I never dealt with anxiety in any meaningful way until my kids figure out that I’m not perfect. Once you realize your kids are paying attention, you’re fucked. You have to watch what you say and who you say it to. You hear them repeat stuff or mimic a tone that they clearly got from you. You think, “Oh shit! Oh god! Oh no! They’re going to be terrible like me.”
That’s a lot of pressure.
Think back to your own upbringing and all of the quasi-bad stuff that you watched your parents do or say without any understanding that you were soaking it all in. I bet you adopted 35 to 40 percent of that bullshit into your own personality or behavior. If you’re a somewhat new parent, you’re about to pass it along to your kids. But maybe that’s avoidable? Maybe the payments to their future therapists are avoidable as well? That’s where the fatherhood anxiety comes in. There are suddenly stakes.
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An example: I remember being maybe six or seven and going with my dad to Service Merchandise to get me a new Casio watch. (Service Merchandise was kind of a weird electronics store where you’d go pick something out in the showroom and then go to the back warehouse where it would roll out on a conveyor belt for you to grab and take home with you. I think they went out of business in the early 2000s, but in the 1990s that’s where you went to buy a Gameboy or a new blender.) So we get the watch, probably a $30 purchase, and I’m excited about it because kids like getting gifts. Upon returning home, I had somehow lost the watch. I was a mess over the sadness of losing it and the concern over how my dad was going to react, which was… not well. I wasn’t afraid of my dad, who isn’t a violent man, but no kid likes to disappoint their father. After we tore the house apart looking for it, he got so upset he punched a hole in the hallway wall. I remember that, but — far more so — I remember the look on his face after he realized that I’d watched him do something so out of control.
He covered the damage with a framed print of Starry Night and we found the watch a few minutes later in the driveway. Years later, I saw Starry Night on display in New York in my late 20s and it made me feel very sad and uncomfortable. I think about it often.
I have three kids that are all wildly different in what they need from me and I’m just one guy who sometimes doesn’t remember to take my house slippers off until I look down and realize that I’m wearing them in the diaper aisle at Target. How can I honestly be everything that these kids need me to be, what if they grow up to be terrible and it will be because I didn’t have time to teach them how to fish or take them to every Cub Scout meeting or write a note in their lunchbox every day or tell them intricate stories every night before bed or you get it the list goes on forever.
When my stepfather, whom I love dearly, had a heart attack last spring, I put my boys in the car and drove to Florida. We had a very sobering conversation about what would happen if he didn’t make it, where various documents were — that kind of thing. From there, I decided to tell him that my wife and I are separated and heading towards divorce. I hadn’t told anyone in my family yet, but I felt the time was right.
“What’s keeping you up at night?” he asked.
I’ve never slept super well, but I told him the truth, which was that I worried about not being enough for my kids. I told him about how my job is unreasonably stressful and how I only have enough emotional energy for so much and lacked faith that I was distributing it appropriately in my home. That’s when he hit me with some serious wisdom that I’ve thought about every day since.
“Your job as a dad isn’t to solve every problem for your kids. Your job is to dig a hole and guide them on the best way to fill it in.”
This is a guy who left his cushy white collar job to going into Christian ministry at age 45 and spent his whole second career selflessly serving others. Some truly admirable shit. So his words hit me hard. Whether we know it or not, we are constantly teaching our kids how to fill in the holes in their lives. Watching my father punch his fist through the wall showed me a certain way to deal with problems, albeit not a helpful one, and having my stepfather seize the opportunity to tell me he was proud of me showed me another path.
Still, there’s panic. I woke up yesterday feeling especially anxious. I felt like my chest was collapsing, totally helpless. I canceled lunch plans that I had in a futile attempt at self-care and tried to get caught up on work. All in all, not my best day. On days like that when shit goes totally sideways, the only thing I have to hold onto is the promise that I get to try again tomorrow.
Every day is a chance to try to do better than the day before. I can dig holes, no problem. But I can also show my kids how to fill them. I get better at that because I work at it. The answer to anxiety, it seems, is to keep trying. Sometimes, that’s all we’ve got.
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