By David Jones
My dad wasn’t the best in the world.
He just couldn’t do the whole Dad thing, or even the whole Husband thing. Alcohol and irresponsibility were his domain. But I loved him. He was my dad.
So now I’m a dad, and I’m lousy at it.
My kids don’t see it that way, but I know in my heart it’s true. I mean everybody knows how the good dads behave. Parenthood is a job I would never have been hired for, just on resume alone. Friends honestly thought I wanted to wait to have kids because I didn’t like children.
Over the years I went to a lot of functions, and I missed a lot of them. I drove kids places, and sometimes I didn’t. I bought presents and celebrated birthdays, but sometimes not on the day. When they were little I sat with them at social gatherings when no one else would.
I sat up at two in the morning with sick kids watching cartoons while fevers broke. I wandered sobbing through my neighborhood when my youngest (at age four) disappeared (he had wedged himself between two neighbors’ fences, got stuck, but didn’t want to cause a fuss by calling out for help).
I watched helplessly when my oldest son (at age 2) nearly died from Respiratory Syncytial Virus while doctors kept telling us to take him home because you just have to stay home and get over a virus (up until the doctor personally called 911 for him during our last visit, at which point my son was too weak to cry). I remember him standing in a plastic box into which breathing treatments were pumped, asking to be held and we couldn’t. His mom stayed with him at the hospital the whole time.
It was all too much for me. I just couldn’t handle it.
I always felt like an awful dad because having children made me feel vulnerable, scared and overwhelmed with responsibilities I was entirely unprepared for, so I wasn’t always present for them. Turns out my dad usually felt that way too.
I understand things better now. During my first marriage I lost myself, mostly due to a lack of personal boundaries and an excess of unrealistic expectations for others and myself. Then I got divorced and just piled guilt on top of all that.
After my divorce I constantly felt overwhelmed when the kids visited, while also aware that I wasn’t doing much to be present with them while we were together. My anxiety spiked as their visits approached like some crucial, looming deadline. I was dealing with anxiety and depression anyway, but this kind of made things more tense for me. It was never them, it was genuinely me, and I never missed a chance to beat myself up about it.
Even after I got married again I constantly dreamed of being allowed to have an empty nest, still never facing the truth—my inner desire to stop feeling the weight of the responsibility and expectations that I believed were part and parcel of being a parent (and which I knew I could never meet).
Then for my 54th birthday I had a complex migraine with a little stroke, a present I didn’t recall putting on my wish list. And yet in a way it was the best gift I could have received, because it set in motion a fundamental change within me. I was still expecting the kids to get out on their own ASAP and start living their own lives (not facing that it was so they’d be responsible for themselves and I’d be set free from that responsibility).
With a lot of introspection and prayer it dawned on me that I needed to drop the illusion and face the reality.
Thus five months later, in the midst of a pandemic, we started working to get our kids back home. I considered it mindfully, aware of both the illusory walls I’d put up to avoid the truth and the fear I’d contend with as I faced the matter authentically. My wife probably muttered, “It’s about time!” a lot when I wasn’t around.
Kids are struggling to make it today, but not for lack of trying. In 1985 I was going to college and paying for my tuition and books while working at McDonalds. Imagine kids doing that today, let alone raising their own families.
So I need them home. I need to know they have a stable place to live, that they’re eating enough every day, that they’re safe and okay. We’re going to help them find new jobs and manage money.
There are a lot of people who can’t do that for their kids, their family, their loved ones, and some who flatly refuse to for various reasons, and that hurts my heart. I want all families to have the dignity of finding their way through life, even if they need help sometimes. Maybe I’m just too liberal, wanting to see my kids happy, healthy, safe and loved, but I’ll bet even the most conservative person wants the same for their loved ones.
I wish everyone could be okay.
I can’t really do much to make that happen for everyone in the world besides prayin’. But I can help these young’uns get on track and I can be here for them when they need me. My wife is helping me manage this huge change in my life (it all seems so natural and easy for her), and I’m beyond grateful for her.
So maybe I’m not a good dad. But I’m sure not done trying to be.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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