Essay

Hitting the parenting sweet spot

My first wife was not only a good mother to our children when they were very small, but she deeply enjoyed it. I hope I was a good father to our young children. I don’t think I was a poor one. I loved my sons, I was well involved in their care, and we had some lovely moments together. But overall, I did not enjoy their early years.

My sons at Halloween in 2000, aged 3 and 1

These were surprisingly lonely years for me. I worked days and my wife worked nights. Except for dinner we hardly saw each other. We either worked or were alone with our kids. On the weekends we each had house chores to do and it was just easier for both of us to do them alone and leave the other with the kids. I’d feed the kids lunch while she did the shopping. She’d care for them while I mowed the lawn.

I wish we had lived closer to extended family. Our closest relatives were my parents, but they lived 150 miles away. Day to day, we had no help. There was nobody to talk to, or to share the challenges with.

I wonder if my wife was lonely as well. I don’t know; we weren’t talking and connecting well as a couple. We were just pushing through our days as best we could.

Some fathers feel bonded to their babies from the start, but not me. Deep down I knew I’d do anything to protect them, and it was fun to make them smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until their personalities emerged in toddlerhood, when I could see glimpses of myself and their mother in them, that they truly entered my heart and felt like a part of me. Until then, my sons were just work.

Damion was colicky. He’d start crying midafternoon — and my goodness, was he loud. His mom and I used to joke that if the city’s storm sirens ever broke, we could just rent them Damion. When I got home from work and exited my car I could hear him screaming from our driveway, even in the dead of winter when the house was closed up. I’d put him in my arms and walk him from one end of the house to the other for hours. I have a heavy step that jostled him as I moved, which I think was been calming. I’d sing softly to him while we moved, two songs in particular, over and over. As long as I walked and sang those songs, he was calm. If I stopped, he’d scream. His colic usually passed sometime after 8 pm, by which time he’d exhausted himself (and me) and I could put him to bed. This was our routine for the first nine months of his life.

As Garrett grew, he struggled to cope with frustration. He’d try and try to achieve some goal that was just beyond him. I’ll never forget how he fixated on the sofa, which he purposed to climb. Little by little over several weeks’ time he gained the ability to reach the cushions, then the arm, and then the top of the seat back. I stayed close, but let him do it because he seemed so intent. But when he couldn’t reach the next level, he’d grow so frustrated and angry that he’d melt down. He’d cry in dark anger, turning crimson. He frightened the crap out of me a few times when he cried so hard he couldn’t draw in a breath. I had no idea what to do for Garrett.

Those were just the especially challenging aspects of our sons. Overall they were typical boys. I played with them and we watched TV. I gave them their baths and I made them lunch. I read to them a lot; they preferred Dr. Seuss: Wake every person, pig, and pup, until everyone in the world is up!

But for the most part, I was left with a feeling of is this all there is? I wished for greater connection and engagement with my sons, with my wife, and with the outside world.

Making cookies, still ages 1 and 3

It came as my sons grew. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them, the less my wife and I had to divide our time around child care, and the more easily we could all do things outside the house. When the boys developed basic self-sufficiency — they could dress themselves, use the bathroom alone, make a bowl of cereal — I started to experience real joy as their father. The boys and I could finally do things together, rather than me doing everything for them.

In the one-room apartment I rented while I waited for the divorce to be final, ages 6 and 8

I enjoyed fatherhood the most while my sons were in middle and high school. They were turning into their adult selves, and I was excited to watch it. I could share my interests with them, and they could share theirs with me. Damion set up his computer as a Minecraft server and we spent several lovely Saturday afternoons building things together in that virtual world. Garrett and I put together a lot of giant Lego sets. I took them on spring break trips including Washington, DC, and Route 66. Damion shared his interests in anime and in Dungeons and Dragons, and Garrett shared his surprising love of dark comedy.

But more importantly, I was able to speak into their lives and help them figure out how to finish growing up. The challenges they experienced in early childhood all baffled me, but I was primed and ready for their adolescence. I don’t know why, I just was. I still made mistakes, but overall I feel like I was made to be a father of teenagers. I wish I could go back and have just one more year of high school with them!

My first wife, in comparison, seemed happiest to be a mom during the baby and early childhood years. The story I piece together from things my sons told me is that she was far less engaged, perhaps even disengaged, while they were teens. It’s hard to know for sure because the divorce meant I wasn’t there to witness it. But my conclusion isn’t far fetched as that’s exactly what I witnessed with her child from her first marriage, who graduated high school before we divorced.

That doesn’t mean I was a poor father of my young children or my ex was a poor mother of her teens. Damion once told me that he feels like he is very lucky to have drawn us as parents; he called us both “fantastic.” It’s just that my ex was a natural with our small children, and I was a natural with our teenagers.

Damion, me, Garrett, and my mom at Garrett’s high-school graduation – ages 20 and 18

I think most parents, those who work to be engaged with their kids, experience this. There will be some years they don’t enjoy parenting, and other years where they love it and are just crushing it.

If you’re a parent of young children and you’re not enjoying it, hang on. The good years are ahead.

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9 thoughts on “Hitting the parenting sweet spot

  1. I believe most mothers are hardwired to bond with their infant children, as I think that was when my own wife was at her apex as a parent. She has been a good mom always but I was in awe during the first year or two of the kids’ lives.

    I have enjoyed every stage but will admit that infancy was the hardest.

    • I have known a mom or two who didn’t enjoy the infant years and were relieved when they were over. It’s rare, but it happens.

      It took me a little while to get over feeling bad about not enjoying the infant-toddler years. As you can see, I managed it.

  2. tbm3fan says:

    My wife is definitely an infant/toddler mother. Things are somewhat different now. The big key is that she is a born and raised Filipina and in the Philippines kids are raised to mind their elders, be respectful, be seen and not heard too much. Let me emphasize “respect” as it is a BIG deal and there are actual terms for addressing those older than you. My wife uses them with women older than her. So she will call them “Ate” while those younger than her call her Ate.

    However, we are here not there and my son has many traits of an American raised boy. Granted he is a very loving and capable 11 year old. Only the not heard part is not part of him when his mother and him get into a conversation shall we say. He wants answers and reasons which would never happen in the Philippines. His mother will blow her top at that. Later, when we are alone, I try to tell him when are you going to learn to keep your mouth shut when Mom tells you to do something. He has yet to learn that while I have long ago. As for me, his almost 67 year old father, I am supposedly cool and laid back unless he crosses one of my few lines in the sand.

    • I insisted on respect from my children as well. I’m sure it didn’t rise to Filipino levels but my wrath was swift and sure when my children disrespected me. But on the back end I worked to be someone they could easily respect.

      I’m 53 and I cannot imagine having an 11-y-o now.

  3. tbm3fan says:

    My father got a kick out of telling friends that he had a 8 year old grandson when he was 90. They assured him it must be his great grandson who is 8 years old.

  4. Darts and Letters says:

    my oldest is really getting into Dungeons and Dragons and I’m trying to pay attention as much as possible. Any tips? lol Thanks for sharing these two accounts, Jim. Fatherhood has been the dominant theme in my life for the past ten or more years and I can’t tell you how powerful, reassuring it is to read unvarnished accounts like these that ring beautiful, strong, delicate and true. I think they give me insight to examine my own self and look at how I’ve done things, see successes and mistakes. Again, very respectfully speaking thanks for sharing these.

    • My son tried to do a D&D campaign with me and my other son and I just couldn’t get into it. I tried, but failed. I kept asking him about his gaming and listening even though I didn’t get it. I hope he felt heard and validated, but I don’t really know.

      I’m very happy that my writing here connected with you!

      • Damion Grey says:

        It was something I’ve always appreciated. I knew you didn’t get it but it was nice to talk about the things I’ve enjoyed with you. Plus it was great to hear how it helped you start conversations with some of your younger coworkers.

        • I always wanted my dad to be interested in my interests even if he didn’t share them or didn’t understand them, so I tried very hard to give that to you and Garrett!

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