Last week, Erin sat me down on the swing at our back patio and we had a “come to Jesus” moment. She, like a good spouse, chose not the heat of the moment, but a time separated by hours from my increasingly ill behavior. She gave it to me straight: I’m angry all the time, I’m on a hair trigger, the kids are afraid of me, and I’ve made the house an extremely unpleasant place to live in–to the point that sometimes she takes the long way home from dropping our oldest off at junior high just to avoid the scene that ensues daily when I berate our youngest for not knowing where her shoes are and making us late for her preschool.
It was a huge gut punch. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so small and low. I’m not a crier, but I started to cry then because I had no defense to give. Erin was 100% right. I was making our home a miserable place. Worse, I kind of knew I was doing it. She wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know, but I think, in the back of my mind, I had somehow convinced myself I was okay to be this way because a) pressures and b) no one was saying anything about it.
Well, of course they weren’t. They were rightfully afraid to talk to me.
The bulk of our conversation that night dealt with why I was behaving this way. I don’t want to go too deep into that, but suffice it to say that I’m not great at being a stay-at-home dad (Erin kindly reminded me it took her years to be any good at being a stay-at-home mom) and the external pressures that come from work and achievement and failure were getting to me. Or rather, I was letting them get to me. I actually thought that since things were so hard for me right now that it was okay for me to be a bit of a jerk. It was justified.
Which, of course, I was not. I was operating from an incredibly unkind, selfish place, especially since Erin has been working on her Master’s Degree for the past year, a work that requires you to stand on your head and recite the Constitution backwards while cats lick milk off the bottom of your feet. Or something. It’s hard, that’s all I know. I was making things even harder.
My wife had popped my delusional bubble. I recognized my behavior as the sort of thing that would slowly force my family to retreat from me, which, of course, they kind of were doing already. I needed to dial things back in a big way. So, I told Erin the most cliched thing a person can possibly say in a moment like that: I will change. I could tell she didn’t exactly believe me.
The thing is, I meant it. 100%. (This is a common thing: I tend to apologize and change my mind very quickly. If I can see the logic of something, it’s very rare that I wait for my emotions to catch up.) I was sick of myself. I was sick of being angry and I was sick about what I was doing to my girls and my wife. I had hurt them. Not physically, but I had hurt them. I needed to not just turn the truck around, I needed to throw that sucker in reverse and floor the gas pedal until this big heap of selfish garbage I had built up was just a speck through the windshield.
I made a decision to stop letting my emotions–particularly the rage-filled ones–take over. The benefit just wasn’t there. I was able to do this for one, simple reason: my family’s emotions and perception of me is more important than my need to vent or act out frustration. I needed to sacrifice that release of anger on the altar of their precious feelings to give them a chance to like me again, and to not damage them or my relationship with them.
Basically, even though nothing really changed about my circumstances, I made a conscious effort to let go of my anger over it all.
That has not been terribly easy, but it has been terribly worth it. I’ve gone six days without a blow-up and the spirit in our house is radically different. I think, as fathers, we underestimate our impact. I know society does. But I’ve gotten a crash course in just how much I matter to my family, and how invested they are in my spiritual and mental wellbeing. Everything is different around here now, which illustrates quite clearly that I was almost entirely responsible for the tension in our home over the past couple months. It’s a sobering realization.
I had never thought of myself as a bad father. I honestly didn’t think I was capable. I thought if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s be a father. People have even told me, in the recent past, that I am a good father. I hoped I was worthy of that. I kind of thought I was. But, I was wrong.
I’m sure there’s someone out there for whom their progression is a nice straight line that reaches continually upward, but for me it’s a rocky thing, filled with peaks and valleys. Just when I think I’ve got one thing licked, some other issue pops up and takes the wind out of my sails. This all crept up on me, and none of it fit my perception of myself. I’m still learning all the time, even as I approach 40, who I am and what I’m capable of, for good and for ill.
My prayer–and this is always my prayer–is that whatever my moment-to-moment progression is, the trend, at least, is upwards. I feel better today than I have in a long, long while. There’s still a ton of stuff I need to work on, but, in simply letting go of the justifications and the outsized emotions that have been holding me back in those most important of roles, father and husband, I feel like I grabbed hold of a valuable piece of the happiness puzzle this week.
Pretty sure my girls and my wife would agree.