Thanks to the viral nature of social media, I can say “Throwback Thursday” and we all pretty much know what that means: the phenomenon where we share old pictures to our network of friends and ask them to take a trip down nostalgia lane with us. I am a sucker for the sentimentality of the past as much as anybody, so I have always enjoyed the tradition. For me though, the act of visually remembering the past conjures up complicated emotions that are as much fondness as disappointment. And the disappointment I feel is with myself as a father.
It irritates me that when I was asked if I wanted to write about being the parent of a kid who has struggled with mental illness, the first thing I come to is blaming myself. After all, I have read enough books and been through enough family therapy to know that you aren’t supposed to blame anyone for it. Therapists love to say, “It isn’t really anyone’s fault…it just is the way it is.”
Intellectually I get that concept, but it doesn’t intuitively feel right at all. I mean, we all can see that if someone was horribly abusive, or an addict, or emotionally negligent towards their children, those kids would have a pretty good chance of being troubled themselves. So there must be some correspondence between my child’s problems and me, I figure. That claws at my soul because I take pride in being a good father. I used to think I was pretty damn good at it, too.
That is where the #tbt pictures come in. I look at those pictures of my kids as cute little darlings and I can remember a time when I felt like I was knocking it out of the park as a father. I was playing dress up, taking them to story hour at the library, reading books with them, playing on the playground at the park while the other parents were huddled together on the sidelines. I even took a year off of work and got to be a stay-at-home dad when my kids were 5 and 1. People would say to me, “You are such a good dad,” and, ego-driven creature I am, I would soak it up. But even more than that…I really believed it.
Then, my youngest kid started to have problems.
The problems started off small, and so the solutions seemed easily within my grasp. I was sure I just needed to tweak some things. I went through a divorce, and it became very easy to throw everything under the banner of “They are just struggling with the divorce. Let’s just be sensitive to that for as long as we need to.”
Of course, I am sure that was part of it. Divorce seems pretty awful for kids in most situations. But as time went on, and my kid kept slipping into deeper and deeper patterns of emotional unrest and self-harm, I lost more and more a sense that I had any clue how to be a father to this child.
When my child was hospitalized for the seventh time in a year – having been taken away from home by a cavalry of paramedics and police officers following a behind-a-locked-bathroom-door suicide attempt – I curled up on my bed for several hours and felt a wave of emotions. I felt tremendous fear about my child’s future. I felt shame. I felt self-pity.
Worst of all, I felt a sense of relief that my child was going to be in the hospital for a long time after this recent episode and I wouldn’t have to deal daily with it all for a bit.
When I realized I felt that, I lost every last hint of feeling like I was in the all-star league of fathers.
I have learned a little since that dark night. Two little things have opened up my heart to the possibility of hope. What I have come to realize is that I am not a perfect father, but no else is either. And my kid isn’t perfect, but no else’s is either. Those two realities mean we are all in the same boat, and they echo the one basic tenet of my faith: there aren’t really any divisions between people. We are all the same in the eyes of God.
Isn’t that what throwback Thursday and the Timehop app and keeping baby books and digging out old home movies are all about? When we look at those old pictures of our kids wearing without irony or embarrassment a Dora the Explorer shirt with a binky in their mouth and a cute bow in their hair, we are not just remembering a simpler time, but a time when we felt more in control, more sure of ourselves. The fact that this has become a social media experience just means we are inviting others to share in those longings and fears with us. We are in this together, no matter what, and somehow I take comfort from that way more than any stranger coming up to me at the McDonald’s Play Place and telling me I seem like a good dad. It is almost like communion: a participatory event where we are all coming together and, without speaking, forging a shared identity as parents, not sure of the complications of the present and the uncertainty of the future.
Just yesterday we were in family therapy. My child became frustrated, turned away from me, and spent the rest of the session looking at the wall.
I was so angry. I felt disrespected and embarrassed in front of the therapist.
Then my kid muttered quietly to the wall, “I am not just a diagnosis. I am not just a problem to be solved. I am still your child who just needs to be loved.”
All the books, therapy, expert opinions went out the window in that moment. Don’t get me wrong, we all need that kind of help at times to deal with things. But in that moment I learned the other thing I needed to get through this: My kid isn’t looking for me to parent our way out of this. My kid just wants my love. I can be a rock star at that.
Practicing Families writers are consistently honest about their own struggles and shortcomings as parents. It is more difficult, though, for parents to share about the truly difficult behaviors of their children. No child or teenager should have their mental illness, addiction, illegal activity, or other significant problems broadcast to the world. Yet the lack of posts about these types of situations can leave some parents feeling isolated in their struggles. So Practicing Families is inviting parents to share anonymously about their deepest challenges with troubled children. No author names will be published and it is understood that names and details in the post have been changed to protect privacy. Please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute to this sporadic series.