Today’s Parent: Mud, tears, joy and broken hearts — podcast

by Mick Rhodes |

The phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” has served me well throughout my so-called adult life, but it never really seemed applicable to my favorite and most long-lasting job — fatherhood.

The fake it part works: when my kids started being born and I stepped into my new role as stay-at-home dad, I faked a whole lot of it.

In the two decades since then, I’ve learned my way around a baby, toddler, and child, though teens are still an enigma. But does it ever end, this parenthood deal? There’s no finish line that I can see. Perhaps when they’re grown, settled, and living purposeful, productive lives? I guess so. But is that possible with four kids, in Southern California, with its insane housing costs and overburdened freeways? The law of averages would seem to indicate that one or more of my four kids will always require assistance, or at least a rent-free living space.

A mid-rant disclaimer: fatherhood has hands down been my favorite and most challenging job. The lucky years I spent as the primary caregiver for my kids were the best of my life, so far.

Still, even with one married with two kids of her own, another off at college, the third about to test out of high school, and a sixth-grader, every day I’m reminded of how little I know. Just when I’m feeling smug about resolving some complex issue with my hard-won ninja negotiating skills, I’m blindsided by a new break in the parent-child continuum that mocks my hubris. There is no “make it” with parenthood. It just goes on until we don’t, and we keep saddling up for the same job, Groundhog Day style.

It’s hard, but it’s given me purpose, which is really all I want for my kids: for them to live with purpose.

This job can’t be studied, then mastered. It’s not an academic pursuit. It’s mud and tears and joy and broken hearts. It goes on forever and you never stop learning, if you’re lucky.

So, here’s a useful list of reminders and hard won insight for new parents, or the reproductively curious. These are my observations only, and results may vary. Scratch that: they will vary.

1. Kids can break your heart.

Perhaps the most under-reported fact about parenthood is that children are perfectly capable of breaking your heart. Yes, they’ll love you, hopefully, but they’ll also tell you they hate you at some point, or worse, they’ll show you. Don’t take it personally. It’s part of the deal.

2. It’s not about you.

This one is likely the most obvious to the uninitiated, but it may be the most useful. Your kids will demand your attention, and they’ll get it however they can. If you deviate from this maxim, they’ll let you know. I’ve certainly made awful mistakes. I’ve had a few proud moments as well. But when they need you, sometimes their call to arms is outlandish. It’s up to you to decide how you react.

3. You are who you came from.

If you came from a supportive, loving family, congratulations. It’s on you to maximize this lucky predisposition. Conversely, if your childhood was a dumpster fire, you need to transcend it. This isn’t to say good parents will always create good parents, or that bad parents are destined to plague us in perpetuity with an ever-expanding bloom of mal-equipped role models. I’m saying it’s up to you, the new parent, to blaze your path. Hopefully you’ll make good choices, scrap the bad stuff you learned from your forebears, and launch your offspring into adulthood with an emotional footing more solid than yours. Call it progress, evolution, or whatever you want, our kids need to be better than us, full stop.

4. Things will not go as planned.

This one’s universal. Say your son broke his wrist — like mine did last week — and suddenly your plans for the next four to six weeks need to be reconfigured or canceled. Or maybe one of your cherubs will throw up in a restaurant. It happens (sorry In-N-Out, Red Lobster, and that diner in Oxnard). Get used to it. This is your life now. Your plans are not your own. I’m not going to even get started on how disruptive teenagers can be to everything you thought was supposed to or going to happen. See No. 5.

5. Teens can be jerks.

Look, your best-case-scenario is you’ll have the eye-rolling, door-slamming, overflowing with righteous indignation at your lack of understanding of virtually everything version of a teen. That’s as good as it gets. The flipside is too harrowing for a family newspaper. Suffice to say if your hair has not already gone gray, it will soon. It may just fall out altogether. Or both. Enjoy!

6. Kindness is key.

I’ve really fought for this one. My kids have a certain style of emotional combat with which this only child is ill-equipped to deal: nothing’s sacred and everything’s in play. The great comedian John Mulaney has a bit where he describes the particular focused savagery of the American teen, in that they have zero hesitation in attacking the most secret thing you hate about yourself. And I’ve found this to be true. They say the worst possible things to one another. I’ve reacted variously over the years, from the unrealistic (“hug it out!”) to the dangerously neglectful (“I’m going to Target. Don’t kill each other.”). I’ve arrived at something close to adequate: talking all the way through the thing, from its prehistoric origins — say from last Tuesday when Kid A took Kid B’s iPhone charger — on up to the current day’s battle, likely over a Hot Pocket. Semi-soothed, I ask them to imagine how it might have felt to be on the receiving end of their own rage. By this point they’re usually feeling kind of sorry, the fight has (mostly) left them, and compromise is possible.

7. Love is unconditional, but you don’t have to like it.

Your kids are yours as long as you’re here. That intense parental love never leaves, no matter what. I mean, no matter what. Our family has been through more than our share of chaos and heartache, even heartbreak, and that love, man, it does stick around. Even so, you may love them, but you don’t have to like them or their choices. There is a very fine line between keeping them safe and preventing them for acquiring the tools to deal with conflict, disappointment or even change. You’re not their friend, you’re their parent. It’s their journey, and sometimes the best way to love them is to let them be their own guides.

8. This too shall pass.

No matter what they’re going through, aside from some physical or mental health issues, it will end. It’s a very difficult concept to get kids to buy into. And with social media, where a child’s self-worth can be weakened or even shattered by a cruel comment or post, it takes a lot of courage on their part to apply this thinking. Teens can’t imagine a world where they don’t give a damn about someone’s opinion of them. I sure couldn’t at that age. But by teaching them that most problems are ephemeral, and peoples’ opinions of them are just background noise, we help them learn to dig themselves out of their sadness.

Overall I’ve discovered parenting is a very long series of unremarkable days, interspersed with the occasional unbearable fiasco, balanced by moments of exhilarating parental love and admiration. The gold lies in all those routine days with random laughs over dumb movies and inside jokes, hugs for no reason and daily school drop-offs. Bank those days in your mind and heart. You’ll need them later so you don’t go nuts or drink all the wine at Trader Joe’s. If you’re lucky, those days will get you through the bad ones.

If not, wine is delicious and I’m not judging you.



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