I’ve endured being splattered by all manner of fluids, cleaned up poop in numerous public places, and had my children yell out something embarrassing at silent moments during performances. They’ve certainly put me to the test as far as physically and publicly embarrassing moments.
But one of the most formative experiences I’ve had as a dad came years ago when I was quite a young father, and it probably falls under the category of internal humiliation because it played out entirely within my own heart and brain. But the lessons introduced to me then are still playing out in my life, though I’m getting better at it (I think).
When my older son was an infant, I was working the graveyard shift at the local grocery store, and his mother began to resume her classes at the university during the day. Which meant that after coming home from working all night, sometimes I would have to stay awake to be with him part of the day while she was gone.
And if you’ve ever worked nights, you may remember that staying up during the day after working all night seems easy at first. But after a few hours, your body starts to nod off every time you sit down (because it’s the middle of the night to you) and your brain gets sleep-drunk. Not good qualities in someone caring for an infant.
We managed to muddle through the first couple of days, with him taking a nap for part of the time, and me attempting to give him a bottle when he woke up. He didn’t dig the bottle at all, and was having no part of that rubber nipple, no matter what. Which was fine at first, because he wasn’t hungry enough to be fussy or cry about it.
And then the day came when everything went out the window.
The night before, we were missing a couple of guys on the crew, so I ended up doing another person’s job on top of mine.By quitting time I was just beat, and needless to say I wasn’t looking forward to waiting another four hours to go to sleep. But what the hell, I’m a dad, right? I can do these things. Right?
Soon, his mother left for class after my son went down for his morning nap. I settled in with a book and leaned my head back on the couch, thinking I’d love to just close my eyes. Almost immediately, I hear a cry from the other room and go in to check on him, and he’s wide awake and he looks hungry. Uh-oh.
My sleep-deprived brain manages to put me on task to warm a bottle for him, and when I return he’s now amped up the volume on his cries and sounds mad. I check his diaper, pick him up and start walking him around as I do when trying to get him to sleep. He’s not happy. His little face is turning bright red, and he’s looking at me like I am definitely not the person he wants to see right now.
His bottle is warm, so we go get settled and I offer it to him. But that was the last straw. Open up the floodgates, ’cause here it comes. His cries were so loud and so constant that I started to freak out a little. I go over his whole body, making sure he’s not hurt somewhere, but there’s nothing I can see. I think that maybe he’s got bad gas pains, so I help him do the bicycle move with his legs, but now he’s pissed. And I’m about at the end of my rope—not to mention the limit of my fathering skills.
I try all of the standard distraction techniques like books, toys, making funny noises and walking around outside, but nothing works. He just keeps crying. At this point I start to get paranoid the neighbors are going to call 911 or something, based on the volume of his cries.
And something in me just snapped.
My entire edifice of being a man, being in control, being a good dad, being competent and skilled as a father just crumbled. Because my tiny son needed something desperately (so it seemed), and while he was doing his best to communicate it, there was absolutely nothing that I could do for him. Nothing. Hold and comfort him, maybe, but that was pretty much it.
So in my already-addled brain, I was a failure. I got an F on the final exam in fatherhood, and I suck. The blow that my ego took at that moment was huge and painful, and I was in a sort of shock when mom finally came home.
As soon as she opened the door and gave me (unintentionally, I’m sure) that look of “What are you doing to my baby?!”, my humiliation was complete. Once in mom’s arms, he immediately calmed down and nuzzled right in to nurse contentedly back to sleep.
During that whole time I had this strong, almost primal, urge to help my child—to protect him. I was willing and able to do anything I could, even the most outrageous of things, just to comfort him. But sometimes you just can’t. And that’s a hard thing to deal with.
It took a long time for me to be OK with that. And I thought it might be a one-time thing, but as it turns out, similar scenarios have played out many times in my journey as a father, and each time I learn a little more about myself and my limitations. I also learn about surrendering—surrendering to what is, not what I’d like things to be.
And I’ve learned to stop thinking of myself as a failure when that happens. Because fatherhood isn’t a win/loss situation. To walk away and to refuse to participate is to be a failure, maybe, but to be present and bring your best game?
That’s how you father. No matter the outcome, you step up. And if all you can do is to hold your child while they cry, then you’re doing the best you can. Nothing more is asked of you.