I had become a horrible parent. Up to this point, parenting had been the easiest job I’d ever had. My wife and I were champs. We were (are) attachment parents; co-slept and never felt tired; managed to navigate New York, Paris, Amsterdam and every place in between without a stroller until, at two years old, our son was simply too big to put into his carrier. We did the Baby Led Weaning thing and decided if French Kids Eat Everything, so would he.
We were Zen parents. It was a gas and it was easy. Was. After twelve years of us living in New York City, the opportunity presented itself to move to Denver, Colorado where our toddler son, whom I affectionately call “Turtle,” could grow up near grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
He could have space.
We knew leaving New York would mean certain experiences would no longer be available to him, but a whole new array of opportunities would present themselves.
We embraced the gypsy existence, packed up all of our belongings, placed them in storage, lived with family, and began building our dream home; a reality we could never have afforded in New York City.
Despite all these positive things, I felt adrift.
I had spent the previous twelve years struggling as an actor. I was starting to earn a small amount of recognition as a screenwriter but it wasn’t paying me the big bucks yet. When my wife and I decided I should be the one to stay home, it made sense. I was proud of my role and even carried around business cards identifying me as “Turtle’s Dad.” I joined the New York City Dads Group. I wrote a blog which garnered a tiny bit of attention. I also wrote for the largest Internet newspaper in the world which garnered, well, about the same amount of attention. But, I was finding my voice as a parent. One of the things I wrote was:
“I don’t ever want my child to be afraid of me.”
After our move to Denver, however, I started to become the parent I told others not to be in my blog posts. I had a short temper with my child. I stressed about the new home, the frustrations of potty training, my lack of career opportunities, the pressure to start over from scratch in a new town thousands of miles from the community I relied upon when times got tough. I stormed around the house, boomed and bellowed more often than I should have. I channeled all my frustrations at the only person in the room: my son. I don’t even remember the circumstances surrounding my rants.
We had been living in our brand new home for less than one week when my son peed in the heating duct in our bathroom.
He thought it would be easier to reach than the toilet. In the mind of a three-year-old, it made perfect sense.
I lost my mind. I didn’t hit him – that’s not in my make-up – but I did something worse: I made him fear me. I raged, grabbing him and pulling him into his room. I yelled at him. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but I’m sure the words were hurtful and accusatory.
I ran back to the bathroom, ripped the vent off and began trying to work my hand into the flexible duct to sop up the urine. The metal cut and tore at me. I ended up with some pretty nasty gashes on my hands and forearms as I frantically tried to clean it up. I sprayed some kid and pet cleaner down there to neutralize and eat away at any urine left in the duct. By the time I went back to talk to my son, I had managed to calm myself somewhat. I stood in his doorway, arm bleeding, face red, lungs still heaving. He stared at me and asked if I cut myself. I grunted, “I’m fine,” then breathed, “Get dressed.”
My son started a very strange habit after that. He started asking us if we were happy – as if it were a problem for him to solve.
I was troubled by this, but didn’t know quite what to do and, cluelessly, thought it was a phase.
A couple weeks later, I heard a yell coming from the bathroom. “Daddy! Save me!” My son had fallen backwards into the toilet, grasping both sides to keep himself from falling further. A solid stream of urine arced across the room, splashing everywhere. He called for me.
I held his arms as the pee kept coming. When it stopped, I carefully pulled him out, took off his wet clothes, reassured him everything would be just fine and told him to go get new, dry clothes while I cleaned up.
He hugged me and then asked, “Did it get in the vent?” “What?” He began to cry and pointed to a spot near the puddle of pee, the heating vent.
In the middle of one of the most frightening experiences of his short life, his concern was that I might be upset about pee in the heating vent.
I had become so concerned with my own crap; stewing in the detritus of my unfulfilled dreams and petty apprehensions of this new life, that I forgot who I am.
I am Turtle’s dad. I’m his hero and the model he will emulate. So, I put the last year behind me, this aberration, and began taking the opportunity to once again make parenting easy.
I wanted to create a better paradigm for him: open, vulnerable, strong, present, compassionate, kind and understanding, especially when it is most difficult.
In the theatre we like to say “acting is a moment-to-moment exercise.” I like to take this further and say LIFE is a moment-to- moment exercise. I’ve had to stop, reassess, and find a way to be present in the moment, in each moment. I have rid myself of what Stephen King called the “Bad Gunky.” It’s toxic, it’s contagious, and it’s as easy to get rid of as it is to acquire. You have to get up every morning, look yourself hard in the mirror, release yourself from whatever happened the day before and look toward the future with wonder, greet every person (especially the young ones) with patience and respect, and simply be present in the moment.
This incident has helped remind me to look at time with my child as an opportunity to mold a fabulous adult and that every action I take, every word I say, is part of the foundation of his education for what it means to be a human being. Every day, I work at practicing patience and respect.
As a result, parenting has become fun and easy again.
Reprinted with permission. “Dads Behaving Dadly: 67 Truths, Tears and Triumphs of Modern Fatherhood” (Motivational Press, 2014) is a collection of stories from ALL types of dads in the USA, Canada and Australia and different family dynamic, religion and income level. Please visit the website for more information about the book at www.dadsbehavingdadly.com.
Christopher T. VanDijk is an actor, writer and dad. He is an award-winning screenwriter and actor, and contributor to the Huffington Post. He can usually be found chasing a toddler, digging for dinosaur bones and discussing everything from politics to pasta.