Snow fell on Christmas morning. From my parent’s living room in Cumberland, RI, we enjoyed a fierce, brief blizzard that blew quickly through and left blue sky behind. As the children finished opening their presents, my six-year-old son looked through the window and begged to go out to play.
But we hadn’t brought all his winter gear from Portland, OR. Along with coat, hat and gloves, all he had were his worn sneakers and pajama pants. I thought he’d be back inside in five minutes.
He lasted most of an hour. As the rest of us sipped coffee and worked through the remaining gifts, he’d poke his head in and call, “Dad! You gotta come out here!” “Dad! Come see my garden of ice!” “Dad! It’s a maze of hide and seek in the bushes!”
“You gotta come out here!”
And this — this! This is where the Daily Dad Dilemma kicks in.
What do I do? I’m cozy on the couch. In my PJs. Precious family time happening. We don’t get to Rhode Island often. Do I drop everything and go outside right that second?
Or do I tell him I’ll be there soon, and ask him to wait?
Which he is asked to do all the time.
And frankly — not always for good reasons.
When I’m honest with myself, I don’t always make him wait for legitimate needs. Sometimes yes, I’m busy with his one-year-old sister, holding or feeding her. (That is a sizeable slice of my pie chart these days.) And sometimes I’m doing a chore that can’t wait. But many times — most of the time? — I don’t feel like dropping what I’m doing to go play.
Why not? What’s so bad about playing? Would I rather do the dishes? Don’t I hate the dishes?
Here’s the supposedly grown-up answer — which is really some fearful chickenshit part of me pretending to be mature:
You’ve gotta get this adult stuff done or no one will.
Children need to learn to wait while adults do important-type stuff.
And of course, the bald-faced whine that Mr. Chickenshit doesn’t even bother to disguise:
I’m tired and I don’t feee-eee-eeeeel like it.
Well, of course I’m tired. I’m 42, working, married with three kids and a house. I have health challenges that compound my exhaustion many days. My wife works hard in a demanding field in which you can’t call in sick or take a personal day. Our weekends are full. Our lives are full.
Tired is normal. Tired is part of the deal.
But what has been dawning on me, and dawned further during the Christmas Mini-Blizzard, is that I’m tired of Chickenshit’s chickenshit.
Because the truth is that every time I surrender to the moment and play with my son, I enjoy it. It’s fun. Playtime is a joy. I feel better. If I’m feeling run-down health-wise, chasing him around with the soccer ball almost always perks up both my energy and mood.
I have some hypotheses about what Chickenshit is up to here.
- Playing with my son is like playing when I was a kid, and Chickenshit believes we’re too grown up for that now.
- Playing with my son is like playing when I was a kid, and Chickenshit is afraid I’ll get all sad and misty-eyed about not having that freedom anymore now that I’m “saddled with responsibilities.”
And here’s the one I think is hiding under the rug:
3. I have worked hard for many years to be an emotionally open person. To reprogram, to regroove a fearful brain, to resist closing myself off, especially around my closest loved ones. Despite that hard work, I have an irrational fear of being present and vulnerable with my son. As if, when he spends one-on-one time with me, he’ll discover I’m inadequate as a father — something I apparently believe is true.
First of all, this is insane. None of the evidence on the ground supports the idea that I’m a crummy or emotional stunted father. Quite the opposite, dare I say.
Furthermore, I’m not sure why these parent-child things express themselves in a paradoxical way: The more you’re afraid to be something, you more you tend to inhabit it. The more you try to kill it, the more you become it.
Life seems to be teaching me a certain lesson, on every level, including on Christmas morning about my son:
What you have to do is withstand the discomfort of doing it differently. That is the only way to change.
So: When the last present was opened, I went to the door and called, “I’m coming out!” I pulled on boots and coat and gloves and went out into the bracing New England cold. My son met me on the step. “Dad, come see the grass spots I uncovered!”
And I, consciously turning on the enthusiasm that I’ve learned is always available, said, “Show me!” And I followed him down the steps.
We lifted gravelly blocks of ice from the curb and stacked them. We counted them — fifteen in all. I watched him crawl through a secret passage under the pine hedges. We set off little avalanches on the neighbor’s hill. We threw snowballs that fell apart. It was totally fun.
Take that, Chickenshit.
And soon enough, we were both cold and wet, and we ran back to the driveway, hustled inside, stomped our feet and smiled all the way to the fireplace.