Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Day After the Day After Christmas

They say "nothing is as over as Christmas," which I think is a comment on the letdown that typically follows a big famiy gathering. It requires an unusual (perhaps unnatural?) amount of energy to select and acquire gifts, host and be hosted, converse and cooperate, interact and plan, be caring and sensitive, etc. in ways that just aren't that customary... Kind of like a marathon compared to the daily walk of life...glad you survived, rather exhultant at the end, "tired but happy" --but also aware that you could only run that race occasionally without the likelihood of exhaustion and/or breakdown. Still, it was great! What I really wish is that such associations could be a bit less concentrated and more "natural," like meeting for breakfast a couple times a week, or dropping in for an evening of popcorn and hot chocolate, or walking the dogs around the lake in early morning. I often think I was born in the wrong generation, and should have been around in the era when families stayed put and worked together for mutual survival. I realize that in some ways that's just a sentimental notion, and that proximity can lead to estrangement as easily as distancing, but I do think there was a lot to be said for the multi-generational approach where kids have the benefit of uncles and grandparents nearby, where grandparents are really a significant part of the grandkid's life, etc.

J mentioned Z, who in some ways he has that extended family of my idealized fantasies. But I wish we were more part of his life in the natural way that the other grandparents enjoy. Heck, I'm not even a grandparent in Z's eyes, let alone having the kind of relationship I imagine could be. Perhaps it's for the best that Z & I have only occasional association becaused I know that if I were around him more I'd have to meddle in his stuff and I'm not sure how either he or his mom or mother-in-law would take it. The general negativity J mentions is part of the issue, but I see that as symptomatic of underlying issues of self-worth and self-care. Particularly when I'm around Z I become deeply concerned about two issues that are also my issues and therefore things of which I am keenly aware: weight and exercise. To be as sedentary and obese as he is at age ten is of great concern to me--of near crisis proportion. Z is not mature enough to understand fully how negatively these twin maladies are already impacting, and will increasingly impact, his physical, emotional, and social well-being. Maybe, as J hopes, he will come to terms with this himself in his late teens and choose to change, but I can't imagine just standing by and hoping against hope for him to take responsibility for what parents and grandparents surely must be responsible for at this stage of his life.

I'd like to think that if I were around him more often I could coax and cajole Z into adventures of biking, hiking, camping, etc. but I'm not sure I'd have any more luck than I have getting him to walk the dogs, which is NO luck. The uncomfortable truth is that parental presssure/expectation/invitation is the only hope of changing the patterns of inactivity and overeating that are already clearly established. Sigh. At this point I begin to have a sense of hopelessness. I think J appreciates and supports this perspective, but it appears that the family dynamic is such that only A and/or BJ could raise this expectation, and at this point I get really frustrated. A is very bright, and seems receptive to the concept of healthy nutrition (unexpectedly borowing two of my Dr. Shapiro's weight-consciousness books), but her behavior in this connection, concerning Z, is incongruent. I,m thinking of the three breakfasts he had while here during Christmas (one meal where healthy eating is most easy, and sets the tone for the rest of the day). There were Pillsbury biscuits and gravy, McDonald's pancakes, and McDonald's sausage McMuffin and doughnuts. No fresh fruit, maybe some fruit juice...I calculated that on the biscuits and sausage day alone he consumed more than 800 calories in one meal--an incredible caloric load without even counting cholesterol, fat, salt, etc. Yet somehow when we go to Appleby's rather than Z's typical burger joint it's "because of J's diet" with no mention of Z's equally great (or greater) need. And Z is allowed to choose from the menu and orders--guess what?--three burgers, onion rings, and a regular Dr. Pepper. Hundreds more nutrient-deprived calories and fat...

This degree of disconnect convinces me something really unexamined is lurking under the table, and no one really wants to acknowledge or face up to it for varied reasons. J hesitates for fear of A's wrath, I hesitate for fear of estranging Z and/or A, and A hesitates for reasons that pretty much escape me altogether. I can only conclude that in her family of origin there are life rules that she has adopted for Z's parenting. Unbridled freedom seems to be key: freedom to set his own bedtime, to choose his own diet, to spend unlimited time plugged in (TV, computer, video games, etc.), to be waited on, to be physically inactive, etc. I'm not aware that he's ever had chores to help sustain a household, or to earn spending money; instead, he seems to have everything given to him (in excess) without effort or expectation. It's difficult for me to see how he's going to make it in "the real world" if he isn't expected to perform, or if he's allowed to quit every time something gets difficult. I keep thinking, How could he possibly have a healthy sense of self worth if he's not expected to do some things that are worthwhile? In my own feeble way I tried to point out to him during Christmas that getting good at things (so you can feel good about yoursef) takes PRACTICE, whether it be skateboarding, playing the guitar, drawing, bowling, biking, starting a fire, or other things in which Z has an interest but will never fully enjoy unless he submits himself to a teacher (problem #1, since he's had such great independence) and persists through a bit of pain and repetition (problem #2, since he tends to move from one interest to another willy nilly).

Carrying forward the existing trends to their logical conclusion makes me greatly concerned about his future. A's expectations for him will be critical in how all this plays out ultimately. I'm reminded of Dr. Phil's cryptic but pointed question" How's that been workin' for you?" I think Z is a great kid (creative, bright, funny, etc.) and in the cocoon of his immediate family he finds total acceptance, but I think his obesity and inactivity are going to make it very hard for him to find a sense of acceptance and self-worth out in the world where he must surely go in a few oh-so-short years.

I'm fascinaed (and saddened) by the way J's fathering scenaro mirrors somewhat what I myself experienced: a desire to be more active in the parenting role, not always certain just what I'd do, but not allowed to really find out. In my case the job and the absentee father/wage earner contributed to Sharon being the primary caregiver; in J's case it seems more to be the step-father/provider role with A continuing in many regards as thougn she were still a single parent, doing the matriarchal/protector role much like she apparently experienced in her family of origin. It all leaves me with more questions than answers. Why outsource the reading dimension of Sylvan when it would be so much less costly and more personally beneficial just to read books with him? Why not bring J alongside to help find creative solutions to Z's inactivity and obesity? Why is Z's inactivity and obesity not a topic of open concern and exploration with him, J, and the grandparents? Why not explore the entire family's need for better nutrition and exercise, and find ways to do that together?

Oh, brother, am I bemused!

2 comments:

___j said...

Let down or relief? I'm amazed you feel it takes a lot of energy to host. Over the years I've assumed you're a fish in water hosting people. Is it a similar prep work / concentration / preparation exercise as your speaking engagements?

Ask Andria about childhood freedom and she'll recount that when she was growing up her parents tried to crack down on her behavior, so she rebelled and made a series of devastating decisions that have hurt everyone. Zach's a good kid, so don't crack down or he'll fall to drugs, violence, theft, pregnancy, runaway, etc.

... Surely there's healthier middle ground.

I have never understood the inconsistent and changing gaps between talk and actions (inaction). There are bouts of lip service I can't explain.

BrotherBemused said...

I never thought about it before, but both public speaking and hosting create an "unnatural" demand for putting forth extra energy to get things "just right" and lots of consideration for how others may respond to what you're offering. Hum.... Not that I intend to stop doing either one.

Thanks for the insight into why obedience seems to be a (the?) primary expectation for Zach, who Andria would understandably not want to repeat her own childhood mistakes. But I have to wonder if leaving him so very much latitude to make his own decisions about activity level, diet, entertainment, sleep. etc. is setting the stage for rebellion anyway. I don't think he has the maturity to make these decisions wisely, and now that the pattern of "Zach pretty much gets his way" is established it will be a real tussle getting him to accept adult counsel when he hits the teen years. During that phase peers are pretty much all that counts, and I'm concerned who his peers may be if he doesn't develop some better social skills and group activity interests than he currently seems to have. If there is already an inability or unwllingness to address life issues like diet and exercise where it's evident that he needs adult guidance, how will it be any different in the next eight years as he tries to navigate (laergely by himself) the perils of the teen years? Better, it seems to me, to help him see that his life really could be better with a bit of adult guidance now, while he's at a more teachable stage.