, I happened to mention that today he was going to face the Purple People Eaters. Immediately, I knew I'd said too much. His eyes grew wide with terror. His lip began to quiver. Then, despite his best efforts to muster his courage, he burst into tears and cried, "Daddy! Please don't make me see the purple peter eaters!" Biting my lip so as not to laugh, I quickly dropped to one knee, pulled my little man close, hugged him, and assured him that I was not about to send him off to be devoured by the "peter eaters." For a moment he just held on tight, squeezing my neck so hard that my head almost popped off my shoulders. A moment or two later, I had him laughing and relatively convinced that he was not going to encounter cannibals on the soccer field. It's doubtful that William will remember that moment very long. I'll never forget it.

The trick to fatherhood is learning to slow down so that you don't miss it. As dad's, we feel the pressure and responsibility of providing for our families. Our American culture drums into our male psyche pretty early that we are going to be judged by how much of a material success we're perceived to be. It's easy to find ourselves consumed with living up to the image of success that society has set for us. We end up chasing what the world around us tells us we need, rather than stepping back, surveying what's personally important to us, and setting our own course based on our own priorities. Before you know it, we've allowed the concerns of work, bills, planning for the future, and a whole host of other things to overflow and drown out the special, daily moments with our wives and kids that are just waiting to be enjoyed. Oh sure, we say that the most important thing to us is our family. But how often do we stop and listen to what our wives and kids are telling us they really need. If we're not careful, we'll find that we've used the old excuse of "providing for my family" to justify our own agenda at the expense of the very family we claim to be looking out for. We'll realize all too late that we've spent years pursuing our culture's image of a successful man, only to find that when we cross that desert, the oasis we thought we were headed for turned out to be a mirage. Tragically, for many dads, by the time they realize they've been chasing the wrong things, their wife has long since given up on intimacy and their kids are far too busy with college or their first job to notice that dad has finally figured it out.

I'm a freelance writer by profession. I'll write anything: professional memos, creative projects, biographies, you name it. I've even authored a number of social studies books used by public schools. But being a freelance writer means that if I ain't writing, I ain't getting paid. When I'm not writing for a client, my job is to find work! The upside is that I can work my own schedule. It allows me to spend time with my wife and kids. The downside is the insecurity that often accompanies self-employment. The scary part is, if I'm not on guard for it, I can become so focused on the downside that, before I know it, I've allowed all my worry and uncertainty to totally destroy the upside. What good is the time to spend with my wife and kids if I'm too anxious to enjoy it? The bottom line is, I don't want to be so focused on trying to provide my kids with all the material things I think they're going to need in the future that I neglect to give them all of the time, energy, and encouragement they need from me today. I don't want to look back and find that I missed all the little moments I could have been laughing with, playing with, drawing with, and reading to my kids because, mentally or physically, I was somewhere else.

Last Friday night, I was feeling those pangs of anxiety. I was nearing the end of a writing contract and realizing that my next decent payday was well over a month away. "I should get on the computer and start running down some leads," I thought. I heard Meredith and the kids in the backyard. Emerson and William were arguing over a lone watergun that they both wanted to play with. Suddenly, I got an idea. I remembered a couple of all-but-forgotten super soakers in the garage. As William and Emerson continued to play tug-of-war (Meredith was looking after Carson and too tired to play referree) I bolted through the door, both guns blazing! Little munchkins were scattered in every direction, screaming as dad doused them with water. The screams quickly turned to laughter and, before you knew it, I had allowed William and Emerson to wrestle the guns away and turn them on me. In moments, a water fight had broken out that soaked the whole family. About a half hour later, we made our way inside, dripping water all over the floor as we headed upstairs to dry off and get the kids ready for bed. As I tucked Emerson into bed that night, she looked up at me with a huge smile and said, "Daddy, this sure was a fun night." I smiled and kissed her. "Yes, Sugarbear," I said, "It sure was."

I still don't know who my next big client will be. I still have college educations, monthly bills, a mortgage, and a long list of other things I could choose to worry about. But, at the end of the day, I know that twenty years from now, I won't care about most of the things that, today, battle to dominate my thoughts and schedule. I will, however, think about that water fight and smile. Even more important, so will my children. So maybe it's time we re-think the meaning of Dad. Yes, we are providers. But what should we be most concerned with providing? Sure, do your best to take care of all of the financial responsibilities that come with parenting. But never ever forget, your kids need you there to assure them that no "purple peter eater" can mess with them while dad's around. And be assured, there's a water fight with your name on it waiting to be fought in the backyard.