I admit to getting a little hit of dopamine any time someone tells me I’m a good father. You can tell I enjoy it because I try to dismiss it with things like, “Meh, not really…” or, “I just try to have fun…” or, my go-to, not responding to or acknowledging it at all. Maybe it’s because my father meant so much to me. Maybe it’s just my pride. We never quite grow out of that need for affirmation.
I’m not sure exactly why people say it, though. Because of my job, I spend more time with my kids than the average banker or lawyer or doctor, I suppose, who have to spend long hours in the office, and because of my wife’s work, which used to mean occasional weekends in the hospital and now means occasional weekends on business trips. I quickly got used to changing diapers and scheduling naps and taking orders for lunch. I never had a lot of friends to meet at the bar after work or hobbies to take up an entire saturday in the garage or on the golf course. At family events and social gatherings I would chase after and watch the kids so that I didn’t have to talk to anyone. By nature, I’m patient and don’t like to yell. Is that all it takes to be a good father?
My best guess is that it has to do with laughter. I like to play. I set up the train tracks and build the legos. I’m just a big kid, really. I twirl the kids around and hang them upside down, chase them around the living room and surprise them by jumping out from behind the door. My kids love to laugh. Nothing makes you appear more capable than when your children laugh. We’re ashamed when people see our children cry, but we proudly display their joy. If your kids are happy, you must be a good parent, right?
Of course, nobody saw all those nights when Jackson screamed, stomach acid bubbling up his throat and spilling out onto the crib sheets. I would hold him in my arms, rocking and bobbing and patting until arms hurt and my back ached and my legs just wanted a rest. I did what I could, but I certainly didn’t make him happy. Plenty of times I despaired, became frustrated and impatient, wanting to scream and cry myself. Plenty of times I felt like a terrible father.
I can sometimes make the kids laugh, but I don’t have the power to make them happy. That isn’t a standard we can hold ourselves to. If I’m a good father—and I’m often not—it’s because I love them and hold them whether they are laughing or crying, healthy or sick, happy or sad. That’s all I can do.