A Yoga Dad on Fatherhood: Part 1 — Learning to Surrender
One of the first questions my wife asked me, before we were even in a relationship, was if I wanted to have kids. My immediate answer was, “I don’t think so. Probably not.” Perhaps she was vetting me to see if it was worth getting into a relationship with me since she had two kids. But we fell in love and with that came an instant family.
I had no time to read any of the books like, What to Expect When Expecting, which we weren’t expecting, but that seems like a title I could have used. What should I have expected? Kids who don’t know me, but somehow should act exactly as I would want them to act? So there I was an insta-Dad, or really a Step-Dad, and I wasn’t even 30. The talk around town was I was the “mannie” and for good reason, I didn’t seemed equipped, or old enough, to have a seven and nine year old.
Now, I grew up with a step-dad that I lived with full time, so to me a step-dad was the primary dad, and within days I had started to change everything. I thought, this house was operating all wrong from the lack of responsibilities, to the food even, to even the bathing rituals. Yikes, who was I to walk into someone else’s house and within days determine that all the years of how things were, were now wrong? Great question because the fact is I didn’t have a clue, and I had no business making such huge proclamations, but that didn’t stop me. I felt the kids were irresponsible and spoiled, so to make them “good” kids I made us invest in some habit forming, reward type system that was supposed to turn them into the kids I thought there were supposed to be. Of course it didn’t work. When I was there, I was the quintessential evil step-dad enforcing all these “new” rules. When I wasn’t around, I thought it was the old days of anarchy. Mom’s voice was the only one that mattered to them.
It took me a long time to realize that my first mistake was thinking that I was responsible to make these boys into the people I think they should be, instead of asking, “Who are these boys, and how can I understand them, build trust, and be there? Without actually saying it, I implied, “you are not good enough as you are.” I wonder is that something passed down to me that I am modeling from my parents or my teachers? Perhaps if I had held them within their first minutes of being born, I would have had that overwhelming feeling that parents have when they hold their child for the first time - “You are the most perfect thing ever. Just as you are.” I didn’t get that opportunity till years later, but even now knowing that, I forget and try to mold my kids into some image that I think “they’re” supposed to be. It is something I possess or is possessing me, but it’s certainly not the kid’s. It was a sobering realization that I’m actually not responsible for my children. They are responsible for themselves, and I have to witness and provide the safe environment so they can mature into that responsibility.
As a father I have the amazing privilege to watch another human being discover himself. It is the most fragile experience I have ever held because if I hold a little too tightly I may crush that individual spirit. If I hold too loosely, he may not feel safe to discover himself.
All this became clearer to me just recently when I was with my dad, my 10-year old son, and my 8-year old nephew. It was our annual boys weekend. We were out for dinner. Now first let me preface by saying my dad is one of the greatest guys you can ever meet. Everyone loves him. He is beyond generous. He is passionate. He is so kind, open-minded, and fun. And with all that, he is way more conservative and strict with my sister and I than with anyone else, and I was watching him be the same with his grandkids too. (Am I doing the same thing with my kids, being so open-minded to life except with them?) I listened to him yell and shame my nephew over the way he was holding his fork and not using his knife. “That’s not how you hold a fork correctly! Isaac, what are you doing? Cut that first. You’re eating too fast. You know better.” I was actually quite impressed with my nephew’s utensil independence, where as my son needs me to spread or cut his food. I’m not comparing the boys. They are different, and I am sure there were things my son was doing that he wanted to say something about, but I was there so he didn’t — mostly. But I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I felt everything about society telling us who and how we are supposed to be come bursting out of me and said, “What makes you the authority on how to hold a fork?” I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, and I know times have changed from my dad's era, (for better or for worse), but where was it decided that fork holding had to be done a certain way by the age of 8 or at all? My comment was met with silent gaze. Later I would stick up for him again by arguing, “Maybe he didn’t know.” This time it aggravated my dad and he snapped back, Sadly I know that same feeing for when my son says something similar to me after I am correcting him. I wondered how many times that was me, both as the child being yelled at, and as the father doing the yelling or the shaming. I wanted to protect my nephew and my son from that, from all the ways that society is telling them, “You’re wrong. Shame on you.”
I realized that I had to stop thinking that I, as a father, am doing it wrong if my kids are not who you: the grandparents, the neighbors, the friend’s parents, the parents on the baseball team, the aunts/uncles… the society expects them to be. I have to stop thinking that who I am as person is measured based on who my kids are or how they behave. Life isn’t about living based on what you think someone else is thinking of you. I’m not supposed to be anyone other than who I am, and the same goes for my kids.
As a father, I hope that my kids feel like they’re allowed to be themselves and feel celebrated and accepted. That doesn’t mean that every choice they make or behavior they do is ideal, and trust me they’re not, but I ask myself, “Are mine?” Do I want to be yelled at or shamed when I do something that is the eyes of someone else is “wrong?” No. I don’t.
I am learning the difference between discipline and discipline. In cases when I am sucked back into my parent’s ways or societies expectations I often forget that discipline doesn’t have to be punishing, consequential, or even dramatic. In fact the word means to learn. When a situation happens that needs some intervention, I have to ask myself why might my child be acting like this? Can I understand him? Then what do I want to teach him? And how to do I want to teach him? Is it the right time? Can he hear reasoning right now or is he too irrational? Discipline doesn’t have to be correcting, shaming, yelling, or whatever other form authority or power takes on in our homes. Do I want to model and pass down to him that yelling or shaming is how you get what you want?
I’m not saying this is easy, but change can only start with me, and I accept my own challenge to change and be the best father for my kids because I love who they are and who they are becoming.