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A few days ago, I took my two older kids up to Gloucester for an annual conclave I think of as Hermit Crabapalooza. This involves the relocation of approximately 9,000 hermit crabs from the relative calm of the Atlantic Ocean into a series of shallow and over-crowded pools hastily scooped out by my children, along with their friends Atticus and Meadow. It is generally a great deal of fun, if you are not a hermit crab.
...our culture isn’t very good at recognizing the private side of parenting, the million little staggering moments when, as parents, we feel mired in doubt.
But about an hour into the festivities, my 6-year-old, Judah, went into a funk. He refused to eat lunch, looked extremely sad, and eventually retreated to a nearby rocky outcropping, where he sat gazing at the other kids in a manner that struck me as both thwarted and wistful.
I spent the next hour trying to figure out why he was upset and how he might be induced to rejoin Crabapalooza. I couldn’t quite stand seeing him alone, so I eventually pulled him onto my lap and fed him a shameful number of vanilla wafers.
I mention this incident not as an example of my outstanding parenting. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that I should have let Judah work his own way out of his bad mood (most kids eventually do) rather than dosing him with processed sugar.
But that’s not really my point. My point is that I spend an awful lot of my time these days worrying about my kids — even in the midst of supposedly fun family activities. And it’s in these private moments of anguish and uncertainty that I think fatherhood mostly resides.
It will go without saying that mothers do a great deal of this difficult work. And that most of it remains unrecognized. As enlightened as we pretend to be, moms who don’t work outside the home are still looked down upon. Much of this is sexism, pure and simple. But it’s also a symptom of this larger myopia.
I’m not trying to say that all parents are heroic, selfless creatures who should be heralded simply for procreating. But I am saying that our culture isn’t very good at recognizing the private side of parenting, the million little staggering moments when, as parents, we feel mired in doubt.
Instead, we tend to divide the world into “good” parents (sensitive, loving, unambivalent) and “bad” parents (impatient, negligent, tired).
But as a dad, I often feel that I’m not doing that great a job. Actually, it’s worse than that. There are moments when I know I’m doing a lousy job, when I fail to listen to my kids, when I spoil them out of expedience, when I blow up at them.
The other day, I angrily lectured my daughter for half an hour. Why? In part, because she had misbehaved. But mostly because I was feeling down on myself, and I took those feelings out on her.
Sure, I later apologized. And that actually matters a great deal. But I still felt like a jerk for the next 24 hours.
If there is a common crisis I see among parents, it’s that we have established a kind of impossible ideal for ourselves. Anything short of perfect makes us feel like failures.
If there is a common crisis I see among parents, it’s that we have established a kind of impossible ideal for ourselves. Anything short of perfect makes us feel like failures. In fact, it’s the pursuit of that impossible ideal that often causes me to ignore my own frustrations until I erupt. I feel, ridiculously, that I should be unflappable.
I don’t know if any of this sounds familiar to the other dads out there. But if it does, let me propose that we give ourselves a special Father's Day gift this year.
Rather than trying to be the perfect dad, let’s settle for being Dads Who Try, for loving our kids as well as we can, and for humbly accepting that, sometimes, we’re going to screw up. Most of all, let’s esteem the efforts we do make, every day, even (and especially) if nobody else sees them.
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