My top priority, as a parent, is to make sure both my kids know how much they mean to me. I never want my daughter to pause when asked if her dad loved her. I never want her to add “in his own way” to the end of her answer.
My second priority as a parent is to help guide them through the hardest parts of life. The chutes and ladders they will encounter after rolling the dice will be plentiful. While I can’t walk the paths for them, I can offer guidance, support, and answers. That’s what fathers do.
Fathers know everything, right? You see it on television all the time. Paper in hand, pipe in mouth, and feet on the coffee table, Daddy knows best.
I don’t smoke pipes, though, or put my feet on the furniture. Hell, I don’t remember the last time I even saw a newspaper. I also don’t know everything. But, shhh. Don’t tell the kids that.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m learning. Every day is another step forward and with new experiences comes new knowledge. The person I am today is far wiser than the person I was yesterday. The person I am tomorrow will, hopefully, be beyond the one typing this right now. That’s how life is supposed to work.
When they’re little, the questions kids ask are easily replied to, Googled, or made-up. Few parents get caught up on things like, “Why do I have to go to bed?” It makes you feel almost invincible. Everything your child wonders can easily be handled. Every response you offer puts their minds at ease.
As the years go by, those answers become harder to come by. There are less about why the sky is blue or why eating a block of cheese hurts one’s belly. The inquiries become more pointed. The reality becomes grittier.
This year had a few of those. 2021 came in like a lion and is on track to go out like a lamb. I kicked off January by moving into a new house and closing the door on a 14-year marriage. It was a journey I never expected to take and a reality that felt surreal for months. Nothing made sense, yet here I was, putting together new beds for the kids, painting walls, and buying silverware.
What happened exactly? I don’t know. I still don’t in many ways. As the year has gone by, though, I have learned to accept the things I don’t know and truly love this wonderful new life. The place I am in now, both physically and mentally, is the best place I have ever been. All roads have led me here because this is the destination I was supposed to reach. In my heart, I know I’ve reached it.
So, when my daughter comes to me with questions about things now, I feel good in my answers. I can speak to her directly and offer weighted words to set her on the right path. I don’t badmouth anyone or allow personal feelings simmering below my surface to bubble over in my replies. I make sure she knows that she’s loved by me and those around her when she’s not around me. Watching her take it all in is all the verification I need that I have said the right things.
The only problem with this scenario? She wasn’t only asking me questions during this new age of fatherhood enlightenment. During my most frazzled and confused, I still had to play Daddy and help my daughter understand the new life around her – the same life that I still wasn’t fully grasping.
I was a blind tour guide leading a tiny person around a foggy footpath on another planet. Inside my head, I lacked conviction in the answers I gave and half-doubted the flowery predictions I offered.
Yet, there she was. Listening. She offered the same nods and her eyes told the same story of trust that I read now. As I am her dad now, I was her dad then. The things I said were sticking.
In a sea of confusion, there was one thing I never faltered in knowing. I had to show her she was supported and loved. The things I said needed to fill her with confidence and be the types of sentiments that I myself needed to hear during this time. In some situations, my own voice telling my daughter that “everything will be alright” was the first time I had heard it said out loud.
I was wandering around in a mist. There were no moms and dads to sit me down and make me feel better. Yet, I was the dad; expected to be so during one of the most precarious times in my kid’s life. I had to imagine what a parental figure would say to me. Then I had to say it to her. My words made her feel better, but they also made me feel better too.
Bizarre to say, I was my own parental figure in this situation. I was listening to my own words of optimistic wisdom as if I was a child hearing it from someone else. I knew that they probably sounded good to her, since they sounded good to me. It built my own confidence up and assured me that – yes – everything was going to be alright.
And it was. Months later, we’re not only surviving but thriving. Life is good and I’m happy. That was the result that I hoped for and promised to the people I love the most. It may not be reading a paper with a pipe, but I’m holding up my end of the fatherly bargain. That’s what fathers do.
THE DEAFENING SILENCE OF MENTAL ILLNESS
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