Let me say this up front: I’m not the best parent in the world.
This fact was paraded for all of Prospect Heights to see a couple of weeks ago. While walking down Underhill Avenue during one of this winter's many deep freezes, my toddler son began throwing a classic “get me out of this damn stroller and carry me home” fit, a meltdown that recalled Linda Blair’s performance in The Exorcist. It being both painfully cold and several long blocks to our brownstone, I decided not to free him till we arrived at our stoop.
Determined to press the issue, my Houdini of a son managed to pop one of his shoes off, bringing us to a standstill. No matter how I coaxed, pleaded, or commanded, he wouldn’t stop kicking long enough for me to wedge it back on him.
“Fine,” I said. “You want to protest? Protest. But your foot’s going to get cold.”
I figured in a block or two he’d realize the error of his ways. Yes, that’s me. Assuming a year-and-a-half-old boy will see reason. What can I say? I’m an optimist.
Or I was until we reached Vanderbilt, when he stuck his bare foot up to a woman passerby and wagged his red, raw little piggies at her, tears streaming down his face. Somewhere in the blocks behind us – probably about that point when his crying went up a notch and took on that wet, ragged note of hysteria – he had ditched his sock. And I had been moving too fast to notice.
The look the woman gave me said it all: "Shame on you, clueless dad."
This tends to be the case with a dad and his baby. If things are going well, women think you're a saint, but one mistake and you're incompetent, bumbling. And men? Well, that depends, but on this walk none had a kind word.
What could I do but push on? I held my head high and adopted a mask of stern resolution, though inside I roiled with concern, frustration, annoyance, and guilt. I imagined Winter's icy teeth needling into my son's soft, pliant foot. The prickle of pain, then the itchy heat before numbing. Maybe I should've taken him out and carried him when he demanded it, or not taken him on a walk in such weather in the first place, or dealt with the missing shoe better -- after all, if the shoe had stayed on, the sock wouldn't have come off and gotten lost.
This kind of second-guessing is nothing new for me. I've come to embrace my parenting insecurities, to find that they make me stronger as a father (and a person) in the long run, because they largely come from positive impulses – compassion, concern, love for my son, and also respect for order, logic, and discipline. The heart and the head. In parenting dilemmas these desires are often at odds, which is why navigating the many daily decisions of childrearing is so difficult and nerve wracking.
As I grow older – and I'm only thirty-three now – I find myself moving toward those things that make me most uncomfortable. Like Spiderman following his "Spidey-sense" into danger, good can come out of going toward what you fear.
For almost a decade, my not wanting children was a stumbling block in my long term relationship. A few years ago, my fear of fatherhood was part of the reason I relocated to China to "find myself." Two years later that long term relationship had become a marriage, and this former "I hate kids" curmudgeon was a full-time stay-at-home dad.
Which is not to say that my fear has disappeared, in fact, it's taken on greater depth as I find myself operating on faith, hoping that I'm doing the best job I can, while knowing that I'm not. Because what parent does? These moments of emotional chaos, these slippery areas of self-conflict and doubt – while they don't necessarily lead to revelation – at least bring a greater understanding of myself and (sometimes) forgiveness of my fallibility as a father. Not to get all Yoda on you, but I find that at its most pure, fatherhood is a state of being. The situations that vex me the most seem less about my son then they are about me – he's much more resilient.
Such as on that cold winter day, when I finally carried the stroller across the threshold of our door, and took my son's frozen foot in my hand to warm. He kicked it out of my reach, and said "na-na" -- his word for food. When I unstrapped him, he took off toward the kitchen, tears and discomfort forgotten.
If only it was as easy for me.