I remember the first time I ever had a full-on panic attack like it was yesterday, because it was yesterday.
I never dealt with anxiety in any meaningful way until my kids had the wherewithal to understand that I’m not perfect. Once you realize your kids are paying attention, you’re fucked. You have to watch what you say and who you say it to, and also you hear them repeat stuff or mimic tone that they clearly got from you and you think “oh shit oh god oh no they’re going to be terrible just like me”.
Even if you are terrible, which is possible, that’s a lot of pressure to carry on your shoulders. Think back to your own upbringing and all of the quasi-bad stuff that you watched your parents do or say without any understanding that you were soaking it all in.. I would bet you maybe adopted 35-40% of that into your own personality.. If you’re really careful about it, you can maybe avoid bestowing that much of your shittiness on your kids.. but that’s probably a job that will be up to their therapist someday. Anyway- your anxiety is probably warranted because of all of the things I mentioned above.
As an illustration, I remember being maybe 6 or 7 and going with my dad to Service Merchandise to get me a new Casio watch. Service Merchandise was kind of a weird electronics store where you’d go pick something out in the showroom and then go to the back warehouse where it would roll out on a conveyor belt for you to grab and take home with you. I think as a whole they went out of business in the early 2000’s, but in the 90s that’s where you went to buy a Gameboy or a new blender. So anyway we get the watch, probably a $30 purchase, and I’m excited about it because kids like getting gifts. Upon returning home, I had somehow lost the watch. I was a mess over the sadness of losing it and the concern over how my dad was going to react. The latter of these was warranted because dad didn’t handle it well. I wasn’t afraid of my dad, as he isn’t a violent man, but no kid likes to disappoint their father. After we tore the house apart looking for it, he got so upset he turned a punched a hole in the hallway wall. I will never forget the look on his face after he realize that I watched him do something so out of control, or the panic as he couldn’t adequately cover the hole with spackle. He eventually resorted to covering the damage with a framed print of Starry Night, his favorite painting. We found the watch a few minutes later in the driveway, and I saw Starry Night on display in New York in my late 20s and it made me feel very sad and uncomfortable. I asked my dad over beers recently if he remembers that, and he doesn’t… like no recollection of any of it. Moral of the story: your kids are watching and will one day probably pay someone $100 an hour to dissect something that you won’t even remember.
My oldest son reminds me constantly of stuff that I say and have no memory of. This has led me to lose a lot of sleep over whether or not I’m enough for my kids. Emotionally enough. I have three kids that are all wildly different in what they need from me and I’m just one guy who sometimes doesn’t remember to take my house slippers off until I look down and realize that I’m wearing them in the diaper aisle at Target. How can I honestly be everything that these kids need me to be, what if they grow up to be terrible and it will be because I didn’t have time to teach them how to fish or take them to every Cub Scout meeting or write a note in their lunchbox every day or tell them intricate stories every night before bed or you get it the list goes on forever.
My stepdad, whom I love dearly and who has worked his ass off to give me a good life, had a heart attack last Spring. He’s had heart problems for decades but this time they were going to have to redo his bypass, pretty serious situation. My mom told me that there was maybe a 50/50 chance of him making it through the procedure because his heart was tired of being cut up and sewn back together. On hearing this, I put my boys in the car and drove to Florida. I wasn’t about to let this guy leave without getting to see him again or tell him how grateful I am for his effort and love in the life of me and my kids.
After a 12 hour drive and getting my boys to sleep at my parents’ house, I went to see him at the hospital. We had a very sobering conversation about what happens if he doesn’t wake up, where various documents are, that kind of thing. From there I decided to tell him that my wife and I are separated and heading towards divorce. I hadn’t told anyone in my family yet, but I felt the timing was right. He was heartbroken, but in a weird way he didn’t miss a step in flowing right into building me up. His apparent sadness didn’t reflect any kind of disappointment in me for not being able to keep my family together, it was truly one of the most genuine displays of empathy I had ever experienced and I will never forget it.,
“What’s keeping you up at night?” he asked.
I’ve never slept super well, but lately I can point to some of the exact reasons why. I told him my concerns about not being enough for each of my kids individually. I told him about how exhausting it is chasing my 2yo daughter around and how by the time I get her in bed I don’t have anything left to give my boys. I told him about how my job is unreasonably stressful and how I only have enough emotional energy for so much and have little to no faith that I’m distributing it appropriately in my home. That’s when he hit me with some serious wisdom that I’ve thought about every day since.
“Your job as a dad isn’t to solve every problem for your kids. Your job is to dig a hole and guide them on the best way to fill it in.”
It’s not a surprise that he had this kind of wisdom. This is a guy who left his cushy white collar job to go into Christian ministry at age 45 and spent his whole second career selflessly serving others. Some truly admirable shit, I will hopefully never take for granted how lucky I am to have had him as an influence and mentor in my life. Regardless, his words hit me hard. Whether we know it or not, we are constantly teaching our kids how to fill in the holes in their lives. Watching my father punch his fist through the wall showed me a certain way to deal with problems… albeit not a helpful one… and my stepdad seizing the opportunity to tell me how proud he is to be part of my life regularly for the last 20+ years showed me another.
So the panic attack- I woke up yesterday feeling especially anxious. This happens, it’s generally controllable once I get a few items on my daily to-do list checked off, but it just kept building. I dropped my boys off at school… anxiety kept building. Urgent email from my boss… still building. My daughter, trying to get my attention, launched into a meltdown over snacks or some shit and I finally broke. I felt like my chest was collapsing, totally helpless. I didn’t know if I should try to call for help or what, so I did my best to make sure nothing bad happened while I powered through it. After a good 5-10 minutes, I regained control and sat down to try to recover from what had just happened. Totally tapped emotionally and physically, my day was toast. I cancelled lunch plans that I had in a futile attempt at self-care and tried to get caught up on work. All in all, not my best day. On days like that when shit goes totally sideways, the only thing I have to hold onto is the promise that I get to try again the next day.
When I lose my temper or perform my own Starry Night wall-punch, the best I have is to apologize to my kids. To tell them that I’m human and that I’m going to try to do better. Every day is a chance to try to do better than the day before, to dig better holes and be a better guide and encouragement than you think you’re capable of. If I can make it to the end of my life convinced that I spent every day trying to be a better dad than the day before, I will die the most accomplished man that ever lived.
Keep trying, it’s sometimes all we’ve got.
**As an addendum I think it’s important to note that I am fortunate to now have a relationship with both my father and step father, and the story told above reflects a particularly stressful time of life that is not indicative of my dad’s personality.