Tuesday, July 09, 2013

(Not) Born This Way

When friends and family first saw me interacting with Kai a little over four years ago, most of them were flabbergasted. I had always taken the same approach to children that Kenneth Branagh had in HOW TO KILL YOUR NEIGHBOR'S DOG; that is to say, I kept them at arm's length for the most past and treated their sticky fingers and faces as something in need of being quarantined by the CDC. So when my son was an infant and I somehow automatically knew how to comfort him when he cried, made up songs to sing to him, and didn't run in mortal terror from his diapers, people were understandably astonished. This was, after all, my baptism into taking care of a child.

And the comments began.

Now that Elias is here and after four years I somehow didn't purge all the necessary information on how to care for an infant from my brain, the cycle has begun again. Only this time, I have the joy of splitting my time between a four year old (squeezing every moment of quality time in with him before he trots off to K4 in the fall) and a newborn (who deserves to be held, coddled, and told goofy stories as much as his brother was when he was his age). And now that we're living in a different geographical location than we were with Kai when he was born, new friends witness me with a baby. The same friends who have seen for a few years with Kai.

And the comments continue.

"You were born to do this."

Actually...no. No I wasn't.

Two Truths and a Lie

When I first began taking care of Kai, and especially when I began as a full-time stay-at-home dad, I welcomed comments of this nature. I was terrified that people might question me and my ability to take care of Kai after they actually witnessed me taking care of him. Oh, sure - more than a fair share of people passed judgment on me as a stay-at-home dad, but none of the comments were ever directed specifically at me and the bundle I was taking care of. They were always general, generic judgment calls about men and their inability to walk and chew gum at the same time, and how apocalyptic it must be for a neanderthal like that to take care of a child.

But for people to give praise to my ability to know which end to diaper, and to - you know - actually interact with my kid? It was like music to my soul.

To be honest, I was more astonished than my family and friends were that I was willingly devoting myself to taking care of Kai full-time. Something in me, some recessive mutant gene or trait, must have been activated the minute I held Kai for the first time. (Which, in hindsight, means I now have an origin story. But I digress...) And although I lived in abject fear that I was going to do or say something to him that would emotionally scar him for life before he mastered tummy time, I slowly began to accept what people said to me. What Ashley said and still says to me. What Kai and Elias both say and show in their own ways.

I was a good dad. I am a good dad.

I was good at taking care of them. I am good at taking care of them.

But born to do this?

Not even remotely.

Gender Offender

I have a number of female friends who swear blindly they were "born to be" mothers and/or wives. And that's great; I am genuinely proud for them if they have found something that gives them such joy and fulfillment. It's what from an early age they saw as the culmination of their life's journey, but it's also what people expected of them.

But me? Given my craptastic track record with relationships, the insanely poor lifestyle and health choices I have made, and how for the almost four decades before Kai was born I spent my life focused primarily on me? I was anything but born to be a good dad. There are seriously long periods in my life when I wouldn't have entrusted me with the care of a pet rock, to say nothing of a human being.

I'm barely smart enough now to look back on those times and recognize them for what they were and what they meant to my development, how they shaped me, and that every scar, every healed wound is a badge of honor and sign of victory. But I seriously doubt that anyone who has known me for any length of my life would make the argument I was "born to be" a good dad based on my past. It was not what I wanted, not what I sought, and not what I thought I would ever have.

It was a standard not imposed on me, which left me to develop a little bit more divergent than many of the women I know. And that's unfortunate for us both.

Popeye the Parent Man

I don't believe for one minute that had I been saddled with a similar "future spouse/parent" cross that many women must bear that it would have changed a lot of the choices I made. Part of that is honestly due to how men aren't conditioned to think in such a fashion.

While there may be some deep spiritual truth to me being born to be a good dad, I don't see it as the culmination of my journey. I'm supposed to be the best me that I can be: the best writer, the best nerd, the best beer geek, the best husband, the best friend, the best walker of dogs. I'm a person, separate from yet lovingly, intrinsically bound to forever being a dad. To say that the summation of me as a person rests solely with my ability to be in a relationship, procreate, or be a good parent negates in many ways the journey I have spent my life on to be the best me that I can be. My spouse and children - along with me - get to reap the benefit of me taking the time to make mistakes, learn who I am, and become the best me that I can be.

As pathetically cliched as it sounds, I couldn't have found Ashley unless I stopped trying to find her. Much in the same way, I don't think I could have become a good dad without first becoming a good me. My first, best responsibility to my family is to make sure I am healthy - physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. Otherwise, I'm off-balance, which means our dynamic is off-balance.

I am who I am meant to be. Part of me is still finding and becoming that person, but I'm me.

I'm the person I was born to be.

He just happens to like to change diapers. It's a part of who he is.


Matt Appling said...

Sonny - I've heard plenty of women who claim that they always knew they were going to be moms. I'm not knocking their conviction at all - I just can't understand it! When I was a kid, I dreamed about being an astronaut, and a bunch of other things I wasn't "born to be." I can relate much more to your path. I'm doing something I love, but it's taken a long and winding path to get here. :)

Diana said...

Great, great post.

Sonny Lemmons said...

Thanks, Diana.

matthew hughes said...

Really great, really resonated with me as a Dad, especially the desire to love on your second baby as well as Kai, we just had out second and it is hard to do that well. So someone affirming that I have to start with getting me right so I can recklessly give myself away to my kids and wife is really rad

Sonny Lemmons said...

Thanks, Matthew. I'm pretty certain that *I* am more paranoid or concerned about slighting Elias than HE is, but I am just thankful of the fact I'm cognizant of that need.

Sonny Lemmons said...

Indeed, Matt - I love the journey it's taken me to get here. Some of the steps are...interesting...but they've all made me who I am: the person I *WAS* born to be.

Jay Knudsen said...

Great post, one of my favorites!

Whitney McCormac said...

As a woman who very much does not feel born to be a mother, I'm impressed by not only your ability to adapt, but your willingness as well! Nick and I haven't known you for very long, but I'll admit I'd assumed you had just always loved children. Interesting to read more about the journey of your family, and it was great to meet Ashley, Kai and Elias the other day!

Sonny Lemmons said...

Thanks, Jay - this was one of those posts that almost wrote itself. Which is good, given that I have a newborn to hold. :)