Out of Balance

One night before bed, my wife came and sat next to me.

“I know you’re tired,” she said. “But when you get that tired, the way you check out is to be really short with us, and like we are bothering you. We haven’t been spending a lot of time with our son, and that’s how he sees you at night.”

Of course, she was right. Looking back, I can see how I responded with one-word answers or a tone of disinterest. Our nights became about checking out by sitting on the couch watching TV while our son played video games online with his friends in the basement. Dinner time was mostly apart, as well, us watching TV while he ate and watched his iPad.

It was too easy to fall into this routine. The long winter nights, the lingering pandemic, the burnout from keeping everything together leeched our energy and motivation. We checked out long before it was time to check out, and anything that required exerting effort or interest was met with resentment and disdain.

After my wife called me out, I felt ashamed and guilty. I used the excuse of letting him play with his friends to justify my behavior. “He’s doing what he wants to be doing, so it’s ok to check out.” But it was just that…an excuse.

I’m glad that he has friends now from school and has more independence to hang out with them virtually. It’s what he wants to do and what he should be doing, especially after many years of isolation.

It also comes after so many years where we were always “on,” too. We were the caregivers of a child with epilepsy, with all the care and worry that required. We were his emotional regulators when he couldn’t do it himself. We were his teachers and his entertainment when he was too sick to attend school. That was in addition to trying to manage our own lives, jobs, and relationships.

But moving from one extreme to another threw everything out of balance. That’s not to say that the amount of time needs to be equally portioned. My son is getting older, and we’re not his only source of entertainment or care anymore. He should be spending more time with friends and more time with himself. But that doesn’t mean those two things should be the only things in his life or that they are excuses not to be a parent.

Or a husband. Sitting on the couch next to my wife isn’t spending time together. We’re relaxing but not interacting. We just happen to be occupying the same space and doing the same thing.

As in most situations, awareness is the first step to change. I’m grateful to my wife for pointing out where I was and how I was responding to our son. Since then, I’ve been more aware of my tone, and we’ve also started having more family dinners, more walks in the neighborhood, and more ping pong tournaments in the basement. My son still plays with his friends, and my wife and I still veg out on the couch watching television. But, now, those aren’t the only things we do.

Trying Something New

Shortly before the year started at my son’s new school, we received an e-mail announcing that they were recruiting for their soccer team. When we mentioned it to our son, he was excited, so we signed him up.

On the first day of practice, I took my last meetings from the bleachers to check in on my son. Soccer practice was after a full day of school, which was also something new for him, so I wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t push himself past the point of exhaustion.

The team was a mix of kids who had never played soccer before alongside seasoned veterans who ran circles around the other kids. My son was in the former category. I could tell there was a lot of new information being thrown at him, but he hung in there. When practice was over, I gave him a high five, and we headed home.

That night, as I was putting my son to bed, we talked more about his day. When the topic of soccer came up, he said he was excited but also very tired, adding, “maybe I’ll skip soccer tomorrow.”

As we talked more, it was obvious that the full day of school and soccer practice was physical and mentally draining, but there was more to it. Soccer was something new, too, and he wasn’t good at it yet. He was feeling nervous and insecure, especially since one of his friends on the team was much better than my son.

It’s easy to get excited about something new. Still, sometimes that excitement only carries you up to the point where you have to do the new thing: signing up for a new activity like soccer, moving to a new location, or changing jobs. But when you are standing on the side of the field, about to put in an offer on a new home, or reading a job offer, that’s when the fear and uncertainty creep in.

What if I’m not good at it? What if someone else is better? What if I get rejected? What if I make the wrong choice? What if the new thing is worse? What if I miss out on something better? What if I don’t deserve this?

Those voices in our heads that question our choices and our worthiness get louder as we get closer to acting on that excitement. They thrive in uncertainty and fill in the gaps between what we know and what we don’t know yet with stories of fear and doubt. They don’t want us to put ourselves out there. They don’t want us to fail. They want to keep us safe. But they can also keep us from something better.

I look at my own life and how many times I was afraid to start something new. I think about the experiences I would have missed out on had I not taken the next step.

I shared with my son stories of when I was afraid or uncertain. I told him how I was nervous when I joined the Army, and the first time I played drop-in hockey in the city, even though I didn’t know anyone. I told him about getting on stage to give a presentation, and how I still get nervous when writing a post for this blog. I told him how I wasn’t sure that I could do any of those things, just like he wasn’t sure about soccer. But, especially when it is something that you want to do, sometimes the hardest thing is taking that next step.

Not everything went the way I thought it would or wanted it to, but I can look back and be proud that I took that next step. I can be grateful for the experiences that I’ve had. And I can use those experiences as a catalyst the next time I face uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt.

“Let’s see how you feel in the morning,” I said. “We shouldn’t make any decisions when we’re this tired.”

“OK, daddy,” he replied and turned to the side and closed his eyes.

The following day, he came down for breakfast, already dressed and ready for school.

“Good morning, daddy,” he said, pointing at his socks. “These are soccer socks because they are long like soccer players wear.”

“I see that,” I said. “How are you feeling about playing today?”

“I’m excited,” he replied. “I think I was just tired last night and a little nervous, but I’m ready to get on the field!”

He sailed through the next few practices and now spends time between practice kicking the ball in the yard. He also learned that one of his friends in the neighborhood was on a soccer team and picked up a few tips from him.

He got through that initial fear and found a new activity that he enjoys doing. Not every story will have such a happy ending, but he would never have known unless he took that next step.

I am so proud of my boy.

Lucky 13

This week is my wife’s and my 13th wedding anniversary.

When I think back to how it all began, it seemed improbable that we would have ever met. I was a software engineer working in a Colorado suburb, and she was an actress and musician running a musical theater school in the foothills. We traveled in different worlds that had little overlap. But we both had friends that encouraged us to try online dating, and my favorite algorithm of all time is the one that decided that we were a match.

We started slowly. We spent months getting to know each other over e-mail and texts. The first time we talked on the phone, I was visiting my parents and pacing around their pool like a nervous teenager. When I returned from my trip, we finally had our first date and our first kiss.

As our relationship continued, I started to see more of her world. On one date early on, I sat at a table, nursing a drink, watching her sing on stage. I still smile when I think about it. I was already in love with her, and there was something transcendent about watching someone you love doing something they love.

At the time, I was learning about photography, so I became the official photographer for her school and began to take photographs of the performances. I would see her share her gift with the children and watch as they put on these incredible, professional performances. What she was able to draw out of these kids and the way she did it was inspirational.

The more time I spent in her world, the more amazed I became. She brought things out of me, too, that I didn’t know anyone could. It was challenging at times, and I didn’t always handle it well, especially when what was coming out collided with my baggage and fears. But I was growing, and we were growing together, and I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Our wedding day was a wonderful, blurry blending of our two lives.

Almost a year after we were married, our son arrived. We didn’t have much time to explore life as a married couple, and the change and the challenges of being new parents strained our relationship. My wife had to take a break from teaching, and I only had a few weeks off before I had to return to work. There were hard days, but we were so grateful for his presence, and we did our best to figure it out.

Eventually, we found help from an amazing nanny and my wife could return to work. She found her groove with the school and managed to juggle being a business owner and being a mother, and one of my favorite pictures from that time was when our son played the baker’s son in Into the Woods.

I was slowly advancing in my career, as well. When my company offered me a position that required moving to Philadelphia, my wife didn’t hesitate. It’s only in hindsight that I can even begin to appreciate how much she gave up to support me in that move. But it was only the start of the things that she would give up.

On their first trip to Philadelphia, my son had his first seizure. It was not the introduction we hoped for to the city that would become our new home. But it was one seizure, and it didn’t stop our move east.

The second seizure came as my wife and son boarded an airplane a few months after our move. She managed to get him off the plane and rode with him in the ambulance to the children’s hospital. By the time I met them at the hospital, my son was stable, but my wife was understandably shaken.

In the months that followed, my son’s condition only got worse, and my wife was the one who was with him every day. I would go to work, and she would be alone with him in the house in a city where we didn’t have any family or support outside of what we received at the hospital. When my son’s condition got so bad that he needed to be admitted, and when we discovered what “Keppra Rage” was, and when we thought we were going to lose him, she was the one that bared most of the burden, and she is the one that essentially pulled us through.

Over the next few years, my wife would start teaching music or singing with kids of families we met through school, but it was hard to keep the momentum going. Even as my son was becoming more stable, he still couldn’t do full days at school. Some days we’d get a call from the school nurse, and my wife would need to go pick our son up. Some days he would seize so much that we couldn’t send him to school at all, and my wife would stay home with him. The unpredictable nature of our son’s condition made it impossible to have a fixed routine or plan too far out into the future. She was constantly forced to rearrange her schedule or cancel her lessons last minute. It became too hard to manage so she would stop doing those things so that she could focus on our son.

Often after the stress and frustration had gone beyond the breaking point, we would try to bring in someone to help at home. But the erratic nature of our son’s condition and the impact on his day made it hard to schedule help, too. We paid a nanny to be on standby in case we needed to pick my son up early because there was no one else we could call. But that wasn’t sustainable financially, so, again, it fell to my wife to give up the things she wanted to do.

When the pandemic hit, it initially felt like a relief. We were home together and I should be able to help more. But it didn’t start well. Even if I wasn’t going to an office, I would still disengage and disappear behind meetings during the day. My wife was still the one that carried the responsibility of taking care of our son.

When the new school year started, we tried a dedicated virtual school. Even the haphazard attempt at going virtual by my son’s brick-and-mortar school helped with his anxiety, so we thought it might be a better fit. My wife was supposed to serve as the “learning coach” who would monitor progress and step in if our son got stuck. But it turned into another full time teaching job. My son struggled with the structure and pace of virtual learning. He had a hard time keeping his focus and attention and wouldn’t know what he was supposed to be doing. My wife spent every minute keeping him on task, or helping him do the work, or trying to teach him whatever he didn’t pick up from the teacher. She was in the room with him all day, watching him struggle and watching him fall further behind.

Over the years, it was always my wife’s instincts that triggered the alarm and forced action. She’s the one who recognized his struggle at school and pushed for a 504 and eventually an IEP. She’s the one who got him a one-on-one aide. She’s the one who got him back into occupational or speech therapy when there were signs of regression. She’s the one who knew that the virtual school wasn’t working and started looking for a school more suited to our son’s needs.

Around the same time, she also recognized that it was time to move out of the city. We got lucky and found both a school and a house in a nearby suburb. When the neuropsychologist said that the best thing we could do for my son after we received the results of his latest test was “find him a school” and “find a way for him to be around other kids,” we had already done both of them thanks to my wife.

As we are settling into our new life, I’m seeing my wife start to come alive again. She’s starting to do the things that she was meant to do. She’s teaching a few students in the city and talking about starting a class. She’s working on a book. She’s putting herself out there in those ways that inspired me to do the same all those years ago. It inspires me even more today.

I am so grateful to be on this journey with her. There is no way for me to balance the scales, but I can keep working at being the best husband and father I can be. I can keep looking for ways to lighten her burden and to support her as she has more capacity to find herself again.

After so many years of putting others first and being forced to give up so much of herself and what she needed, maybe this is going to be her year.

Lucky 13.