I have a 5-year-old daughter, Violet, a 3-year-old son Henry, and a 9-month-old son, Charlie. I write about them for a living. So I should know a little bit about how young kids roll.
Yet, a few weeks ago when Henry more or less suddenly began to refuse to brush his teeth and refused to listen to me when I was practically begging him — in my newly carved-out role of single (exhausted) dad — to stop running up and down the hall each evening when his baby bro was trying to sleep behind our cardboard walls, it must have caught me off guard.
I tried to be mindful.
I really did.
This past year or so, I’ve read a lot about mindfulness and controlled breathing and generally being a Zen dude when the sh*t hits the fans as opposed to losing my cool or whatever. And it has made such a difference in my life that I can’t even begin to explain it to you. But please take my word for it. If you want to change your life, change your mindset. Control your blood, your steam, and the voices in your ear and you will surprise yourself with all the potential that has been snoozing so long down in your soul.
But Henry, Henry is the true test, my friends. Henry is so wonderful. Henry is my muse and my partner in crime. And as it turned out, Henry was the ticket to getting where I’ve been trying to go. I just had to holler my face off before I could actually get there.
See, I lost it on Henry a couple of nights. I just did. I’m admitting that to you here not because I’m proud of it because, trust me, I’m not. But rather, ironically enough, I learned a lot from something that could have easily just torn me apart and left me there, shattered on the parenting floor.
Let me just tell you my tale.
Boom. Boom. BOOOOOM.
Henry was finding new and improved ways to make the house shake and I could practically sense Charlie’s little eyes opening and the crying that would gush out of him here just 30 minutes after I’d finally laid him in his crib and gotten him to sleep. The day had been long, like any day these days.
Between my writing gigs and my shuttling around picking up and dropping off kids all over Tarnation, the hours fail me. There just simply aren’t enough to feel completed by sundown, you know? Most parents get what I’m saying. But it is what it is and even though I think I felt like I had a very healthy perspective about that then, now I can see that it was eating me up inside. I just wasn’t aware of it. And that’s where the danger lies, people.
Tired parents and ruthless toddlers, well, it’s basically mixing firecrackers with gasoline, right?
The first few times it happened, I managed to keep my cool. But then he actually did start to wake the baby up. And then he started this whole deal where he would run away, loudly — stomping and laughing, each time I was trying to get him to put his pj’s on and brush his teeth. You can second guess my parenting skills here obviously. I know how it goes with the internet. But let me just toss this old moldy plum at your feet, okay?
Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
I’m dead serious. Parenting is one thing, but single parenting is something else entirely. I’ve done both and I know what’s what. The absence of a partner to step in and help out when things go awry is beyond words. But I know this is my bag, the seeds I helped sow myself, so I have no complaints really.
But Henry pushed the buttons, my buttons, all of them at once, night after night, until one night I just lost it. I hollered at him with my most booming voice, my monster breath raining down on him like sharp broken stars. The look on his face was total shock and fear. He’d never seen me like this really. But now he was and it scared the hell out of him. I told him I was furious that he had woken Charlie up again and that I was done with letting him walk all over me when he needed to mind my words and do what I was telling him to do.
I hollered at my boy, I didn’t lay a finger on him. That’s not my thing as a dad. But right away I felt like my words had been weapons, fists, or slaps. That’s how scared the kid was. His tears were nothing really. I mean, they were there and all but the real story was in the look on his face.
It destroyed me in so many ways. I’d taken a big step backwards from the man I’d been trying to be lately. I’d lost the edge that being cool gives you in life. And I’d made my son terrified.
He brushed his teeth alright. But our collective night was torpedoed. And trust, I sensed, had been pretty banged up, too.
The next night it was as if Henry had totally forgotten the previous night. He even amped up his shenanigans, woke the baby again, and ended up with his neck stuck in the bunk bed ladder because he was trying to get away from me while I was trying to hunt him down to holler at him hard again.
Hardly a success.
My soul felt full of holes.
What was happening here?
What was happening was basic kid stuff, really. But what wasn’t happening was my ability to sail smoothly through whatever choppy waters my kids might throw down for me. The series of sh*tty nights continued over a stretch of almost a week and by the end of it, I had started to feel as if the blood was drained out of my very veins. In the mornings, I’d apologize to Henry for yelling at him and he’d snuggle up to me like a cat who wants something. But we were in a holding pattern and I knew it and I was the only one who had to know it because he’s my lad and I’m his dad and it’s my job to make things right without making them wrong first, you know?
Each day was ruined by my night before.
I knew I couldn’t be this guy. I’d been letting go of all that crap. I’d been liberating myself from quick-draw reactions and terrible voices, from anger when all hope seemed lost. And now I’d fallen off the horse.
To hell with that.
I’d find another way.
On maybe the fifth night of Hell Week, while I was cleaning up the dinner dishes and trying to come up with a new plan, I rammed into a very obvious wall, man. It occurred to me that Henry’s whole act in the evening was a pretty simple charade.
Oh my God.
Dude isn’t trying to piss you off.
That’s what I calmly realized while I was wiping the sweet potato off of Charlie’s nose and watching Violet eat her popsicle in her favorite spot on the giant heat grate in the middle of the living room floor.
Dude wants just the opposite.
It cracked my skull like an aluminum bat.
Henry wants his dad to pay attention to him, every night, for more than a few fleeting moments of tooth-brushing bullsh*t.
I almost cried.
Hank the Tank wants to be with his dad, with ME, more than anything else in the whole damn world. And because he doesn’t have the words to express himself yet, well, he’s willing to commit minor crimes until it happens, until he has me right where he wants me.
We marched up the steps, same as it ever was. I could sense Violet grinding her teeth, probably hoping that things could be different tonight and that she could just watch her Netflix cartoon before bed in peace. Instead of the same old thing, the same old commands to brush and pajama-up, I pulled up the cartoons on my computer and I surprised my oldest son and my only daugter by scooching down in the bottom bunk bed with them.
I swear to you, both their faces lit up at once. They were mesmerized by my new improved presence and the possibilities it held. How sad is that? They had gotten pretty used to me coming and going, fast, like a drill sergeant.
But not tonight. I pulled Henry into my chest and tickled his stomach until he almost puked and Violet hushed us. His laughter gave me something back that I’d lost recently. Something I could have damn well lost forever too if I’d continued down the hollering road. But I didn’t. I cracked the code, man. The simple little code of love.
Then I tickled him some more and Violet too, until they were both laughing their asses off.
We woke the baby.
Life is grand.
Image: S. BielankoMore On