Fatherhood follies: cavity in the mind
Or how I learned to stop worrying and love bad teeth
This is a semi-regular space to share the cosmic humor in being a parent in a humorous world.
Sometimes being able to share the humor of parenting also means you have gone through some pain. It’s a funny thing about enlightenment that no one gets there from always having a wonderful time of things.
I have a three year old daughter. She’s a middle. She acts like a middle. Let’s be nice and call her “precocious.” Really, she’s more like a terrorist.
Just like you, I try to parent from a place of love. I think discipline means teaching, not punishing. And for a long time my three year old daughter thought I was a real dummy that wasn’t worth listening to.
Now you understand that the stress of being a parent is really about expectations. We expect certain things to happen and then they don’t and then we get frustrated. And in that frustration is where we can either learn, by being open to our own humanity, or we can push it all down and puff out our chests and blame our kids. It’s not a 100% thing. Sometimes we pick one way and sometimes the other.
Bedtime was becoming an issue. My oldest daughter is, well, older and has a more developed capacity for reasoning. She can stare at herself in the mirror like a real dope for 15 minutes doing nothing but when I remind her it’s time to brush her teeth, she gets to it. It’s weird that I have to say it 750 days in a row and counting, but my kids aren’t exactly Doogie Howser, MD. Regardless, she sets the bar in my mind a little too high sometimes. Why can’t they all be this easy?
The middle girl, oh what a mess. She had moved into flat out refusal mode when she turned three. Nope, not gonna do it. Not gonna put on jammies. Not gonna brush. Not gonna wash up. Not gonna do jack, Dad. Now what?
I tried everything. It’s like the stages of grief, but the order is mixed up. You try bargaining and rewards, and then denial and then acceptance. And finally, anger. Where did the anger come from?
Well, I got stressed out over expectations. My wife and I take turns putting the kids to bed, and I started to sense that I wasn’t upholding my end of the bargain. Middle child was giving me the bedtime routine middle finger, and in my head the psyche was going into overdrive. You wouldn’t believe the nasty things it thought, about my wife, about my middle child, about my parenting. But you would believe it, because it happens to you too.
So what happened?
I lost my mind one night. We started to argue and it kept escalating. I raised my voice. I made threats. Finally, I yelled and I made her go to bed. And I made her cry. I acted like a crazed lunatic.
And then I went downstairs, poured myself a small glass of wine, and tears welled up in my eyes. What am I doing??? What is going on that I am getting so worked up over this? Do I want my daughter to think I’m a jerk? Does any of this stuff really matter more than our love for each other?
I had to face that fact that I had failed as a father. This isn’t the dad I wanted to be. What was I doing wrong? My wife told me not to beat myself up. Parenting is hard. And I know that. But I could do better.
Putting conditions on love
When you are on the journey to discover your true self, you realize that most of your anguish in life comes from placing expectations on yourself. You conditionally love yourself.
Let me explain with an example.
Growing up you may have been conditioned to excel in schooling. You had good grades and it gave you self confidence. But a downside of this self expectation can occur if you start to associate your self worth with your academic success. If you do this, you will place a condition on your love of yourself. If one day you come home with a C instead of an A, you love yourself a little less than you did the day before.
In isolation this isn’t a noteworthy event, but the problem is you do this with everything. We all do, all of our lives. As time goes by and you get older, you struggle to love yourself because in so many ways you have made that love conditional. And even worse, it’s conditional on the pleasure you bring to your psyche. Your psyche isn’t your true self. It’s your raving lunatic roommate.
If you ever break free from this, you will be shocked at how silly it all was.
My problem with my little girl was all about that conditional love. I wasn’t able to love myself unless my child did her bedtime routine without argument every night. I wasn’t able to love myself unless she was cooperative. And by falling into that trap, I was making her feel as though my love for her was conditional.
And when I realized what I had done, my heart broke.
The next night, I started off our routine a little different.
“Sweetheart, I love you if you do your bedtime routine. And I love you if you don’t.” And I believed it, and I stuck to it.
Wouldn’t you know it, because she is actually a wonderful human being - like all children, she responded immediately. And we found our common ground. When things got shaky, I would say it again. “I love you if you listen to me and pick up your toys. And I love you if you don’t. But it would be a good thing for our home if you could clean up better.”
The other night, I had a moment that reminded me of how far my little girl and I have come in our relationship. It was routine time. Charlotte was putting on her pajamas and I asked if she was ready to brush her teeth. She sassed me a “nope!” and smiled. I smiled too and asked her if she wanted to have sparkly teeth or bad teeth. She thought it over and said with the biggest grin, “I want bad teeth!”
And I had a great laugh about that. So did she. We did eventually get her teeth brushed. But it doesn’t really matter. I love her if she has sparkly teeth and I love her if she has bad teeth, too.
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