This is one of the amazing gifts I received for father’s day. My oldest daughter made me a badge to wear, showing the world that I am….Super Dad.
It also adds (in green writing) “P.S., Best Daddy in the World”, in case you didn’t realize “SD” is shorthand for “Super Dad”
Mission accomplished! The almost 8 year-old thinks I’m a father of super hero proportions.
But I have to confess to you that beyond it’s obvious aesthetic charms, I have some reluctance wearing it. I feel a certain ambivalence about the whole thing, and it makes me wonder…
From the moment I received the life changing news that I was finally going to be a father, I had some strong feelings and beliefs about parenthood. I spend a lot of time helping people sort through their complicated relationships with their parents and I have a bit of a front row seat on the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting.
While my wife was doing all the hard work of growing a baby inside of her, I was growing something too: an image of the kind of father I would be.
I wanted to be every bit as connected to my kids as I knew my wife would be. I didn’t want nurture to be her department, while I just took care of sports and fixing stuff. The feminist in me wanted to get as close as possible to equal roles when it came to diapers and all the other aspects of caring for babies. I wanted to be the kind of dad that these little girls would have a deep and close relationship with throughout their lives. I wanted to defy the all too common TV stereotype of dads as bumbling idiots and show everybody that I could not only be competent, but excel. I added in extra pressure, thinking that my job title meant I would be awesome at discipline, never lose my cool, and be able use my knowledge of child development to work through any problem they might have.
A part of me, right from the very beginning wanted to be Super Dad and believed I could/should be.
Instead, I found myself barely holding back curse words when they refused to listen and follow instructions for hundredth time in a day. I found myself angry and resentful at them for being so difficult and slow to change their behaviour. I found myself wishing it wasn’t time for me to pick them up so that I didn’t have to deal with their foul after-school moods. Some days I even did what I’d criticized others for doing: taking short cuts and relinquishing my role because I hated seeing myself fail at the hard work of parenting. Things like putting them in front of the TV so that I could just check-out for a bit, and giving in to their demands for hot dogs because I couldn’t bear another fight about eating. My children are lovely. But like any kids they wear you down over time and the constant demands of the parental role exhaust your stamina. Easily enough those aspirations for being proactive and consistent find themselves tested.
Over time it got worse. The challenges they threw at me began to exposure major flaws in my own personality. I started to realize the contempt I sometimes carry for other people’s weaknesses. I discovered that my professed values and beliefs weren’t always reflected in my actions and that I might actually be more caught up in my own ego than I’d ever thought possible. Where I thought parenting would bring out the best in me, it also brought out the worst in me as well.
As the notion of Super Dad went up in flames, I began to resent them and take out my frustrations on them for ruining my idealized notion of the kind of parent I would be. I started to see their non-compliance and resistance to my authority as a personal attack on my competence and character.
It pains me to admit that.
I want to seem like the kind of enlightened yet practical guy who knows better than to set up impossible expectations for himself but ends up crashing and burning when confronting his very mortal and flawed real self.
It’s one thing to have lofty aspirations and strive to reach noble goals. It’s something else when living up to those expectations becomes so important that you lose track of why you’re doing all this in the first place.
And while this may seem like perfectionism, it’s not quite the same thing. I knew I’d never be perfect as a parent, but I though I’d be awesome; like Batman or Superman kind of awesome. These Super Dad fantasies reveal much: that I have an idealized version of my self that seeks the admiration of others.
From the first moments when I held our oldest daughter in my arms and I sat in a hospital hallway holding her, I wanted that look people give when they see a dad being good with his kids. The one where people tilt their heads slightly and with warmth on their faces make that gentle “ahhh” noise. Whatever. You know what I’m talking about. I craved the notion of myself as Super Dad.
Now I’m openly admitting this to you now, but until recently I’ve been much more covert about my fantasies, even mostly hiding them from myself. I would rarely admit that I wanted to think of myself this way – that I wanted others to see me with admiration as I wore my Super Dad cape.
And perhaps such a lofty aspiration is a good thing. To wish to excel at parenthood is admirable.
But Super Dad, or the guy who wants to be him creates impossible expectations for himself that create anxiety and frustration. Raising kids is hard enough; we don’t need any additional pressure to perform at a super-human level. It’s enough just to be a human dad who tries really hard. Failure is certain. Many of us as boys were raised in super-hero culture – which carries with it the belief that if you merely have the strength of character and determination you can overcome anything. But parenting kids isn’t very much like saving the planet from an evil super villain (even if some days you feel like your kids are committed to destroying you). Parenting is a multitude of ambiguous choices big and small that so often lack any clear evidence of being good or bad. It’s not like facing our arch-nemesis because so often we don’t know what it is we are struggling against. And often we don’t know we’ve failed until after it’s too late. Many times our only weapon is apologizing after defeat. So the idea of a dad who approaches his vocation as an unstoppable force with a clear sense of how to succeed really doesn’t fit the situation. Usually, our biggest impediment in parenting is our selves, or at least the version of our selves we’re trying to live up to.
Unless your children are completely different from any of the ones I know, you’re probably finding yourself falling well short of that idealized (super hero) version on a regular basis. For most of us falling short brings up shame, guilt, and frustration. Often it sucks us into a vicious cycle: I hold unrealistic expectations for myself; they behave like children and thwart my attempts for all of us to live up to my impossible standards; I blame them for making me fall short and get angry; and as a result I behave poorly as a father. All of which reinforces my sense of not living up to the idealized version.
It’s a trap. Idealized versions of ourselves always are.
It does no one any good for me to deceive myself about what kind of dad I am or can be. The truth is that I can be a good enough one. That’s it. That’s all. With time and practice and help I might do better in the future, but doing my best right now is enough. I need to extend compassion and kindness towards myself to accept that I’m perfectly flawed and yet capable of great love toward these kids. It doesn’t mean that I become complacent and self-satisfied. I don’t have identify with Homer Simpson as the alternative. But it does mean letting go of idealized notions that ultimately undermine my humanity. My kids don’t need Superman, just a fully human dad that loves them as fully as he is capable.
I’m happy to let this almost 8 year-old view me in a slightly idealized way for now. Soon enough she’ll be pointing out my flaws at the dinner table and on Facebook, so I’ll cherish the moments where she looks up to me like this. I’ll wear my badge with pride. But inside I know that I’m neither the idealized nor villainized version of myself. I’m just one human being that has been given the tremendous gift of fatherhood.