On Saturday morning I posted an article on The Foster Dads in which I publicly and definitively proclaimed that I am not a saint, and then that very evening I proved it. That’s right, my fellow foster/adoptive dads (and moms who are eavesdropping), I must confess that I completely blew it as a dad. Allow me to explain.
My fourteen-year-old son spent most of the day with a friend and on his way home he texted that he wanted to do something together as a family. When he’s been away from us for a while, he’s usually quite diligent about wanting to reconnect with us when he gets back. I mentioned that I’d been thinking of inviting Dave over for a bonfire, and my son said this sounded good.
So I went to work fixing our firepit, which had collapsed inward when my son accidentally drove the lawnmower into it a few weeks ago. I haven’t always been much for working with my hands, but recently I’ve really come to enjoy the process of fixing things, the sense of accomplishment when it’s completed, and the dirt under my fingernails like a badge of honor. It makes me feel responsible and mature, like the kind of man I want to be.
When my son got home around 6:30 that evening, he asked me if I would throw the football with him. I explained that I was repairing the firepit and wanted to finish up before we ran out of daylight. He kept pressing me to play with him, and, like a dolt, I kept saying no, not right now. I convinced myself that I was in the right, that I was being responsible and mature, and that I was even role modeling that responsibility and maturity for my son. The problem is, in that moment he didn’t need a role model.
After a bit, my much wiser wife suggested that she work on the firepit while I played catch. I agreed reluctantly, but with an atrocious attitude that unambiguously declared that throwing the football was the last thing I wanted to do in that moment.
That must have made him feel really great, right? Son is gone for nine hours, and when he gets home all he wants to do is reconnect with Dad before Dad’s friend comes over, but Dad acts like connection is an inconvenience. (Please don’t throw things at me.)
We threw the football for ten minutes or so before my son went inside with my wife, where I assumed they would work on dinner together. Truly believing he was reconnecting with Mom, I stayed outside and pulled some weeds I wanted to burn while we had a fire going. And again I felt like a man of great character, working my fingers to the bone, or at least not wearing gloves while pulling weeds.
My son came back outside a few minutes later and became upset with me, apparently because I planned to burn weeds that were still green, which would make the fire smoky and unpleasant. I insisted that it would be all right, that I would burn them when we were winding down anyway, and that he needed to calm down about something so small. However, he continued to bicker with me. And like the dunce I am, it took me way too long to apprehend that he wasn’t actually distressed about the verdancy of our prospective kindling, but about the fact that I was outside by myself while the rest of the family was inside. (Again, no projectiles please.)
Ironic, isn’t it, that I was feeling so enthralled with my own virtue that I was blind to my son’s emotional needs. Instead of seeing that he needed me to stop what I was doing and just be with him, I continued to defend myself, explaining that I was taking care of my property like a responsible homeowner and if he wanted to spend time with me he was more than welcome to pull weeds with me.
It was too late though. The feeling of rejection must have become too overwhelming for him, and he decided that he had better push me away before he felt any more hurt. I don’t blame him in the slightest.
There’s no need to describe the fracas that ensued. When the dust settled, my son’s hurt and anger remained, and he removed himself to my bedroom. In the kitchen, my wife tactfully explained that what had just happened was on me. Of course, it wasn’t intentional, but in becoming so caught up in my responsibility to maintain my property, I had failed to tend to my most important responsibility: my son. I had become so absorbed in my work that I completely missed his need to connect with me after a day spent apart. Instead of communicating to him that he’s the most important person in the world to me, my actions conveyed that my work mattered more to me than he did.
Vulnerability alert: as all of this dawned on me, I broke down in tears. I was devastated by the way my actions had affected my sweet son and ashamed of how oblivious I had been. Just as I’d fancied myself a responsible and mature man, I was exposed as nowhere close.
There was only one thing to do. I had to go to my son, admit my mistake, and apologize, and damned if that’s not the toughest shit in the world. But I did it. I owned how I’d hurt him and conceded that sometimes I have difficulty seeing past myself to another’s needs. I explained that I’m actively trying to improve, but that I’m probably going to make the same mistake again. However, I’m not giving up and I’m not going away. I’m committed to him and I love him more than he can possibly imagine. It hadn’t been my intention to make him feel that way, but the fact remains that I did. And so I apologized and ask him to forgive me.
Dave’s mad at me because this is already egregiously long for a midweek post, but I can’t help myself. I need to end by making a few points:
- As I wrote this, I suddenly panicked that perhaps readers would think I’m an incompetent dad who’s completely unaware of his child’s needs, since I’m tempted to think that myself. But there’s probably not a parent in the world who hasn’t made a similar mistake, so to expect myself to be perfect is unreasonable. I know that I’m a competent father who, for the most part, does well at attuning and responding to my son’s needs, and I also know that I have glaring flaws that need to be addressed. The same is true of you, I’m sure. We need to have enough grace for ourselves as dads to not beat ourselves up for our imperfections, and enough love for our kids to not stay the way we are.
- I have a very hard time admitting I’m wrong and apologizing in general, and it’s even harder when it’s my kid I’m talking to. It feels like parents should always be confident and self-assured in their decision-making, otherwise their children might start to lose faith that their parents are trustworthy and know what’s best. The reality, though, is that sometimes parents, just like their kids, make decisions in the heat of the moment that they later regret. When this happens, we need to value our kids’ dignity enough to admit that we were wrong and apologize to them. Plus, if we want our kids to become people who take ownership of their mistakes and apologize, we need to take the lead in role modeling this. Case in point: after I apologized to my son and he forgave me, he (a boy who rarely says he’s sorry) in turn apologized to me for how he behaved when he was angry.
Well, anyway, I’d better quit before Dave smacks me. I’m not a saint, QED.