Of all the fathers I know, I’m the worst. I yell, I’m impatient, I’m selfish, and I look at my out-of-town work trips as mini-vacations from the nonstop chaos that can be my two boys. I count down the minutes before bedtime so my wife and I can enjoy watching TV with her feet in my lap. I dread the sound of the TV coming on at 6:17 a.m. every morning because I know that I only have seven minutes max before one kid is whining about “his turn.” Turns out it’s both of their turns all the time.
Why on earth did I ever decide to have children?
Of course, I don’t really feel that way, but it seems I let that question linger a little longer each time it pops into my head. And all these child behavioral issues that clearly only I experience leads me into nonstop thoughts about the F word.
Parenting was so easy at first. My weak gag reflex that would trigger at the mere scent of trash grew strong thanks to the constant barrage of spit-ups and blowouts. My form of “sacrifice” was offering to stay up and play video games and feed the baby while my tired wife squeezed two rounds of power naps in between feedings.
I perfected the skill of balancing the video game controller while feeding a tiny human with the bottle wedged between my cheek and my newborn’s mouth. I could aim the inevitable projectile spit-up directly into my dog’s gaping mouth. In 2009 I was Father. Of. The. Year.
Then something funny happened. That newborn—my oldest son Jackson—developed into an actual person with actual human emotions. A lot of emotions. And that made life hard. Then when my youngest son Xander joined us in the fall of 2012, life got harder.
My dad, John Blitch (or King John as he would put it), was the son of a World War II colonel. Respect was woven into the fabric of our home from day one. My older sister and brother and I feared our father the same way we feared God. Except God never whipped out that embarrassing act of discipline wherein he forcefully maneuvered your chin with the bent knuckle of his index finger to make eye contact with you when you lied about flicking peas at the back of his head after he told you to finish your vegetables. That might be in the Apocrypha.
I definitely loved my dad, but I also knew that he wasn’t perfect, nor did he try to be. He would lose his patience from time to time, he smoked most of my childhood, and he was often jokingly sexist. But I also knew without a doubt that my father loved me more than life itself. He would come to every one of our sporting events, rain or Texas shine. He would put the soundtrack to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and chase us around the house doing the ol’ Charles Durning Sidestep. When I had my own kids, there were some traits that I wanted to retain and some that I knew I didn’t. For instance, whenever my dad wanted to change the TV channel, he would walk up to the TV, grab the remote, change the channel, put the remote back, and walk back to his chair. And then he’d shame us for using the remote as intended.
But I wanted to keep that sense of respect. Part of me wanted my kids to have the same fear I did. The fear the sound of the garage door opening drove into our guts because we knew our mother would brief Dad on our misconducts of the day. Or the fear of getting caught spitting on our driveway, which would result in the punishment of licking up the spit on the asphalt. It sounded counter-productive, but we weren’t in a position to object.
And I wanted that for my own children.
My wife Hanna and I were both people-pleasers growing up, so naturally we figured our kids would share the same tendencies. Genetics, after all. So with the efficient combination of crippling and fearful respect and undying efforts to please, we were set to raise two Nobel Peace Prize recipients.
And then we heard the principal say, “Jackson is becoming a distraction in the classroom.”
Jackson was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in the first grade. We knew pretty early on that he probably was ADHD, and we tried everything under the sun to “fix it” before turning to medication (we weren’t going to be those parents). He had sleep apnea, so he had a tonsillectomy. We tried the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol every morning before school. We tried gluten-free and dye-free diets. Everything seemed to work for a week or so, before settling back into the pattern of getting notes sent home from school almost daily. My wife and I would judge our entire day’s success based on Jackson’s performance at school. Which is a lot of pressure to put on an elementary schooler.
Even now Jackson and I bicker back and forth about simple things like getting pants on, and then getting socks on, and then getting shoes on. I’ve ruined mornings by yelling at him to get into the car or yanking his backpack. We’re a long way from midnight bottle-feedings with Madden. Now, I just feel like I failed him.
“Daddy, I wish you were dead!” my youngest son Xander yelled at me when he was four. He spoke the words with the conviction of someone who’d actually done prison time.
My wife and I used to enjoy his “tough guy” act. I’d joke that he would lead a mutiny at his day care. I joked that he would grow up to be an ’80s movie high school villain. When he tried to flick me off in public, it made for a great Facebook post. Part of me was a little glad that he wasn’t a pushover because that meant he wouldn’t be bullied. But what I didn’t think about was him actually becoming the bully. If I’m being honest, I’m terrified that his stubbornness will lead him from an Alpha pup to a full-blown Cujo. It all came to a head when we had a teacher meeting where it came to our attention that, after Xander didn’t get what he wanted, he exclaimed to the class, “I wish all of you were dead!”
He didn’t get kicked out of the school and his teachers understood that Xander could sometimes be “dramatic” when it came to anger. But as his parents we were mortified, things stopped being funny. And I felt like I’d failed him too.
We decided to take Xander to a therapist because we wanted to get to the core of the issues before he started kindergarten. And in those meetings, I heard something from his therapist that has been nothing short of cathartic. My kids’ choices are not tethered to my parenting. They have their own brains with their own quirks that are wholly theirs. My wife and I had to confront our own desire to please others, which manifest itself in how we tried to control our kids in public. We didn’t want to disturb others, even if we were just drawing attention to our own insecurities as parents. We tried so hard not to fail.
But parenting is failure.
I fail Jackson every day. Instead of showing him grace with his disorder, I scoff at what I see as disrespect and disobedience. I try and go to him and apologize for my anger and teach him about forgiveness. I fail Xander every day. Every time I meet his anger with my own self-righteous wrath, I rob him (and myself) of grace. I feel like I’m hardening his heart instead of preserving and celebrating who God uniquely created him to be, even if he is a little hot-headed.
Looking at my kids is essentially walking into a House of Mirrors at a carnival. In one mirror, I see my anger, or my sense of humor, my own stubbornness, or my sensitivity.
Standing amid all those reflections, I wonder why on earth did I ever decide to have children.
I’m not sure that’s the question that I should be asking. Perhaps it should be, “Why am I gifted this terrifying, wonderful burden of raising up kids as an imperfect dad in this imperfect world?”
Each failure is an opportunity for me and my kids to learn something about God and learn something about each other by cultivating a culture of grace amongst the chaos. And I often suck at it. But the payoffs, I think, are worth it.
I may be constantly getting onto Jackson to brush his teeth before school, but all he wants to do is show me his Infinity Stone PowerPoint that he made in class.
Xander demands snuggles every night, regardless of how the day went.
I may tell my boys to stop talking in their room after bedtime, but then I overhear them argue about how much they love me. (Current count is “from here to the moon times infinity.”)
Those moments of distilled love are worth more than any of my colossal shortcom—
Wait. Who spit on the drive way?!
Cover image by Fabian Albert.