monthemoon asked (read the full comment here): “Hi Matt! I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, just before my partner and I split up. We are still living together due to circumstances, but from summer we will be living separately, and I am kind of looking forward to it. But I am also afraid.
“Apart from developing his empathy, can you think of any other way to make him realize he has to put his son first, specially after separation?”
I might be a bad father.
I don’t know. I don’t know who gets to decide. I don’t think his mom would call me one. I don’t think anyone close to me would call me one. And I’m certain my son wouldn’t call me one.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t so.
The list documenting my failings as a father is long and distinguished. That might not make me “bad.” That might just make me typical. Who can say?
When we fail our families, sentencing our innocent children to lives without both parents at home, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that we’ve fallen short as parents.
When we force our spouses to choose between keeping the family together and suffering in masked silence for years, or ending the marriage risking judgment from family and friends, and emotionally damaged children because THAT somehow feels like the better choice, we have failed our children.
There’s nothing inherently gender-specific about this, but I have no qualms about calling out men as the primary culprits here. It’s because — no matter how much we’ll deny it — there are many things men love more than their wives and children.
It’s all psychological, of course. Most husbands and fathers are GOOD MEN. And they think and feel “I love my wife,” and they think and feel “I love my family.” But when it comes time to choose between getting down on the floor to play LEGOs or to cook pretend-dinner in the play kitchen or have a dinosaur battle, and whatever else feels EASIER or MORE CONVENIENT, we often choose the latter.
“Sorry, kid. That sounds like so much fun, but dad is really tired after a long day. You just play alone while I do this thing by myself that I’m prioritizing over you. I’ll engage you in bond-forming one-on-one activities some other time, because I’ll probably have a lot more energy then. We have all the time in the world to build life-long parent-child bonds. We have all the time in the world to make you feel loved and safe.”
If what you do matters more than what you say, then I was divorced for about a year before I actually started putting my son first in my life.
From the moment I learned about the positive pregnancy test, I always said — and actually believed — that I was putting my child first.
I’ll do anything for my family, we think. Because we’re dads and husbands, we take that job seriously. But then we choose other things over dad and husband things because it’s easier or seemingly more fun in the moment. Sacrificing the later for the now. Like the kids whose lives turned out worse after choosing immediate gratification in the Stanford marshmallow experiment.
Sure, we feel blindsided when our wives leave us and file papers.
Sure, we feel surprised when our children question our love for them during future disagreements.
Our brains automatically search for any explanation that will take away our responsibility. We’ll concoct any story that makes something the fault of someone else, and not ours.
Maybe that’s all people. Maybe that’s just mehhhhhhhh fathers who think they’re great parents. Or maybe it’s just me.
But today I know better, and apologize for the finger pointing. We’re NEVER the only one doing, thinking, believing, or feeling anything. There are always others in the boat with you. Knowing that helps me feel better sometimes.
You’re Probably Forgetting About the Hourglass
Don’t be afraid. Everyone is in this global boat large enough to hold every living thing from the beginning of time ‘til the end.
But, it’s true. You have an invisible hourglass attached to your life.
Just like that person standing over there.
Just like your friends and enemies and family and co-workers and the strangers you pass on the street and the people you scream at when they cut you off in traffic.
Just like your children.
We all have an hourglass that is ALWAYS dropping sand from the top to the bottom, and when that last granule falls, we will take our final breath.
Our hourglasses live in a dimension beyond sight. So we don’t usually know when the sand is going to run out.
As I’m writing this sentence, someone young and who was thought to be healthy is dying unexpectedly. It’s a statistical certainty.
Living fearfully is no way to live. That’s why it helps to be mindful of the boat. How we’re all in it. This isn’t A way. It’s THE way.
But living mindfully of it? I think that might be important.
Two years ago, I learned about a beautiful little girl named Abby with a disease that has no known cure. I was blogging about some personal things with an ungrateful attitude. And then Life saw fit to introduce me to the story of two parents who lose a little bit of their daughter every day.
I called it a Godsmack. That’s what it felt like.
Maybe no matter how long and hard my day was, playing with my son is the best use of my time because of all the parents whose top wish would be to do what I’m taking for granted.
Maybe if I knew the world was about to explode, all I would want is to hold him tight to try and demonstrate my love one last time.
And maybe the things we should spend the most energy on in life are the things we would do during the final countdown. (No. You’re not the only one who just sang the Europe song.)
This is a Parent’s Most Important Job
With the exception of parents with deeply held spiritual beliefs about salvation and an afterlife whose life mission centers around helping their children achieve it, our earthly life-focused parenting has ONE job beyond meeting basic life needs that seems more important than any other.
The thing we must do for our children is help them KNOW they are worthy of love and belonging.
That’s our most important job.
Most of life’s negative experiences are rooted in us doubting our value or worthiness. Because of a million little things that happen to us as children at home and school, and all we observe as others around us succeed, achieve and acquire things we want but don’t have, and all of the rejection and failure we experience in our relationships, and social circles, and academic pursuits, and work lives.
We don’t celebrate failure as the interesting and valuable mistake it really is — another opportunity to grow and change and improve on our pursuit of mastery. We’re terrified of it and what it will make others believe about us. We fall short all the time. And then we assume everyone thinks we’re huge stupid losers because of failures, big or small. And then we tell ourselves stories about those failures and our self-narrative becomes one of failure, and self-doubt.
We’re not good enough to be happy.
We’re not good enough to be accepted.
We’re not good enough to be loved.
Sorry, kid. You’re just not tall enough. And you never will be.
That narrative is believed by a frightening amount of people. The majority, I believe.
Poverty. Crime. Abuse. Infidelity. Addiction. Suicide. Divorce.
These things often happen because someone doesn’t believe they matter. Because they don’t think they are worthy of love. Because they don’t think they belong on any of the boats.
But we are worthy. And we do belong. And that realization eludes many of us for many different reasons.
As parents, we mustn’t let that reason be because we failed our children in a moment that seemed inconsequential to us while not realizing it means the world to them.
She asked: “Can you think of any other way to make him realize he has to put his son first, ‘specially after separation?”
It took me losing my family.
And half of my son’s childhood. I estimate AT LEAST seven years, since he was not quite 5 when the marriage ended.
Whatever must happen to ensure he and I stay connected once he leaves the nest? That window is closing fast.
Once this father realizes it, he’ll either care enough to do something about it, or he won’t.
Or maybe he simply doesn’t feel worthy of his son’s love. Maybe he doesn’t feel he deserves that.
Because like so many of us stopped by the Must Be This Tall To Ride gatekeepers, he simply never got the memo: That sign is bullshit.
He’s always been tall enough.
And now his life’s most important work is about teaching his son that too.
Just like you.
Just like me.