When we found out my wife was pregnant, I experienced fear like I had never experienced before. This is speaking as someone who has always been wracked by anxiety and has multiple phobias (darkness, heights, water where I can’t see the bottom). This was something different. This was whole-body fear, day in and day out. It was near-suicidal fear, to be honest. One time I had a very strong impulse, and vivid fantasy that actually made me pull over, of just turning the wheel and driving into oncoming traffic. It would end the fear, and my wife and daughter-to-be would get the PCUSA death benefit from the Board of Pensions, which I was pretty sure would be significantly better than having me for a dad. It felt very much like a win-win, but I had the presence of mind to pull to the right instead of the left and stop the car and just sob on the shoulder while cars and semis roared by.
It didn’t help that my wife had a lot of complications with this pregnancy, including trips to the ER and weekly stress tests and all sorts of things. The time is largely a blank from all of the fear crawling through me, but I can’t imagine I was much help. I tried.
When my daughter was born, my first words to her were something very much like, “Hello Poppy. I’m really sorry, but I’m your dad.” My thoughts about her life were all about what I could do to mitigate the damage I was inevitably going to inflict on her. How could I bring her into the world and have her grow up a healthy and well-adjusted human despite me?
(This whole time, there was a part of me in the background saying “Hey some of this is probably your mental illness distorting your perceptions of yourself and the situation” but it was a faint voice easily drowned out by the roar of panic.)
This constant fear didn’t go away when she was born. I think it was just subsumed under exhaustion through three months of colic, and the anxiety and depression of my first ministry job falling apart, and failing to find a new ministry job, and realizing that I was not only going to be the father of a baby but I was going to be the homeless father of a homeless baby. We moved in with our wonderful friends, setting up in their basement. My wife found a job as a preschool teacher, and so I ended up being a stay-at-home dad.
I think this was a life-long low point – one of three or maybe four I can think of. I had failed in the ways that I had to measure myself – as a pastor, as a provider, as a husband, etc., and now I was going to fail as a parent as well. Every single day, all day, the relentless drumbeat of my failure, and this helpless baby the victim. The
competent extraordinary parent was going to work, and now the baby was stuck with me.
And my thoughts got way worse than that.
So here’s what happened – I survived. My daughter survived. Every day that ended with her intact, I took as a win. People often laughed when I said that, but I meant it very earnestly and literally. I had to set some kind of standard, and that standard was “the baby did not suffer lasting harm today.” That was it. Everything else was negotiable. Either one of us, or both, could spend the day screaming and crying, but if she didn’t suffer lasting harm, I had to chalk that up as a win.
The interesting thing here is what all of this came together to mean. Wracked by fear, I could easily have avoided most parenting by being a pastor. It’s a job that takes all of the time you give it and more. Years could have gone by that way – I am sure of it. I am actually sure I would have done just that, feeling like it was the only way to survive emotionally. My child could have been essentially a stranger – I’d be the emotionally distant provider that is the bedrock of so many father issues and tragic character arcs.
But this was rendered impossible by my double failure, as a new pastor and also as someone seeking a job as a pastor to replace the one I was failing at. I had to lose what I had worked for years to earn, and had spent two and a half years trying to build and then salvage, and then fail to find something else in time before the money ran out. Then I had to be literally stuck in a house with the original source of this paralyzing fear that had filled me for the past 18 months of my life. There had to be no way out, because if there was, I would have found it.
As a result, I eventually became something approximating a father. Not a good father by any means, but in time I would coin a term for what I was shooting for: “Dadequate.” I was not going to be a great dad, and I was not going to be a good dad, but the line I drew was at being an adequate dad. An advanced version of “the baby did not suffer lasting harm today.” Dadequate.
Is this helpful, fellow shitty dads? You know who you are. Long past the point where you’re supposed to have slipped into a dad-groove, you still feel like an awkward idiot who is barely jumping from island to island floating in a sea of hot lava. You held your newborn in your arms, and far from the rush of warmth and certainty that family members told you you’d feel, you just kept screaming “This is going to end so badly” over and over in your head. I don’t mean good dads with imposter syndrome or false humility – I’m talking to the crappy dads here. Not fishing for compliments, but acknowledging that this is not my strength. It is not my wheel-house. And a lot of things about me make it more difficult – some my fault, and some not.
Maybe it’s helpful to read about someone setting the bar that low and coming to terms with that being the bar. Should I set the bar higher? Of course I should! But my starting point is a shitty dad, so dadequate is actually a serious challenge. It’s like weighing 500lbs and being uncoordinated, and deciding you’re going to be an adequate gymnast – a non-trivial problem to solve. Or like being functionally illiterate, and deciding you are going to be a published novelist. Not a New York Times bestselling author, just published. Somewhere. Again, no small feat, considering your starting-point.
And you know what? The world is full of some seriously messed-up dads. And so I’m working hard not to be one of them. Of course the world is also full of great dads, but I’m not in their category, any more than I am a potential semi-pro ball player or millionaire. That is literally another league, and I am OK with that. If someday I die and my tombstone says “He was mostly dadequate”, I’d be proud of that. That will have been a job well done.