I want to tell you about a moment that happened a few weeks back.
When the hotel’s elevator doors suck shut and the telltale bell-tone sounds its ascent, I finally feel that solitude that I’ve come to know, so often, back home.
It’s a strange sort of alone. An isolation I can sometimes find solace in, despite the whirlwind life that abounds around me. Two young daughters and a doting wife. Preschool and potty training. Family functions, date night, dishes and laundry. All the frickin’ laundry. But sometimes it is a paralyzing isolation. The plight of a Stay-At-Home-Dad, with few other dads of my ilk to co-mingle with. It weighs heavy on me, as much as I love it. It gets lonely. The pressure tends to build and the pressure weighs a ton.
So, here I am in Denver, grateful for the break. A random scholarship recipient for the National At-Home Dad Convention’s 19th annual conference. I’ve never been to Denver. I’ve never been to a conference. I have packed some preconceptions and a vice-like head cold for the trip and by day two both are adding to the near-unbearable pressure.
Am I worthy of the scholarship? We aren’t poor by any means. I just couldn’t have come otherwise.
Is my wife at her wits’ end back home? Two Tasmanian Devil daughters tearing up the house and hanging from Mama’s jeans while she scrambles to make all three meals and the subsequent snacks; her laptop on the kitchen table beckoning her back to her work role?
Was going out with “the guys,” shortly after I arrived, for a fairly raucous Dad’s Night Out on The Rooftop Party Deck at Coors Field highly unwise considering my cold? My lethargy and lingering cough seemed to say so.
Was the conference-opening, day-one series of talks on early childhood developmental neuroscience and a panel discussion with working moms and a lecture on car seat safety just too much to digest? The pressure felt like a metric, up against which I may very well be falling short as a father. (I had never considered the 5 to 7 seconds it takes for a toddler’s neurons to fire along their synapses and process information enough to garner a response! I’ve raised my voice at the drop of a dime. And, real talk, less than one inch wiggle room in a backseat Britax is next to fucking impossible for me, excuse my French)
All that to say, pressure. But none of those events were the moment.
These short elevator rides provide a brief reprieve. A moment in time to gather my thoughts and bask in the weekend’s scarce silences. The scent of Denver’s newest recreational pastime lingers inside as it starts to climb. I lean against a restaurant sign on the wall. While my mood has improved by day two, I am exhausted and anyhow the elevator ride is not the moment.
This morning’s keynote came in the form of an intensely inspirational address titled “Kids Are Worth It,” conducted by one Barbara Coloroso, parenting advocate and author of a book that bears the speech’s same name. She was full of timeless wisdom and thought provoking, call-to-arms anecdotes like, “We want to teach children HOW to think not WHAT to think!”
“Discipline is not judgmental, arbitrary, confusing, or coercive. It is not something we do to children. It is working with them. It is a process that gives life to a child’s learning. It is restorative, and invites reconciliation. Its goal is to instruct, guide, and help children develop self-discipline—an ordering of the self from the inside, not an imposition from the outside.”~Barbara Coloroso
It was obvious that her style and the substance of her message had moved the men in the room, myself included. Alas, neither was this the moment.
The moment I want to tell you about begins just after the elevator comes to rest at its destination. The doors part unceremoniously and I step out into the conference floor lobby. After a brief break between sessions I am a bit recharged and eager to see what the rest of my stay has in store. There are various dads scattered around the registration table or crossing the space in haste with obvious places to be.
There is one, lone, brown leather love seat bracketed by two tall columns that form a makeshift corner. On the couch is a man I met earlier in the weekend. A dad from parts unknown by me. A good dude by all accounts, only now he sits crumpled unto himself; elbows on thighs, trembling hands holding his forlorn face. I make incidental eye contact in mid stride that stirs him and he sits instantly upright, then back against the couch cushion, casually. He fingers something in the corner of his eye and rubs an anxious palm against his jeans.
I often wonder if I am an adequate father. I’m fairly certain I am a good person. I can’t continue on my way without asking him if everything’s alright. It’s the sound of my voice….or a voice…or a sound…that breaks his steadfast spell and sends an unencumbered tear the length of his face. He catches it on a shirt sleeve and draws that sleeve across his eyes and sits upright and takes a breath and tries to shake “it” and quite possibly me, off.
“Hey it’s cool man,” I offer. “None of my fuckin’ business for sure but if you want to tell me what’s bugging you, that’d be cool too. I’m sure a lot of us are going through similar shit,” and in the moment I’m just breaking ice. Trying to be nice. Lending an ear. But as the words come out of my mouth I’m taken aback by the sense in that sentiment.
“It’s just,” he tries.
“Being here…,” and his hands go to wipe his eyes in earnest now and he is mostly talking into them when he manages, “I miss my wife and kids. I feel like a horrible father for being here.”
A lot of us are going through similar shit.
Now, it’s not like me to pat another dude’s leg or sit close and lean in face to face or conjure pep talks or even muster words of encouragement but some burden-lifting sense of camaraderie has taken hold and I am compelled to do all three. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“I hear ya, man, I miss my family to no end, too,” and that does it for me and I’m wiping my own waterworks with the heel of my hand, “I was just in my room after that last keynote thinking, man, there’s so much to think about, so much to get right. So much parenting science and theory and how-to and don’t-do and how-could-you? It’s a lot to take! I’m thinking, man, I’ve been doing this whole thing wrong.”
He nods agreement a few times and gathers himself. Good posture. Shoulders squared. Deep breaths.
“But then I’m like, fuck no I’m not doing this wrong, I’m absolutely doing this right because I’m trying, right? Because I care, right? I care enough about them to consider the science. I mean, Barbara Coloroso knows her shit!”
One or both of us amen that with a laugh.
“I care about them enough to come find out what this is all about. I mean, there’s a lot to this conference. There’s a lot to take in. But take from it what you need, right? Take from it what you want. Our families have made sacrifices in order for us to be here, sure, but the mere fact that we’re here is, in a way, proof positive that we should be, no?” and in that moment I hear everything I’ve just said with a sort of exculpated clarity that I’ve never known. And it makes perfect sense.
I’m not a perfect father, but I’m not just adequate, I’m pretty damn good at it.
I know, because I care. I’m willing to try. I’m willing to improve. I’m here.
We both stand up and brush ourselves off and our looks of mutual appreciation are both unmistakable and comforting.
“Thanks man,” he says. “You’re right.”
We slap hands in that pseudo-macho half shake, half high five and as we join the approaching rush of dads scurrying to catch the afternoon’s coveted breakout sessions I know that the moment is over, in real time, but will never end entirely for me.
An enormous amount of that pressure had been lifted in an instant. I’ve truly found my tribe.