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I’m guilty of child neglect and have to do something about it

For about the last six months, I’ve neglected my son. For the first several years he lived with us (we adopted him when he was five), we did a great deal together. We hiked, took photographs, went camping and bike riding. In fact, we did some of that this summer, but not nearly as much as we could have and should have.

father sonThe problem, of course, is that I have gone through a long period of doldrums. I have been literally stuck in the middle of a kind of sea with no wind in my sail. It may be that it’s my age or that I am losing vitality just as he’s gaining the wonder and restlessness that comes with the teen years.

In either case, I realized my situation and have not possessed the energy or will to do anything about it. I have to look back a bit to see the start of this neglect, and I think it began about the time I began serious work on my dissertation in 2012. I spent every day that summer, from 9 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. at the graduate offices at UMKC. I did that every workday for months. I purposefully did not work on the weekends so that I would have family time.

It mattered little just what I did during the day because Nick was involved in a summer program with the parks department at our community center. I took him in around 8 or 8:30 a.m. and then picked him up, depending on if Virginia was working and had the time to do it herself, around 5 or 5:30 p.m. They ran him all day. He played with the other kids in the gym, watched movies, and did crafts. They swam every day. Weekly, they made a field trip to a more elaborate playground-type pool with all kinds of fountains, lazy rivers, and assorted vortexes. They went to the amusement park—that god-awful Worlds of Fun. (I’m glad the parks people took him because I never would.)

At the end of the day, it was time for him to recover. Evenings, he played with his friends across the street—tag, football, baseball—or they would play at the neighborhood park. By the time 8 p.m. came, he was more or less ready for bed and biding his time until he could reach a respectable bedtime of 9 or 9:30 p.m.

Every summer since he’s been with us, he was a part of that parks program. I thought that his time with the other kids was convenient to me. The first summer I worked on dissertation, we rode bikes and went camping on the weekends, but less than before.

After summer, I let school be my babysitter. He was, of course, busy during the day and would have some homework at night. But our father/son projects fell to the wayside. I found myself not taking pictures with my pinhole camera anymore. I didn’t fiddle at the workbench in the basement, and I certainly didn’t engage Nick the way I did before I started seriously on the dissertation.

The following summer, 2013, was much the same as the summer before. I dropped all my extracurricular activities—photos, painting, creative projects—for the dissertation. I lived and breathed it. I knew that I missed my hobbies and obsessions, but I formed a discipline in which that dissertation would be my focus and finishing it my goal.

In the meantime, my relationship with Nick fell to just the most mundane tasks of daily living. Oh, I took him places. We took drives. I kept him busy on the weekends, but our time of close interaction had seemingly come to an end.

And, then, after three years of hard work interspersed with periods of darkness and despair, I completed the dissertation. When I walked out of the doctoral committee the day they gave me my degree, I said to myself, well, now, I’m free. I’m a real doctor and I’m free.

I thought that after a short time, I would be back to those creative projects that took up so much of my days before the dissertation. I looked forward to doing things with Nick again.

Slowly, my life began to find normal paces and routines. I taught school, wrote essays, and even, this year, drafted another book. But I didn’t pick up the pinhole camera. I didn’t take Nick on those photo hunting expeditions we made with our regular film cameras. We didn’t fiddle around in the basement. We painted no pictures, built no crystal radios, and made no furniture.

I read more, devoured books after having spent so much of my efforts picking through books like so many toll boxes. I learned to read novels again. Reading became a joy. In fact, it was the only thing I did outside of teach and write.

I find now that the dissertation did damage. After the intense effort to get that done, I suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress. Outside of my normal work duties and reading, I had nothing. About this time last year, I even wished I had another dissertation to do. I wanted that passion back, that sense of purpose. It’s almost as if I had been to war and didn’t know how to live without it.

Earlier this year, my son’s grades began to drop. Not by much, but enough to see that he was seeking attention. Sinking grades get him attention. Good grades get him a pat on the back. It’s a situation that I now realize that only more father/son time will solve. It’s not a matter of more lecture but one of more time devoted to him outside of school and the adulation that school brings him.

This Thanksgiving we had our holiday a day early. Virginia had to work Thanksgiving night, so we put together a family gathering for Wednesday. It was a time of close family, just Virginia, Nick, Uncle Phil, sister Sydney, and me. Everything went well and we had a wonderful day that ended at the movie theater where Sydney works. We returned from the movie in enough time to say goodnight and go to bed.

Thanksgiving day neither Nick or I left the living room. He played with legos—he’s something of a lego freak—and I read and noodled around on the computer. The whole day I felt awful. We should be doing something. Rain gave me an excuse not to do anything outside. But I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to get into the basement, make a painting with Nick, build something. Instead, we just sat until the day was through.

Friday was a little better. Nick’s friend came to spend the weekend. I was grateful to have something take my responsibilities away, a friend that would keep him preoccupied. We walked the dogs together, but that is hardly an activity that Nick enjoys. He was glad, however, that we did it together. We had the same kind of day on Saturday and part of Sunday. Nick and his friend played. I wrote and stayed out of his life.

Today, Sunday, his friend went home and it was just us again. What could we do? I remembered all the times when Sydney was a little girl when we would waste time at the art gallery, see the art, discuss it. So, that’s what we did today.

I’ve had a moment to think about our relationship. I look back now and see that Nick does best when we do things together. Not just in the moment we are together, but in all the moments in between our interactions. For the sake of his grades, his creative life, and his general happiness, I see now, I have to be involved in his life.

I can’t make the promise that I will get out of my funk and do the things with Nick that we used to do. But I know that now I have to try. It’s for his good and for mine.

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One Comment

  1. Ulf Ulf

    I’ve been in those “funks” on several occasions – usually related to work stress. My kids were older than your son, but not yet in high school when the worst one hit. Both noticed my lack of energy during the evenings and weekends. One of them asked me directly what was going on and the other approached my wife. It took professional help to get me back on track and it was well worth it. I encourage you to seek similar guidance from an impartial professional.

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