Letting go of heartbreak

I used to talk about the act of parenting ad nauseum, as if it were the latest sport admitted into the Olympics and I was going to be on the first U.S. team. But then I realized that I was just the latest yahoo to discover a sport that had been contested for several millenia by millions of people and decided that the numbers were against my being selected for the dream team or having any unique insight.

When 3B was brand new, he threw up for the first time. Mama and I debated–was it just a large burp? No, we were sure this would be defined as throwing up. But why had he done it? Was it something in her milk? Had he swallowed something? (As if he could have found or picked up anything to swallow, having been wrapped in a swaddle tighter than a boxer’s hand tape for 99.8% of his life.)

This went on for about 20 minutes before we decided to use a lifeline and phone a friend, my Mom, since this was late at night and we didn’t want to wake Grammy. Mom, being on the west coast, had no such shelter from our inquiries.

The conversation went about like this:

Us: 3B threw up.

Mom: Well, yes. Babies throw up a lot.

Eventually it sunk in that just because we were playing the parenting game didn’t automatically make us experts on the sport. I also learned some other lessons along the way. They were the best kind of lessons–the kind I have to learn several times, in part because they’re not obvious, so they sneak up on me, and in part because I don’t want to have to learn them.

The first lesson is watch your knees. Parenting puts more strain on knees than a 200-yard game by an NFL running back. OK, so it doesn’t involve planting a foot and getting your torso spun around your knee like a stripper on a brass pole by a 350-pound lineman, but all the up and down, squatting, crawling and eventually running does take its toll.

The other lesson is to let go. Of everything. They may belong to you, but you are no longer in control of them. This is immediately and most obvious when it comes to physical items, such as books, TVs, computers and money. It’s less obvious when it comes to abstract items, such as time, sleep and the ability to complete a sentence without…

…sorry, what was I saying?

It’s most difficult for me to let go when it comes to parenting, perhaps because of lingering hubris from my early days as a dad, when I thought that I was always going to be the one making the fingertip grab in the back of the end zone as time ran out to put us into the championship game. The reality is that parenting is much more pedestrian than that, and it involves more failures than successes.

In Chabon’s book, Manhood for Amateurs, he talks about how parenting involves delivering a series of small disappointments to your children:

  • No, you can’t have another cookie.
  • Yes, it’s time to turn the TV off and go to bed.
  • I have to go to work now. Yes, I’ll be there all day.

I don’t mind the little things so much–hell, I need to eat fewer cookies and watch less TV too, buddy–but leaving in the dark, without seeing my children, and returning in the dark in just enough time to see them hop out of the bath and into bed…that breaks my heart. Every day.

But I have to let go of that heartbreak, which is harder than it sounds. I have to consciously, and sometimes out loud, remind myself that just because I’m not present for most of their waking lives doesn’t make me a neglectful parent. Being absent doesn’t mean being absentee.

And I remind myself that this lesson is a gift from my children, just like that random popping sound my knee makes when 3B uses me as a pommel horse. It’s a lesson I’ve struggled to learn all of my life: when it’s OK to let go.

In some ways, I’m still like Jewel–not understanding that just because I let go of something doesn’t mean that it won’t come back. But when I arrived home as Jewel and her brother were hopping out of the bath, she ran down the hall to me, then away, then back to me, then away, and then back to me again.

And I was just in time to pick her up, give her a warm bottle of milk, sing her my favorite lullaby and set her in her crib before giving her brother one last cookie, reading him a final story, talking to him about his day, giving him kisses and turning out the lights in his room.

  • My dad was always gone before first light, always back after sundown. Even then, he'd often head right back out after a hastily-grabbed supper, often to a meeting at our school, where he served on the board of directors.

    As much as I failed to understand "why Dad isn't here" when I was a kid, I eventually learned to appreciate it as I grew into adulthood and began to relate to him as, well, an adult. He taught me that parenthood takes on a limitless number of forms, and many of them are intangible. Even in his absence, he was building a future for me, my brother and my sister.

    I know I thanked him for it at various points, but now that he's gone I find myself wishing that it was enough.

    Thank you for this poignant glimpse into your world of parenthood.

  • I've realized over time that my dad was gone early in the day and returned just in time for dinner, much as I do. It didn't diminish my love for or connection with him. But facing that same coin from this side is harder than I ever imagined it would be. In fact, I never imagined that it would be hard.

    As for you, I'm sure your thanks was enough. I don't know if I'm anything near like your dad, but I know that all I need is a good laugh from the kids when I come home to make me forget all about work and make it all worthwhile.