First born

I am the firstborn son of a firstborn son, but it wasn’t until my first son was born 21 years ago that I began to understand how little I knew about being a parent.

Carla and I waited until she finished her master of social work degree before having children. It took us a little while to get pregnant. I never liked the phrase “we’re trying to get pregnant” when describing our status as a young couple because everyone knows what causes pregnancy. It seemed a little too revelatory and put visuals in people’s minds I’d rather them not have.

Carla Barron Wallace holds her newborn son, Barron, in the hospital room.
Life changed forever in this moment, 21 years ago.

That summer day I learned we were pregnant is burned into my memory. I returned from a morning run and was stretching on the back deck of our small, brick house on Highpoint Drive in Macon, Georgia. Carla came to the back window of what would become our baby’s room and held up a pregnancy test. It took it a minute to dawn on me what she was saying. She came out the back door and despite my sweat and odor, she hugged me, and through tears said, “It’s positive!”

Telling family and friends was the fun part. In the pre-social media days of the year 2000, there wasn’t as much pressure to be instantaneous. We didn’t have to worry that word would leak out through Facebook or Twitter, and loved ones would find out, offended they hadn’t heard it from us directly. There were considerations, however. We were due to spend a week with my family at a cabin on Lake Eufaula in Alabama. We could not imagine telling my family before Carla broke the news to her parents, who themselves experienced great difficulty in conceiving. An only child, Carla knew how much the news would mean to them and strongly desired to tell them in person. Despite the geographic inconvenience, on the day we were due at Lake Eufaula, we got up early and drove east to Sandersville to surprise Mama and Daddy.

They were down by the lake where Daddy was building a brick barbecue pit when we arrived. Making sure he could hear us, Carla loudly announced our news. Mama squealed with delight, and Daddy issued a laughing “Sho ‘nuf?!?” Tears of joy flowed.

Telling my family proved to be a little more fraught. Buoyed by bringing Mama and Daddy into our little secret, we drove to Eufaula deciding that dinner would be the best time to break the news. When we arrived at the cabin, we learned that my dad had not made the trip because of his health. He had not yet been diagnosed with diabetes, so his absence was confusing and disappointing. Undaunted, we shared the news with my two brothers, my sister-in-law and my mom over combination dinners at the Mexican restaurant in downtown Eufaula. The response was more subdued than when we told Mama and Daddy, but such is the way of things with my family. There was still joy, and they offered sincere congratulations.

Those nine months of preparation were by turns interminable and fleeting. I started a master of business administration program at Mercer University, taking a prerequisite economics class during the day with undergraduate students and a corporate accounting class with the MBA students two nights a week. As diligent as I was in my studies of earnings, asset ratios and debt loads, I was even more intensely studious about childbirth and infancy. I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Now That You’re a Dad,” and a big medical book, “Conception, Pregnancy and Childbirth.” Knowledge gleaned from books on a subject as experiential and instinctive as having a child is insufficient. It is a classic example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.”

I was anxious about the health of the baby and Carla’s condition. I worried for her when I thought about the labor and delivery. The minor inconveniences I had to endure were nothing compared to Carla’s adapting to hormones and her ever-changing body. My strongest memory is of our sleeping arrangements. Our first bed was a full-size, perfect for snuggling when it was just the two of us. But when she started growing and needed a body pillow to find a comfortable sleeping position, there was less and less real estate for me. Carla always was a “tuck-and-roll” sleeper, grabbing more and more blanket with each turn throughout the night. That combined with her keeping the air conditioning lower to accommodate her elevated body temperature helped prepare me for the sleepless nights that awaited us once our bundle of joy arrived.

Carla is not into delayed gratification. She is a planner, so knowing the sex of the baby was vital for making decisions on paint colors, window treatments and bedding in the baby’s room. I was fine to know, and I didn’t see any point in going into the big day even less prepared by keeping the sex a secret. We found out at the 20-week ultrasound appointment we were having a boy.

That’s when the name game started in earnest. We knew early on we wanted Carla’s maiden name “Barron” to be the first name. We were committed to having family names only. We also liked pairing “Barron” with my middle name “Elliott,” which was also Dad’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

Going into the holidays, it was nice to know that swelling in Carla’s belly was our son, Barron. I even on occasion did that awkward thing new parents do of reading to him in utero. It added to the expectation and joy. Traditionally, we spent Christmas day with Carla’s parents and then traveled to Florida see my family the days immediately following. With the due date coming so close to Christmas, we didn’t feel we should travel 8-10 hours away, and with Carla’s growing discomfort and frequent restroom visits, a car trip was out of the question. My Dad and youngest brother came up with presents from my side of the family after Christmas while Mom stayed behind in Lake Wales to look after her mother. It was a quick trip, but at least it allowed us to keep connected with my family as we anticipated the arrival of the first grandchild for both sides of the family.

One of my favorite parts of the preparation time was the childbirth class. Beyond eye-opening, he weekly sessions for couples helped expand my knowledge in ways the books couldn’t have. To this day I am grateful for the father-to-be who asked all the questions I wanted answers to but was too embarrassed to ask. I never got his name, but I knew he drove a Snap-On Tools truck, so he became “the Snap-On Tools guy” to us.

We have always been creatures of habit, so it was no surprise that on the night of Monday, February 5, 2000, a day past the due date, we were in bed watching one of our favorite TV shows, “7th Heaven.” The idealized family drama about a minister’s brood of seven children in many ways affected my view of having children. It was silly, I now know, but I really did think parenting was all about having deep, meaningful conversations with your children the way Rev. Camden and Annie did with their children on “7th Heaven.” When that night’s episode ended, exhausted from a day of work, I turned off the lamp and told Carla, “Please don’t go into labor tonight. I’m too tired for us to have the baby.” Less than a half hour later, we were up with the onset of labor.

Like all first-time parents, we probably went to the hospital too soon. Trying not to be stereotypically over-anxious, we waited at home as long as we could, timing contractions and getting our stuff together for a hospital stay. We went on to Coliseum Hospital when the contractions were consistently eight minutes apart believing Barron’s arrival would come before daybreak. It was a busy night for labor and delivery. We were well taken care of, but after medications were administered, Carla’s labor slowed way down. She labored through the night and into the next day. I felt more than a little guilt at slipping away and grabbing lunch at Nu Way with my buddy, Mitch, before returning for the main event.

Juggling our video camera, and doing my best to preserve Carla’s modesty and dignity, I experienced sensory overload. The room was dimly lit except for a spotlight on the “area of interest.” Barron glistened in the light when the doctor delivered him, and in seconds the nurse had him at a table in the corner, taking his vitals and cleaning him up. I felt a rush of emotions – relief that Carla’s suffering was over, joy that Barron was healthy, anxious about what was coming next, and eager to share the news with the world.

The next couple of days in the hospital started the sleep deprivation with hourly checks by the attentive nursing staff. I slept in the pull-out sleeper chair as we kept Barron in the room as much as possible to change his first diapers, cuddle and bond with him, and work on the tricky but necessary latching on required for breast feeding. Visitors lifted our spirits, and there were many, many pictures.

The experience, though, is probably best summed up in our car ride home. Always fastidious about vehicle safety, Carla ensured we had properly installed the car seat in her Honda Accord. We tucked Barron in and headed toward our house. We didn’t get far before he started crying, as infants do. At a loss for what was causing it, we pulled over to make sure he wasn’t being pinched by the straps or was suffering in some less-than-obvious way. Ultimately, we buckled him back in and made it the rest of the way without incident.

That’s how I felt about having our first child. I was nervous. I wanted an explanation for every whimper and reaction. I worried about doing the right thing in caring for his physical needs. I loved holding him. I got a rush every time I read to him. I was happy to have a healthy son and watch his every reaction. I was caught up in the day-to-day, subtle changes; so much so that it was hard to imagine what his journey to adulthood would be like.

Looking back 21 years later, I can’t believe how little I understood about life and being a parent back then, but I’m profoundly grateful for the experience and for the intense bond I now have with Carla and all three of our boys. I may not know much more about parenting a young adult and two teenagers, but I am comforted by the knowledge that we’ll get through it together.

What I admire most about my dad

Today’s post is in celebration of my dad’s 78th birthday.

All relationships are complicated at times, and the bond between fathers and sons is especially freighted with family history, birth order dynamics and role expectations. I have been blessed to enjoy the benefits of a healthy relationship with my dad for nearly all of my 51-plus years.

Larry Wallace holds a largemouth bass in a boat on a lake in Central Florida
A largemouth bass always elicits a huge smile from Dad, whether he or one of his boys caught it.

Neither of us are perfect, but our human frailties do not prevent respect. He has many skills I covet, including fishing, grilling, and repairing everything from lawnmowers to cars to home furnishings, but here are the his qualities I admire most:

Conviction. Dad stands by what he believes. He believes the worship of God to be a sacred act and dresses accordingly when attending church. He believes Jesus Christ died for his sins, and he can, at the very least, prioritize participating in the life of the church as a response to that sacrifice. He believes everyone needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he prays fervently they will, witnesses when he has an opportunity and invites people to come to church who might otherwise not hear the Gospel. He leaves Gospel tracts with restaurant servers and toll booth workers. He gives generously to missionaries who take the Gospel to the far reaches of the world. My dad has religious convictions that he stands by and organizes his life around, and I have always admired him for it.

Calling. The direct result of his conviction was his response to God’s call on his life to become a pastor. A mechanic for American Airlines, Dad was not looking to be a preacher when he began to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudging that more was required of him. He did not have an ego-driven need to stand in front of people and be affirmed. He wasn’t looking to turn his life upside down and take on a difficult challenge. He had a good job with a clear career path and a young family he was able to provide for financially. Though he wrestled with what surrendering to the ministry might do to his family and his financial stability, he ultimately knew God was calling him to set aside those doubts and trust Him. So after 10 years at American Airlines he retired, went back to Bible college to earn a degree, and joined the staff of our church as associate pastor. He remained faithful to that call even when circumstances forced him to leave the church staff and return to aircraft maintenance work at General Dynamics. He continued to give his life to serving the Lord through our church until he was called to serve as the pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Wales, Florida. I’m sure it was a difficult decision to relocate his family from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to rural Central Florida, but because of his commitment, he followed through.

Laughter. Not every part of Dad’s life was deadly serious. As much as conviction and calling drove his daily decisions, he has always been a person who enjoyed laughter and making other people laugh. His sense of humor helped him cope with the stresses of the ministry and his skill at storytelling made him an appealing preacher and speaker. I remember countless dinners we were invited to in people’s homes where he became the evening’s entertainment. He regaled guests and hosts alike for hours with stories from his childhood in Georgia, serving in the Air Force, catching fish, or raising three boys. When our church started a senior adult ministry called “Keenagers,” he found a willing and eager audience for the most cornball of his jokes, relishing in their groans and chuckles. I hope I inherited some of his storytelling skill, though I confess I don’t have as good a memory for jokes.

Adventure. Dad would go out of his way to surprise us or spark our imagination. When Santa brought us our first Atari video game system, he converted the interior of my grandmother’s old florist delivery van in our garage into the cockpit of a spaceship. While we blasted space invaders on our old TV screen, we felt like we were in the Millennium Falcon dodging Imperial star destroyers and tie fighters. He also put in an above-ground swimming pool at great expense and effort. We spent many hours over two summers splashing and playing through the Texas heat before we moved to Florida, and the pool immeasurably enhanced our summer fun. I will take to my grave the year my parents secretly packed the car on Thanksgiving while we unsuspectingly played in the yard all day. That evening after our traditional meal, Dad piled us into the car for what he called “going for a drive.” As dusk turned into night, my brother, Lee, and I repeatedly asked, “When are we going to turn around?” Dad responded each time with “Do you want to turn around?” That simple but profound question not only helped me embrace adventure and new experiences on that trip to Houston, Galveston, and the Texas monument in San Jacinto, his igniting the exhilaration and reward of encountering the new and unknown fueled so many of my choices throughout my life.

My dad, like all dads, is complicated, but I am grateful for his love and support throughout my life. I hope I am able to give the same gifts and pass on these qualities to my boys. It is a tremendous legacy worth passing on.

Teach your children well

It’s an understatement to say my dad taught me a lot while I was growing up.

He taught me right from wrong, self-discipline, the value of a dollar, how to maintain cleanliness and order, the importance of doing a job well and how to nurture a strong faith. Dad also taught me a number of practical skills such as hammering a nail, turning a screw, mowing the grass, handling a weed trimmer and shaving.

My dad with Harris, left, and Barron

He taught me how to have fun, tell stories and jokes, play Monopoly and checkers and other essential board games, fish, throw and catch a baseball and how to do a pineapple
dive
(aka banana dive) that splashes everyone standing on the side of a pool.

But what stands out in my mind for some reason is the day he taught me to change the oil and brake shoes in the car. Now I could very well have forgotten exactly how this occurred: he probably taught me to do these two things at different times, but in my memory, they occurred together.

I was about 13 or 14. The car was on the parking pad at our house on Holly Street in Lake
Wales, Fla.
He showed me how to check the dip stick, jack the car, place the drip pan, remove the plug, remove the filter, replace the plug (very important), replace the filter and pour in the new oil with the assistance of a handy funnel. Brake shoes were a little more complicated and involved a clamp, I think.

I have changed my oil a number of times, although not recently. To do this day, I have never changed my own brake shoes. Sorry, Dad.

As Father’s Day approaches, all of this has me wondering what dads teach their sons in the New South?

I’m sure there are plenty of dads still teaching the finer points of team sports and the basics of throwing, catching, shooting a basketball and so on. I believe fathers are still teaching their boys to appreciate the outdoors and how to fish and hunt.

Carlton recoils at the sight of bass in the live well after our spring break fishing trip. Dad was teaching his grandsons that day.

There are plenty of new skills to be handed down in this digital era. In the New South, dads must teach their sons how to program a universal TV remote, master the misdirection play on the Madden football video game, download songs from iTunes, use a GPS, shop on Amazon, read a Kindle, pick movies on Netflix and upload videos to YouTube.

No matter the era and the practical skills required, I hope to pass on to my three sons the timeless essentials every boy of character must know and practice. My dad taught me well.