Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Insta-Dad, Just Add Ring

Insta-Dad: Just Add Ring, by Phil Hall, Jonestown

I became a father on September 25th, 2004. It's easy to remember that date
not because it is my son's birthday; it is my wedding day. I am "Insta-Dad:
Just Add Ring." I have been a father for about a year now and will not
pretend to know enough to give much fathering advice as some other writers
of this column have been able to do, but I can share with you some of my
experiences with becoming a father to a 6 year-old and beginning a marriage
at the same time. Fatherhood, of the step variety, brings its own set of
challenges both during dating and marriage, but many joys as well.

One of the more difficult things is that often a step-child has a biological
parent(s) out there somewhere. This throws a lot of curveballs such as
confusion about allegiances in the child (Who should s/he chose? and Should
she have to choose?), confusion about your own role, and legal stuff.
Rebeca is not Felipe's natural mother, but has taken care of him since his
father gave him to her when he was an infant. Felipe's father still shows a
little interest and will show up wanting to take him for visits every few
weekends. So there is tension and resentment that another man is being
called "Daddy" by his son. And, until recently, his father and Rebeca never
had any terms of custody laid out by a court, so now we are going through
emotionally and financially exhausting legal proceedings.

There is no warm-up. No having a baby and slowly learning parenting as the
baby develops to a toddler to a child to a teenager. I just started with a
boy. My training consisted of my own childhood (which was pretty good) and
Bill Cosby (who is a genius with parenting advice). And living with
children is not the same as having them over for a weekend or even a week.
Were you aware that they don't leave? They are there all the time and they
want your attention (at least the younger ones seem to). For a guy who
prized his solitude this was an abrupt departure from what was hitherto my
normal life. I was not only adjusting to being married, but being a father,
and having another (rather needy, as I saw it) smaller person around. I
needed to realize the magnitude of this change and find ways to deal with it
and I still to take time off to recharge by myself or with my friends.

When I married Rebeca, I joined an already existent family. It can be a
challenge to form your family and not be an add-on or an outsider. Good
pre-marriage counseling, being aware of this difficulty, time together, and
a rather gracious, wise, and loving wife, has made this easier.

A child is also a challenge to building a marriage relationship. For many
people who get married, their attentions are undivided for months or years.
Marriage with children involved means that you have to pay attention to a
third person (or more). And sharing. I do not like to share Rebeca. But
we do have this son. And he needs his mommy's attention too. And he
doesn't really like to share mommy either. For these reasons boundaries had
to be drawn to keep a balance so that the two of us can spend needed time
together and the family has time together. All parties involved (especially
my wife and I) needed to understand that there is both a family and a
marriage here and act accordingly so that neither is neglected. Time
together (if you get my drift) is a real challenge with kids in the house.
So we got him to make friends in the neighborhood and have a reasonably
early bedtime (both of which also make happier a kid).

It is important to think ahead before entering a relationship with a parent.
So many children of single parents have series of temporary "fathers" (or
mothers) in their parent's romantic interests who then abandon them (in the
child's eyes) when the relationship ends and the child is left with an
inability to trust and a skewed view of fatherhood, manhood, and God (who
calls himself our Father). From the first date, I resolved not to get to
know her son, Felipe, until I knew that this relationship was going

Once the direction of our relationship became apparent we began to include
Felipe in some of our outings- going to the park, picnics, etc. - so that he
and I could get to know each other. As this progressed Felipe and I began
to do a few things together on our own- fishing, go to the playground, had a
sleepover, etc. When I asked Rebeca to marry me, Felipe and I were already
pretty comfortable with each other, had created our own friendship, and he
was very excited to hear we were getting married. The good relations
between Felipe and I and his happiness about Rebeca's and my marriage were a
great blessing and we avoided a major obstacle many blended families face.

This brings me to the transition from friend to father. Felipe and I had
already bonded pretty well. And while we were friends, I had worked with
adolescents and teenagers before and recognized that adult-child friendships
are not between equals. I am not a child and should not act or try to
relate to a child in a childish way. Kids do need friends they can relate
to in childish ways- these friends are called other children. Children need
friendships with adults in their lives who relate to them as an adult, value
them, love them, and enjoy them, all the while showing them what it means to
be a man or a woman, what it means to be responsible, and demonstrating
godliness. We have a lot of fun together, but Felipe has never been allowed
to act disrespectful towards me. This put us in a better position for that
transition. It began slowly, with little things like me handing out
discipline once in a while and just spending time together in outings and
sleepovers. That was not easy at first both because of my initial
insecurity and Felipe's initial resistance to having to obey me or be
without mommy for extended periods. But with consistency, these things
changed. As I spent more time with Rebeca and Felipe together and with
Felipe one on one, I had the opportunity to take a more fatherly role in his

What really helped was a little baptism by fire. Our wedding was 3 weeks
after school started and we wanted Felipe to go to his first few weeks of
kindergarten at the school he would be attending once we began living
together. So, Felipe moved in with me during the week so he could go to
school. Rebeca would come to visit, but the bulk of the time that he spent
out of school was with me. We ate together. We worked around the house
together. We watched Sesame Street. I got him ready in the morning. I put
him to bed at night. I almost killed him by knocking him down the stairs
when he helped me carry a mattress. And then he would go home with mommy
for the weekend. For 3 weeks. I have a whole new appreciation for single
parents, living on their own with their kid(s) after that. But that time
together really gave Felipe and me the chance to form habits together,
discipline, rituals, having fun, deal with some trauma, and spend time in
each other's company developing our relationship apart from mommy. I think
that these few weeks together were instrumental in our current relationship.

Every decision has repercussions and I want any future stepfathers (and
spouses to future stepparents) to be aware of them. And to current
stepfathers, you aren't the only one. Yes it is a challenge. Yes it cramps
my previous style. Yes it is hard on a beginning marriage. And yes my car
is a mess of school papers, McDonald's toys, and lost socks. But. I have a
wonderful, smart, fun, funny, talented, creative, and
way-too-energetic-for-me son. I would never have known this boy or be
blessed by this boy or be taught so much patience by this boy, if I had not
become his stepfather. My genes could never mix with anybody's genes,
recreate the same life experiences, and produce this extraordinary person
who is now a part of my life. God gives us many things we did not expect or
think we needed or even wanted. But all things work for our good and I
consider myself blessed to have Felipe as my son. My life is better for
having him in it. And I didn't have to change a single diaper.

Blending Kids

I became a father, again, on September 4, 2006 to James Alberto Hall. You may recall that I became "Insta-Dad" on September 25, 2004 when I got married to a wonderful woman who already had a son. This time I took the conventional route to fatherhood. He was born, ironically, on Labor Day. Our family now has one non-biological child and one biological child. So Insta-Dad does homemade too.

At three months, I certainly have not fully realized all the complexities of adding a new child to the family, let alone adding a biological child to the family with a non-biological child. But I will try to relate some of our experiences.

Of course there is the normal change of lifestyle shock that comes with a baby. Sleep is a luxury. Free time to go fishing or even change the oil on the car is much harder to come by. Alone time is unheard of. Good teamwork to give each other time to ourselves and nearby relatives who want to baby-sit to give us time together have been a blessing. I must admit, I'm still learning about being a good teammate and together we are still learning to be a good team. This marriage and parenting stuff is hard.

I hear that anytime a new member of the family arrives, it is difficult for the next youngest child. He or she is no longer the "baby" of the family. It was definitely so in our family. The situation was intensified by the fact that Felipe has been the only child and only grandchild for 7 1/2 years for not only Rebeca and I, but also for our entire family. I have 2 cousins who had children first, but that's it and we don't see them very often. So it was a real shock to Felipe when he realized he was not everyone's baby anymore and never would be again. We tried to ready him for it. I told him what it was like for me when my first sibling came along and how I was happy and unhappy at the same time, how I was excited and jealous, and how confusing all that was. We got him involved in preparing the room. We got him excited about being a big brother and told him how his little brother would look up to him and needed him to show him how to be good and teach him stuff. And he was excited. You should have seen him when he came to visit at the hospital and held his brother the first time. His eyes shone. It wasn't until about a week later that it began to sink in that this baby wasn't leaving, that Felipe really wasn't the baby anymore, that he wasn't always the center of attention, and most importantly, that he had to share Mommy and Daddy. Felipeʼs behavior became very abnormal for him. He didn't really understand what he was feeling or why he was doing the things he did. He began lying, stealing, "forgetting" his homework, and (my personal favorite) ripping through the screen of his bedroom window while grounded for stealing a tenner off mommy's dresser and getting himself trapped on the roof of the garage, because the roof was lower than the chair he used to climb out the window. And it wasn't like we stopped paying attention to Felipe. We both went out of our way to have time with him, without James. Felipe and I would go fishing, play video games, and he would help me catch mosquitoes when he didn't have school (I run the county West Nile Virus program). Mommy and he would go mini golfing and play Chutes and Ladders. We tried to have just the 2 of us or just the 3 of us times, as well as all 4 of us times. But going from 100% to 50% of someoneʼs attention is a big deal no matter how understanding you try to be, especially for a child. Hey, even I am a little jealous of sharing my wifeʼs attentions. And having a few relatives begin ignoring Felipe and cooing over James at every opportunity didn't help. So, there was still a period of adjustment. I'd like to think that that period was smoother and shorter than it could have been.

Felipe has the added burden of not being a biological son of Rebeca or I. Last year we were in the middle of a bitter custody battle. Felipe mostly won. He lives with us. And he has biological family he visits every other weekend who hate Rebeca and I. So it didn't help to have people whispering in his ear "now that they have their real son, they'll forget about you." (By the way, do parents and children from adoptive, step, and otherwise blended families a favor and drop "real" from your vocabulary when referring to relatives. "Biological' or "birth" parents/children works much better. Because if the biological mother is the "real" one, what does that imply about the step or adoptive mother?) We knew that the issue of blood relation would come up. We spent a lot of time thinking about it and trying to prevent it from being too big an issue in Felipe's mind. My first name is "Loyal," as is my father's and grandfather's. The middle name changes with each generation. So to make sure that Felipe knows that I consider him my oldest son, I did not give James the first name "Loyal." Instead, I told Felipe that I was giving it to him and when he was old enough he could legally change his name to "Loyal Felipe." Rebeca and I also wrote him into our will. The spending lots of time and making special time together is important in combating this particular problem as well.

Of course there have been numerous blessings. James is just so darn cute- he's just learning to smile and laugh. Felipe is growing up so fast. He' s becoming responsible for himself and is a great big brother. I wish I could show you how Felipe looks after James, how he does his best to make James laugh, and how he is extra good around him so that the baby won't learn any bad habits from his big brother. It has been such a blessing that Felipe has taken to being a big brother and how he has adjusted to sharing Mommy and Daddy (just as he had to adjust to sharing Mommy when Rebeca and I got married).
Being a father in a blended family has its challenges. But it also has its rewards. I love both my children. I am excited to see them grow up and find out what kind of men they will grow up to be and to walk along side of them as Rebeca and I lead them on that journey. Iʼll keep you up to date on how thatʼs going.

Teaching by osmosis

I can remember “cleaning” the bathroom when I was 3 or so, by scrubbing every surface with my mother’s toothbrush and a mixture of shampoo, toothpaste, and soap. I wasn’t really trying to clean anything. I was just entertaining myself. My father brought me to my distraught mother and said, “You need to say you’re sorry.” The closest he could get out of me was, “I didn’t mean it.” When I was little, there were two words I just could not bring myself to say: “I’m sorry.” It was sorta cute then, a toddler with too much pride to say “I’m sorry.” My parents were also very strict about respect; so it was a sore point too.

Now, twenty some odd years later, I have a son and I’m trying to teach him. My wife and I teach our son in many ways. We teach by telling him what to do. We teach by letting him find out for himself. We use rewards. We use punishments. We use psychology. But as far as I can tell, he learns the most by what I refer to as osmosis. He learns by what he absorbs from the people around him. I want him to learn to take responsibility for himself and what he does. I want him to value other people and the relationships in his life. I want him to be humble. I can talk to him about these things all I want, but unless I model the behavior for him he won’t really internalize it. Now, I’m aware that there is a school of thought that says parents (and other authority figures) should never apologize- it is a sign of weakness and lessens authority. I’m going to disagree with that. Authority does not require infallibility. As far as I can tell, unless one is Jesus, claiming to be infallible simply makes one out to be a liar, which tends to weaken any claim to authority. Instead, I try to show him that taking responsibility for one’s actions and apologizing is a sign strength and character.

Let me give an example: One day I came home and Felipe’s shoes were on the steps for me to trip over and his coat and book bag in the middle of the floor. I had a rough day and we had been telling him every day to put his things away as soon as he came home. I just blew up- I yelled for him to get himself over here to pick up his mess, and why didn’t you do it right when you came home, and why are you being so irresponsible and lazy, and when you’re done picking it up go to your room- yelling angrily the whole time. (I’m sure that no other parents out there have ever done this sort of thing.) After I calmed down, I recognized that I had blown an incident out of proportion and taken my frustrations out on him. So I went upstairs to talk to him. I told him that I was wrong to have spoken to him the way I did. That I was perfectly right to make him clean up his things and to reprimand him, but the way in which I did so was wrong. I did not back down from my responsibility as a parent to discipline him, but I also took responsibility for my mistake. In doing so I showed him how to own his misdeeds, that I valued and respected him, and that doing right is more important that being right.

My wife is sometimes annoyed by apologies. As someone who grew up in another country, she has the benefit of being able to observe the culture she is now a part of with some detachment. Her reasoning is apologies are often nothing more than words. So often we say “sorry” without thinking, automatically. And so often we see the apology as the end. “You think ‘sorry’ fixes everything!” she says after I mumble “sorry” after stepping on her foot for the ump-teenth time as we are trying to make breakfast and pack lunches in our small kitchen. And she’s right (don’t tell her I said that); Apologies can be meaningless, rote things that we do out of habit or to try and get the other person to let an offense slip by. Our apologies can be unsupported by any actions. But an apology is supposed to be part of something bigger than just words and perhaps flowers (or jewelry if you really screwed up). It is a reminder that we are fallible. It serves to keep us humble. Most importantly it is supposed to be the beginning of reconciliation. If we truly wish to have healing in a relationship, we must be willing to take responsibility for our misdeeds. Once responsibility is taken and forgiveness is given, reconciliation (healing of the relationship) can occur.

I value my relationship with my children and I want them to value their relationships with other people and to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences of their actions. The only way I will influence them to do that is if I do it for them.

Being “The Other Man”

Being “The Other Man”

Usually when we hear the term “the other man” we think of a person with whom someone is cheating on her husband or boyfriend. It stirs up feelings of jealousy, anger, confused loyalties, and disappointment at reality falling short of the ideal. I am also the “other man.” I have a stepson and so he has a biological father… and me. The situation of a child having a biological father and a stepfather unfortunately provides the child with the emotional parallels of a love triangle.

With 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce and the growing ranks of children in foster care, I think that my experience with my son is one that, regrettably, many can identify with. My wife and I are not his biological parents, but she has been his caretaker and the only mother he has known since an infant. I married his mother when he was 5. His biological father has regular contact through visitations every other weekend and some holidays. So that is the situation out of which I am sharing.

One of the things that is difficult to let go of as a man is the desire to be The father. As men, we do not like to share our roles with other men. And when it comes to our families we are especially jealous of our roles as both husband and father. The idea our role being usurped by another is bitter. But as a step-father I must accept that I am not the only father my son has. To be plain, it is painful at times. My son is nine years old. At that age a boy worships his biological father, whoever that person may be and however good of a father that person is or however badly that person falls short. While he regards me as his father, he will regularly in casual conversation refer his biological father his “real” dad. I know that he does not understand semantics and does not understand the pain that causes me but that doesn’t make it easier. I also know that my son loves me, enjoys the time we spend together, looks up to me, and relishes every positive word I say to him, and is pained by every negative word. In order to be a better father, I have had to let go of my desire to be his only father and be willing to be a father without the affirmation of being regarded by my son at every moment as “Dad.” I don’t like it, and I still have not totally let go of that desire. Humility is hard won and, for me, I doubt will ever be fully won.

The great evil of divided families is the havoc it plays on the hearts and minds of the children caught in the middle. My son feels a constant confusion. His biological father is jealous of his son’s affections and reminds him that I am not his “real” father, that he is, and asserts that there can be only one. To be honest, if I let myself, I would tell him the same thing (said conversely). Because of this confusion of loyalties, my son feels like he is betraying his biological father when he thinks of me as dad and also feels that he is betraying me when he thinks of his biological father as dad (especially if he is home with us). I go through great pains to let him know that he is free to love his biological father. My wife and I take care to only speak positively of the biological father and to encourage our son in his visits and sporadic phone calls. He does not have to choose as far as I am concerned. But for my son, the challenge of loving two fathers and the feeling of committing treason against both for loving both is source of stress and nightmares.

When I am honest with myself, I must admit that I sometimes doubt my own standing to rightfully be a father to this boy. I find myself believing the lies. Sometimes I’m scared that I will just screw things up one too many times or too badly and he will heed those lies. If you are a stepparent you know the lies: “You aren’t his real dad.” “He’s not your real son.” “Why should you keep letting yourself get hurt or worrying about this child who is not really yours to worry about?” But like I said, they are lies. And this is not really a love triangle. There is no betrayal here. The sad state of affairs is that my son has two fathers because we live in a world where families are broken. Both he and I are learning to live in the world we find ourselves. I am trying to advance the kingdom of God into this difficult situation. I love him. I care for him. I’m there for him when he needs me. I set limits on his behavior and activities because I love him and want him to grow up to be a better man. I help him with his homework even though he frustrates me to the point I just surrender and get my wife to do it. I have him help me do things even though I could do them faster and better without him. I give him chores to teach him responsibility and work ethic. I know that one day he will say to me in anger when I ground him for missing curfew, “You’re not even my real father!” I also know that I’ll keep loving him and he will keep loving me because I’m his father even though I’m the other man.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Where to eat in Lebanon, PA

Obviously you could eat at Ruby Tuesday's or Friendly's. But you can find them anywhere. If you are in the Lebanon PA area (east of Harrisburg and Hershey, north of Lancaster, west of Reading) there are a few places that I would recommend.

Ye Olde Bake Oven in Myerstown. Great Pennsylvania Dutch food in a local eatery and low prices.

Fresh Donuts on the east side of Lebanon. Great donuts made that day. If you like donuts, go here. Very cheap, too.

Kugos on the south side of Lebanon, in the Kmart strip mall. You would not expect to find a high class Japanese restaurant in a strip mall in Lebanon. But here it is. Beautifully decorated with hibachi and sushi and reasonably priced.

Blue Bird Inn south of Lebanon. This pub has great American food that can be enjoyed in either a pub or dining room setting.

Patsy Fagan's downtown Lebanon. An Irish pub with great Irish food like bangers and mash, fish and chips, or shepherds pie along with several Irish beers on tap. In the middle of PA Dutch country.

Batdorf in Annville. American and Southwestern fare with a dining room and a bar.

Big Daddy's on the east side of Lebanon. Ribs and wings.

A&M Pizza. Every place seems to have their own little pizzaria and thinks it is the best. We have A&M and have about half a dozen spread throughout the county.