In A Father’s Care

He came into the world, and everything changed.

I became a father eleven years ago. My experience as a dad is no more profound or special or remarkable than any other man’s experience as a dad. And yet, I suspect every man’s experience as a dad is special and remarkable. Becoming a father is an opportunity to see the world anew, through the eyes of the baby that changes a man into a dad.

From the minute I saw him, I knew that I would die before I let him meet harm. That is what I said to myself – that I would die before I let anything happen to my beautiful baby boy. It was love at first sight — but like the infant I held in my arms, I had no idea what that love would come to look like as the years went by.

I had no idea how to be a dad. I had a father, but I did not have a dad. My father did not spend any time with me as a child, did not teach me any life lessons, did not show me what it was to be a man, let alone a parent.  So when I had a child of my own, I was winging it from day one.

I was terrified. The first night home from the hospital, his mother and I took turns sleeping, so one of us could hover over his bassinet and make sure he didn’t stop breathing — because all the parenting books we’d read filled our heads with horror stories of babies suffocating under blankets or pillows or cats that climbed onto the baby’s chest to steal their breath away in some evil feline plot to gain dominance over man. (never mind the fact that we didn’t have a cat.) We slept with his bassinet right next to our bed. We also had a baby monitor in his bassinet next to his head, and the receiver in between our pillows so we could hear him — three feet away.

Like I said — terrified.

As the years went by, I sought to ensure his health and safety as any good parent would. I was hyper-vigilant in making sure he was looked after, he was comfortable, he was never neglected or left unattended. I made sure I told him he was loved at every available opportunity, and I demonstrated that love with physical affection and tenderness that I never received from my own father. I was bound and determined to be the Best Dad Ever, and keep him from harm.

And in that lofty, noble goal was my supreme error.

I spent countless hours worrying about his welfare, his feelings, his future. The older he got, the more I saw myself in him — and I saw him repeating some of the behavior that was shown not to work for me when I was a kid. I wanted to help him avoid the mistakes I made, and when he was resistant to my “help”, I worried more.

When the divorce came, I was wrapped in fear of what would become of my children. I was certain they would end up “broken” because their home was broken, and I would lie awake at night grieving the loss of the happy future that I was sure was lost to them.

And when a new man was brought in to their mother’s home almost immediately after I moved out, I just knew that my role as their father would be usurped and the bond that I had forged with them would be lost. I did not know what it was like to have a bond with a father, so I did not know how strong that bond can really be.

“Have a little faith in your kids,” my friend Rich suggested one night as I tearfully shared my fear about the new living situation we were in. “You’re the only Dad they will ever have. No one else gets to fill that role for them. Don’t you think they know that?”

I sighed reluctantly and believed it, but as the days went by, I still ached and worried about them. I would lie awake at night, unable to sleep, missing my kids and in deep despair over the path their lives were now taking. I spent weeks dwelling in despair, frozen in fear. I did not know what to do.

One day my son told me that he felt that his mother’s boyfriend seemed to be giving him messages that he needed to change. My son indicated that this man was of the opinion that he wasn’t okay the way he was. I was livid, and I plunged into even deeper despair over the fate of my son. I knew I was powerless over what went on in his mother’s house, and I knew that if I confronted the situation directly it would likely end up in a restraining order (or worse, a prison sentence) — and that would mean I’d see my kids even less than I already did.

I shared about this in a support group one day, and was really only intending to unload my burden because I had grown weary from carrying it around. It was difficult to speak with the giant lump in my throat that threatened to break into a sob, but I finally got it out. I felt a little better at having given voice to my fear, but I was no closer to knowing what to do about it.

And then a woman spoke. I did not know this woman. I had never spoken with her before.  But she delivered a message to me that day that I desperately needed to hear.

She said, “When I have a loved one in my life that is going through a tough time, and I find myself unable to bear the fear or sadness that I feel for them, I put them in The God Room.”

I looked at her, surprised, for I had never heard this phrase before. This was something new to me. She continued to speak, and while she spoke in the group, she looked at me as she talked. She delivered this message directly to me.

“When I’m in fear for someone I love, I close my eyes. I visualize myself walking with that person, holding their hand, smiling and telling them what they mean to me – telling them what I want for them, sharing my hopes for them. And as we walk, we come to a door. We stop before the door, and I turn to my loved one and I tell them, ‘I love you so, so much.’  And then I turn to the door.”

As the woman shared this visualization, I could see it clearly in my mind. I was mesmerized. She continued.

“I see myself turn the doorknob, and I can feel it is pleasantly warm. And when I push open the door, we are bathed in light. The door opens into a room that is filled with the purest, brightest, whitest light imaginable. It is warm and feels safe and comfortable. The light fills me with a sense of peace, and grace. And I visualize myself turning back to my loved one, hugging them tightly, and I kiss them. Then I usher them in to this room filled with the bright, peaceful, warm light. And then I close the door.”

She paused for a moment, and then said, “I put them in The God Room. I do this because they are in God’s hands, not mine. I can love them, and I can support them, but I have to let go of my will for them and let God’s will be done.”

She looked at me one last time and said, “Put your kids in The God Room. They’re gonna be okay.”

That woman gave me a great gift that day. She reminded me that, while I love my kids fiercely and unconditionally, I am only their Dad. I am not their God.

Today, when I feel that fear over my children’s well-being, I remind myself of what my role in their life really is: I get to love them, I get to model behavior for them, I get to demonstrate what works, I get to support them in their own learning, on their own life paths. And I get to play with them, giggle with them, sing songs with them, and be silly with them.

But I can’t shield them from all harm, all sadness, all heartbreak. And really, why would I want to? For shielding them from that is interfering with their life experience. My job is to help them grow up to be good people in the world, and part of that is helping them to deal with adversity. God is in charge of the rest.

My son is eleven, and adolescence is approaching. We are seeing the signs already – the moodiness, the frustration, and impatient and intolerant attitude that surfaces now and then. He is experiencing his challenges – some of the very same challenges I experienced at his age. I remind myself that my experience is not his experience. He will experience this in his own way. I get to support him in his growth, help him up when he falls, and love him through all of it.

He is in The God Room.

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My Daughter, The Waitress

“When I grow up, I want to be a waitress.”

No, I’d never heard anyone say these words either. Most of the time, the what-I-wanna-be-when-I-grow-up statements involve exciting or glamorous –or at least rewarding–  professions, like an astronaut, actress, doctor, or teacher. Exciting careers that capture the imagination and inspire the dreams of children. Or at least, most children.

My daughter wants to be a waitress.

When I first heard this, I assumed it was just a passing idea – kids change their minds and their moods with alarming speed, and this was surely just an idea that she got once and would last a short time. But she has held on to this idea –this want– for a while now.

She first said that when she grows up she wants to work in a restaurant.

“That’s great,” I told her at the time. “So you want to be a chef?”

She replied simply, “No.”

Assuming, I said “So do you want to own your own restaurant then?” I immediately knew that wasn’t it either, because what seven-year-old dreams of owning anything as a career? Kids want to do stuff, not own stuff.

“No,” she said again, “I want to be a waitress.”

I tried to keep an encouraging look on my face. “Oh” was all I could manage to say at first, followed by, “Really?”

“Uh-huh,” she said.

The word “flabbergasted” doesn’t get used much these days, but it certainly describes how I felt at the time — overcome with surprise and bewilderment.  A waitress? Really?

Images of the “struggling waitress” filled my head, along with thoughts of the challenges experienced by those in that line of work: Minimum wages and a dependence on tips; insensitive, rude, and belligerent customers; irregular schedules and the insecurity of working a position that is so easily and immediately replaceable. I did not want that for my little girl.

“What makes you want to be a waitress?” I asked, as neutrally as I could. I thought perhaps she thought the waitress was the one who prepared the food, in which case I could guide her back to the whole chef idea. I was wrong.

“Because I want to bring people food,” she said, as if it was the most obvious answer to a question, ever.

It was a perfectly acceptable answer, and at the heart of it was a certain beauty – a desire to be of service – but at the time I could not get past the idea that it was not a career goal but a temporary stop on a career path; something one did while going to school, or between auditions or performing gigs.

To me, the idea of a career as a waitress seemed less like service, and more like servitude. I thought that she should be aiming a little higher for her life goals (as though a seven year old has a concept of “life goals”).

Perhaps this was just one of a couple ideas she had in mind. She has demonstrated such a strong love for animals — I thought surely there were some veterinarian aspirations in there. Or perhaps her fascination with birds could yield some ornithological leanings, even though she is too young to understand what ornithology is. Or artistry – she loves to draw, and while there is still great potential for an artist to starve as much as a waitress, the soul of an artist is nurtured by the work; I don’t know how much waiting tables nurtures the soul of the waitress.

“Is there something else that you think you might want to do when you grow up?” I asked hopefully.

Her response was prompt and simple. “No,” she said contently.

I sighed, and checked my Best Father Responses list for what was appropriate to say here. I found it fairly quickly.

“Well, sweetheart, if that’s what you want to be, then I hope you’ll be the best waitress you can be,” I said, kissing the top of her head and letting go of my judgments of her chosen (at the moment) profession.

I thought of this for a while, and of course I know that as she gets older she will discover other passions and other desires about how to live her life. This is just where she is today, and it’s okay. But even if she did, in fact, choose waitressing as a career path, could it be okay? The truth is, if she is happy with it, then it is most certainly okay. Her happiness, after all, is all I want.

I realized my potential to be one of those fathers who disapproves so much of his child’s chosen path that he lets his own dissatisfaction destroy the child’s relationship with him. I was grateful to be shown this. I hope I can remember it.

Even at the age of seven, my daughter is her own person, with her own will, her own life path, and her own destiny. As her father, I can be an example, I can model behavior that works, and I can support her in her growth. But if I try to force her to be something she is not, then I am not loving her unconditionally. And unconditional love is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.

If nothing else, I have a reminder that I can go back to again and again – a reminder that, regardless of what I think or feel, my daughter has always seemed to know what she wants to be when she grows up. I have a photo from a couple years ago that I’ve shared here before; a photo that I will keep until I die, one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It is also a reminder that sometimes, the best thing a dad can do for his child is just sit back and watch the blinking lights.

As I type this, I’m curious to see what today’s answer would be – if it would still be “waitress” or if it would be something else. I just called my daughter into my office and asked her:

“Mak, real quick – what do you wanna be when you grow up?”

Her response — immediate and without hesitation:  “Me.”  Then a second later, with a quizzical look on her face:  “Why?” 

I smiled with utter joy and pride in my little girl. “Just curious,” I said.