I’ve always thought of myself as a happy guy. When I was young, my mom always referred to me as “the peacemaker,” because I ended a lot more fights than I started, and I did a lot to keep my emotionally-abusive stepfather from hurting her — or at least, I tried. I was a latchkey kid from a very young age; my parents worked in a city two and a half hours away from where they lived, so they left for work before I got up for school, and got home in time to make dinner and fall asleep. To compound everything, we lived halfway into the foothills of the Olympic Mountains — an hour’s school bus ride away from the nearest town, which had a population of six thousand. My nearest neighbor was more than a mile away, and the intervening space was dense forest.
So I grew up very much alone. I had friends, but I saw them at school, on Boy Scout outings, and whenever we had something scheduled that I could figure out how to get to. Even once I got to college and lived in a dorm full of other people, I spent most of my time locked in my room, apart from everyone. To this day, I can’t figure out how my friends — much less my first girlfriend, much less my second girlfriend who is now my wife — ever put up with me.
When my wife — we were married for six months before we could move in together, due to her family’s circumstances — finally moved in with me, it was the shock of my life. Having someone around full-time, talking to me even in the bedroom and the bathroom (her family’s Italian, so there was no such thing as “a time to not talk”) was bizarre. I got used to it, but I still spent a lot of time either out of the house or on my computer, headphones on, absorbed in something that wasn’t social — and she knew that she wasn’t supposed to bug me.
Then, we had Giovanni, my son, and everything changed. Giovanni comes first — before work, before play, before whatever you’re doing — so my ability to stay locked away in my own little world was shattered. And that’s when I learned that I was very easily upset by that fact.
I never hated my kid — I love him to death — but just as Jesus hated the sin and loved the sinner, I hated his constant needs. When I wasn’t thinking about it, I took it out on him. I yelled a lot, I even bapped him a little on rare occasions. I made him cry at least once — not because I had hurt him, but because he realized that he had made me irritated enough to want to hurt him. I had a very primitive, instinctive annoyance that came out before any kind of rational thought kicked in. I’m the center of the universe, dammit, and how dare you, little kid, ask something of me — especially something as banal as applesauce?!?
It was the aggravation of being called upon to stop what I was doing and attend to something more important than me. I was an only child, and a latchkey kid — the idea of “something more important than me” hadn’t really sunk in, even after almost a decade of marriage (my wife and I took a long time to decide to have a child.)
That feeling still comes up. It’s still there, lurking beneath the surface, especially when I know (in that “you just KNOW” sense) that I’m not going to be able to do what I need (or feel like I need) to do because my wife or son is going to have some need that I’m going to need to fill. But ever since I agreed to go to counseling with my wife and son — counseling not even intended for me, but for him — I’ve started to learn how to tame it.
Today, I still get angry from time to time, but it’s less, and a huge part of it was taking that first step toward assuming the role of father, instead of just dad. Making a sacrifice for my son — a huge sacrifice — it’s like it finally impinged itself on my brain that nothing is more important.
Today, I don’t kick him out of the kitchen when I’m cooking; I invite him in and have him help even if it slows things down and takes an extra twenty minutes to get food on the table. We’ve also stopped eating at our desks and started (at least once a day) eating around the hope chest that pretends it’s our coffee table (we’ve never had a dining room, because no one ever comes to our place for anything. It’s too small.)
I might be broke, and need to work in order to pay the bills, but that’s not as important as making sure my son is happy and well-adjusted. I might be deep in some debate with someone on the Internet who is wrong, but that’s not as important as making sure that my son is learning and having fun. And it’s sad that it took such a momentous event to get that fact to really sink in…but in the end, I’m very happy I learned that lesson.
It makes getting past the angry much easier.
Now, to move from “stopping doing the bad things” to “starting to do the good things.” Still trying to figure out what those are…