For as long as I can remember, all I wanted to do be a good dad. I felt I had been preparing for it my whole life. I recognized the importance of the next generation and the role I could play in giving another person the best memories possible.
Then, when my daughter came along, I sprung into action. It felt natural to care for her and try to make her smile. That was my main goal and, as the months ticked by, I got better with each passing day.
People would remark about my loving nature. In fact, they do that a lot with new parents. A glow in their step and a spring in their eyes, or something like that, new moms and dads fill us all with a sense of pride. Everyone is so happy, happy, joy, joy about it that they can’t stop patting you on the back.
Here’s the thing, though. It is actually easy to be a good parent when you have an adorable little ball of person in your arms. Sure, there’s exhaustion and worry. But in terms of the acts themselves, there’s no real challenge in being sweet to your child when they look like an Anne Geddes painting minus the fruit. It ain’t hard to bestow love on a tiny human when they still smell like a Cabbage Patch Doll’s head.
Nope. Cute mixed with innocence of actions help to bring you the patience you need. When they’re new, that’s not when you need a pat on the back.
You need it on the days when your 13-year-old daughter, as you are in the midst of telling her something important, blurts out a quick and jarring, “Yeah, k”, before turning her back to your dumbfounded face. It’s when she spills nail polish glue on the bed and grape soda on the couch. It’s when she tells you that she’s too busy to talk to you and, when asked what she’s doing, says, “I don’t know. Nothing.” It’s the sandwich you exhaustedly made at midnight for her lunch that comes back, smushed, unopened, and wet, for some reason, in her backpack sixteen hours later.
Those are the days, man. Babies don’t know any better. Seeing a parent get mad at a one-year-old for drooling is insane. But this sassy teenager, making faces when she thinks you’re not looking? Ugh. She knows what she’s doing and it can be infuriating.
On days when my little princess turns into an ogre to me, a voice inside my head cajoles, “Yo. Just let her walk away. You can go play video games and eat ice cream. You had a long day and she’s just a teenager with an attitude. Let the world sort her out.” That voice knows me so well and, in my heart, I know that letting it go would probably make me feel better… in the short run.
Then, the other, more militant voice kicks in with a, “Yo. What the hell? That’s it. Take her phone, iPad, pillows, and shoes. Don’t make dinner and don’t make her lunch for tomorrow. Scream. Curse. Then take a nap! What is this?!”
Thanks, voices. You always show up just when I don’t need you. The problem with all of this is that both of them are wrong. Those two choices, both of which would probably put some glow back in my step, aren’t correct.
The right path is more measured. It’s to deal with the situation, explain the correct behavior I expect, and handle it without over or underdoing my reaction. I know this and so do you. Properly raising your kids takes patience, compassion, and understanding. That calls a whole lot of empathizing at a time when my frustration level is through the proverbial roof. It stinks, but it’s necessary.
Verbal or non-verbal makes no difference in times like this. My son may have autism, but he has his moments too. The crashing of the unused ice trays, wayward junk mail, and bagels all because he climbed on the counter to pull his iPad, by the charging wire, from its perch on the top shelf of the cupboard springs to mind. There’s the cake-batter handprints from the fridge he went rifling through or the brand new shirt he bit a freakin’ hole in on the first day he wore it to school. All of this after clinging to the car in a physical refusal to get of it out in the morning and yet another one of his televisions on the floor because he unsuccessfully tried to pick it up. That’s the third one since January, if you’re keeping score.
And then there’s me. Still finding him, just like his sister, adorable in his little way, but knowing that neither are Anne Geddes butterfly babies anymore. They’re growing into people.
As they do, their actions have grown too. It’s on me, as their dad, to correct them when they spring up. It doesn’t matter if the things they do trigger me with memories of other people I’ve encountered through the years. I need to work correctly with my kids and make sure that they grow into better people. I owe them patience, focus, and understanding even when they’re at the worst – especially when they’re at their worst.
Parenting is the best of times, it’s the worst of times, and it’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever known. Handling things isn’t about feeling better for yourself but doing better for them. When times are the lowest, that is when they need it the most.