Fatherhood: a confession

I had a thought today that terrified me.

Lately, we’ve been downed by flu, and trying to play keep-up and catch-up while recovering, I was mentally sapped.  So I started losing patience with my daughter, blowing up when those daily, minute acts of self-assertion that I read as defiance tipped me over into raw impatience.  I popped a balloon she loved, threw a toothbrush, that kind of stuff.  Brutish daddy.

She is all too forgiving and I apologize, which I don’t feel ambivalent about despite my breeding.  But while I openly apologize and discuss my weaknesses with my daughter, and I think that’s okay, I also know I’m still a voice of authority, and a vital one to her.  It’s hard to figure out that balance when she’s three.

The startling thought that came to me: the voice I use with my daughter when I’m upset is the voice she could internalize as the voice of authority, even the voice of God.  To me, the inner voice of God, the voice of authority, is confused, deeply confused, so that when I’m attacked, I respond with defensiveness, survivalist reflexes.  I find it hard to accept that God could be displeased with something I’m doing, yet do so out of love and at the same moment desire my well-being and restoration.  Let alone, that he could be a quietly persistent voice, steadily walking beside me, encouraging me day by day and moment by moment to course-correct on the narrow walk.  That was not the voice of authority in my youth.  I wanted to hide from authority, from fatherliness, until I could either prove myself or defend myself from its judgments.  It’s a part of why I so lack character and discipline.

Is the voice with which I speak to my daughter one that she will internalize as a faithful, persistent, encouraging and emboldening voice of inner discipline and patience, of forgiveness and renewal, of tenderness and toughness, of grace and gratitude?  Or will it be one that she hides from, fears because it is explosive and out of control, turns into accusation and blame before it pendulum-swings into regret and shame?  Do I sound more like the future abusive husband I fear, or the grace-filled Counselor I’m supposed to represent?

Tomorrow morning, we will have breakfast together.  I’ll need quite a lot of grace myself to be a different man, a new person, with her.  Hopefully, to be part of teaching her the real way the fabric of God’s universe trembles with his mercy and truth, in a way that gets in her bones.

Giggly wiggly precious pearl, I’m so glad that you’re my girl

Girl of Mine by Jabari Asim

One of our friends, an educator, gave us this book at our baby shower, which she picked up at Hicklebee’s (among other nice titles I will probably post about in the future).  I forgot this, but I guess we knew it was a girl and I guess we told everyone by that point.  I liked a lot of the books that I could thumb through and imagine reading to the baby taking shape in my wife’s womb, but this one immediately became my favorite.  I did extensive research (wikipedia) on Jabari Asim, the author, and imagined a professor publishing textbooks on black literature and books for popular audiences about the significance of Obama, and then also writing these books inspired by his five children, by each of them sitting on his lap when they’re little and wanting to read something to them filled with a father’s affection, playfulness, and wonder.

From the first months of her life, when we started reading to her and trying to institute a bedtime routine to try to ease her way into night sleep, Girl of Mine was a constant, the last book I would read to her before we started trying to get her to sleep.  The book’s thread has the parent (father?  I think so, but could be a mother) finding the titular daughter at play and playfully scooping her into his arms, narrating his delight in her, and then singing her an adapted “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” (less grim, more dream-like) before settling her into bed with her teddy bear.  I read that book so much that its words are like a lyric of the first year-and-a-half, emblazoned on my consciousness.

I might as well say now a few things: our baby has got me wrapped all around my finger, is all kinds of amazing just the way that a couple of very sentimental and overprotective parents would think of their little girl.  She also has completely consumed our attention and taken over our lives, like in the ways that make loved ones encourage you to go to therapy and work on your attachment issues.  Whether our affection and over-attention created a high maintenance baby, or whether she would have been one even if we were negligent or laid back, we will never be able to answer.  But there it is: she seemed to need a whole lot of attention, still does, and we are all too eager to give it, as costly as it is to our balance and sanity.

So my Girl of Mine reading has always had a twist of irony.  She loved it for a while, loved it since her eyes began to focus on images, loved it when her fingers began to grasp pages and precociously turn them, loved it because it meant those intimate moments before sleep.  Except that they weren’t the last moments before we’d put her down for an easy rest.  Our baby, God bless her beautiful soul, was and maybe is the toughest sleep resistor you could imagine.  Her daycare provider, a thirty year veteran of the baby-care trade, has never seen one like this.  My wife and I amazon-ed a library of sleep books, read them all like holy grail questers pouring over every clue and detail about how to get this girl to fall asleep at last, and still no Sears, Ferber, or Weisbluth could crack this nut.  Every night of bedtime routine was a calm and peaceful entrance into restfulness, ending with a sweet reading of Girl of Mine and then lullabies sung and gentle rocking and the most delicate touchdown you can imagine into the crib… and then WAAAAAA!… FOR HOURS!

I have since soured on books whose story arcs seemed essentially manipulations into sleepiness, and especially ones that do it not very artfully (isn’t that the enduring appeal of Goodnight Moon, how artfully it lulls?).  But Girl of Mine will always represent all the bittersweetness of the early months, the first year, the hard struggle over sleep and the pangs of pain at watching her cry and putting her down, all the attachment and emotion, all the desperation at 3am, sitting on a yoga ball for an hour trying to soothe her to sleep… Girl of Mine is a for me a reminder of how sad it was when she didn’t sleep, how sad I was that I didn’t sleep, and then how sad it was when she finally did, and she didn’t need us quite so much anymore.

And then, a few weeks into the heart-wrenching process of sleep training, she started to know what that book meant, and she started to resist it.  I would pull it out and she would cry, bat it away, call out for another book.  It was a prelude to her great struggle to be as alive and awake as her vivacious spirit wanted to be, her parents’ insistence on the 7pm bedtime be damned.  I was so sad that our book, our favorite, the one I hoped to pick up again and again for the rest of her childhood, came to signify such a painful process.

So for a while, we put it away, didn’t pull it out, just like we stopped saying the word “sleep” or “nap” to her, just like we learned to turn down the volume on that monitor before her screams crushed our souls.

She did learn to sleep, eventually, and when she did she slept like a champ.  More consistent than our friends’ kids, even though it still never got easy.  Recently, not I but mom started picking up Girl of Mine again, and now, at eighteen months, our girl looks a lot more like the one on the cover.  She stacks blocks.  She’s always had “dazzling and bright” eyes, but now they are so expressive and perceptive, they detect our joy and disappointment.  She points out stars and holds a bear to sleep and smiles her way to dreamland sometimes.  So the book is beautiful to me for the tender ideal it depicts, far as it was from our reality, as it narrated for us the affection and hope that she came to grow into.