What happens when two strong individuals come together to raise a child?  Are they able to surrender control?  How do they deal with sharing tasks?  Who gets to be right and who gets to be wrong?  How can they make positive communication a habit and avoid criticizing each other.  Most importantly, how can they make their baby a project that will bring them together rather than drive them apart?

Thinking about this, JoAnn (my wife) and I recounted some of our experiences as new parents. And even though JoAnn has a Masters degree in Education, I found that our mutual common sense had been an additionally important guide.

vectorstock_920433We thought of the process as a SHARED adventure, and imagined that we had been dropped into the jungle together with machetes, but no compass or map.  From there, we’d decide to chop our way out based on our gut feelings.  If one direction didn’t work, we’d reassess and try another knowing that we were making the decisions together and we’d ultimately  find our way out.

First, we had to accept and embrace our rookie status.  As rookies, we could look at each event as a new adventure.  Changing a diaper, cleaning an umbilical cord, putting the baby in and out of the car seat – these were entirely new experiences to be shared, discussed, and dissected in a loving and mutually helpful way.  We were both equally interested in pleasing the other and protecting the baby.  So accepting that a slip of the hand, or an accidental pinch with a buckle was “nobody’s fault” made us equally confident.

The early tasks were simple. The baby was either hungry, playing, tired, or asleep.  In the first months there were worrisome little things; rashes, crying, maybe a cold or fever, but generally speaking we saw our job as welcoming the baby into the world and helping to make the baby comfortable.

Around four months, there are actual biological changes occurring in babies that make them increasingly aware of the surrounding world.  Suddenly, they have opinions.  They cry when we leave them alone and they start expressing themselves.  When these control issues arose, JoAnn and I counted on each other for collective intelligence and strength.  It’s human nature to want things to go your way, but with babies, you don’t really have as much control as you’d like.  In our case, we knew we had a bigger picture.  We wanted to fit our babies into our lives, rather than change our schedules to accommodate them.  We wanted our babies to understand that we were determined, as a team, to do what was best for them – within the framework of our reasonable expectations.  Having a plan allowed us to roll with whatever came our way.

As parents, we were both equally new to the task, and we each brought our own skills.  Once problems popped up, we would discuss them.  If we felt marginalized – we’d bring it up!  If one of us had disengaged, the other would reconnect!  As rookies, how else would we learn?  The shared adventure allowed even the most ridiculous moments to bring us together.

AMGBabyAtHatchcoverOnce, as an infant, Aaron was listless and had a fever.  The doctor gave us some liquid medicine.  Unfortunately, Aaron was determined NOT to take the medicine.  We filled the dropper and, over a period of ten minutes, both JoAnn and I tried approaching him in every possible cute and innovative way.  He would have none of it.  When the dropper would come near, he’d clench his lips and turn his head from side to side.  Although this made a nice purple horizontal line on his cheeks, we were stuck.  How were we going to get this serum into our very willful baby?

We talked about it a bit and, despite Aaron’s tears and objection, we knew we had to give him the medicine.  We put him on the floor and, while I held his flailing hands, arms, and legs down, JoAnn locked his head between her knees and forced the dropper between his lips.  Once she squirted the medication into his mouth he froze, stopped crying, and made a “What the heck was that?” face.  We had been pushed to an extreme we had never anticipated.  We had just used  physical strength to overpower our child in order to do what was right.  We stared at each other, emotionally spent.

vectorstock_745873It wasn’t fun. It was a real challenge. But we both knew it was part of our job.  We laugh about it now, but at the time we never thought we’d have to get physical with our children.  We knew we’d done what had to be done.  We’d done it together, and that’s what mattered.

As parents and partners, we have to do our best to give up our critical ways.  We have to understand that the process is unpredictable, a set of lessons to be learned. We must never forget that the process has enough flexibility to allow for mistakes. What’s really important is learning from those mistakes by sharing them, talking about them, and even laughing about them.

None of us should expect to be happy all the time.  We can, however, choose to be happy most of the time, and being happy is not only a matter of perspective, but also a healthy long-term strategy. Although the expression is “Necessity is the mother of invention.”, I have learned the importance of “inventing” my own happiness.

Stan_Freberg_Presents_the_United_States_of_America_Volume_One_The_Early_YearsIn the 1960s-era comedy record “Stan Freberg Presents – The United States of America” Columbus is imagined saying to a group of Native Americans, “Say, I’d like to take a few of you guys back with me, to prove I discovered you.”  The Chief, shocked and confused says, “What you mean discovered us? We discovered you standing here on the beach!”  Finally they agree, “It’s all how you look at it.”

We all encounter upsetting things every day. Your call doesn’t get returned.  Your car breaks down.  Your best friend breaks down!  But hiding underneath each of those events there’s always a little piece of good news.

CarBeingTowedMy friend Mitch got into a car accident.  He survived without injury, but his car suffered some serious damage. Mitch took the car to a mechanic for diagnosis and rehab.  His mechanic said, “I have bad news and good news, which do you want first?”

Being an optimist, Mitch said, “Give me the bad news first.”

“Okay,” said the mechanic, “Your car is totaled. But here’s the good news. You’re going to get a new car!”

“But I’ll have to pay for it,” Mitch said. “The insurance won’t cover the cost of a new car.”

The mechanic remained cheerful: “Yeah, but you’re still going to get a new car!”

In retrospect, the mechanic was right.  Mitch did get a new car and weeks later, after the sting of the accident had worn off, he was actually driving around on a nice set of wheels.  Although things seemed bleak at first, there was actually a positive outcome.

HorseAsianCleanThe parent of a Japanese American friend of mine once told us this story.  A farmer’s  horse had run off.  Hearing this news, all the people in the nearby town came running to the farmer’s home: “This is such bad news.  How are you going to plow your fields?  How will you make a living?”  The farmer simply said, “Good news? Bad news? It’s just news.”

The next day the farmer’s horse returned – followed by two wild horses that the farmer put in a pen.  “What good news for you!” cried the people of the town “You are so fortunate!”  Again, the farmer said “Good news? Bad news? It’s just news.”

InjuredArmStickThe following day, the farmer’s son was thrown and broke his arm while training one of the wild horses.  The townspeople bemoaned the situation: “Oh no!  What will you do?  Your son cannot work. You will not be able to harvest. This is such bad news!”  The farmer was sad about his son, but again he replied, “Good news? Bad news? It’s all just news.”

The following week the country went to war and all the young men were called to join the army.  But the farmer’s son couldn’t go because he had a broken arm….

News.  It’s all how you look at it.

As parents, our job is to teach our children how to be happy — which is why pessimism and worrying out loud are not particularly good family activities.  No matter how cynical we may have become (and a certain degree of cynicism is unavoidable), it’s our job to be idealists – to believe that picking up one piece of trash is part of cleaning up the world, or that helping a friend in need (or even a stranger) could actually save their life.  The beauty of this is that it WORKS !!!

Here are five ways to help your children find their happiness:

  1. Be Positive – Encourage them and affirm them – avoid criticizing.
  2. Share good news – Focus on the positives in your life and the lives of others. New babies! Fun visitors! Good fortune!
  3. Don’t carry bad news – Try to avoid repeating hard luck stories.  We all know people who love to gossip about other people’s problems.  Try not to be one of those people.  Share concern, offer solutions, but don’t carry that stuff around with you.
  4. Have faith and root for underdogs – Teach your kids to find the good in everyone and everything.  It’s there.
  5. Show them the silver linings – I was very small when I started high school, about five feet.  I cried about it a lot, but there was nothing I could do.  At some point, a ball got stuck on the other side of a chain link fence.  I was the only person whose hand was small enough to fit through and recover the ball.  It was my mother who pointed out that advantage to me.  Yea – it sucked to be small. But it also had benefits.

My feelings got hurt in situations that had nothing to do with me.  My heart got broken by misunderstandings – and repaired by honest communication.

Happiness is a choice, and I’ve seen that many of us complicate our lives by reacting emotionally to situations that have not yet played out.  I learned these lessons by wasting a lot of emotion.   We’ve all been there.  Stay calm and carry on.

It’s all how we look at it.