Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dispatch from New Dad Land

Vinny is 7-months-old now. Rather than trying to write a narrative with a profound theme, I will just share some observations on raising our “little boy.”

His personality is starting to emerge. Overall, he is a very happy guy who enjoys the following activities:

  • Eating finger food by grabbing as many pieces as he can fit in his hand and then clumsily smashing them into his mouth area. He usually gets one or two in his mouth.
  • Laughing at the dog when he (the dog) is jumping up and down trying to get our attention.
  • Smiling. It is pretty easy to make him smile. Sometimes, he gets really excited for no apparent reason, shaking his arms and practically hyperventilating at the site of something he finds amusing. The most recent target was his uncle, Andres.
  • Getting angry when you are not feeding him fast enough. The boy loves to eat. If you are spoon feeding him his baby food, you'd better not take too long in between spoonfuls, or he will grunt at you.
  • Raising his arms when you reach down for him. He knows when he is about to be picked up, so when you reach for him, he raises his little arms towards you in excitement. This is way too cute for words.
I will leave you with this iconic shot of him sleeping in his car seat after a trip to the county fair.

Monday, August 30, 2010

When It's Over But It's Not

People Magazine recently reported that the on again/off again engagement of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston is…well, off again. Bristol asserted firmly in the article that “it’s over.” Apparently, the news that Johnston may have gotten another woman pregnant was the last straw. She said, “Levi was just like, ‘Bristol, there is a possibility that I could be a father of this other baby.’” Through tears she told the People magazine reporter, “The fantasy I had of us three being a family was a game to him. He’s never going to change.” Frankly, I am a bit surprised that Bristol is surprised. He posed nude for Playgirl for goodness sake…

I remember when I first saw Johnston on stage at the Republican National Convention. He looked extremely uncomfortable in his suit, a bit like a little boy someone dressed up for Easter Sunday. Looked to me like he couldn’t wait for the “service” to be over so that he could go and slide in the “mud” in his new suit. When you’re Levi’s age, this is usually a co-ed activity.

Now, I was a bit sympathetic to his plight. I even wrote this article in my Washington Times column to help folks get a better understanding of what I think is going on in a teen father’s head. You see, I have a some experience in this area. When I was about Levi’s age, I got my girlfriend pregnant. But, I married her because I knew instinctively that fatherhood means the death of boyhood. Indeed, the difference between boyhood and manhood is the ability to say “no” to the wrong things and “yes” to the right ones. I have a feeling that Levi has yet to learn this lesson.

And that’s the problem. By the time he does get “schooled” on the fact that his actions have consequences, chances are that Bristol will have built a nearly insurmountable wall of resentment that could make it very difficult for him to see his son. Moreover, his son too may have years of hurt and anger built up because his dad valued “reality TV” more than the reality that he needed to be an involved, responsible and committed father.

Alas, despite Bristol’s firm declaration to the contrary, when you’re a father, it’s never “over.” I have taken more than enough calls from fathers in his situation to know that this is just the beginning. And there is no fantasy about that.

Daddy Daughter Date Nights

We love the idea of daddy-daughter dates. They help you bond with your daughter and they show her how she should be treated by the men in her life.

This weekend, NFI's Sr. Director of Graphic Design, Paul, took his six-year-old daughter Lillian to a Chick-Fil-A date night. The restaurant regularly sponsors these nights - complete with table service, roses, and dessert.

Here's Paul's take on the event:

I appreciated the conversation starter handout that they supplied...and I observed many dads using them to "break the ice".

I was just thrilled that I didn't need any help getting Lillian to open up to me and the fact that I knew my daughter’s answers to the questions before they were asked really boosted
my confidence.

Lillian declined a rose that they were passing out when we entered the event... But she asked for a rose when we were leaving... Only to gift it to me when we got to the car. :)

Have you gone on any daddy-daughter dates? What are your favorite activities?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's Happening Here at NFI

August is a busy month - people are cramming in their last vacations and kids are going back to school. Here at NFI, we've got lots going on as well - including some easy (and fun!) ways that you can join our movement to end father absence. Check it out:

Walk/Run with Your Family
Bring your family and join the NFI team for the Acumen Solutions One Mile Family Fun Run on October 17 in Arlington, VA. It only costs $25 to register and the registration fee benefits NFI! Learn more/sign up today.

Not in DC, but want to get involved and organize a walk in your area? Fill out this form and we'll send you info for starting your own local walk.

Attend our 24/7 Dad and InsideOut Dad Training
Since 2002, we've trained over 3,000 organizations in all fifty states to provide helpful programs and classes for fathers. On September 15-16, we're hosting our annual training in Germantown, MD (right outside of D.C.).

Check out how you/an organization in your community can get trained and educate dads at www.fatherhood.org/2010training.

Vote for Our Pepsi Refresh Project
We're in the running for $250,000 to support military families, but we can't do it without your votes. Click here to vote today (and please vote for our alliance partners, too!).

Monday, August 16, 2010

Daddy's Home

Renae Smith, NFI's Special Assistant to the President, had this to say about an Usher song she heard on the radio recently:

While I was flipping through the radio on my way home from work recently, the lyrics of a song on a station I don’t normally listen to caught my attention, and I stopped to figure out what the song was about.

…all I wanna hear
Is you say Daddy’s home, ohh home for me
And I know you’ve been waiting for this lovin' all day
You know your daddy’s home, it’s time to play
(“Daddy’s Home” by Usher)

I immediately had a flashback to my childhood. As a little girl, I used to drop whatever I was doing as soon as I heard the heavy flight boots of my father, who was an officer in the Air Force, walk through the door. I’d exclaim, “Daddy’s home!” and run up to the front door and jump in his arms.

My younger sisters liked to hide and make Dad find them. He always played along with the game – “Where’s Claire? Where’s Pamela?... she’s not behind the couch… oh there she is!”

Dad coming home was the highlight of our day, and we couldn’t wait to tell him all about the fun things we had done, show him the pictures we had colored, or drag him to come play with us. (Admittedly, we outgrew this stage after about age 6, to Dad’s disappointment.)

However, the song on the radio did not match these happy memories. The sexualized lyrics made it clear that the exclamation of “Daddy’s home” was not the joy of a child running into the safe and loving arms of a father.

Every little girl has a craving for the tenderness of a father who cherishes her, treats her like a princess, and protects her – Daddy is often her first true love. When there is no Daddy coming home, or Daddy coming home is a scary occasion and not a happy one, a young woman will often look to other men later in life to fill her need for a father’s affection. Unfortunately, the men who are all too eager to fill that void often don’t cherish her, treat her like a princess, or protect her – too often it’s quite the opposite.

Usher’s song gave me a new understanding of our culture’s father absence crisis, and made me sad for the girls for whom “Daddy’s home” never meant to them what it meant to me. Now, I am all the more grateful that I have a wonderful father who was just as excited to see me at the end of the day as I was to see him.

Renae and her siblings greet daddy at the door (c. 1992).

Friday, August 13, 2010

Aniston-O'Reilly Fracas

Ok. I feel obligated to say something about the tiff between Jennifer Aniston and Bill O'Reilly. I hate to acknowledge these sorts of things with a response, but here goes...

If you haven't heard, Aniston was promoting her new film about a woman becoming a single mom, and she said, "Women are realizing more and more that you don’t have to settle, they don’t have to fiddle with a man to have that child."

To this, Bill O'Reilly, on his show, responded that Aniston is "throwing a message out to 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds that, ‘Hey! You don’t need a guy, you don’t need a dad. Daaaaad? Aggghhhh, you know!' That’s destructive to our society! Aniston can hire a battery of people to help her, but she cannot hire a dad, okay?"

To this, Aniston responded, "Of course, the ideal scenario for parenting is obviously two parents of a mature age. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs on earth. And, of course, many women dream of finding Prince Charming (with fatherly instincts), but for those who’ve not yet found their Bill O’Reilly, I’m just glad science has provided a few other options."

Aniston's last response was actually pretty good up until the point she talks about the "other options" that science has provided. Well, guess what? Those "other options" are the ones that intentionally place children in father-absent homes. And that is the problem. Aniston may not need a man, but that does not mean that the child does not need a father. Just look at the data.

So, even though she acknowledges that two parents is best, she tolerates something less than the best for a child? That doesn't really make sense. Should I be confused?

All in all, this is what NFI has to say about the notion that fathers are not necessary. We published this op-ed on CNN.com on Father's Day.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Requiem for Fatherhood

Renae Smith, NFI's Special Assistant to the President, had this response to a recent tragic news story.

Leonard Pitts, Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, wrote a heartbreaking article yesterday on the murder of Willy Brown, a 2-year-old boy whose father beat him to death in an attempt to teach his son how to box. The man must literally be delusional to think that his toddler was at an appropriate age to learn boxing techniques. Pitts offers some poignant remarks on what this tragedy indicates about the state of fatherhood in what he terms a requiem for the idealized memory of fatherhood. (A requiem is the traditional mass chant for the repose of the dead.)

"So yes, this is a requiem for common sense. It is also a requiem for idealized memory.

"Meaning the communal recollection of fatherhood as the province of strong and tender men who laid down the law and told their stories of walking to school through mountains of snow, who gave you their shoulders as a perch, their truths as a guide, who were never too busy to sip invisible tea from tiny doll cups or have a catch in the backyard as twilight gathered into evening.

"It is an ideal that evaporates like dew in the face of the increasingly common reality of father as callow boy-man who has no idea how to fulfill the role to which circumstance has called him, often because he had no father of his own to teach him.

"[…] And this is a requiem for tomorrow's victims.

"Meaning the little boys and girls who grow up hit more often than they are hugged, left by blind mothers in the care of broken men who have no sense of self, no definition of role, no clue.

This gets at the heart of why National Fatherhood Initiative exists. Too many men respond poorly to their own sense of inadequacy and lack of knowledge on what it means to be a father. We are here to come alongside these fathers and help them learn how to lovingly and responsibly care for their children. We hope for a day when there will be no more casualties to irresponsible fatherhood like little Willy Brown. As Pitts says, “he deserved better.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Can you "love your children but hate your life"?

By now, many of you have probably heard about a controversial cover story from New York magazine in which the writer, Jennifer Senior, asserts that she "loves her children but hates her life."

I do not want to go over all of the same ground that everyone else has gone over on this story. I simply want to question the very logic of this statement. Because frankly, I don't think it is possible.

In order for you to love your children and hate your life, you have to define your life as something that does not include children.

If you were to draw a circle that represented your life, and inside that circle draw dots that represent the different parts of your life -- career, hobbies, interests, social life, etc -- you would, in order for Senior's statement to be possible, have to draw the dots that represent your children somewhere outside of that circle.

But does that really make sense? Can we possibly define "life" as something that does not include relationships? If anything, relationships are life. We are social beings - our interactions with others are the very stuff that life is made of. So, if you love your kids - your relationships - is it logically possible to hate your life?

Maybe this analogy will clarify what I mean. If you were lying on the beach enjoying the sun and suddenly a large umbrella was hoisted in front of you, blocking out the sun and casting a shadow on you, would you, in your hatred of the shadow, start scratching at the sand to get rid of it? No. You would rightly “blame” the source of the shadow and move the umbrella. In other words, you can’t separate the shadow from the object that creates it.

In the case of a life that has been “cast into shadow” by children, can you ignore the fact that the children are causing the shadow, thus the sorrow? In other words, if your children are the cause of your "hating your life," can you really love them?

This leaves us with two disturbing possibilities. Either Senior has defined life as something that does not include her children, or, more problematic, she does not actually love her children, but can't bring herself to admit it.

I will not even try to guess at what the answer is, but as a father, I can't imagine telling someone that I hate my life, given that my son is such a central, irreplaceable part of it. That, to me, would be a hurtful -- perhaps hateful -- statement for my son to ever hear. How could I expect him to feel if he knew that after his birth, his father began to hate his life? Could he really brush that off and say, "No big deal. At least he loves me"?

I just ain't buyin' it. Are you?

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Tiger in the Rough

There are at least two myths that are generally accepted as truth within the community of men. The first is amusing. It’s that fantasy football is real. Look, I know some guys who prepare for the “real” fantasy football season with the determination, focus and secrecy of General Eisenhower planning for D-Day.

The second myth is that men have mastered the art of “compartmentalizing” their emotions so that they don’t affect a guy's performance. Well, if you have been following Tiger Woods play recently, this myth is being dispelled before your eyes. Tiger is indeed in a "rough" and it’s going to take more than his trusty sand wedge to get him out of it. Make no mistake that men are “whole” people and what happens in Vegas never stays there. The consequences always follow you home.

That said, I think that the writer of this article makes some valid points when he suggests that Tiger needs to focus more on straightening out his fathering than trying to hit a straighter and longer shot from off the tee. Ironically, fathering is a lot like hitting a tee shot on the PGA tour. There are no mulligans. You only get one chance to get it right.

Father Absence and Puberty?

Time magazine just published an article about young girls entering puberty earlier and earlier. The article is based on a study that was just published in the journal, Pediatrics.

The age of menarche (first period) in white girls has dropped steadily since 1997. During that same period, the age for black girls stayed at the same very low age -- researchers think they may have "bottomed out" already.

While there is still a lot of mystery as to why this is happening, doctors are starting to posit some answers. Increases in childhood obesity and exposure to certain chemicals are two possibilities.

But research also suggests that another factor is at play here -- the father factor (See the name of our blog! Clever, eh?).

I remember once reading about the connection between father absence and the early onset of puberty, so I did a little research and came across a 2003 study called, “Father absence, parental care, and female reproductive development" in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. Basically, it found that the more time a young girl spends in a father-absent home, the more like it is that she will experience "early reproductive development."

Researchers are also not entirely sure why this happens either, but they posit that if a young girl spends significant time with non-related males, that could trigger menarche. A colleague of mine here at NFI who grew up without her father and had very early menarche thinks that it was a "survival instinct" based on needing to mature much earlier to deal with the added physical and emotional challenges that single-parent households can bring.

It is interesting that where rates of father absence are highest (in the African American community), the age of first period is already at a low point, and where rates of father absence have been increasing, the age has been getting lower.

I am not suggesting that father absence is the only reason for this phenomenon, but it seems to be one of them. And since doctors are concerned about early menarche (longer duration of puberty may affect cancer rates and fertility), they should be concerned about what is happening with fathers.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The "Sorry" Language of Love

In 1970, the buzz in Hollywood was about the romantic movie Love Story. The movie was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and made stars and household names of the young actors Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. Even if you haven’t seen the movie or don’t have it in your Netflix queue, you have most likely heard the famous line that MacGraw’s character uttered early in the film: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Now, I was preteen when I first heard this line and even then it didn’t sound quite right. Granted, I didn’t know much about relationships and romance but I had done enough wrong to those that I loved to detect a flaw in the logic—despite the poetry of the line. Sadly, I must dispute the words of philosopher William James who once said: “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.” Unfortunately, given the power of pop culture and pop psychology, I think that many have embraced this absurd and convenient retort, especially those who have trouble with mea culpa.

I was reminded again of this line a few days ago when I came across a book by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas called: The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationship. You may be familiar with Chapman from his many books on “the five love languages” where he asserts that we generally like to receive love in one of five ways: acts of service, receiving gifts, words of affirmation, quality time or physical touch. The problem is that we usually give love in the manner that we like to receive it and this may not be the right love language for one that we are seeking to love. In short, it’s the receiver, not the giver, who determines if an act is loving.

In any case, Chapman and Thomas have developed a similar model for the language of apology. They argue, rather convincingly, that an apology, just like giving love, is not really effective unless it’s expressed in terms appropriate for the receiver. Below are the languages of apology that they have discovered:

  • Expressing regret: “I’m sorry” may be the first words expressed in this apology language but you will need to clearly express what you are sorry for. For example, if you inappropriately spoke harshly to one of your kids and this is their language, you will need to be specific and say, “I am sorry that I lost my temper and raised my voice at you.”

  • Accepting responsibility: This apology begins with the words “I was wrong” and then explains what was wrong with your behavior. For example, you would say to your spouse that you were wrong for not planning well enough to get home in time to pick up your children from school.

  • Making restitution: This apology language is focused on “making it right.” So, if you forget someone’s birthday, and this is his or her language, you can’t just say that you’re sorry. With a person who speaks this language, what they really want to know is “Do you still love me? and making restitution helps assure them that you do.

  • Genuinely expressing a desire to change your behavior: This apology needs to be linked to a plan to keep the behavior from occurring again. If this is a loved one’s apology language, in their world, apologizing without a sincere desire and demonstrated behavior to change is not apologizing at all.

  • Requesting forgiveness: For someone who speaks this language, the words “Will you please forgive me?” are critical. In their mind, if you are sincere, you will ask to be forgiven.

I really believe that Chapman and Thomas are on to something here. A “love story” without apologies only happens in the movies. Indeed, love means always having to say you are sorry. Ironically, the title of the Love Story theme song, which won an Academy Award for best musical score, is “Where Do I Begin?” If you want to restore and/or maintain relationships with your spouse, the mother of your child, or your children, I suggest that you begin with an apology.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Support Military Families - Vote for our Pepsi Refresh Project!

A large portion of our work is devoted to supporting military families. Research shows that military children experience many of the same outcomes as kids living in father-absent homes.

You can help us give military families the support they need by voting for our Pepsi Refresh Project! We're in the running for $250,000 to support military families with critical resources to help them stay connected. But, we need your votes to win!

To vote:
Click here:
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Vote using text message [text 101739 to Pepsi (73774)]

You can vote up to three times each day throughout August and voting for our project ends August 31st.

Help support our nation's military families by voting today. And don't forget to tell you friends, too!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The DC Sniper Story Revisited: Before the “Aftermath”

A few days ago, William Shatner, as part of his new A&E show called Aftermath, interviewed DC sniper, Lee Malvo. I have spoken and written about Malvo frequently over the years because his situation impacted me in several very personal ways.

First, at the time of the shootings, I had just moved from the Philadelphia area—the City of Brotherly Love—to the DC area. Now, Philly, despite the moniker, was no bastion of safety and security but at least we didn’t have to deal with snipers. I remember well that random activities like walking my dog, getting gas and loading groceries in the car became random acts of courage. It was indeed a very scary time that still haunts me a bit today.

Second, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop in Maryland on Route 70. It turns out that this stop is the next exit up from my wife’s office. She is a family practice doctor in a little town called Myersville. It’s a very isolated and rural place and her office is just a “rock throw” from the highway. There’s a little BP gas station across the street from her office where she often fills her tank. You get the point…I have thanked God often that an alert trucker spotted Muhammad and Malvo’s car that October night.

Finally, I remember well the morning that the news reported Muhammad and Malvo had been caught. What especially caught my attention was that they said that the suspects were a 38 year-old man and a 17 year-old boy. I instinctively looked over at my 17 year-old son and thought: What would it take to turn him into someone who would shoot a woman in the face with no remorse? There’s a fatherhood story in here somewhere. Sure enough, a few days later, the Washington Post reported that they had found Lee Malvo’s father who had essentially abandoned him years ago. And the rest, tragically, is history.

In any case, what makes the Malvo story “news” now is that a celebrity is interviewing him and that he has suggested that there were supposed to be other snipers involved. That’s fine. But what makes this story important for me is what made it important years ago. Malvo’s story is less about crime than about how crime is connected to father absence.

“He was a kid who was brainwashed. He was a malleable teenager and lacking love in his life," Shatner said. "John Muhammad supplies the love and influences him to become a killer, and he becomes a coldblooded killer at the age of 17.”

Shatner’s statement is on point but it’s incomplete. Malvo had a mom who seemed to care about him but what he didn’t have was a loving father. Indeed, Muhammad did more than “supply” love. He became the father that Malvo longed for much of his young life. Of note, psychiatrist Diane Schetky, who served as an expert witness for the defense at Malvo's 2003 trial, quoted him as saying of Muhammad, “Anything he asked me to do I'd do. He knew I didn't have a father. He knew my weaknesses and what was missing.”

I often talk about “what was missing” in a child’s life—it’s a hole in a kid’s soul in the shape of his dad. Unfortunately, still today, Malvo shares a potential “weakness” with millions of other kids who are more at-risk to become prey for the many “Muhammads” of this world. However, these guys don’t always come as sniper trainers but rather as gang leaders, pimps and drug dealers who encourage children to sell their bodies and their souls.

It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of Malvo’s fellow inmates tend to grow up in father absent homes. Despite this fact, we have done too little to address father absence in our nation. Indeed, most of the fatherhood programs that are committed to addressing this issue are grossly underfunded. I know that in NFI’s case, despite that great work that we have been doing to educate and inspire dads and the many testimonials from fathers, mothers and, even kids about the good work we do, it is a daily challenge to raise the needed funds for our important work. But, we press on because the stakes are high and we don’t have a fatherless kid to spare.

I suspect that Shatner’s Aftermath show will do well. Sadly, it seems that time and again we are more interested in the entertainment of the “aftermath” than what needs to be done beforehand to prevent it.