A Father’s Bucket List

Two-thousand, seven-hundred, and eleven days.

About a month ago, I downloaded an app for my iPhone that is counting down the number of days until my oldest son leaves for college, assuming he goes off to college and assuming he goes when most kids go. I put the app on the first screen of my phone, and I check it every morning.

I know this is a little maudlin.

high school graduation

But I’m really tired of arriving at monumental moments in my life, and in the lives of the people I love, looking backward, and asking, “How did we get here so quickly, and why wasn’t I more intentional about the journey?”

And, actually, I’m not sure I’m being maudlin enough. Because when I installed the app on my phone, 2,738 days seemed like an eternity. But I have a feeling, in twelve days, when it ticks down to 2,699, it’s going to feel like time has actually passed.

How quickly will the hundreds fly by?

How quickly will the thousands race by?

Quickly, I think, because life gets busy and priorities get out of whack and I end up tyrannized by the urgent while neglecting the important and I can spend years on autopilot if I’m not careful.

The app has made me realize: just being aware of time passing isn’t enough. I need to be doing it differently, not just thinking about it differently. Living it more, not dwelling on it more.

I’m a father who needs a bucket list.

By August 20, 2022, there are a few things I want to do with my son:

I’ve Got Bad News and I’ve Got Good News (Which Will You Choose?)

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“Daddy, I’ve got bad news!”

I’m getting into the car after making the mistake of sending my youngest two children out to the garage on their own. I finish getting in and I look in the rearview mirror. My son’s face is contorted by righteous fury. “She called me stupid two times!”

On this particular morning, I simply don’t have the energy to sort out discrepant eyewitness testimonies, request the appropriate apologies, and mediate forgiveness. So, instead, I say, “Do you have any good news for me?”

His face turns thoughtful and then a smile breaks out upon it. “I found my fleece under the seat!” He holds up a ball of something blue that looks vaguely like the fleece he lost last autumn. I smile, too.

The world is full of bad news.

And the world is full of good news.

Which will you choose?

Manning Up and Leaning In to Marriage

egalitarian marriage

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It’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m a suburban dad, and my oldest son has a double-header scheduled in his indoor baseball league. I line up in the bleachers with the other dads, and we all shout tough, competitive, guy things to our boys on the field.

But then I pull out my wife’s scrapbooking materials, and I begin to cut Christmas trees out of green construction paper. The other dads glance at me sideways. I swear a couple of them cough-laugh.

I breathe deeply and I remind myself I’m still a man.

I’m a man married to a tenured professor of psychology. I fell in love with her tenacity and her deep sense of vocation and when we stood on our wedding altar, I knew what I was getting into — an egalitarian marriage. Which means, if we’re two weeks away from Christmas and she’s grading final exams and our kids’ Christmas party craft needs to be prepared, I’m toting the scrapbooking supplies to baseball. I’ll also be the only dad at the Christmas party.

And all of that can feel a little…emasculating.

But thirteen years of striving for true equality in our marriage has convinced me of at least one thing: having your manhood called into question can be a good thing, perhaps even an essential thing. And ten years as a psychologist has confirmed it: the number one obstacle for men to personal healing, emotional health, and loving marriages is what most of us call masculinity — this idea that to be men we have to be strong, unflappable, and invulnerable. When I ask the question, “What would you have to give up to be vulnerable and honest, to be forgiving and gracious, to be empathic and caring?” the most common answer I get is, “My manhood.”

When men talk about manhood — and when most of us talk about masculinity — those words and ideas and experiences can all be code words for something else: ego.

This is the beginning of a guest post I wrote for Disney’s Babble.com, in conjunction with the #LeanInTogether campaign. To read the rest of this post, click here.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: I’ve Got Bad News and I’ve Got Good News (Which Will You Choose?)

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat But It Saves Relationships

Good communication is easy, but curious communication is anything but easy. And it may be the difference maker in every relationship. Because words matter, but they mean something different to everybody…

marriage

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It’s about a hundred degrees below zero, as my daughter and I get out of the car at her preschool on a winter Wednesday morning. She grabs my hand, I look at her, and I say, “Let’s run into the warm building!”

She won’t budge.

She looks at me like I’m crazy.

“That’s not a building,” she says in a severe teacherly tone, as if she’s the one who’s almost forty and I’m the one who’s just getting started.

I’ve already lost feeling in my toes and I’m pretty sure the skin on my face will never be the same, but I’m curious about how her little brain works, so instead of arguing and pulling her along like a fish on a line, I ask, “If that’s not a building, what is it?”

“Daddy,” she says, “that’s not a building; that’s a school.”

Now all feeling is gone from my fingers, too, but my curiosity gets the best of me again.

“So, what is a building?”

A lopsided smile appears on her face. She doesn’t say, “Duh,” but it’s implied. “Daddy, a building is a place you go to work.”

Oh.

Then she drags me inside like a fish on a line.

Words matter. But they mean something different to each of us. Which can be a small problem in a parking lot, but a much bigger problem in a marriage or partnership or friendship or any meaningful relationship of any kind.

Why We Should All Just Give Up

In the dark hours of a Wednesday morning, I sat at a railroad crossing. Red caution lights flashed silently as a train roared by. I was in the middle of a crummy week. And I finally gave up…

true self

The carpet guys had found asbestos tile under the decade-old carpet in our bedroom. The hazardous waste guys wanted a lot of money to remove it. A window sash had rotted through. The window people couldn’t find a replacement and wanted to replace the whole window. More money.

I took my son to the wrong gym for his first basketball game and I dropped the ball on something at work and the future of my book manuscript seemed uncertain and I got angry at my family—more than once—because when things start falling apart it’s awfully tempting to alienate the very people who hold you together.

And, finally, I had awoken at 4am on this particular Wednesday morning to discover the technical solution I had implemented for a problem with blog emails had broken the email service altogether. My weekly email wouldn’t send to anyone. So, I spent ninety minutes with customer service—to no avail—before racing out the door to drive two hours to an appointment for which I was already running late.

My travels needed to go perfectly for me to arrive on time.

Remember that train I mentioned?

As I approached the railroad crossing only a few blocks from home, the arms descended, blocking my way. I was becoming a little unhinged, wondering what could go wrong next when, as the end of the train approached, another light began to flash and a robotic voice declared repeatedly, “Another train coming.”

Which is when I finally I gave up.

What if we all just gave up?

Why Siblings Fight (and Why We All Fight Like Siblings)

Siblings fight because they assume love is a limited resource. They assume they have to compete for caring. In other words, siblings are just like the rest of us…

family conflict

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I was brutal to my siblings.

I beat up on my little brother’s shoulder and I beat up on my little sister’s heart. When we were all grown and had gone our separate ways, I realized what I’d done, and I started to beat up on myself. I felt guilty about being a bully and sad about the lost opportunity to be their friend.

Even after they accepted my apology, I couldn’t forgive myself.

So, instead, I decided to redeem it. By cultivating a sense of companionship amongst my own children. It seemed simple enough. But encouraging mutuality and tenderness between siblings is way easier said than done. Siblings swing quickly upon a pendulum from caring for each other to competing with each other.

What are they constantly competing for?

Love.

They assume it’s a limited resource.

The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date

Is that it doesn’t exist. Because the perfect Valentine’s date doesn’t seek perfection. It seeks reality. It acknowledges who we are as individuals and where we are as couples. Which means, the most loving Valentine’s date could happen in a restaurant. Or in a therapist’s office…

perfect Valentine's date

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I’m a marital therapist

And I’ve worked on Valentine’s night.

While couples across the world were dining by candlelight, riding in carriages, and sprinkling rose petals—attempting to orchestrate the perfect evening and the most romantic moment—I’ve sat with couples in the midst of their pain and sorrow. On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with lovers while they got as honest as possible about who they are, turned over rocks most people won’t even look at, fought to forgive, and dug deep to find empathy and intimacy.

On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with couples while they got real.

In other words, I’ve been a witness to the most Romantic Valentine’s dates of all.

Yes, that’s Romance with a capital R.

Why It Takes Courage to Look Inside (And Why It’s Totally Worth It)

Life is a lost-and-found, and we’re all rummaging around for the thing that’s gone missing. But what is it and where is it? The good news is, you don’t have to look far. You only have to look deep

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“Are your new shoes in your closet?”

My wife is trying to make my youngest son look presentable for a Christmas concert. He usually refuses to wear anything except athletic pants but she has somehow, miraculously, talked him into a pair of corduroys. The finishing touch will be a pair of shoes that don’t look like they have been through a semester of playground wars.

He looks up from the book he’s reading. His face is deadly serious as he responds, “Yeah, but I’m not going to look for them. It’s a jungle in there.”

It’s a jungle inside my son’s closet.

And it’s a jungle inside our hearts.

Which is why we don’t go looking for the one thing we all need to find.

Dear Dad, You’re Doing It All Wrong (A Letter to Myself)

parenting

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Dear Dad,

You’re doing it all wrong.

Eleven years ago, the doctors handed you a little, pink bundle of vulnerability. You were twenty-six years old, and you walked out of the hospital entirely responsible for a brand new human being. A whole person. As if that were a totally sane thing to let you do. It scared you. They eventually handed you two more little people. It was supposed to get a little easier each time.

It didn’t.

You never got less afraid. You never got more certain about how to be a dad. So you decided to make it up along the way. You can stop feeling bad about that—it’s what everybody else is doing, too. The problem is, you improvised by listening to the voices in the world around you, instead of listening to the voice coming from the world within you. You can forgive yourself for that, too. The voices around you are loud and persuasive.

They told you achievement matters most. So you stressed about school districts and kindergarten homework and guitar recitals. You secretly kept score in your head at first grade soccer games. You thought scoring goals was the goal of life.

But can you remember?

Can you remember what it was like to be just a few years out of diapers and to score a goal on the soccer field? You didn’t care about the score and you didn’t start planning for your future soccer scholarship. No, you whipped your head around to be sure they were looking. The real goal was to be seen. The real goal was to have someone to celebrate with.

Dad, you can stop spending all your time trying to get them into school, and you can start taking the time to walk them to school.

The Last Marriage Post You’ll Ever Need to Read

Marriages aren’t destroyed by lack of knowledge. They’re destroyed by our unwillingness to listen to the knowledge we already carry within us…

marriage

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Around this time last year, in Chicago, we were in the middle of a polar vortex. The thermostat hovered around zero. The schools were frequently closed. It was painful to go outside.

And my wife went to New Orleans without me.

It was a business trip, and she went out of her way to make provisions for the kids and me—she even flew her mother in to help with childcare while I was at work. Nevertheless, on the night the thermostat short-circuited and I discovered dog poop wedged in the couch cushions, she sent me a video of her enjoying Bourbon Street.

And I got as bitter as the weather outside.

When that happens—when I feel like I’m on my own and nobody cares about me—I put a big, invisible wall between me and everybody I love. When she returned from New Orleans, I wanted to be good to her but, to be honest, I also didn’t want to. So, I wasn’t. The problem is, after a few weeks, I was lonelier than ever and I just wanted my wife back.

I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish it, though. I felt like something big needed to change. I felt like something new needed to happen. I got away for an evening to brainstorm ideas, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Until I realized:

I had fallen prey to three big fallacies about how to make a marriage thrive.