Fear and Loathing in Parenthood

I’m not at all afraid of our kids falling down the stairs, at least not moreso than I must be. I’m not afraid of them being bullied. I’m not afraid of the myriad of external dangers that chase us all through life. These are in fact what life is about and learning to conquer and overcome challenges is the point. It’s what I look forward to helping my little ones navigate as they grow up. I don’t even fear the difficult stuff of puberty and hormones. I think I have a pretty good perspective on how wonderful life is and I look forward to trying to help as they navigate the treacherous beauty of transforming from children to adults capable of loving life so much that they can fear it a little.

To some degree I’ve taken this outlook to mean that I am somehow superior to the folks that would call me daily in my previous life as a camp director to check that their kid is eating and didn’t fall down and get hurt or wasn’t stung by a bee or is making friends. I won’t be that parent. I really won’t. Early on it became evident that I HAVE to be incredibly aware of sesame as one bite and Charlie, if not treated immediately, could stop breathing. But even that, I don’t walk around in fear and I think I have been pretty rational and responsible in assuring his safety while allowing for independence.

Fear found me last night. It wasn’t a blow to the head. It wasn’t a brush with eminent danger. Nope. It was specifically my son’s harsh self criticism that has broken me up with fear and sadness.

We went to a friends house last night. This is not something we do. Both Karen and I work and Teddy is just over a year old and Charlie turned 3 last month. Other than family gatherings we haven’t really socialized much in the last few years, but we’re very lucky that our kids love it when we do. So we were all looking forward to visiting a friend of mine from high school who we had just found out lived in our neighborhood, a remarkable thing as I went to high school in another state about 250 miles away.

We arrived and it was instantly delightful. When you get stuck in this parenting bubble, one that we are particularly bad at ever getting out of, you lose perspective. Whenever you get the chance to pop your head up, be offered a beer, and start messing up a playroom you won’t have to clean up at 10 that night, it’s simply amazing. And both Charlie and Teddy were awesome. Charlie was shouting hello’s and how ya doin’s from the driveway and Teddy gave big smiles to the new adults almost immediately upon entering their home. And that was BEFORE seeing the amazingly appointed play room! All was good. The kids were entertained, loving the toys and the new playmates and the adults were easily sociable and the laughs and good talks ensued immediately. That’s when Charlie started pooping.

Charlie is at the tail end of potty training. Its a skill he was ready to pursue, and did so with gusto at 18 months, but once baby came around and started getting all that diaper attention, he lost interest and we lost the time and patience, so it happened now. Not too late, but not early. So now he can have an opinion on matters. One such opinion is that he will not go poopie on the potty, at least not regularly. But he is still quite proud to have big boy pants with no accidents. We wear pull ups for sleep and car rides longer than that of the one to school (daycare) and we used such a tool for this visit. He was constipated and hadn’t pooped in a couple of days. Part of the process and par for the course. So of course he immediately started to make that face. He turns from the group in the playroom and starts painfully pushing. Tears are coming from his eyes and he doesn’t want to be seen, but not knowing the house he finds himself visible from the parents ‘playroom’ where its noted that he’s pooping. We tell him he’s doing a great job and that we’re so proud of him. And he replies with a serious look, a quiet and intense voice and attempts to hold back his tears and he says to us as we get near him, “I’m not proud of myself.” and repeats it, quietly and through gritted teeth as we try to reassure him of how good a boy he’s being. It makes me well up as I write it. It was such an intense insistence and so sincere.

I felt immediately and intensely saddened and fearful. With Charlie it passed. In a few minutes (it was a tough one to get out, and a few minutes was definitely the time frame of intense effort on his part) he was back to playing and came with me so I could change him, fully recovered from the earlier suffering, Charlie was on to singing the popular song in our house from an Elmo potty training video, ‘Accidents happen and that’s okay’ a delightful refrain that is good advice at any age.

This has triggered the cycle of thinking for me that has brought to the fore what my real fears are. The fears I’ve carried for some portion of the last forty years as I’ve acquired them over a lifetime. And now I fear them for my kids. I am afraid that my kids will have an inner voice that tells them constantly to feel shame and is harshly and intensely self critical. I am afraid that they will inherit the capacity for incredible and copious amounts of self abuse in whatever form it takes for them. I’m afraid that my kids will fall in and out of depression and not feel a sense of self worth. I fear that my kids will engage in increasingly risky and self destructive behavior in attempt to be seen and rescued, and that when people reach out to do just that they will reject them as they do not feel they are worth saving. I fear they will inherit that dark midnight disease that crushes one with loneliness and can and has led to disastrous results in my genetic line. I fear they won’t listen to their better angels until its too late. I fear that they won’t pursue that which makes them fulfilled for fear of failing.

Bumps and bruises, broken bones and intense illnesses will come and go and I pray we avoid the truly disastrous stuff no one can see coming. But when it comes right down to it there is the greatest fear of all, which is that they will be some other, less lucky version of me.

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5 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Parenthood

  1. Sharon Rawlette

    Wonderfully put. There are many times when I worry that I won’t manage to impart to my stepdaughter all the things I’d like to, but this is a great reminder that what would be much worse than her not learning whatever lesson I’m intent on teaching at a particular moment is if she turned out to be just like me. Not that I’m all that bad. But it would be a shame for her to turn out like me when she’s supposed to turn out like her!

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    1. joejmedler Post author

      Thank you so much, Sharon. With my kids I am pretty good about keeping a balanced but positive perspective. However, it took me a lot longer to find something like tht in regard to myself and I fear that being passed on. Though a part of me suspects it’s natural in some ways and I just hope I’m able to assist my kids through the fire as quickly and successfully as possible.
      Thank you so much for reading an commenting. Still pretty green and it’s wonderful to know someone’s out there! Have a great weekend!

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  2. Ryan costello

    Poor little guy. It must be tough to hear him put himself down like that. You did right being positive in response I think. The fact that you visibly care so much means he won’t inherit any of the darker traits. Don’t fret.

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    1. joejmedler Post author

      Thanks so much. I appreciate you taking the time to read out and to comment. Truth is it’s all part of growing up, but I just never thought I’d see such harsh self criticism so early. On the flip side it’s a far better thing than the type that is hidden from you when they are older. At least this way I can try to help. Thanks again.

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  3. ebenistnouveau

    Hi Joe,

    I’ve been reading your blog posts with a shared sense of awe at the position of responsibility we find ourselves in, as parents of young children.

    This personal legacy, that you describe so poingnantly, here, is what I also fear for my children. I have a three year old boy, and a seven year old daughter.

    I share your fear because I, ultimately, became a close facsimile of my father – who is a wonderfull man, but who wasn’t always patient and understanding when I was younger.

    Awareness of this reality, seems not to be enough. It really is work to maintain perspective and calm when our little ones are working their way through these transitional rights of passage. I often feel as though I come up short, in this regard.

    Like you, I tortured myself unnecessarily for decades before I learned to be comfortable with who I really am.

    I’m trying to be a better dad everyday, and I take great comfort in knowing we are not going through this process alone.

    Thanks – Marc

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