January 09, 2014

The most important parenting lesson my dad taught me


Lukas and Mom taking a nap

Like most dads, I want to be a perfect parent. I have aspirations to become a first-class diaper changer, develop an unbustable swaddle, save enough money to cover all of Lukas college expenses and never, ever fail him.

I also know that most of these things are unrealistic. 

Truthfully, I'm terrified of parenting. Lukas is a week old and I already feel entirely inadequate and under qualified. At the moment it's 3:22AM, and although he's starting to (finally) fall asleep, I'm inexplicably wide awake. So I've been thinking about this parenting thing.

Ears.

I've been thinking about what my parents taught me about parenting. For whatever reason, I can't shake one vivid memory of my dad. Ironically, this wasn't a great moment for my father. Actually it was probably one of his worst.

My brother was on his way to a local high school baseball game and my father, exhausted from radiation and chemo, told me he would like me to go with him. I responded with a terse, "That sounds boring. I'm not going." My father, in a rare moment of frustration looked at me, his face was bright red and with a rage I had never seen, and shouted, "THIS IS MY DAMN HOUSE AND YOU WILL DO WHATEVER I SAY!" 

I was terrified. It was the first and only time I had ever been afraid of my dad. 

I ran out of the house and into my brother's car and went to that baseball game. 

A few hours later I we returned to the house. I felt a bit like the prodigal son in that I had no idea how my dad was going to welcome me.

As soon as I opened the door, my dad scooped me into his arms, sat me on his lap and with tears streaming down his face said over and over again, "I love you and I'm so sorry." I remember thinking I was a bit too old to be sitting on his lap, but I also remember not wanting to be anywhere else. I looked at him--I was crying by this point too--and said, "It's OK dad, really it is."

He looked it me and said in the most firm yet compassionate way possible, "No Keith, it's really not OK. I never should have spoken to you that way and I am sorry." 

I should say, my mom and dad were great parents. This one story is an absolute outlier. I could counter it with innumerable stories about how they unconditionally cared for and loved me (1st place would have to be my mom's willingness to allow my high school band to practice in the basement. This by itself should secure sainthood for her). Because they were/are so great, I had a difficult time processing why this story is so engrained in my memory. Then (at 3:43AM) it dawned on me.

My high school band. We were...loud...
My dad wasn't perfect; but that's not the point. My dad taught me that parents will inevitably fail and disappoint their kids, but what's much more important is how they respond to their screw-ups. I never felt more loved after my dad blew up at me, and I think that's the point.

I still suck at changing diapers, and I have no idea how to put socks on Lukas' feet in such a way that ensures they stay on for more than nine seconds, but I know love this little guy. I just hope one day, no matter how badly I screw up, he knows it too. 

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