I’m Just the Uncle

i can

I never get this thing right.

I’d like to chalk up my failures to the fact that I’m “just” an uncle who doesn’t have the kind of authority and influence that a parent does.  I’d like to credit my shortcomings to the fact that for most of the lives of our nieces and nephews we have lived hundreds of miles away and have been able to show up in person only a few times each year.  When my nascent efforts “fall down go boom” like my little grandniece when she tries to walk across the room, I like to think:  Well, what do you expect, uncle, you don’t know them the way you would have had you been there day in and day out when their personalities were developing.

I make all sorts of excuses.

But the bottom line is that I don’t know the melody to this tune and I’m mouthing the words in the hymnal and doing my best to fake it.

But I guess it’s okay.  After all, I’m just the uncle.

My 17 year old niece and her friend were over here for lunch after church today.  We ordered in Chinese.  My sister-in-law came over with the baby.  I helped my niece with an assignment.  Normal stuff.

My niece’s freshman English professor is requiring her to assemble a portfolio that includes a “career plan.”  She mentioned this a couple of weeks ago and I suggested that it does not have to be a “real” career plan, as it is unreasonable for anyone to expect a college freshman to have the direction of her life mapped out like a FORTRAN flow chart.  (Don’t you love how nicely that reference dates me?)

Then she sat down next and told me the rest of the story.  She is going to state that her career goal is to become a forensic psychologist.  Why?  Because her research found that those in the field typically enjoy a salary of about $59,000 annually.

Um, excuse me?

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” I began, “but sometimes you go about things backwards.”  My wife shot me a dirty look.  “You should choose a career because it is something you truly enjoy doing, not because of how much it pays,” I continued.

“But I have my daughter to think about,” she responded without missing a beat.  “I have to think about money.”

“Yes, but!”  I began talking with my hands, which is what I tend to do when I am passionate about my subject.  “You’re 17 now, but you won’t be 17 forever.  Before you know it, you’ll be thirty and forty and fifty.  Your daughter will be married and off living somewhere else and what will you be left with then?  Your career has to be for you.”

What I didn’t say was “and I won’t be around to offer you advice then, but perhaps you’ll remember what I said way back when.”

I found it somewhat humorous that my niece thinks that $59,000 is a really excellent salary.  I may be unemployed now, I told her, but when I am working I earn more than that and I’m not a doctor or an arbitrage specialist on Wall Street.

And then you need to think in terms of inflation, I told her.  My middle management jobs pay me more than my mother ever earned, and she has two master’s degrees and a doctorate.  $59,000 today may well translate to $80,000 as you progress in your career.

That’s when my niece dropped the bomb.  “Well, I’m really not sure about forensic psychologist,” she confided, “because I would have to get a doctorate and I really can’t do that.”

Um, say what????

“You can continue your education through a doctoral degree if this is what you really want to do.  Your aunt and I will help you in any way we can.  But please, don’t ever say I can’t.”

girl power

I don’t know where this I can’t stuff comes from, but it frustrates the heck out of me.  Is it a product of feeling beaten down because she is caught between being a teenager and an adult, being yelled at by her mother for not doing her chores while she has her own baby to take care of and term papers to write and physically demanding part-time work to do so that she has a few bucks in her pocket?  Or am I being slapped in the face by the very thing I read so much online about:  That even in this day and age, girls make their way through school being bombarded by the clear message that success in the business world is only for the boys?

This makes me want to tear my hair out.  Arrrrgggghhhh!!!  Where are the Aibileens of this world to tell our girls “you is kind, you is smart, you is important?”

How dare an intelligent young woman like yourself deny your self-worth and unlimited potential?

You don’t often hear me say this, dear niece, but you’re wrong.  You’re dead wrong.

Such demonstrations of lack of self-esteem make me want to explode.  But what else are we to expect when all around us is broadcast the message “You got pregnant in high school, so you can’t.  You have a single mother and you’re poor, so you can’t.  You’re from an ethnic background and you’re a woman, so you can’t.  Don’t hit your head on the glass ceiling on your way out.”

I want to do everything I can to contradict this mentality.  I want you to have confidence in your abilities and to bask in your successes.  I want you to pump your fist and shout at the sky “yes, I can, I can, I can!!”

But I’m just the uncle.  I know what my place is supposed to be, yet I constantly find myself straining against those boundaries.

My dear niece, I know that you haven’t had much in the way of male role models in your life.  You were two years old when I met you, and the next year your father left.  He almost never showed up for his visits and it’s been a long haul of social services and lawyers and courts to extract from him the small amount of child support ordered by the court.  Your mother got remarried, to a man with eight children of his own.  That marriage imploded after a few years; you didn’t really know who to call “Dad.”

Well, my dear, I can’t make up for any of that, and I wouldn’t dream of trying in any event.  I’m just the uncle.

But I’ve tried to set a good example to the best of my ability.  I know you don’t have the financial advantages that I had, but I hope that my academic degrees and the breadth of my knowledge that I am always sharing with you will inspire you to follow me down the path of education and self-enrichment.

Others tell me not to expect too much.

I say phooey!  I expect plenty, my dear niece.  And my number one expectation is, in the immortal words of Shakespeare:  “This, above all, to thine own self be true.”

But what do I know?  I’m just the uncle.


NaBloPoMo November 2013

The Answer: Fathers


We were watching episodes of The Voice on DVR the other night when one of the profiled contestants began discussing his childhood by saying “I grew up with divorced parents, like most kids.”

Say what?

Is it really true that most American children grow up in single parent families today?  The old chestnut about newlyweds having a 50/50 chance of their marriage succeeding is supposed to be woefully out of date.  I found one article that cites the divorce rate in my home state of California to be 8 out of every thousand residents, with the highest divorce rate in the United States being Alaska’s, with 14 out of every thousand residents having called it quits.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that, nationally, the divorce rate has decreased over the past decade from 4 to 3.6 out of every thousand Americans.  These statistics, of course, are subject to interpretation.  One of the many problems with them is that they refer to the number of people who are divorced in a particular state or nationally, not the number of marriages that fail annually.  However you look at it, though, the anecdotal 50% figure appears to be much higher than reality.

In popular culture, children of divorced parents are painted as pawns in a chess game between battling parents or shuttlecocks swatted back and forth from father’s house to mother’s house.  Examples include such movies as Kramer vs. Kramer, Table for Five, Shoot the Moon, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the list goes on and on.

Of course, not all divorcing parents are awarded joint custody of their children and not all fathers stick around.  Then there are the millions of children who, while not reflected in the divorce statistics, are raised by their mothers exclusively because their parents were never married to begin with.

On one side, I think of my niece, whose father faded out of the picture when she was three years old and her parents divorced.  On the other side, I think of her daughter, my grandniece, whose parents were never married and who is growing up without a father in her life.  It’s hard not to think that the former may have helped to produce the latter.

Leslie Grimard, a researcher for The Heritage Foundation, points out that 60% of kids in Richmond, Virginia have no father in the home.  Whether their parents were divorced or never married at all, that is a lot of children growing up with only one parent and, in most cases, no regular male influence.  Nationally, Grimard reports, about one out of every four children lives with his or her mother only.

While some may view these statistics as a cause for condemnation of a social or moral breakdown, the real problem is that more than half of children of single mothers live in dire poverty.  Of the one trillion dollars we spend on welfare programs for low-income families with children, over three-quarters goes to families headed by single mothers.

Despite federal and state efforts to keep these families above water, children growing up without fathers have a high incidence of battling depression, abusing drugs and getting in trouble with the law at an early age, according to Grimard.

Grimard posits that the answer to these social ills is not throwing more money at the problem (which our broke government cannot afford in any event).  The answer is fathers.

“When fathers play an active role in the lives of their children, they make a tangible difference,” writes Grimard.  “Children whose fathers spent time with them doing day-to-day activities such as homework, eating dinner or playing sports earned better grades on average than peers who had less access to their fathers.”

Many single mothers wish that the fathers of their children would take an active role in their kids’ lives.  It is easy to criticize absentee fathers for what appears to be moral bankruptcy, but the fact remains that no one can force fathers to do right by their children.  Then there are those mothers who, regretting ever having become involved with the father of their children, believe that everyone is better off if he stays out of their lives.  These fathers may have problems with alcohol or drugs or may be physically or emotionally abusive.  I once worked with a woman who, wanting nothing to do with her daughter’s absent father, referred to her ex as “my sperm donor.”

But the problems engendered by fatherlessness persist.  The cycle of poor school performance, dropping out of school, committing crime, teen pregnancy and poverty seems like a generational curse that never ends.  I have to agree that fathers are the most direct way, and possibly the only way, to break this cycle.

It is sad that the single, impoverished mother has become a fixture in American society.  In his widely heralded book, The Working Poor, David Shipler pointed out a decade ago that this entire sector of society has become “invisible.”  The chambermaid who cleans your hotel room, the cashier at Wal-Mart and the young lady handing you your Big Mac and fries through the McDonald’s drive-through window are all likely to be single mothers (either divorced or never married) silently suffering from grinding poverty.  Part of this poverty is the product of one-income minimum wage families.  But there is also the poverty of spirit of children of these households who grow up without the influence of a father.

In fatherless families, boys often grow up without significant male role models.  As for the girls, the image of a man who is husband and father may be totally foreign to them.  Likely as not, their home life experience is shared by many of their schoolmates and neighborhood friends.

The picture is rather depressing, and I can only wonder whether my grandniece will one day perpetuate the cycle by making babies early and struggling along as a single mother.  Despite the reduction in divorce rates in recent decades, it is statistically likely that my great-grandniece or great-grandnephew will also grow up without a father.

I was lucky.  My parents have been married for nearly 61 years.  Not all of those years were happy.  As a teenager, I remember my parents having acrimonious shouting matches that lasted half the night, complete with the vilest kind of curses, accusations and threats.  My sisters and I were scared to death and horrified.  We thought we were witnessing our family being torn asunder before our very eyes.

When I was fifteen, my mother vowed to divorce my father if he failed to concede to her demands.  While I am sure that each of my parents had grounds for justification for their positions, I remember wishing that they’d just get divorced already and get it over with.  I was sick of the bickering, arguing and foul language.  Like the Biblical character Jonah pouting beneath a vine when things didn’t go his way, I was terribly disappointed when my father caved in and stayed.  It wasn’t the first time he justified his actions by saying of my mother “if I didn’t love her so much, I’d leave.”

But I think the real reason he stayed, which I couldn’t fully appreciate as a teenager, is because he loved his three children and knew what might happen if he left.

Thanks, Dad.


The Picture Window

looking out wiindow

Barbara Shelly, who writes for the Kansas City Star, recently praised the relaxation in prescription standards for the “morning after pill” that makes it available to minors.  However, she muses, this is supposed to be an emergency measure for use when traditional contraception fails, a Plan B, if you will.  What, then, she asks, is Plan A for teen sex?

Is it the use of condoms?  Hmm, the health curriculum in just about every middle school and high school includes the lesson in which the proper use of condoms is demonstrated by fitting a rubber onto a banana.  Much snickering and a little embarrassment ensues. (But not much of the latter among today’s jaded teens.)

Oh, you poor thing, did the bad condom break? This could happen, of course, but probably not!  The guy needn’t worry about carrying a bowling ball around for nine months and then having his guts ripped open, so what incentive does he have to make sure he has a condom with him and is wearing it properly?  Exactly none.  The threat of AIDS and other STDs do not seem to resonate in the heat of passion.  Some say that the above indicates that the woman must take the responsibility for her own birth control.  At the age of 14 or 15 or 16?  Get real.  Not happening.

All of which leads Shelly to ponder that “the problem is, we really haven’t figured out how to convince young people not to have babies.”

Abstinence, a delay of sexual activity, would be the logical answer, she suggests before recognizing that this, too, is not going to happen.  Hormones will rage and Mother Nature will do her thing to keep the species going into future generations.  No amount of banana condoms or carrying around an egg or a crying Betsy Wetsy doll for weeks is going to change this.

The only thing that can make progress toward increasing the rate of teen abstinence is a healthy dose of social approbation.  This, of course, went out the window many decades ago, and it ain’t comin’ back.  The “good girls don’t” motif is dismissed out of hand without so much as a belly laugh.  Way back when, teenage girls didn’t want to “get a reputation.”  Straying meant being “sent away,” either for an illegal abortion or to give birth (and generally to give the baby up for adoption) out of sight of family and friends.  In other words, sexual activity came with consequences.

Today, those consequences constitute more of a red badge of courage than a scarlet letter.  Single motherhood is glorified in the media.  There is a country song that declares that a woman who doesn’t have at least two children by the age of 21 is going to be alone forever.  And then there are TV shows like Teen Mom 3 that don’t sugar coat the hardships of single motherhood, but do make the statement that it can work out and, hey, everybody’s doing it, right?

Many parents are unwilling to talk to their teenage girls (and fewer to their teen boys) about peer pressure, bodily urges and the consequences of early sexual activity that may affect them for the rest of their lives.  “Let the schools do it” seems to be the attitude, or let them figure it out for themselves.  Their friends will tell them what’s what (and we wonder how misinformation spreads).

My mother, however, did discuss this subject with my sisters as they approached puberty.  I believe her approach was effective.  She had this important conversation before the picture window in the living room of our suburban home.  Her speech went something like this:

“Look at those girls walking down the street.  They look like they’re laughing and having a good time, don’t they?  They’re kind of dressed up.  Maybe they’re going to a party.  You’ll have plenty of chances to do just what they’re doing.  But not if you have a baby.  If you have a baby, you’ll be stuck in the house, rocking the baby, feeding the baby, changing diapers, dealing with a sick baby throwing up all over you.  Meanwhile, while you’re sitting here with the baby, you’ll be looking out this window at the girls going out to have a good time and you’ll wish it were you. And your heart will ache.  But it won’t be you.  No parties, no fun, no dates.  No boy is going to want to have anything to do with you because you will be stuck at home cleaning up pee and poop and vomit.”

It worked.  Neither of my sisters got pregnant until they had been married for a while.  And it’s not as if they were deprived as teens.  They had dates, they had boyfriends, but they also knew what the consequences of stepping over that line could be, and they made sure the guys kept their hands to themselves.  Some of the other girls thought my sisters were hopelessly out of date, but they remembered the “picture window” speech and they dealt with it.

Of course, this was more than thirty years ago.  I am not at all certain that my mother’s speech would have the same effect today.  I think of my niece, who managed to get pregnant at the tender age of fifteen and whose baby recently turned a year old.

I don’t know whether my niece’s mother ever sat down and talked with her about what life would be like with a baby.  Perhaps she did and perhaps my niece shrugged it off as just another dumb thing that adults try to force on you.  Perhaps the fact that my niece’s father left when she was three years old has something to do with it.

Don’t get me wrong:  My little grandniece is a delight to the entire family and we are all so glad she is here.  I just wish she had waited a few more years to make her appearance, and that during those years my niece would have completed her education, embarked on a career and started out in life with a man who is utterly devoted to her.

My niece is luckier than most.  Yes, she is struggling to balance a full load of college classes, working part-time in a fast food restaurant and caring for her baby.  But she has lots of family around to provide day care, to give her time to do her homework in the evenings and to be there for the little one when my niece has to work late on the weekends.  Last night, my niece was working on an assignment until 3 a.m. This morning, she texted my wife, who went right over there and picked up the baby so that my niece could get some sleep before her afternoon class.

Many young mothers don’t have this intense level of family support.  Estranged from family, they pinch pennies to pay for day care, or lacking that, are unable to work and end up on public assistance as they slip into poverty from which it is difficult to recover.

Fathers certainly need to talk to their sons about what it means to be a man and to take responsibility for their actions.  It is sad that too few fathers are around to have such conversations.  But as for the mothers of teenage girls, I highly recommend drawing open the drapes and launching into an honest discussion in front of the picture window.