A tough job

As I am sure my legions of avid followers are aware, it’s been about three months since I’ve posted an article. Some of you might recall at the end of my last post, I mentioned the fact that my wife and I just welcomed our first (and only) child, Ellie, into the world – thus the reason for my absence. It’s been an exciting three months. Watching Ellie grow has been one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced in life, and when she first smiled at me, well, that was the best thing ever. Everyone tells us to try to enjoy every moment, because they grow so quickly. We’ve been trying to do that, although it’s hard not to think, “I can’t wait until she can …” For instance, I’m looking forward to her six month birthday, because that means she’s old enough to go with me in the jogging stroller when I run. But we are trying to stay present and appreciate every moment with her.

I arrived at fatherhood relatively late in life, which is probably a good thing, as long as our child doesn’t mind too much having parents who are “old.” The reason it’s a good thing is because I am probably much more prepared to be a decent parent now than I was in my twenties and thirties. And I want very much to be the best parent I can be. In fact, I want to be a perfect dad, but I know I won’t.

One thing I have learned as a therapist is this: parents have tremendous power to shape the way their children think and feel. This is not to say that parents are the only force at work on their children, because that isn’t true. There are things over which parents have little or no control. However, they do have control over how they choose to raise their children, which plays a very important role in the development of their children’s personalities. As a therapist, I make my living listening to people talk about the things in their lives that cause them to be unhappy. As you might expect, that covers a lot of ground. But if I were to compile a list of the major complaints presented by my clients, here’s the one that would be at the top of the frequency list: “My parents weren’t there when I needed them.”

Nobody gets perfect parents, and most parents aren’t absolute monsters, either. They usually fall somewhere in between, with their good points and their bad. For instance, a common complaint I hear is that some parents were very good at providing material things, like food and clothing and cool toys and such, but not so great at providing things like encouragement or nurturance, which is more important to just about any child. A lot of my clients make the statement of their parents, “Well, they did the best they could with what they had.” This is probably quite true; however, I’m a little wary of this statement, because the subtext is usually something like, “And for that reason, I don’t have any right to feel angry or disappointed with them.” In fact, we have the right to feel whatever we feel about our parents, and trying to make painful feelings go away by guilting ourselves out of them does not work.

I know I’m going to make mistakes with Ellie. I’m not always the most patient person in the world, and this proves to be a challenge when she indulges her occasional tendency to shriek inconsolably for no apparent reason. And as anyone who has helped raise a child knows, hearing a baby cry her lungs out does something weird to your brain, at least until you get used to it. Our first week home with Ellie was pretty rough, in part because we were nervous wrecks, and misinterpreted every sound she made as an indication that something was horribly askew. Thankfully, we adjusted pretty quick, and we are blessed with a remarkably mellow child, for the most part.

Aside from the challenge of practicing patience, there are some other areas that are going to be a test for me. For instance, I have been labeled a musical snob more than once, and rightly so; therefore, I will likely find it a huge challenge not to belittle my child’s musical tastes, once she becomes old enough to fall for whatever dreadful version of Justin Bieber awaits us in the coming years. Naturally, I would love for her to grow up with an appreciation of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and R.E.M. and the Flaming Lips and so on, but even though I will do what I can, she might not share my obviously superior musical tastes. So I have to let her like whatever crap she likes, and try not to give her too hard a time about it.

Here is what I want for my child: I want her to grow up with a healthy self-confidence that will allow her to meet life’s challenges head-on. I want her to feel happy and secure. I want her to be able to accept life as it comes. I want her to know she’s not always going to get her way, and when that happens, it’s not a disaster. I want her to know that not everyone will like her, which doesn’t mean she’s done something wrong. I want her to feel whole and complete, and to not take any guff from those boys. I want her to choose her potential partners wisely, and to feel okay being alone. I want her to know she will always be loved by mom and dad.

Will I succeed? Probably not as well as I hope to. Being a parent is the world’s toughest job – and the most important. I know Ellie will have her complaints about me. But I will do everything in my power to make sure that “My father wasn’t there when I needed him” is not one of them. Am I being naïve? Almost certainly, given that my career as a father started a mere three months ago. But I will try my best to put everything I’ve learned to good use, and to appreciate the struggles others have faced in raising their own children.

One last thing: All of us who are adults, whether we have children or not, are parents of a sort, in that we parent ourselves. We may not think of ourselves this way, but each of us has a code of right and wrong, and part of what we do is to mete out discipline to ourselves when we fail to do what is right. And while we had no choice over the parents we got, we do have a choice as to what kind of parent we want to be, both to our children and to our selves. It’s not unusual for one to be a reasonably good parent to one’s own kids, but to be a harsh, abusive parent to oneself. So here’s a good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t do it to your kid, then don’t do it to yourself. The fact that you wouldn’t do it to your kid means that on a fundamental level, you believe it’s wrong. One of the most worthwhile goals you can undertake is to include yourself in the circle of kindness that you show for everyone else.

 

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