The Bad Dad Dilemma
I turned 40 this past summer. I’m a father of two boys, aged 7 and 5. These two fact have been weighing pretty heavy on my heart recently. I’m simultaneously asking myself, what am I doing with my life and what kind of father am I?
How much better of a father am I to my sons then my own dad? Am I as good of a dad to my sons as my brother is to my nieces and nephews? Are my two sons going to be the best people they can possibly be because of me, or would they be better off if I was struck down by a bolt of lighting or a construction girder sometime in the near future? Am I anywhere close to being as good of a dad as my father-in-law was while raising the girl who became my wife?
All of this came to a head tonight (January 12th, 2010) when my youngest son accidentally hit his head on a door knob. One minute he’s playing with Coppertop with the new toy cars they got for Christmas, next minute he’s in shock after the brass fist beamed him on the melon with the expression on his face that was heart wrenching, and then the heart breaking crying that followed.
My wife comforted him while I was getting ice for him. She was holding him while he was crying. I wanted to be the one to hold him and comfort him. Not because it would make him feel better, but because it would make me feel better. H-Bomb feeling better was just as important as making me feel better at that moment.
My job was to put on my coat and fedora and head out to the store to get some children’s pain reliever for the headache that would follow. This would also be a great time to let you guys in on another fact - we’re not in our home town in New Hampshire. We’re in New Jersey visiting my in-laws. And I have no idea where there’s a store open, except there’s got to be something open. Near midnight. New Years - the night of January 1st, 2010.
And while I’m driving I’m replaying moments in my childhood when I had to learn to suffer in silence since my dad wasn’t around and my mother was overwhelmed with other issues. I’m thinking about all the nights that I woke up alone with night terrors, the times I banged my own head on either some other object or someone else’s fist. I remembered all the times when I was a child and was lost, alone or afraid.
One memory in particular that haunts me. It was winter 35 years ago. I was about 5 years old walking to the bus stop. And I could see the bus leave with out me. I was in the middle of the field or the parking lot, up to my waist in snow. I’m screaming for the bus to wait. But it pulled out of sight. I was there alone. I was abandoned.
I turned around and headed home. I felt horrible because there was nobody there for me when I needed someone the most. And nobody said “Hey, Eric’s coming… he’s stuck in the field. Maybe we should wait for him.”
This was just the icing on a horrible cake. A cake made out of bullshit. I was already feeling bad about my parents break up. Why did my dad leave? What did I do wrong? How come I wasn’t good enough? Now this?
I’m driving back from the drug store with the pain reliever for my son and half quart of ice cream and I’m getting furious. I’m not mad at anyone in particular. I’m mad at the situation. I’m also a little jealous of my sons because they have this great dad. They have this dad who will put on his “hero costume” and will go out and get Bubble Gum flavored acetaminophen and Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream. Where was my hero, besides not where I needed him the most?
My heroes, the people whom I still emulate to this day were mere flickers of light on the theater screen or on the families television.
My wife hates it when I quote Marlin from “Finding Nemo”- a movie about father/son issues - but it’s a “complicated emotion.” I’m jealous of my sons who have this great dad, a dad I wish I had. That dad is me.
Then there’s the other extreme. How can I be a better dad? Can I do any better then this? I’m riddled and writhing in my own guilt in the mistakes that I’ve made so far. I’m tortured with the moments I screwed up or wasn’t patient enough. I hate myself more because there’s that moment when I’m not the dad I wish I had myself.
I come back, put the pain reliever on the counter and the ice cream in the freezer and go check on H-Bomb. He’s this 5 year old boy who’s standing in the middle of the guest room putting on his pajamas that his grandmother just gave him. He sees me and he almost yells with this cheerful voice - “Hi, Dad!” as he buttoning up the top. I went to help and he says; “No! I want to do it myself.”
I smiled: “I guess you don’t need me any more.”
He replied: “Yes I do. I need you to teach me more stuff and have fun with me when you run out of stuff to teach me.” I watch him as he painfully struggles with all the buttons. It’s more painful for me to watch because he’s getting frustrated. He didn’t quit. He finishes with a sarcastic “Ta Da!” knowing that I was struggling at not helping him as he was struggling to help himself out.
When I write a rant, I almost always have the whole thing lined up and it’s a race for my fingers to type the whole thing out before my brain loses it. I have the introduction, the explanation of the issue as I see it, and a possible solution with a historical perspective. This time, I don’t have any. I’m struggling to be a better person by being the best father I can be. I almost wrote “The best father I know how.” That’s guff. I don’t know how.
I’m reminded though of a Made-for-TV movie about Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogie didn’t “know” his father, even though they lived in the same house. Bogie didn’t know how to be a good dad to his son, Steven. In this Docu-Drama, he confides in “Betty,” the nick-name he had for the woman we know as her now famous screen name - because of his dad he doesn’t know how to be a dad to their son. My on-screen hero, almost like my adopted Grandfather who taught me some morals via the characters he played felt the same way in real life the way I do now. That’s some consolation.
So, like the rest of us I’m going to try harder. I’m going to work harder to do a little better. Not because I’m trying to prove that I’m just as good as some and better then others. Not because I’m trying to make up for the raw deal I was dealt and live vicariously through my sons. Not because I’m trying to prove I’m a better person through them. But because I love them and they deserve better.
I’m going to do better, right after I figure out how.
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