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

  1. Roxy says:

    This is such an open, intimate post, and I’m very impressed that you’re sharing it. It’s true that sometimes you can’t be the hero you want to be, but, even then, you get to be the hero that your daughter needs. You’ve been fighting being seen as weak your whole life, but your strength is rooted in your passion and emotion. I’m so glad your daughter got to share in that strength, as you let her learn to both feel and comfort.

    You’re a good, loving Dad. Your family is lucky to have you. 🙂

    thank you, honey, for the comment and your continued support of my family and me. I am very passionate and emotional, it’s true. I’m rarely neutral about anything. When it comes to taking care of business — to being the strong one, the one who’s holding it together — that emotion tends to get stuffed down into small boxes. I try to hold it at bay until the crisis is over.. a great reaction in an emergency, when quick action and clear thinking are essential, not so great for the long term. Letting the emotion out, relieving that stress, is hard but healthy. And damn, really hard in front of my kid.

    Thanks for loving and supporting us, your presence in my life is not just a good thing, it’s essential – K

  2. GG says:

    My grandsons (oldest age 10) lost their little dog this weekend. Probably from parvo. The difference between what they experienced and what happened with your daughter is that they were actually with him. Well, he died during the night, but they got to care for him, love on him and at least try to make him better.

    It’s hard when a pet “goes away”. This happened to me in high school when the dog I’d had since 5th grade went off in the woods to die. Eventually my own dad found her, but I was away at basketball camp and he had to call me and tell me he had buried her in the woods next to our house.

    I’ve been thinking of you and your family during this time. I lost my daughter when she turned 11. The bodily changes were simple and we dealt with those, but I had no idea how to handle the changes that took place in her spirit and one day she was a changeling that I still don’t really know.

    I pray that I will be able to help my grandson deal with the changes that he will go through soon, even though I’ve never raised a boy and have no idea where to start. I can’t lose this child like I lost my daughter. I just can’t.

    I wish you all peace and healing in this difficult time. I, too, have a hard time crying but I know it helps in spite of the pain.


  3. G says:

    I think you should know that I think you’re a hero for letting your daughter just feel her feelings. I grew up getting shushed if I ever cried or expressed anger, and I think it’s so important for kids to know they can demonstrate their emotions. And you know, we all express our grief in different ways, and that’s something you can teach your daughter, too. I think by even writing this post and taking a critical observation of your own parenting is very admirable.

    P.S. – I do the exact same thing to cope with adversity in my life; I work on projects I can control, and that gives my brain at least some respite from the complexity of life.

    Thank you for the affirmation, G. Our kids learn from our example, even when we’re not in our ‘teacher mode’. They’re watching as we do our housework, interact with our partners, our friends and strangers. They’re learning parenting from us, at the same time we’re learning it on them. They watch and learn from everything, which means everything we do is an opportunity to consciously model behavior for them. I try to remember that, and be purposeful in modeling things I think are critical, even when it’s difficult. Thank you for recognizing that difficulty.

    And, yeah, it has been my habit for as long as I can remember, to find physical tasks as a way to sweat out my stress and frustration. — K

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