keep trying- a guide for dads that feel bad all the time

Cliché alert: The day that I met my first child was simultaneously the most amazing and terrifying day of my young life. I had no business being a dad at that point in my life. 24 years old, newly married, stubbornly opposed to exploring reconciliation with my own father… but nonetheless convinced that I could [probably] make it work. I wasn’t going mess this up. “I’m in it for the long run, no fucking way will anything ever come between me and my son.

 My kids’ mom likes to tell everyone that I didn’t say a word to her the whole time we were at the hospital. I don’t have any reason not to believe that. I was scared shitless. Things were moving fast, her water broke in triage, the nurses didn’t believe she was actually in labor until the kid was crowning as we sprinted down the hall with my wife doing her best not to give birth in the wheelchair we had her in. A few minutes after we got to the room, my son made his entrance into the world. It was chaotic and loud and horrible and beautiful, and I think every day about the way it felt to hold my son for the very first time. There’s no way to adequately describe that feeling to someone. How is it possible to love something so much? How is it possible to feel so empowered and helpless at the same time? Maybe you’ve felt what I’m describing.

Or, maybe your experience was different. I have some friends who have told me that they didn’t feel much on the day their kids were born. I consider these guys to be pretty great dads by the way, they just didn’t have that overwhelming day of birth feeling that I had. This doesn’t make them bad or wrong or whatever else.. nobody can control how they feel, but what we can control is what happens afterwards. The true sum of a dad isn’t some uncontrollable fatherly instinct that he’s unable to deny, or how great everyone thinks he is… The true sum of a dad is how hard he tries, every single fucking day, to be the best dad he can possibly be.

As I stumble through finding a theme for my writing, a few things have consistently risen to the top of the thematic wheel of fortune that is my mind… Since parenting occupies 90% of my time and 180% of my energy, it seems like a natural recurring topic. Additionally, I have to look in the mirror every morning (and several times throughout the day) to forcibly tell myself to keep trying, these thoughts are just as much for me as they are for anyone else. Probably more for me than for you to be honest.

After writing about my own dads and my sometimes crippling anxiety, I got a lot of very kind notes from folks about how I appear to be a great dad and how they love watching me find joy in being part of my kids’ lives, but man it’s hard to accept those compliments knowing what goes through my own mind every day.

My boys and I have this long-running bedtime story series about a quasi-superhero dad that talks to animals named Tad Dad the Rad Dad. The primary storyline of Tad Dad is that he’s tired, and just wants to relax at home or on vacation…. but he can’t because he is the only guy on earth that can fix all of these problems that keep arising. Whether it’s sharks walking onto the shore in Hawaii because they’re sick and tired of eating soggy sandwiches in the water or drinking a potion to shrink himself down enough to sword fight the 200 hamsters that have infested his home, Tad Dad has to keep interrupting his personal relaxation time to help fix these seemingly absurd issues that keep coming up and can’t be handled by anyone else.

When I started telling Tad Dad stories, I had no plan. I still don’t really have a plan but the recurring theme of this very tired dad being a hero for fixing problems that nobody could have expected to arise is clearly some kind of allegory straight from the subconscious of a real life very tired dad who has to regularly put down whatever he is doing to get a lego out of the air vent or a 2 year old off of the dining table because she climbed up there but now can’t figure out how to get down.

Even the act itself of telling these stories can feel like a chore. I love the time I get to spend laying in my boys’ room laughing about whatever bizarre themes they come up with to add color to Tad Dad’s adventures, but that’s the end of my day– the finish line– and many times I have dishes to do followed by work that I didn’t get to complete during the day because of karate or baseball practice or making a dinner that nobody ate or any other number of exhausting things that happen seven days a week. This is a keep trying moment where I have to remind myself that my kids aren’t going to remember 90% of the things that happened today… but they will probably remember that I made time to lay in their bed and tell them fanciful stories about aliens and sharks and elephants.

Really great art impacts you in different ways as you grow and develop in your life. In high school a buddy of mine bought the Headphones CD, and it opened me up to a world of music that I hadn’t previously been privy to. The world of songwriter David Bazan and his mid-tempo melancholic songs about how everything is terrible and nobody seems to notice. A lot has been written about Bazan and his long and phenomenal career, but to me the most impressive thing about the guy is that he has never given up. Through band breakups and becoming a dad and trying new sounds and touring relentlessly for 20+ years… he has never stopped. Just this year he released the first Pedro the Lion record in 15 years and it is a testament to someone who has been working their whole adult life to perfect their craft. Truly, it is a phenomenal record and in a weird way I feel proud of the guy for everything he has been through and how it has translated into meaningful art for sad 30-somethings like myself who were emo kids in high school(or still are sad emo kids on the inside).

On the 2017 solo album Care, Bazan seemed to have finally made peace with many of the themes he had been writing about for the past two decades. I saw him play an acoustic show at a small art gallery right after this record came out, part of his living room show tours that he is well known for, and he joked that he had finally written a happy record. All the 30-something sad boys like myself laughed because he has spent so many years helping us be sad, but he was right. There is some serious triumph to be found on this record.

One song in particular that I think about pretty frequently is aptly titled Keep Trying:

Sometimes love isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be

Completely

Sometimes love isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be

Keep Tryin’

Even though this song is seemingly about a romantic relationship, it has served as an anthem for me in my relationship with my kids.

This shit is hard, but keep trying. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but keep trying.