In later winter of 2008, on the verge of becoming the father of an infant for the first time, I bought several books for myself, and received a couple from the soon-to-be second-time Mom, my wife. My Dad-help library ranged from corny self-help (picked out by moi) to Gen-X memoir (my wife’s choices), and they were all informative in their own way. So, You’re Going to Be a Dad? offered great advice on dealing with a colicky baby who couldn’t be quieted (don’t get angry, be patient, the crying will stop … eventually) that was very helpful when our newborn, L, turned out to be that baby. Neal Pollack’s Alterna-Dad prepared me for Dr. Bodreaux’s Butt Paste and the adventure of finding an appropriate daycare: we were lucky to get “on the list” for a great one close to the campus where I work, but L’s first few months there were anything but smooth. Mostly, though, the books only reinforced what I already knew: you couldn’t learn about being a Dad from books. It’s your children who can teach you how to be a Dad – if you’re smart enough to listen.
Less than a year before, I had adopted my wife’s son, so I’d had a bit of on-the-job-training – at least on the elementary-school level – with K. His biological father had never been involved, so with K I got a fresh slate: he didn’t know what to expect from a Dad, and there was no one else I was going to be measured against. Expect there was. My wife had fulfilled all of the roles in his life up to this point, with some help from his Grandpa after they’d moved back to Tennessee when K was five. She’d done so in an exemplary way: when we first met, K was good in school, well-behaved in social situations, funny, and unusually articulate for a six year-old. Really, all I could do was screw him up — which I almost immediately did.
It was January, about four months into our relationship, and K was having trouble at school. Some kids were making fun of him, and there were a couple who really knew how to push his buttons. At six, K could be easily frustrated – he still can, but he controls it much better now – and often his frustration led to crying. A few of the kids in his class obviously found this trait to be irresistibly intriguing. Several times when I came over for dinner he was still upset about things that had happened at school, and once he asked me how I’d dealt with bullies when I was his age. Honored to have been asked, I announced proudly, without thinking, “I hit him in the face.”
The call from his school came as we were driving through the tail-end of an ice-storm, on the way back to East Tennessee from Richmond, VA. After coming through an area with poor cell phone service, she checked her voicemail and discovered a message from the secretary at K’s school; K was in the principal’s office, and they needed to speak to an adult in his family right away. When she relayed the message to me, I – again without thinking – said, “What did he do, punch some kid in the face?” Actually, that’s it exactly what he did, she said: how did you know?
I immediately confessed. I had thought I was teaching him something more, something about standing up for yourself, about not letting people take advantage of you. Turns out, he was listening to what I was saying, not what I thought I was saying.
Thankfully, I wasn’t solely to blame – turns out K’s Grandpa had given him the same advice a week before. And, of course, K had a choice; he could’ve not punched the other kid, who it turns out had pushed him after failing to make him cry. Still, I felt awful: this had been my first act, and my first failure, as a parental figure. There would be more.
Nearly three years later – by this time I had become a father of two – I was involved in what I knew to be a quixotic political campaign. K, now 9, was my “campaign manager” — by necessity. My wife had left the firm she’d been working for and was starting her own law business from scratch; L had been born in May and I couldn’t expect my wife to take care of both kids every evening and weekend while I was campaigning, so K was on the road with me – putting up signs, talking with people at county fairs, knocking on doors, speaking at the few rallies and events we planned or were invited to — from August through early November. He shook hands and handed out flyers; he smiled and said, “vote for my Dad” (even though I asked him not to!); he even gave a speech at a rally by request of the organizers – and he loved every second of it.
Election night, after the polls closed, we had a little celebration at our house, just the three of us (L was already fast asleep by the time we got home – lucky me!), and as the results started coming in across our district, the inevitable phone calls began: a few reporters, my opponent, but mainly family and friends. I was requisitely humble, and hopeful – I’d known I had little chance of even making a dent in the polls, but I was pleased with the results. Honestly, I was glad it was over. Elated, actually. It was, in my mind, the hardest and possibly the stupidest thing that I’d ever committed myself to do. I was glad I’d done it, but I was even happier that it was over. My joy, as it turns out, was fleeting.
After about an hour of talking on the phone, I came out of the spare room and saw my wife standing outside K’s door: “He can’t sleep, he’s can’t stop crying,” she said.
K was devastated. I sat there on the floor beside him for a few awhile, like his Mom had, trying to tell him that it was okay: we’d done the best we could, and that had to be enough. It wasn’t his fault, or my fault, or our friends’ faults – it’s just the way things were. “We worked so hard,” he sobbed, “we deserved to win.” I tried to explain the lessons to be learned: That someone has to stand up and fight the unwinnable fights. That life isn’t always fair, and the hardest worker, or the fighter with the most sincere purpose, doesn’t always win. But he didn’t stop crying, and he cried himself to sleep.
Kids listen to you, I thought to myself. Kids believe you. Kids believe in you – sometimes when you don’t even believe in yourself. And they deserve more than just nudge and wink answers (“hit him in the face”), or folksy wisdom (“that’s just the way it is”). I’ve learned these things from K, and so much more.
K is teaching me how to be a Dad, and I am, hopefully, not messing him up too badly in the process. He’s teaching me how to be optimistic and hopeful (not my default mode, believe me), and he always inspires me with his intelligence, strong sense of fairness, and general awesomeness. And I’m still learning.