Let's Practice Together
The early morning, East Bay fog began to burn off, giving way to an expansive cornflower blue sky. Jamie, our toddler Pax, and I were in our Subaru headed 90-minutes north of Oakland to an orchard to pick apples and spend the day outdoors. The weather promised to be gorgeous.
As we pulled into the orchard’s dirt parking lot, I turned around in my passenger seat. I looked at Pax. Then I yelled, “Will you please SHUT UP???!!!” Pax’s eyes widened, then glistened.
Jesus, I’m the worst dad, I thought to myself.
Pax took his time coming into the world. His marathon journey began July 4, 2016 but didn’t culminate until the wee hours of the morning on July 6. When Jamie’s early labor pains began, we were just returning from a babymoon in wine country. As we put our bags down, I got a call from my father that Abuelo, my grandfather in Puerto Rico, had died. I remember feeling stretched in opposite directions, the possibilities and excitement inherent in birth and the grief of endings tearing at me, my perspective at that moment giving me sweeping sightlines of the entirety of life.
The labor took a frightening turn towards the end. Pax’s blood pressure in utero plummeted. The doctor warned that a C-section was imminent. Jamie had one last push. She gripped her mom’s hand, and I, along with a nurse on the opposite side from me, pushed into each of her cocked legs, creating a human platform of counterpressure Jamie could use as leverage. Jamie inhaled to the very bottom of her lungs, her lips pressed inward, her eyes shut in on themselves. And then, her eyes exploded open, and she P-U-S-H-E-D, an impossibly long contraction of muscle, a crest with no trough in sight, a heroic willing of her body and spirit to bring forth new life.
Then he cried. And I cried.
The morning of his birth, I lay in the hospital bed, my shirt off, Pax on my chest skin-to-skin. My love for him was instant, universe-shifting love that upended what felt essential in my life and as the pieces fell back to earth, re-sorted, Pax landed on top, an order that then felt as natural and as inevitable as my breathing. It was love that both sang and ached, a boundless sensation fluttering between exhilaration and annihilation, a felt experience, rather than an intellectual cognizing, of transcendence.
So how is it, after a beginning like that, that I find myself yelling at 2-year-old Pax, for, of all things, asking questions? Now, mind you, when I yelled at him at the end of our drive, he had been lobbing questions at me incessantly. Pax was, and still is, intensely curious. His questions are part inquiry, like a scientist motivated by wonder, and part litigation, a lawyer asking a question only to tee up their counterargument. The sheer volume of questions over the course of our drive caused Jamie and I to smile at each other. I only started counting a ways in, but when I stopped, I tallied 72 questions in total.
Even so, he didn’t deserve that outburst from me. I can’t remember if I was underslept or what, but, regardless, it was inexcusable. He was two, and curious, and he just wanted to connect with his dad through his questions. Instead of saying yes to this beautiful invitation, I scorched it until it was nothing more than charred paper.
I felt ashamed.
I unbuckled, got out of the car, walked over to Pax’s door, and opened it. His quiet tears traced the outlines of the wound I had inflicted. My throat closed.
“Pax, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. You did nothing wrong. I’m not even sure why I yelled. …I’m…I’m really sorry.”
His lip trembling with emotion, he composed himself and said, “That’s ok, Daddy.”
Instead of feeling like a smooth, climbing trendline where I ascend ever upwards toward my vision of loving fatherhood, my experience has, instead, felt more like turbulent oscillation. One moment, I feel in the flow of my love and understand, in my bones, the word calling. And, in the very next moment, I react in a way that makes me question my qualifications as a dad.
If I examine this a bit more closely, though, and if I grant myself some grace, I observe that it’s in the oscillations, the departures from how I thought I would show up, or how I wanted to, that I have the opportunity to craft myself as a father. It is in those spaces of disappointment that I get to actually work towards the aspirations I feel pulled by. In the case of the Apple Orchard Incident of 2018, my awful behavior also afforded me the first opportunity to reconcile with my son. My apology, and his forgiveness, were healing. It reminded me that I can be off my game, way off, and still make things right with him. Show him that I love him. So dearly. It’s in the moments of falling short that I get to discover my better self. But only if I pay attention, and ask myself who I want to be in those moments, and then endeavor to do differently next time.
It is a practice.
Recently, I sent a survey to fathers in my network. Some I know well, some are just acquaintances, and some I’ve never met but were forwarded the questions. I was curious how other fathers are experiencing fatherhood. The survey prompted them to share what was going well and to name the challenges they were going through. Close to forty fathers submitted rich, vulnerable responses. Some common themes emerged.
It turns out, I’m not that special. I’m not uniquely broken because I yell at my kids. Neither am I remarkable in how I push through exhaustion to tend to my sick son in the middle of the night. Across fathers of different backgrounds, with different numbers of kids, and with kids of different ages, the oscillations of dad life were the norm, not the exception.
It’s true. We are often falling short of the expectations we have for ourselves. We look at our phones too much. We’re not connecting enough with our partners. We just cannot anymore with the tantrums. We feel so exhausted we don’t want to spend time with our kids when the time is actually there. We escape into porn still.
But we’re also planning museum adventures for our kids. We get on the floor and play Legos with them. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and share how we’re feeling. We make it a point to hug and kiss them often. We laugh together. We teach their kung fu classes. We give them the things and experiences we never had. We thoughtfully consider how to help them navigate social media as teenagers. We explore how to compost the pain of our own upbringings into something more beautiful for our kids.
I’m realizing that some of the struggle I have felt as a father comes from the mismatch between expectation and reality, between my “best dad in the world” fantasy and the actuality of how I am as a Father, simultaneously patient and short-tempered, dotingly attentive and mindlessly distracted by YouTube. It’s messy. I had been shoving certain moments into the cringe closet because I thought they were not supposed to be a part of the journey. When they appeared, it was because I was doing something wrong. They were a sign of my deficit as a father. What I now understand, in part from hearing about fatherhood from other dads, is that they are not signs of unworthiness to closet away. They are just moments. Like the good moments, and the neutral ones. All part of a broader common experience. Because no matter what notions we had about Fatherhood before having kids, it only became real when it was our turn to get in the seat and take the ride. Falling short and recommitting, course corrections and learning are just the nature of the path.
It takes practice.
One theme stood out in the survey. It was my thesis in starting this project, but seeing it there in black and white validated the intuition. Fathers want to know each other. They want to be in community with each other. They want to, as one dad put it, be part of a “dad tribe.”
And what a beautiful desire. Wouldn’t it all be better if we did this work together? If we accompanied each other, listened to each other, gave props to each other, helped each other. If we shared what we were going through so others in similar situations could feel seen instead of isolated and alone. All in the service of more love, more connection, and more ease with our kids, regardless of whether they are toddlers or adults or perhaps parents themselves.
So, here’s my ask for you. Let’s grow a community of dads. Spread the word far and wide about this project. Share the link to this Substack and ask them to subscribe.
We don’t only become fathers when our first child is born. We become fathers anew EVERY SINGLE DAY. Every tomorrow offers the possibility of dusting ourselves off and reclaiming how we want to father. It is an ongoing PRACTICE.
So let’s practice. Together. For us. For our kids.
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