We have a small screen in our house where pictures of our past selves slide by as reminders of the life behind us, and just how much we change and age and, in my case, grey. Most days I don’t really see and appreciate those pictures: climbing red sandstone rocks, eating Cows ice cream, holding each other in front of a European train station as if we are a human chain—think Red Rover with its tiny terrors and excitement. Most days those pictures are un-momentous, a painting you hang on the wall you stop seeing, there because it is supposed to be there, since we are taught to be deeply afraid of blank walls. Even the sliding pictures of people I’ve lost rarely get a rise out of me—not for lack of caring. Life is fast. And even when I have downtime I am busy making fast plans to fill my cuppeth.
Last week I was packing up the photo screen, moving for the summer, when I was arrested by a picture.
It was from a time when we had tiny tables and chairs in our house. I was sitting on one of those tiny chairs that barely accommodated a single butt cheek. I was having tea (juice) with my daughter, joined by her stuffed bunny. I was enamoured with her, endlessly patient with her silly, pretend games. And I was her whole world in that moment, or me and bunny and the juice were. We were her moon, sun, wind and stars. There was nowhere on this planet her three-year old self would rather be.
I don’t remember the picture being taken, or how long we had tea together, or why my wife even felt inspired to take the picture that day—pretend tea parties were routine in those days.
It made me sad to see the two people in the picture, since they are just as gone as my grandparents. My daughter is about to be eleven, my son nine, and they are now self-sufficient, could easily survive a week without our presence through a resourceful menu of toast and dry cereal and microwave-melted cheese and thawing frozen fruit in juice glasses, slurping down the sweet pulp.
I am no longer the patient father I was. I no longer give my children all of my time and attention. I raise my voice more, as if I believe stern correction is the best way to raise kind and considerate humans. My raised voice is usually followed by a brief lecture on the importance of teeth brushing and punctuality and battling clutter like it is the plaque of our home.
My children feel the change in me. I can see it in the way they slump off on some chore or errand unfairly assigned to them. The other day my daughter found me bent over our new dog, talking to her in that voice we reserve for dogs and babies, dotingly rubbing her glorious round belly. My daughter gave me an all-too-grown-up look, her lips slumped in a sad smile, and admitted she wished I gave her the attention I did our dog. I didn’t quite know what to say, so I gave her an, “Oh, pet.” My way of telling my daughter to be an adult about these things. Maud’s a baby. We’re bonding. She needs me more.
I still find myself trying to justify my new parenting style. My children need something different now. Independence? Space to fail and learn and grow? Hard labour when they are (relatively) lazy and negligent? But somewhere along the way, I have lost sight that they always will be my children, and sometimes they need a patient father. My support. The easy comfort of tea parties and couch forts, even if it’s morphed into Spike Ball and Marvel movies.
I’ve been a father for almost eleven years, and I still feel like I know very little about being a good father. It’s cobbled together, a slideshow of the good, the bad and the embarrassing.
Why am I in such a hurry to help my kids grow up?
All questions, if you dig into her oeuvre, seem to lead back to Joni Mitchell.
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
in living every day.