December 4, 2013

What My Son has Taught Me About Fatherhood.

Oliver and I playing. 

Fatherhood is a never ending adventure spent mostly following along, playing catch-up to ever changing needs.

Oliver just turned two. I am learning what distinguishes a baby from a toddler. The incessant curiosity about everything and the delicate balance between the freedom to explore and staying out of danger—and not breaking that vase!

I think the fundamental difference, at least the way I’m experiencing it, is where he focuses his attention. As a toddler his energy is directed at the world whereas as a baby, his energy and attention was directed at the people in his world.

Snuggling and eye-gazing have been replaced by running and exploring. His research has broadened from learning about those of us around him to the environment in which we exist.

It’s not like this happened overnight. It was a gradual process that followed along his sense of independence. Once he could waddle, he could go farther and see things that aren’t immediately there. As his confidence grew so did his curiosity about the world. At two, the transition is evident.

So, now I find myself at the first significant transition. My son is no longer a baby and his needs have changed. There is some sadness to this, of course. The time has come to welcome a toddler into our lives and follow along on that grand adventure. Because ultimately that’s what we do—follow along, playing catch-up to ever changing needs.

Looking back at the first stage there are a few fundamentals Oliver taught me about life. It’s not like I hadn’t read any of these before in books of wisdom, or the yoga classes I’ve attended or in numerous articles on this website.

Having a baby drove them home.

When Oliver was born I was no longer striving to be who I wanted to become for my own sake, or that of a broader community. It was specifically, and pointedly for my son. I wanted to become a living example of a kind, compassionate and patient person. Patience being my achilles heel, as you’ll see. It is a struggle. And like all good struggles I learn a lot about myself—probably more than in the 37 years before my son.

1. You are entirely responsible for the example you set.

This is a tough one, and there’s a reason why I put it first. Didn’t I have enough on my plate without the guilt trip, already?! I mean, I was hardly sleeping and this, this baby demanded every moment of my waking attention. Yet, there I was. His dad. And I desperately wanted to be the best I knew how to be.

This responsibility, the knowledge that my example was the only real way of teaching empathy and patience, hit me like a pile of boulders. Funny thing though, to cultivate empathy and patience you have to practice them on yourself. I learned that the path is gentle and forgiving and paradoxically impossible.

2. Be kind, and considerate with yourself.

The adjustment into parenthood is difficult. I wasn’t sleeping like I used to, I was isolated from my social networks and I started to feel thin, stretched out and short-tempered. So I stopped trying to do everything—I couldn’t.

I had to be considerate with myself and recognize the things I could not do. It took kindness to allow them to go undone. I learned to discern what was truly important from the frivolous and I put my energy where it helped the most. I developed the self-wisdom to know what I needed and the confidence to make it happen.

By cultivating kindness and consideration towards myself I can be an example, albeit imperfect, of confidence and self-wisdom.

3. Everything can be faced with love and affection.

This is the thick of it. With all the energy expended, the lack of sleep, the dwindling social life and a sex life that, well, could be a bit better I need affection. It’s tough. There are times I felt I gave and gave, and gave and gave … I needed love.

It was so exhausting I didn’t see Sara needed love too.

I was caught in me, my needs—and then we fought. Oliver was terrified. Sara was terrified. I was terrified. Where did this fury come from? And in the midst of it all, Oliver needed our love more than ever. He sat in middle of the bed. Sara stood on one side, I on the other. My judgement, too clouded to see the terror on Oliver’s face and the pain, masked by anger, in Sara’s. His world was falling apart.

I had stormed out. Sara wanted to leave. It was bad. I knew I had made a mistake. I’d lost my patience. I needed some grounding. Breathe. Breathe. Sara was hurting, Oliver was hurting, I was hurting. I realized I was not alone.

That night in bed, with Oliver lying between us we talked. She needed love, she needed kindness, she needed to be listened to. Things were out of balance, obviously. I was being selfish, wrapped up in my needs. We talked about what wasn’t working and re-arranged what was out of balance. We listened to what was missing and looked for ways to make sure she got what she needed.

I searched for ways to lovingly affirm her. Since I was the stay-at-home parent she was feeling left out. That hurts.

Love, encouragement, affirmation. When we were open to these things we could give them. I learned that being considerate and kind towards yourself is balanced by being affectionate and loving towards others. This is especially important in the darkest moments. If I can remind myself that “I am not alone. Others are in pain.” it becomes easier to be loving.

4. Recognize when you are mistaken and forgive yourself often.

Oliver saw all of this—a few times. I am not perfect. I hope his view of our relationship has some balance. One in which there are both arguments and healing. I hope he learns to put his heart forward when it’s most difficult. I try my best to be an example.

Of course I fail. We all fail at anything we aren’t skilled at. So when I do, I remind myself that this is what I am working on. I take a moment to recognize and heal the pain and continue with my practice. It’s all I can do.

Perseverance requires two things: courage to face your errors and forgiveness. For we will fail at anything we work on long enough, and to continue we must be forgiving of our failures.

By recognizing my mistakes and forgiving myself for them I hope to teach Oliver courage and the ability to be honest with himself.

So yes, I am entirely responsible for the example I give. Despite my best efforts this example is complex and fraught with imperfections.

These last two years have been about laying a foundation, learning what it means for me to be a father. Like Oliver, the focus of my study has been about my relationship to him. As I’ve learned what it is and cultivated my understanding of myself I feel more confident to step out of myself and discover this world. As I mentioned earlier, I’m just following along, playing catchup, in this grand adventure of discovery.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photos Courtesy of Sara Gardella.}

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