How to be a good Dad

January 27, 2016

Son-with-iphone

I’m prepared to bestow all of the world’s greatest secrets of good parenting upon you right now. Buckle your seat belts.

Recently I woke up in the morning with my son, doing my best to keep everything quiet so my wife could sleep in. She had been up later than usual the night before and had been up early the few days prior, so I was doing my best to be completely stealth. Remaining completely stealth with a 3 year old son who has just woken up is a pretty low-probability affair.

“DADDY! I CAN STILL SEE THE MOOOOON!!”

“Shhhhh, Mommy is still sleeping.”

(Whisper shouting) “DADDY, I SEE THE MOON.”

(Whispering) “Oh wow, that’s sooo cooooool! Now let’s go downstairs…”

(Full volume) “WHERE’S MOMMY?”

(Whispering) “I told you already, she’s sleeping. We want to be really careful not to wake her up, so let’s be really quiet and go downstairs…”

We stumble down the stairs, knocking into walls, continuing this back and forth about moons, misplaced yoyos, and Mommy’s whereabouts until I think we’re more or less out of ear shot. I get him breakfast, turn on the television so he can watch some PBS cartoons, and sit on the couch.

For the next twenty minutes I’m lulled into a false sense of security… Curious George is Ooing and Ahhing at a safe volume, my son seems content with his juice and bagel, and I’m reading on my phone. A regular old peaceful day. And my son is bouncing around, dancing back and forth; pretty typical stuff for a three year old boy who is generally bouncing off the walls and overflowing with morning energy at a time where I just need a few minutes to be comatose on the couch.

But this would be the appropriate time to share a relevant piece of recent historical context. He’s had a bit of a stomach bug resulting in some loose you-know-whats for the past 24 hours. (Story telling 101… don’t introduce a gun on the wall in Act 1 if it doesn’t get used in Act 2 or 3.)

I’ll just cut to the chase. My son’s face goes pale, he stops in his tracks, he gets a look of horror, he runs shouting, “Oh no oh no!” Racing into the bathroom he freaks out shouting, “Daddy there’s poop in my underwear!!! Oh no!!! There’s poop in my underwear!!!!”

And I move with the speed and purpose of a father lion gracefully leaping in to save his young and guide him out of harm’s way. Truth: I move with the deftness of an oafy dad who tries to keep his son calm but doesn’t jump in with enough intensity to stop the situation from escalating.

And my son cannot stand the thought of having diarrhea-filled-little-boy-briefs around his legs and so he is aggressively trying to tear them off, and the liquidy mess is splattering all over the place on the floor, the wall, the toilet, his legs, and my clothes as I’m whisper-shouting and trying to contain the damages and get him to stop tugging and shaking them up and down. At this point he is freaking out even more because the frightening sight of poop is everywhere the eye can see, and the contents have been completely emptied from the briefs anyway so there’s no more containment possible.

Now let’s pause here and rewind to just the day before, when Mom was in charge, and similar symptoms manifested in a pretty different scene. In one of these instances, my son was whisked away from playing a game, scooped up and tossed onto the toilet, given some reassuring words to calm him so he would let nature do its business, and I hear from the other room, “(Giggling), Hee! it squirted!” End of scene.

Fast-forward to my present state of affairs. Son covered in poop splatter. Self covered in poop splatter. Floors and walls covered in poop splatter. Sleeping wife who got up with him multiple days prior just wants one day to sleep in and at least for now is blissfully unaware. Never fear, Dad is here.

Did I want to call in for reinforcements at this point? You bet I did. But there was just too much pride. And so with as much stealth as I could manage, I contained the contaminated clothing, I initiated an emergency bath in the only tub in the house right next to the sleeping mama lion, I got my clean son back into a quarantined zone with his cartoons so I could return to the crime scene and begin clean up. After thirty minutes of bleach and rags, it was time for me to ship off to work. At this point mom wakes up, comes downstairs, I relay the events, I’m out the door to work, and it feels like I’ve already worked a full day.

Now here’s the thing. I sometimes think Dads get quite a bad rep. Often we’re doing our best, but our best manifests itself as a kid who has been dressed with his clothes on backward, has been fed non-approved foodstuffs, may or may not have had teeth brushed or an appropriately-timed visit to the potty, but hey, he’s alive.

But times have changed quite a bit, and I think it’s good to celebrate those small wins even if they look unconventional.

What I mean is that there’s a new level of expectation on dads these days (and moms too). Never before were dads looked at to hold down full-time jobs where the definition of full-time has expanded well beyond a normal 9 to 5, and then to step immediately into action on the home front and carry a relatively equal share of parenting duties in the off hours (or at least more than many dads of prior generations, particularly with young kids). There is a new bar for engagement at work at the same time there is this new bar for engagement and competence on the home front.

And it’s really easy to sometimes feel like you’re kind of an incompetent, bumbling idiot on the home front. (This can be amplified if Mom stays at home because she has so much more time dedicated to mastery of Momhood. It can also be amplified if Mom is just particularly skilled at Momhood). I know I feel this way many, many times.

But even in Poop-ageddon, the perfect storm of bad luck mixed with the good-intentioned-but-relative-incompetence of bumbling Dad, a situation that seemed ripe for parental self-judgment, there was a tiny something worth celebrating that could have just as easily gone unnoticed had it been with the standard attitude of judging successes and failures.

I recall in the moment where my son was in the height of dismay, I saw real panic and horror in his eyes. Every fiber of his being wanted to freak out, but in that moment, I did something right. I conveyed, not just through my words but through my overall presence, that it really was no big deal, that he was fine and didn’t need to worry, that we’d handle it, and I saw him shift from super upset to visibly soothed. He heard me, he really felt what I was trying to emanate, and I saw him fall back to below boiling point and gradually cool off. He got through it, and even by the time we were in the bath several minutes later, it was like nothing had happened. No shame whatsoever, hardly even a memory of it. Just an ordinary, pleasant, sunny day marked by a passing poop storm.

So I can’t say I know much about “how to be a good Dad.” This wasn’t meant to be a bait and switch—I certainly know what it feels like to aspire to that and sometimes to feel like you’re meeting that threshold, and other times feeling like you’ve fallen way short of the mark. And one thing I know for certain is that it can be really easy to get caught up comparing yourself or judging your contribution when you’re the less adept parent in the household.

I don’t think this is just a parent thing either, it’s true of human relationships in general. We’re constantly judging our worth and the worth of others, measuring the contribution of our self and of others in our relationships, keeping score, and using this information to make ourselves feel better or worse. This is never a great way to go. By all means learn from each other. By all means, communicate, try to meet the needs of each other, reflect on where you can grow and get better. But it’s very easy for this to turn against you… the line between reflection and judgment can blur very quickly.

In my case, when it comes to judging my own contributions as a husband and a parent, I’ve been trying to remember this:

If you’re Dad, you’re not supposed to be Mom. You’re supposed to be Dad. Both parents have their own special sauce to offer the family and to offer as a parent. We don’t always tend to see that. But it is worth taking note of it, because often it can be a pretty awesome thing. Even if you get some poop on your clothes.


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