Moments of terror.
Holding him. Holding her. For the first time, wary of their floppiness and heart aching with the raw power of what I’d just seen.
The first time he cried in my arms. I panicked, looked helplessly around the hospital room and blinked. What did he want? What could I do? Part of me wanted to search for The Mamanator, set him on her breasts and have him calmed down.
The cord-end still attached to their belly buttons. I avoided it, it scared me. Then there was that moment when the last bits of tube came away with some drops of blood and we called the Maternal Child Health nurse because we didn’t know what was going on.
I cut my son’s finger-nails for the first time and the smallness of them was terrifying. The glint of light on the clippers quivered in my shaking hands. I imagined I was in surgery, with face mask, beeping machines and nurses on hand to schwab the sweat away from my furrowed brow.
The weight of a limp and heavy head. The sound of water hitting the basin wall. The cold, naked room. The inches of water sounded wet, deadly and far too deep. I was petrified, and I couldn’t do it the first time. So I tagged out and assisted. It was weeks before I could bathe him myself.
The fear you feel when your child, whose food you’ve been monitoring so carefully, gets their lolly or piece of cake.
The first time the two of them cried at once.
The hospital trips.
Moments when all the confidence, all the expertise and all that skill you’ve built up through weeks and months of constant care seems to just drain away from your face like blood. The first time away. The first time leaving them with someone else.
So many firsts. So much fear. And that is just the small stuff. The deeper issues linger. These slow-burners of fear. The nagging questions, the doubts and the insecurities – all rooted in fear. Fear of fathering. Fear of the task. Fear of failure. Fear of warping, damaging and distorting the young minds you hold in your hands. Fear that they’ll see your fear and become fearful themselves. Fear of your child’s fear. Fearing fear itself.
Fear is the enemy. Fear shuts down the brain, fear is paralysing, fear makes you hesitate, makes you second guess, makes you make mistakes. And that’s just on the inside. Then you become a parent and you have an audience. Then you have a life to protect. Then you have responsibilities. Then you know what fear is.
Fear used to exist to help us avoid being eaten by things bigger than us. It kept us alive, but as our lives have gotten both safer and more complex, we have found new reasons and new ways to feel fear. We have new modern names for fear: angst, guilt, self-doubt. But at the core that basic primal fear runs through the centre of it all. We used to fear for our lives, but now we fear for our futures, our careers, finding purpose, finding a house, sharing ourselves with someone else and then we fear for all these things for and through our children.
I wish I was fearless. I wish I knew what I was doing. I wish I was imbued with the decisiveness, with certainty with strength.
Imagine fearless fatherhood. Brash, daring and confident. I’d never hesitate to clip a fingernail. Never stop to question my judgement. Never be frightened by something as mundane as a bath. Never think too much about how my words or my actions might be affecting my children, because I was sure in myself and my actions. Unsqueamish and manly I’d forge ahead, knowing what i was doing was the right thing.
I need my fear. My fear challenges me every day. It makes me a better dad, it makes me work harder and strive better. It makes me think deeper and longer. Fear makes me double-check the car seat. Fear helps me keep track of 2 kids in the bath. Fear keeps me alert when I am with my kids swimming, running, climbing….
And yes, of course it goes too far. Happens all the time, especially in those blurry early days, when you’re convinced that if you hold your child the wrong way they’ll snap in two in your hands.
Or later on, when your toddler climbs up to a new height on a playground and you waver between wanting to pull them down or hold them up so you kind of hover near them with your hands out not knowing what to do. Then you get scared you are being a helicopter parent, put your hands down but dance from foot to foot like you really need to go to the toilet because you don’t know if being too close is doing harm, but you don’t want to be too far away in case they fall….
Or when you realise you have sworn in front of your child for the first time and you’re convinced you’ve just destroyed their chances of being prime minister (that’s a normal and rational fear, right?).
Or when you snap for the first time and yell at your child and they look at you with hurt, scared eyes before bawling – and you are so afraid that you’ve destroyed their soul and they’ll never recover (they recover).
But you learn to deal with it. You learn to cut those finger-nails. You learn to run those baths. You learn to watch but not interfere as they play. You learn your limits as your child learns theirs. You never eliminate your fear, but you learn to listen to it and trust it without letting it take over completely.
It’s that feeling in your gut. It’s the reflexes that make us all “ninja dads“. It is there in that sense you get when your child is up too high. It’s that urge to look both ways and hold their hands as they cross the street – even if there hasn’t been a car down it in weeks.
And your kids watch you learn to deal with it. They understand that as you stop fearing things they can stop fearing them too. They learn that if you’re scared for them they’ve crossed a line and put themselves in danger, real danger. And they learn from that far more profoundly and far more quickly than any stern talking to they might receive afterwards.
So don’t sweat fear. Understand it, face it, challenge it. It’s there to help, and it’s their to teach you. Just don’t let it take over. And remember, your little ones don’t have fear yet, it’s part of why they’re so frightening to their parents.
This post is in part inspired by this excellent post by Alex at Dadrites. Go read it.
The next installation of the series – Anger – can also be found here.