Parenthood is strange. For the first few decades of life, you’re led to believe adults have all of the answers. They did, for better or worse. The subjective nature of finding the ‘right thing to do’ is the divine outcome of being alive and getting hurt. We endure pain on every plane of human experience and try to keep our children from bearing it as well, knowing full well that heartbreak is, in fact, an education. Most times, the answer is merely being there. But what comes of that when we’re gone?
I never thought I’d be a parent. I never thought I’d have kids or that I’d want any. It wasn’t a life goal of mine. Not certain if that was some repressed resentment of my mom being a teacher, or maybe my life as the baby in the family, never being around people much younger than me.
I have a daughter, thirteen years old. I met her when she was seven. I have a son as well, born weeks before the world flipped upside down. A toddler and a teenager during a pandemic. I can provide my Venmo if sympathy beers are your thing.
Having two children at different ends of the childhood spectrum is a journey unto itself. I see one experience the basic elements of life for the first time while the other pushes off into a different realm of hormones and the deeper meaning of things. It all came to a head a few weeks back when the dichotomy of my children’s lives and my turn at inadequate parenting presented itself.
It was a gorgeous Tuesday morning, and my son had slipped at the park, slicing his chin down to the bone. He bit his tongue in the process, which I’d guess probably hurt more. Blood pouring from his mouth and dripping from his chin, his first instinct was to start scream-crying. I mean yeah, I’m sure it hurt like hell, and add in that he had never seen, much less tasted, his own blood. He probably thought he was dying, or whatever version of death that toddlers believe in
I picked him up and tried to see the damage as we speed-walked to the car. There were four other sets of parents there, eyes affixed to us as I tried to cover the fact that my kid was bleeding profusely. Like the ragdoll physics and cavalier attitude of a boy just learning to walk were something I could contain. The whole time, his face was buried in my collar, his hands squeezed my shirt like he was clinging to the side of the Matterhorn.
The worst part was, prior to this incident, we were a few minutes from heading home for snack and a nap. Instead, a six-hour ordeal ensued. The hospital might as well have been Mars to the kid. He sat on my lap, calm as at any point in his short life. Only once did he turn and crawl back up to my shoulder and cry. He knew that something was different and that, because I’m his dad, I’d make sure he was okay. By late afternoon, four stitches and a large bandage adorned his chin.
Exhausted, hungry, and dealing with my child’s first major injury, I felt like a failure. The hours of guilt, feeling like I should have been closer to him at the park. That I pushed him too far in independent play. That I wasn’t a good parent if I let my kid get hurt this badly on my watch. When we got home, I lifted him out of his car seat and he wrapped his arms around me and rested his head on my shoulder, scouring those thoughts from my mind. If I never let him beyond the reach of my arms, he’ll never learn or grow.
By the time my wife got him settled and in bed, I was a candle burnt from both ends and the middle, but we got through the day.
That same week my daughter, in the throws of the earliest stages of teenage experience, came out of her room sobbing. I’ve seen her cry from everything, from punishment for lying all the way through the loss of a great-grandparent. This was something different.
My initial reaction was to ask “what’s wrong?” She choked on her breath, too upset to get words out. Red-nosed and puffy-eyed, all she could do was shake her head. “Come here. You don’t have to tell me anything.” I offered, almost instinctively, just to embrace her; to let her cry it out on a shoulder that didn’t need an answer. She wanted to be consoled but keep the space of her private life. Nothing good comes from pressing an emotional teenager.
A million things ran through my head, all the greatest hits of parental concern and my own, long-passed teenage problems. The moment only lasted a few seconds. Her dad was already on his way to take her out for a bite and cheer her up. A step-dad always has to understand his place in everything. I asked, “do you want to talk to your mom?” She nodded, hiccupping through tears.
I knew my wife was asleep, but this seemed like something more attuned to her parenting level. I went in and woke her up, giving her a few minutes to wake up before sending in our bawling teenager. They talked for a good ten minutes, and when the younger of the two came out, she was calm. I knew in that moment, I offered her all that I could.
Sometimes in the heat of a moment, a wordless few minutes to just be emotional is all we need. To do so in the arms of someone who loves and cares for you is all the sweeter. I’ve been on both sides of it now. By the time she was back home later in the evening, the situation was still not resolved. The politics and processes of middle school friendships are often far too soap-operatic for their own good. But we got through the day.
That’s kind of the answer, isn’t it? Get everyone through that day in the best shape possible. There is only so much a parent can do to guard their children’s hearts and chins. Eventually, everyone gets hurt. Life, as I’ve found so far in my three and a half decades, is about healing the wounds of those you love in hopes that they’ll grow to accomplish the same. That includes the inevitable hurt we cause to them.
I used to think there were good parents and bad parents. Most, if not all, are somewhere in the middle. Much of the residual pain that parents cause is by no real fault of their own. It’s just a misunderstanding of their child’s needs. I’m a vastly different person than both of my parents, and that’s not a bad thing.
As my children grow up, I wonder what voids I’ll leave for them. What needs they’ll not have met because I didn’t know the right way to respond. How many times I refused to listen and just gave advice based on how I did something in 2004. Why they should listen to me when, secretly, I don’t have an answer at all. By the time I’m gone, will it have been enough?
That’s the reckoning we all face as parents. We hope beyond hope that our children outlive us, and the inevitable pain of that being that we will miss so much of their lives. In their eyes we descend from gods to giants to merely guides, from grief to grief, giving a newer version of the same fallible advice we received.
It’s the blessing and the curse of living at all. That in one way or another, we’re all trying our best only to mess it up time and time again. In the end, we see that our parents didn’t have the answers, and that’s in part to there rarely ever being one in the first place. Life is often too spontaneous or ambiguous for absolutes. Often times the best course of action is just to be there until you can’t.
There will be a last time that I carry my son.
There will be a last time I embrace my daughter.
That isn’t a bad thing. Quite the contrary. The fact that they needed me at all, that I could help heal their wounds… that was always worth the price of admission.