Dadhood is often a make-it-up-as-you-go adventure. It’s trial and error and doing it again better next time. A new book by Joe Medler, Notes from a Developing Dad, chronicles his own adventures raising two boys. Below, an excerpt:
I sometimes take a picture of you because you’re just so adorable and amazing and beautiful. And sometimes I catch a hint of fragility in what the camera catches. Other times I see huge heaping mounds of it. Giant reserves of delicate. Like you’re a crystal chandelier in the shape of my beautiful boy. And then, in my mind’s eye, I see all the thousand ways you’ll be disappointed by the realities of life you can’t even fathom at this point. Sculpted from this thing of beauty into another thing of beauty to be sure. But still, that journey is treacherous and full of potential. Potential harm. Potential fortune. Potential damage and grace.
Maybe it’s you. Maybe I’m not just a proud dad that’s just insanely obsessed with my kids. Maybe your specialness, your perfectness is not a function of my pride. Perhaps you are magical and I’m afraid of being at the helm and breaking you by some silly decision I make that seems necessary that I’ll grow to regret years from now.
I could stare at the pictures of you, the you you are now, on the precipice of independence and I dread the pain that growing up can be.
You’ll be fine. I know that. But you’ll be broken too. You have to be. Good, happy little boys can’t survive growing up. If they could they’d never grow up. Which sounds good until you realize that never growing up makes it hard to be a good man. That’s just the way it is. It’s okay. If you figure out what’s important from being a boy you can pull some of those parts out and take them with you. You may have to pack them away for a time, but they will be there when the time comes and you need them again.
A broken arm is one thing. I can handle that. Easy, actually. But the thought of you being teased or picked on or not knowing what to do in a school cafeteria and feeling sick and disoriented because you think everyone doesn’t like you, that thought ties me in knots. I got caught up in that process when I was a kid. I cried every day for months when I was sent to school the first time. I was removed eventually and allowed to return the following year, but by then I knew to be cautious. I knew people didn’t like me. I knew they didn’t have to. What was wrong, though, was that I looked at the few that enjoyed making fun of me and thought “How can I do what they want me to do? How can I make them like me and stop picking on me?” All along there was a world of kids who’d have been delighted to play and be my friends. But I just kept trying to impress the cool kids, even shunning kids I’d have gotten along with great who weren’t at the “right” table.
Eventually I figured it out and sat safely where I didn’t want to be. It was mostly fine and it largely defined who I was to the world, or at least to my classmates who comprised the entirety of the world for me then. It took so long for me to be the me I liked and was comfortable being. I learned early on how to make them like me and I leaned on that all the way through school, which I hated because of how it all began. I spent so many years not liking me, internalizing the voices of all the wrong people.
All because I had some tough early days. The types of days grown ups like to say are “tough but you get through them.” Days we fool ourselves into thinking aren’t all that important because we were 5 and how much damage can really happen to a healthy and loved 5-year-old. But we’re wrong. We can get hurt and scar up in tender places at very young ages. Even those of us that had enough of everything. I see your precious face and your beautiful and awesome expectation that nothing breaks and everyone will love you always and it scares the hell out of me. Because some day you’ll feel weird, alone and scared. And you won’t know why. And it will break you as it must. In the end I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about the “weird” and the “scared.” You need to get through these things. We all do. But if we can help you with the alone part for as long as possible and stay present for the times you’ll need to explore being “away,” then maybe, just maybe, a small but invaluable piece of you, a piece of the you you are now might be able to make it through to the other side. If it does I hope that you are able to see all the things that I’m getting to see in you. If you do you’ll see what all that breaking was for. You’ll know once again what it feels like to be a fragile chandelier. To look at something you love so much that you can’t even imagine it ever not loving you back. The mere thought makes me break just a little.