On more than one occasion I have written about my father on Father’s Day. For some strange reason, this year I am thinking that it would be interesting to write about my children and what they have taught me about parenting.
I was 27 when my first wife and I talked about having a child. I was 32 when my daughter was born. It was not an easy road. I had a lot of time to think about being a father, and what kind of father I wanted to be. Being a parent of a baby was full of unknowns for me as I had never been around many babies growing up.
I remember the anxiety I felt the day my daughter was born. After all, I was going to be a father…that day! Now what?! Good thing that it occurred to me that she would not grow up all at once. I had a day at a time to ‘get it right’, or not, or somewhere in between. Some things I learned right away:
- Babies are an incredible miracle.
- Babies have really soft skin which is amazing to touch.
- Babies require a lot of sleep – you better do all you can to build your stamina while they are sleeping, many times by sleeping yourself. I spent a lot of time tired until she began to sleep through the night.
- Her ‘plumbing’ required a lot of care. It is messy. Don’t be afraid to be involved with the messiness.
- While I thought it would be nice if she moved more, I came to understand that it is a good thing that there a period when she stayed where we put her.
- It was fun to lay her on my chest when she was asleep and ‘listen’ to her breathe.
What I learned after a little while (3 – 9 mos):
- It was fascinating to watch her learn about the world around her. Lots of repetition.
- She was so proud to roll over, and to finally learn to roll back; to crawl; to expand her diet – to see how she expanded the ‘by-products’ with the change in diet.
- She was walking, getting more teeth, learning words, learning more words, getting into every cabinet there was.
- Helping her to learn right from wrong; teaching about consequences; about time out.
- She wanted to be with me learning games, reading stories, playing games, coloring, painting, being outside.
- Learning to ride a bike.
- Going to school
- Playing sports
- Becoming a teenager
- Leaving for college
What I learned most was how quickly they grow up. But let’s not get too far ahead.
Those early years were all about showing her how I loved her, teaching her about her world, having fun, preparing her. I would tell my children today that I might have had a general notion about what the type of person was that I wanted them to become (I did read more than one book about parenting), but there were an awful lot of adlibs based on their ages and the situation. At times it felt like I was clueless.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do was to love her enough to not allow her to get away with too many things. I thought her understanding consequences was important. She taught me that if you really believe that dad, and you want to teach me about consequences, you need to be consistent and be willing to be inconvenienced.
She taught me that when she trusts me that is a very special trust; don’t screw that up. I didn’t always get that right, particularly as her mother and I were getting divorced and beyond.
And then I remarried, and two additional children entered my life. Talk about upping the parenting ante! My newest daughter was three years older than my daughter; my newest son was three years younger (they were 12, 10, and almost 7).
Navigating those early years was not always easy. The kids needed to get used to one or two new siblings. Heather and Chad had to leave their friends, move from a different city into a new house, and start a new school. They also had to get used to visiting their father.
I shared custody with Jourdan’s mom and she was with us every other week. Each parent had to get used to a new child or children. One of the hardest things for a stepparent is to be able to read and accurately interpret the behavior of a child who is not biologically their own.
We had several ‘traumas’ before the kids were fully grown. I appreciate that one of them was not “you’re not my dad.”
So, now I had three teachers (God must have known that I needed a lot of help). Hopefully, we taught each other. What I remember most was the need to get to know each child’s rhythm – when they were open to talking and when they weren’t. When just to hang out (that took a while, as I like questions and meaningful conversations). I had to learn what questions were meaningful and helpful, and which weren’t helpful and felt more like prying.
While we were navigating being a blended family the kids were getting older, their challenges greater. They taught me patience. It took some repeated lessons. I am patient by nature, but, as parents know, kids have a way of exposing your vulnerabilities and worst moments.
Whether they taught me, or I simply learned, I came to understand that each child was their own person. My job wasn’t to raise them in my imagine, but their imagine – to help guide them to find why they were born. Each child was different as to how much guidance was necessary, including understanding that in some cases, at various points in their life, no guidance seemed to work. This was particularly true for my two ‘experiential’ learners, who seemed to not be satisfied with “The stove is hot.” They wanted to prove for themselves that was true.
I began to realize that the divorce, remarriage, and the fact that I wasn’t, and would never be again, the same playmate/person my daughter left in her childhood had created some scars. There were some trust issues for me to help her to resolve. I realized these were things that I couldn’t fix. More importantly, I realized I couldn’t fix them. She had to. What I could do was to be present, continuing to show up, to, over time, demonstrate that I wasn’t going anywhere; that I would be present for her, even when I wasn’t very popular in her eyes.
My daughter initially, and my other daughter and son later, reinforced and grew what I knew about listening, being present in their world, and encouraging them, particularly during rough times. Over time I saw more and more value in being present, to reinforce that they and their lives matter. I believe that when I am at the highest version of myself, I am able to meet them where they are. At least that is my hope for myself and them.
They also taught me the importance of believing in them. A form of encouragement for sure, but each child needs to feel that their parent(s) are in their corner. One nuance that I wanted to demonstrate to my children was unconditional love; for them to know that I would always love them no matter what they did. It is one of the most powerful feelings a parent and child can feel/experience.
One of the greatest gifts my children gave me was forgiveness. They understood before I did that I am a flawed. Sometimes, I think we as parents think we need to be perfect. I came o understand that it was far more important for me to be human and to say I am sorry, just as I expect them to do.
Along with the gift of forgiveness was their gift of resilience. They taught me that they were resilient, even with the deep wounds that I help put there. I may not have always had the correct strategy for every situation, but I learned to keep showing up in multiple ways and times to reinforce the bond of parent/child – a most beautiful bond it is.
So, for Father’s Day 2021 I salute my children, the special people they are and thank them for the multitude of lessons in how to be a better father. I love you.
To a better you…