Suburban Butch Dad Report: learning how not to be the hero

When my wife and I got serious about becoming parents, we got lots of advice and heard lots of war stories from parenting veterans.  We had time to think about how we’d discipline, promote healthy habits and deal with tricky things like “Why do I have two moms?”.  Unfortunately, there’s plenty that didn’t get mentioned.  One of the biggies is, how to help your kid deal with loss and grief.  How to deal with the inevitable reality that you can’t make all the bad things go away.  You don’t always get to be the hero who saves the day.

I might have mentioned already that my daughter’s beloved boy cat is missing.  He’s been gone since the week before Christmas, shortly after her birthday.  I’m pretty sure we’ve gone through the entire grief progression, as a family, several times.  The other night, she cried herself almost sick.  It was heartbreaking, this whole thing has been heartbreaking.  I sat on her bed, holding her, wiping her tears away, telling her how much it hurt me to see her in so much pain and how much I missed Walter, too.

“Mommy, why don’t you cry if it hurts so much?  I’ve never seen you cry.”  She said this with the dramatic fervor of her age and circumstance, but she was serious.  I explained to her that I do cry, but maybe she hasn’t seen me lately.

“Mommy, you have to let it out, it’s ok to cry.  Why won’t you let me see you cry?”  Focusing on me helped her steady herself, apparently.

I told her that as a parent, it was my job to take care of her, to be strong for her and that’s why I held back my tears.  I admitted to her that I cried sometimes in the morning, on the way to work, because he didn’t come home, again.  As I started talking to her more and more about my feelings, the tears came out and it was her turn to comfort me.

Eventually, she’d calmed enough to sleep and I went back upstairs, exhausted.  Drained.  Feeling like a zero rather than a hero.   My daughter is having a tough year. She turned 11 and didn’t get her letter from Hogwarts.  Her best friend will be moving across the country at the end of the school year.  Her body has gone from string been to curvy and hormones are beginning to course through her body (and those of her friends) causing mood swings and drama.  She’s no longer the only child, getting all the attention and time.  Not only does she have to share us with her little sister now, she’s often expected to be responsible for her.  She’s lost a lot of magic this year.  I think that’s why she was super adamant about believing in Santa Claus — even though I’m pretty sure she doesn’t any more.  She was sure Santa would bring Walter home and when he didn’t, she started describing other homecoming fantasies.  I think she desperately wants to believe in good magic but this year is taking a toll on her beliefs.

It’s taking a toll on me, too.  Being a problem solver, a hero, is an important part of my identity.  The most terrifying situations are those in which people I love, who depend on me, are in pain and I can’t make that pain go away.  It’s agonizing to be witness to my daughter’s heartbreak.  It’s hellish to watch what Roxy goes through with an abusive husband and a very challenging child.  I can’t go there even to lend her my shoulder, much less make the pain go away.   Roxy keeps telling me that even if I can’t make the bad things go away, I can still do my job by modeling how to deal with grief and pain and stress.  And that’s not by stifling them.  No, I need to show my daughter how to grieve and cope and go on with life by doing them in a visible way, right in front of her and I can’t tell you how terrifying that is.

I’m sure a therapist would see my activities of this weekend as a coping mechanism.  I sorted and organized and installed.  I worked on projects that are all about wrenching order out of chaos.  The projects I completed weren’t just for me, they were things my wife and family wanted done.  Of course, I enjoyed the work — I was able to solve problems and make my family happy.    Learning how not to be the hero is a lesson I’m having a hard time with, but I’m pretty sure I’ll keep having opportunities for growth in that area, unfortunately.

I’m disappointed that the marketing materials for parenting left so much out (for example, sleep deprivation is way, way, way more evil than I was led to believe).  However, I wouldn’t go back and change my mind about being a Dad/Mom.  The stories I heard ahead of time paled in comparison, the rewards are much better than advertised which helps to balance out the fact that the challenges can be so much harder.


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