It’s been a stressful time for us. My father in law had been battling leukemia for over a year, when he suddenly took a turn for the worse. FIL’s illness lasted a few more weeks, and he finally passed away. This has affected the family in a number of ways; most importantly for this post, it resulted in a complicated set of travel plans.
We came to visit at M’s parent’s home in Arizona a few weeks ago when FIL became ill. Then I had to go back home for work. M stayed in Arizona for an uncertain period of time (which ended up being two weeks), helping care for her father during his illness, and then helping make arrangements after he passed away. The kids and I stayed in California, kids in school, me working, and their other Grandpa in town to help watch them. It was a complicated juggle. We tried to make it as relaxed and enjoyable time as possible for the kids, but everyone has been on edge for the past month.
Thursday morning, we were up at 4:30 for the drive to Arizona. I had stayed up late on Wednesday night, packing and trying (not entirely succesfully) to tie up loose ends at work, so that I could be away. Tuesday night had been late too, with class prep and then early class on Wednesday. And I hadn’t slept well in general for the past few weeks — I never sleep very well without M.
The drive over went fine, though the kids were pretty restless by the time we arrived in Arizona and set up at Grandma’s house, where a half dozen other cousins were also staying. M and I had one room for ourselves, where we threw our and the kids’ bags. The boys would be sleeping in a tent, Daughter on a couch in the living room. The day was full of pre-funeral chaos, with family in town, children everywhere underfoot, and a thousand things to do, like watch 12 cousins while the brothers and uncles go to dress their father.
At about ten, I stepped into our temporary guest room and collapsed on the bed. The house was still chaos, but it had to wind down sooner or later. I was seriously sleep deprived at this point, with four or five hours each of the previous nights, and a work meeting I would have to phone into early the next day. M came to bed soon after, locked the door and snuggled up to me. It had been two weeks since we had seen each other, and thus two weeks without sex; sleep deprived as we both were, we still had energy to remedy that lapse. Then we snuggled under the blanket and drifted off to sleep. Finally.
Knock-knock-knock. The knock was quiet, a child at the door. I lifted up my head, groggy and undressed. It must have been around ten-thirty or eleven.
“Who is it?”
“I need my book,” came Daughter’s voice. “I don’t have anything to read.”
I processed that for a minute. I was half asleep, still undressed, and the guest room was piled with bags and suitcases. I didn’t want to get up, get dressed, and try to dig up Daughter’s book. The bed felt comfortable. Daughter was seven, she could find something else to go to sleep with.
“Find something else,” I called. “We’re asleep in here.” I curled back up to the pillow and was back asleep in seconds.
Knock-knock-knock. Daughter again, what must have been ten or fifteen minutes later.
“I really need my book.”
Still half-asleep, a little perturbed. Couldn’t a guy get some sleep around here?
“No. We’re all in bed. Now go to sleep.”
Silence. Back to sleep. Bliss.
KNOCK – KNOCK – KNOCK. This time it was an adult knocking. “What is it,” I called.
It was Aunt C at the door, and she did not sound pleased. “Your Daughter is still crying, and it’s keeping my kids up. Can you do something about it?”
I nudged M. Can you take this? No response at all, she was out like a light. Reluctantly, I sat up. Apparently, I was going to have to do something. I poked around for some clothes.
I was upset. Was a few hour’s sleep too much to ask? I could understand Daughter being sad, but her keeping the whole house awake was ridiculous.
I very briefly thought about finding her book, but immediately dismissed the idea. A dozen half-remembered fragments from parenting books or blog comments whispered to me: You can’t reward bad behavior. That will just create bad incentives.
I stepped out into the hall, and heard her from there. She was crying, loudly, broadcasting her sorrow for the whole house to hear. I marched out to the living room.
She looked up from behind the couch, her eyes dripping tears, her expression a mix of hopefulness and worry. She knew that she was probably in trouble; but the hopeful part seemed to say, maybe he brought me a book.
No such luck. I swatted her butt, and sternly told her that she needed to stop crying, right now. But I don’t have a book, she protested. I had one earlier today, but I can’t find it, and there’s nothing else for me to read, and I can’t go to sleep without it.
That’s too bad, I told her. You need to just lay down and go to sleep. I resorted to threats to drive home the point. If you keep up all this fussing, I will take away your other books, too. “Not a peep out of you,” I threatened, “or I will take your other books away, and your stuffed animals too.” She lay down dutifully, cowed, without a further sound. I walked back to the bedroom, and sat and thought about it.
My sleepy brain was slowly coming to the conclusion that I had handled it wrong. I reviewed my thoughts, piece by piece.
Yes, I’m not supposed to reward bad behavior. But was that really the case here? Daughter did try to get her book earlier. And we chased her away. She’s not making an unreasonable request; she always goes to sleep with a book.
And what about my reasons for not responding earlier? Well, I didn’t get up earlier because I was in bed and didn’t want to get dressed; but I had already done that now, either way.
I checked briefly for her book. It wasn’t hard to find; not on the dresser top, but located a moment later on the floor. I picked it up and walked back out to the living room. The room was silent, Daughter curled in a blanket behind the couch, quiet now, tears in her eyes. I sat down.
“You’ve had a hard few days, haven’t you?” She nodded.
“You do have to be quiet,” I told her. “You can’t keep the whole house up. But you’re right, we should have given you a book earlier. I’m sorry we didn’t. I was tired and in bed.” I handed it to her the book, and her eyes lit up. (And then I pointed out that she was in a room with two celing-high bookcases; and though a lot of the books were boring adult books, there were kid books there, too.) She curled up with her book, and I went back to bed.
And lay there for an hour, thinking about it.
Did I do the right thing?
I knew that I felt good about making Daughter happy. That was what I wanted to do. Truth was, I empathize with Daughter very easily. In many ways, she is more like me than my other children. She reads herself to sleep every night, just like I did at that age. Giving her a book made me feel good.
I probably should have been kinder and more compassionate to begin with. Couldn’t I have handled it better from the start?, I asked myself. Yes, I admitted ruefully. I could have. But then, I’m human too. Parents are people. I had just wanted to lay down and get some long-awaited sleep, and some time with M. That wasn’t unreasonable, either.
Sometimes people drop the ball. Sometimes parents are overwhelmed by things around them. Sometimes it’s my own fault; other times it’s just the chain of events, the circumstances lined up. I reacted as an imperfect person, and then regretted it, especially remembering Daughter’s hopeful look. “This is Dad, and he understands me. He will have brought me a book.” Yep, I blew it. But I had fixed it, imperfectly. I had apologized, and tried to make it better.
Had I swung too far the other direction? Was I rewarding bad behavior, giving in when I shouldn’t have? Was this bad parenting?
On reflection, I wasn’t so sure. Daughter’s crying was not appropriate, yes. But she was only seven, in a strange room in a strange house, with her world upside down and no book to read. She was a lot like me and M, really — tired and stressed and overwhelmed. And like us, her own reactions affected other people. Inaction from M and I had left her feeling hurt; she passed this along to her poor cousins trying to sleep.
The theory of not-rewarding-bad-behavior may sound reasonable to my inner economist. But was this idea even correct? After all, I thought audaciously, isn’t the whole idea of atonement ultimately a way to let people behave badly, without suffering? If Economist Jesus was really about creating efficient incentives, surely He would have said, sorry kids, sin and you go straight to Hell. But He didn’t say that. And if a more lenient approach works for Jesus, why not for me? (Though, I had to admit, my own motives were imperfect. I had been feeling guilty about overreacting; and sad, and sympathetic, remembering Daughter’s hopeful expression.)
That was my thought process, at 2 a.m. A week has passed, and I’ve gotten a little more sleep since then. But that’s still where I am, more or less. I don’t know if I did the right thing.
I did go back an hour after giving her the book, and Daughter was fast asleep. I wonder now how she’ll remember this. I hope she’ll remember the book, and the hug, and not so much the scolding.
I do try to be a good parent. I don’t get everything right. I interact with a lot of people in a lot of areas — I’m a professor and a parent and blogger and a neighbor and a ward member. I try to do the right thing, but I don’t always get it right. I think that we can truly empathize with others when we see them and realize, they are struggling too. Parents are people. We all are.
I have my doubts sometimes about aspects of church historicity and doctrine. But in my less cynical moments, one idea that particularly resonates with me, is that Parents are People. And maybe our Heavenly Parents are learning, too. The angry outburst of the flood, followed by a promise not to get so mad in the future; the harsh laws of the Old Testament, followed by a shift to a more loving standard; goodness, this sounds awfully familiar. As man now is, God once was. And maybe still is, a little bit, I wonder.
And doesn’t the same go for Prophets, for church leaders? Critics can be awfully harsh on church leadership; I’ve been critical at times myself, and probably will be in the future. But I hope I never lose sight of the fact that church leaders are people, trying to do what they think is right. And even in disagreement, I should give them space to be human. Indeed, it is the human picture of prophets — like the flawed but captivating Joseph Smith in Rough Stone Rolling — that is most compelling.
We like to act invulnerable in our interactions with others — nonchalant and tough, like nothing can touch us. But we are, all of us, struggling and imperfect, confused and learning, overwhelmed and doing the best we can.
Parents are people
People with children
When parents were little, they used to be kids
Just like you
But then they grew