In a previous blog post I reflected on what it looks like to fail my little boy. I can see it struck a chord with many others and I am honored that so many of you took the time to write me.
I’ll admit it. I have a hard time being a father. Frankly, I experience the role of father much like an ill-fitting article of clothing. I can get away with wearing it, but I feel uncomfortable and awkward most of the time. I do not see myself as a father. The idea of father seems to have little place in my self-image. I don’t know if this is a common feeling among fathers, but I do see many of my friends wearing fatherhood with great ease. And the image of father seems central to their identities.
There are so many reasons why fatherhood is complicated for me – too many to go into here. I am the product of a broken home and the loss of father in the aftermath has had a much greater impact on me than I had ever realized. I’m working on a book about this very thing. It will be my first attempt at writing creative non-fiction. I’ll say much more about the book project in the future.
This is true: I don’t always fail Zion. And I’m doing so less often. In fact, because of “the work,” I’m finding an increasing capacity to enter his chaos with gentle presence instead of meeting him with militant force in an attempt to order it.
What does it look like for me to be present with and for Zion?
Emotional outbursts are a daily occurrence. They can erupt out of nowhere and over the smallest and seemingly insignificant issues. Zion has a particularly fixation with the feeling of his clothes on his body. Just to make the point clear, he is only willing to wear two specific pairs of trousers these days and they happen to be a blue and khaki pair of skinny jeans!
I was making breakfast on Saturday morning on the last day of Zion’s fall baseball season. It was actually the day of championship game and Zion’s team was in it. As I was making the toast and watching the timer for the 3-minute eggs, Zion was getting dressed in the basement where his baseball stuff is stored, or he was suppose to be. The basement stairs come up into the kitchen so he was in ear shot. I began to hear him start to become anxious and emotional. “No, no, no!” he shouted. I stop what I was doing and investigated. When I got down stairs he was in just his underwear and sliding pants. His uniform was in a ball on the floor. “I just can’t do it!” he yelled now in a complete sob. “They don’t feel right! I can’t wear this uniform daddy!” “Zion,” I said, “You’ve worn it the whole season. You just have one more game. It will be ok.” “No daddy, No! I CAN’T DO IT! You just don’t understand!”
This uniform has been a big deal for him. When he first got it from the coach the shirt and pants were oversized. He’s on the small side. After he tried them he had a meltdown. The shirt fit him like a dress and the pants were too baggy for him. We went to several stores to try to find pants that he felt comfortable in, but to no avail. In the end, we paid $40 do have a seamstress tailor the uniform to him, just as he wanted. This uniform was designed to fit his body and he had worn it for 10-plus games already. But today it just didn’t work for him.
I attempted to fix whatever he identified the problem to be—we initially safety-pined his socks to his pants because he had identified that this was what didn’t feel right. But having lived with him for this long, I know when Zion gets like this the problem is a moving target that can’t be solved and so we soon gave up on that. All the while he got more and more worked up. “Daddy, I can’t do this! I can’t wear this uniform!” “Zion if you want to play you have to wear it,” I responded. “I just can’t!” This back and forth went on for a while. Any cushion of time we had, was all but gone now and we needed to leave. Zion however was in no condition to go.
In the moment, I couldn’t see how this was going to end. I had accepted the possibility that we would not actually get to the game; and I decided that I would not force him. For me, this is the hard decision in a moment like this. So many times I’ve powered up and drove him forward against his will. But not this time. I did however believe that if I could keep him moving I might be able to get him out of the house and into the truck. And if into the truck, then to Dunkin Donuts. And if to DD, then to the game. Meanwhile, Mary was also a participant in this drama. Sadly, she usually is. She had herself been crying because of Zion’s sadness—she has a soft heart.
I said “Zion, let’s just get your uniform on. Let’s keep moving forward. Your team needs you and if you miss the game it will hurt them. You don’t want that, do you?” “No,” he said; and now he was a bit more malleable. He agreed to let me help him dress while he was still sobbing, still undone. He slipped his cleats on and we walked out of the house and into the truck, step one. As we drove the couple miles to DD, the cloud began to lift, step two. As we pulled up to the door of DD, Zion was ready to for a donut, step three. By the time we got to the field, it was as if nothing happened. Disaster was averted.
If only I did it like that every time.