It happened twice over the course of one week. Both times my wife told me that she needed to talk to me, that preface that almost never means an enjoyable conversation is to follow. Our daughters had approached her – separately and totally independent of each other – and asked her to talk to me for them. They hadn’t wanted to come to me themselves, but they needed me to know something.
They told her that I am mean.
There were, of course, other ideas communicated and details to follow, but the overarching premise was that I am mean to them. I’m grumpy and angry and mean. And they were afraid of talking to me about this themselves.
A lot of emotion and thought goes into parenting. When something like this happens – twice – the waves of feelings and the reflection on all of it weigh heavy and fly in all different directions.
Parenthood is humbling. And it is the greatest education I’ve ever had.
When my wife talked to me about the first daughter coming to her, I was rigid. Of course she said that, I thought. Of course she didn’t like whatever I had said to prompt such a discussion with her mom. I was sure she didn’t like some discipline I had doled out or some answer I had given her that wasn’t just a big, sparkly “Yes, you can do whatever you want!” She didn’t like my boundaries or my rules or my sense of responsibility and so she didn’t like me. And now she was going to run to mommy and play her against me. I probably even heard this first conversation with a dismissive smirk.
Not for a second did I hear what my daughter was trying to communicate. My ego was just too loud.
I justified my defiance to this news in all kinds of ways. They don’t like me as much because I’m the stay at home parent. I’m the dad and so I don’t have that natural, biological bond that they have with their mom. I’m not supposed to be popular. I’m their father, damn it (whatever that means).
I threw the internalized, middle-aged man version of a temper tantrum.
Still, the conversation my wife and I had stuck with me. It didn’t, however, deliver me to the point of reflection that I clearly needed to reach. I didn’t hear what my daughter said as a commentary from a valid source on the overall climate I was creating. Instead, I dismissed it as a one-time, unsubstantiated reaction from a kid. My ego had set up a solid defense and being called mean once just wasn’t going to make it over the castle walls.
Thankfully, the universe (and my daughters) weren’t going to make it so easy for my ego to maintain the status quo.
As much as I rationalized the first conversation, it still hung heavy on me. I couldn’t help but consider that my daughter is unhappy with me, unhappy around me and afraid to talk to me about it. At best – and I talked myself into all the best case scenarios I could – this was not good.
When I heard of the second conversation, I could feel those walls that initially held firm come crumbling down. And I came down with it. Hard.
I try to be kind and happy and loving. I want to create a safe space for my daughters in which the light that shines from me will show them how to nurture their own. In the face of mounting evidence, I could see that I was failing.
And I can’t say I didn’t know.
I have been kind of a miserable bastard lately. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been a miserable bastard for quite a while now. The causes of all of this are inconsequential to the story, though. If I would have written this in the immediate aftermath of my daughters approaching my wife, I might have dug into all of that a bit. But there is no need. That isn’t the point.
Wallowing in what I may think has gone wrong or what I’m not happy about is meaningless. That is the past. I can choose to pay attention to what is behind me or I can see what is in front of me in this moment. Looking behind you, whether it be at success or failure, stops forward progress. Learn the lessons and move on. I got stuck looking back and became inwardly miserable and outwardly a complete asshole. I lost my joy because I lost my perspective.
And I poured that out onto my children.
My daughters didn’t attack me – they gave me a gift. In a way that was so gentle and strong, they showed me my own suffering and showed me how it was causing them to suffer as well. I am blown away by what these two little people are capable of.
The three of us sat down a few days after they had talked to their mom and we talked. I told them a story. We talked about how they felt and how I felt and what we were going to do about it. We talked about how lucky we are and how much we love each other. I told them I was sorry. And I told them I was proud of them. They told me they were proud of me, too.
It is always in the quiet moments that we can learn the most. When the air becomes polluted by the noise of the past or the roar of the ego, important lessons get lost. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am that these two powerful people that I get to call my daughters took it upon themselves to create the silence that I needed to bring myself back into alignment.
They are wonderful mirrors, our children. I don’t think I will forget this lesson for a very long time. When I inevitably do, though, I know I can count on my girls to show me the way.