10 of 100 Dads – Self Awareness

Matt is a proud Dad to two sweet babies. As a writer, Matt submitted his tips in the form of a narrative. Within his writing he identifies real life situations and practical tips on how to navigate the parenting terrain.

Matt’s narrative highlight the importance of self development, which is especially significant in effective in parenting. He mentions “a fight against my worst self” which, I know first-hand, is more of an epic battle than a ‘fight.’

In his reflective entry he describes the best and the worst of what self awareness can bring to parenting. Matt writes:

“’Daddy, what happened?’

My four year-old is reacting to a reaction of mine. I’ve just sighed, or sworn under my breath, or made an angry groaning sound, which has prompted him to look up from whatever he’s doing. There’s a note of concern in his voice, like he’s wondering if he needs to be worried, or if he’s in trouble. And it breaks a little piece of my heart to hear it.

Because the truth is, nothing happened. Not really. I’ve spilled a cup of milk or dropped my phone and gotten audibly angry with myself. It’s a pretty common thing for me; I have a fair amount of patience for people but a short fuse when it comes to these minor irritations, these random things that happen and momentarily disrupt my day. Especially when I’m the cause, when it’s my fault. I like to admonish myself for falling short of some unattainable and meaningless perfection, for occasionally failing at tasks that don’t matter, not really.

It’s not a character trait I’m proud of. I’ve learned to be a bit more aware of it and to tame it as best I can, but it’s probably a lifetime battle.

This fight against my worst self is all the more important now that I have a son and daughter. Because they notice. They notice when Daddy is suddenly and inexplicably frustrated. They wonder if they should be worried, or if they’re in trouble. Even worse, they may one day stop wondering and start imitating me, beating themselves up over things that don’t matter, not really.

And that would break my heart in pieces.

These days, people tend to talk about “parenting” the same way one would talk about “kayaking” or “basket-weaving.” A verb. A thing we do. We talk about, and read books about, parenting “styles,” as though raising children was like choosing clothes or martial arts disciplines. We talk about it as a series of conscious and strategic choices, through which we shape happy, successful children into happy, successful adults. Like pretty much everybody, I try my best at “parenting.”

But sometimes I knock over a glass, and I groan, and my son looks up and says, “Daddy, what happened?”

In these moments, it occurs to me that all the doing and all the conscious choices that parenting involves are only part of the job. The other part – maybe the bigger part – is not about doing, but about being. Being my best self in the presence of my children. Being a better person when they’re looking and listening, and being a better person when they’re not around, so that the person I am with them feels honest. Because the stuff they take from just observing me, as a model of a human being, is going to have the largest influence on the human beings they become.

I feel like being a Dad is less about what I explicitly do for my children and more about my own growth and learning. It’s less about parenting and more about being a parent.”

In my early parenting days, well actually all of my parenting days I may have been a little too hard on myself while simultaneously not requiring enough. As with Matt, I wanted to be the best example, the best parent, the all around best. It was of course impossible to achieve yet a non-negotiable, relentless, unforgiving and self-imposed requirement.

I love Matt’s description, “audibly angry.” I was audibly angry at lot.

Matt’s mention of spilled milk reminded me of a conversation with my therapist, likely after a very audible angry, and unwarranted outburst. Those day it was much harder for me to contain my upset. Luckily, therapy helped minimized the damage in many ways. 

In an attempt to guide me to forgiveness, or understand,  she attempted to provided some context. My therapist, Barb, explained why spilled milk can at times cause upset, anger and even rage. Surprisingly, it isn’t always about the milk – but it can be.

She highlighted the added pressures on a single parent living in poverty, as in my case.  She said, how you react to “spilled milk” may depend on how much milk you have left, or by how many children are waiting for milk.  It may also be compounded by not having access to another carton of milk, nothing else for breakfast.

I vividly remember that discussion, and the relief she provided to me in the face of my typical over-reaction.

From that day, one of my life goals was a dream to be able to purchase milk when I needed milk. To this day, when I’m reaching to find gratitude, I appreciate my ability to buy milk. I no longer cry over spilled milk, regardless of who spills it. That said, I do have tons of therapy and an estimate 10,000 hours of personal development – not sure if it takes all that but it did for me.

Thanks Matt. I hope we always have extra milk!

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