Sometimes it is hard to quantify what it means to be a well-rounded parent, or in my case, father. How many experiences should one provide their child? How many activities should I be engaged in with her, personally? How many lessons should she be signed up for? I believe the answer is simple: as many as you both can handle. That is just what we were doing until the pandemic hit and all our usual routines came to a screeching halt.
We were unable to do the normal activities outside of the house and had to adapt very quickly to the new environment. Except for the fact that I did not adapt as quickly as I should have, which was made more apparent to me by my daughter’s innocently brutal honesty when she shared her feelings about the situation and our household.
You see, her mother has the two story, 5-bedroom house, with the puppy dog and live-in boyfriend. As for me, I’m offering a bunk bed slumber party with my daughter every night in our one bedroom, quite adorable, little “magic cottage”, as my landlord likes to call it. Not that it’s a competition, (although it kind of most certainly is sometimes), but I am currently not in a place where I can compete. I was doing a good job of balancing it out pre-pandemic, trying to make up for what I couldn’t offer with fun, that is until the stay-at-home orders went into effect and all of the “fun” stopped. My then 4 year-old daughter made it very clear to me what side of the white-picket fence and rose garden I stood on. It went something like this:
“I don’t like it here! I want to go back home! I want to go back to my family! No, I don’t love you! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! . . .” After deliberating with this information for a long period of time, trying to reason with her, asking what we can do differently, encouraging her to think of some things to have more fun, she just kept repeating those incredibly hurtful comments and pulling my last thread of patience.
So, I matched her intensity, and it went something like this:
“I thought you liked this new place?! We were in an unfinished basement before this for crying out loud! You said you loved our new house! Now you want to go back HOME with your FAMILY?! How do you think that makes me feel?! I AM your family too! This IS also your home! You can have a home and a family at mommy’s and a home and a family at daddy’s! That hurts my feelings when you say that! I’m trying over here! What more do you want?! I get it that your mom’s house is bigger, and you have more stuff to play with, but we do fun things too! Have you forgotten about skiing, rock climbing, bike riding, hiking, camping, ice skating, roller skating, yoga, piano, and whatever else I can’t think of right now?!?! We just can’t do a lot of them right now because everybody is sick! You know, we have a big house in Texas with a huge a** backyard to run around in and a playscape to climb on! You’ve been there! I took you there when you were a year and a half, so I could fix it up to be a rental, so we could move up here to Colorado, so your mom and I could both be close to you! That’s where I could be right now, but I’m not! I’m here, with you, because I choose to be! Because I love you and I want to be with you! There are a lot of other dads and moms that would not make this kind of sacrifice or would not have the means to do what I’m doing, so a little appreciation and gratitude would be nice!”
I calmly explained to her why I reacted the way that I did “because my feelings were hurt and sometimes even parents have ‘big feelings’ that are hard to manage, but it doesn’t mean that it is alright to yell and scream.”
Now before the “parenting police” come at me, quick to criticize others and shame parents for opening up about our struggles, I want to say that I am well aware that I did not handle that situation in the best fashion. I’m sharing this blog and my own experiences to help others and shine a light on parenting strategies that support physical, cognitive, language, social and emotional development, critical to helping our children reach their full potential.
I know most of my response to her was my ego talking. After yelling about the house for an extended period, cleaning things, throwing things away, and opening/closing doors aggressively, probably the only good thing I did was at the end of my rant, I told her that I am going to go to another room and take three deep breaths so I can calm down.
Obviously, I missed the mark on that one earlier, but later is better than never, I suppose. When I came back to her room, a little more clear headed, I found her scared, hiding from me at the top of her bunk bed. That sinking feeling of regret began to weigh heavy in my chest. I picked her up and brought her to the couch, holding her, rocking her and apologizing.
I calmly explained to her why I reacted the way that I did “because my feelings were hurt and sometimes even parents have ‘big feelings’ that are hard to manage, but it doesn’t mean that it is alright to yell and scream.” I reminded her that she is allowed to remind me to take my three deep breaths when she sees me getting upset or frustrated just like she reminds me to clean up my language when she hears me use a cuss word.
This routine isn’t to impose her responsibility over my emotions, quite the contrary. It allows her the freedom to impose the same behavior corrections on me as I do for her. This allows her to see that adults can also make mistakes and helps me model the proper way to accept constructive criticism while also reminding me to model good behavior for her. The same kind of behavior I expect from her. But most importantly, it gives her skin in the game and a sense of ownership within our household and the household rules, which can be a very empowering and a confidence building experience. It’s not whether the actions in this case were right or wrong, this is just what parenting looks like sometimes when we get overloaded by stress. A feeling we all became familiar with in the midst of stress induced by the pandemic which continues today.
What is most important from this exchange is the lessons we both learned from the experience and how we recovered from it. I certainly learned about instilling more patience in my response times and that my daughter’s feelings on certain aspects that I may not necessarily agree with are legit and should be treated as such, even if what she has to say can feel hurtful to me/my ego.
At the end of the day, I am the adult and I should be able to do better. I believe what she learned from that experience is that words are powerful and they can really hurt people’s feelings and a bad reaction to her words, like mine, is a possibility. I also believe she learned that adults, too, are not perfect. We make mistakes just like she does, but when we do, we recognize the mistake, apologize and try to move forward.
I think a potentially negative outcome from that experience may now be that she is a little more hesitant, not feeling safe to speak, believing that I may become angry in the fashion I did again. Like, I may have broken the trust with her for open and honest communication due to my reaction. That being said, it is not always a bad thing to take a pause before one decides to speak and maybe also decide not to speak at all after calculating the unproductive outcome that may transpire.
It was the beginning of setting the groundwork for a good foundation based on trust, love, open communication and teamwork. We both went to work thinking of different indoor activities and ideas that we could do together and things she could look forward to doing with me when it was time to come back after her week with her mother.
The other side of that coin is a willingness to then lie about the truth of what we are feeling to avoid potential consequences or a conflict; which is exactly what I noticed manifesting months after I “lost it during the pandemic” and something we are both happily working on together to solve.
It was the beginning of setting the groundwork for a good foundation based on trust, love, open communication and teamwork. We both went to work thinking of different indoor activities and ideas that we could do together and things she could look forward to doing with me when it was time to come back after her week with her mother. Since we had a collection of Amazon and Costco boxes, the first task was to build a fort! We both helped build it and paint it and continuously add her artwork to it that she brought home from school. It was basically two stories and took up most of the living room, but was well worth the tight squeeze with all of the memories we created with it. The fort led to other fun things for us to do together, like our activities board filled with things like yoga, hiking, piano practice, letter sounds, bike riding, roller-skating and Spanish practice.
For each activity on our board she would get a sticker to put on a sticky note pad next to the activity. When she got three stickers on an activity, she would transfer the stick note pad to another board where she could earn 5 minutes of screen time with Kahn Academy Kids/ABC Mouse, OR she could add up more sticky note pads to bake cookies with Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa over zoom! This then lead to me purchasing my first board game for her, (Candy Land), and gracefully teaching her the art of losing with good sportsmanship. 😊
The final addition to our pandemic forced shift of “fun” came in the form of card games (I hate card games, by the way). But, this one actually turned out to be a great learning experience for me as well, considering I did not think that a four and a half year old could grasp the idea of some of these card games, like memory, Slap Jack, and Goldfish, and I did not think I would have so much fun watching her learn the games?! Nevermind the fact that I had to reread the directions on how to play most of these games. Ha! The time together turned out to be some of the best bonding we have ever done, partially because of the adversities we had to overcome and the determination to push through it as a team.
It all started with that breakdown in communication, where we hurt each other’s feelings, had to set new expectations in our relationship and rebuild the trust on a solid foundation. . . . A foundation perfect for a fort that would take up my whole living room for almost a year until we were finally ready to take it down so we could put up our Christmas Tree. That fort became the quintessential metaphor for what we were going through as a family and possibly what our society was going through as a whole. The building of that fort is something I will never take for granted and never ever forget in reflecting on the true purpose that it actually served.
About the Author
Adam N. S. Combs is a blog contributor helping to illuminate the protective factors in his family’s life by sharing his experiences as a father, military veteran and Circle of Parents facilitator through storytelling.