How to Be a Dad

How to Be a Dad

Staring at Nothing

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Staring at Nothing

He’s sitting there next to me with the book open. The closeness of his face to its cardboard pages a gauge of his intensity. It must be a good one, he’s already holding it inches away as he pretends to read it to me in his bed. He’s four. He’s adorable. He’s totally absorbed. Me?

I’m unmoved. Barely there.

FOCUS, MAN!

He turns a page and concentrates on brightly-colored trains that I can see are already chugging towards trouble. My vision blurs though and, as he begins his version of this part, his voice softens and fades as my thoughts wander in and throw a blanket of weary vagueness over my attention.

I’m staring far away. At nothing.

WAKE UP! ENJOY THIS!

I know I’m too tired, too hungry, too preoccupied, too puréed from the sharp edges of the blender called Life. A detached anger burns beside me rather than inside me, at myself, that I’m not even able to really feel the anger I want to feel for slipping away. I know that this isn’t right. I want to scream at myself to make myself actually mad at myself.

I turn to thinking about how fast he’s growing up, like I’m trying to coach myself, but even thinking about this takes me further away from what I’m experiencing and I hardly notice that he’s turning another page. My brows go to war above my unfocused eyes as I realize that now I can’t really hear his voice at all anymore even though a part of me knows he’s still busily stitching together half-remembered parts of the story into a patchwork quilt of sentences.

PAY ATTENTION! DRINK THIS UP, YOU FUCKING FOOL!!!

He looks up to make sure I’m listening and enjoying it. I force a smile bigger than is honest and, satisfied, he turns his big eyes back, peering into the inch-away pages, ritualistically tracing a finger over the lines of words he’s not really reading.

My phone vibrates and bloops in my pocket, and like a guilt-ridden werewolf chaining himself to a tree before a full moon, I jam my hand under my thigh to keep myself from checking.

DON’T YOU EVEN DARE, YOU IDIOT!

In a sort of next-level last ditch effort, I begin to imagine that tomorrow I won’t see him. Never seeing him again. I’m forcing myself to get the idea that this is our last moment together; that it could be. I’m desperately trying to throw myself a life preserver. Hoping that it hits me in my stupid face.

I know all of this will all be gone in before-you-know-it seconds and that I’m going to leave myself with blurred shadows of memories, and him with my plastic smiles he’ll one day know were lies. Me, staring at nothing, while it all happened.

Wishing I could slap my face hard, I take a deep breath and clench my jaw.

LISTEN. BE THERE.

His voice becomes crisp to me again. The trains figured out how not to wreck themselves all over the place and the day was saved. Yay!

His eyes twinkle over his toothy smile and I smile back a secret promise to him that I’ll be better. More there.

Whatever it takes.

I will give my son presence.

Andy

P.S. in my defense, the book was kinda slow and that bed of his is really almost too comfy.

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37 Comments

37 Responses to “Staring at Nothing”

  1. Yep. I’m with you, Andy. You can sit back and look at yourself while it’s happening – the divided attention between your children and whatever else it is you are thinking about or looking at. I fight against it all the time.

  2. Nicki says:

    Well said, Andy. I’ve had this internal monologue with myself many time before and I feel so sad about that. Be present! Great advice for all interactions and situations in our lives.

  3. Jimmy says:

    All too familiar with this. And it happens way more often than I’d like to admit. There are times I try to cut myself a break because it is all really tiring. But even that is difficult. If I’m taking a pass on real engagement, I’m substituting it for a heavy dose of I’m personal guilt.

    • Andy says:

      That’s the trap of it though. Guilt and self-revulsion can compound the problem. I try to ascend to a line of thought that is just a purposeful determination to eliminate something that isn’t right.

      Sometimes it feels right or fitting to feel like utter crap, though.

  4. Amber says:

    So how did you come back to awareness? Did you? Is it possible to move from the numb blankness back to awareness and enjoyment? I’m there with you and desperately seeking an answer.

    • Andy says:

      I honestly didn’t that day. I let my wife know I was a major space cadet tumbling through space.

      Then I forced myself to get some decent sleep, started taking vitamins I’d been getting lazy about taking, and over the next few days began systematically listing what it was that kept pulling at my attention or worrying me. I’ve been either handling them, or removing my attention from those things.

      As a workaholic, I make myself get out, away from all of screens, and look around at the world. It really helps if I can interact with people when I’m doing this.

      I hope this helps. Even though I’m breaking our site’s cardinal rule of not actually being helpful in any way.

  5. That was perfect. Fantastic writing Andy. I too find being present incredibly hard sometimes, especially when reading the Thomas the Train Alphabet book for the eleventieth time.

    We do our best. We fail. We beat ourselves up. We do it better. We love our kids and continue hoping it is enough. Keep up the good work!

    -John

    • Andy says:

      I’ve found “successful” parenting is less about “wins” and more about what you do after you’ve failed. Thanks for the wise and kind words.

  6. Really, really well done, Andy. And familiar. Climb out of my head, wouldja?

  7. Yes. Been there, reading the same board (bored?) books, listening while fighting the dark cushions curling in from the sides of my head, pushing me towards sleep. Focus, get in the moment, don’t take for granted.
    It’s not always easy.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Tears….
    It is all going by too fast…

  9. DGK says:

    Wonderfully written and so true. Great read.

  10. ForTheORB says:

    Hate to say it but I realized I was doing this as I read this. I looked over at my son and stopped reading this. We enjoyed some awesome dinosaur time until he took his nap. I had thought, ‘while he’s busy I can check my online stuff real fast’. And we all know how long ‘real fast’ is when your online. Oops, looks like ORB is stirring. Maybe we will go do park time.

  11. Irish Gumbo says:

    This is the sort of thing that pulls me up short on the leash. That monologue and variations on it have played through my head far too many times for comfort. The world makes so many demands, made worse by the digital age, it is a struggle to remain real and on the now. Power on, bro, power on.

  12. Nathan says:

    i find myself looking for the pause button all too regularly its not fair!!

  13. Nathan S. says:

    Never had this problem. My children are my life and I live every moment of my life to help better them with theirs. They talk I listen. I talk they listen. Regardless, this is a well written piece, blooming with wonderfully worded pictures. Maybe instead of showing so much concentration on writing this, focus that energy on listening to your kids sharing one of the most important times of their lives. Even if it is only for that moment.

  14. Joel says:

    Very well written. Life is full of distractions and things “to do.” Good on you for being there for your kid!

  15. Jack says:

    Awesome post. I fight this battle often. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Laurie says:

    I love every.single.word.of this. You are a great dad. Ick to the comment 2 up..Great read!

    • Andy says:

      Thanks so much. Yeah, I couldn’t tell if I was chuckling at his self-congratualtion or his condescension or both.

      I can’t hold it against him. Some people miss the point, especially if it’s not a familiar experience.

  17. singlemomwhat says:

    Oh my God. Thank you. I am not the only one

  18. Gurkan from Turkey says:

    So it’s the same in all over the world. I put the cell phone away, turn off the tv and read the book on the carpet which is much uncomfy, but even I do all these stuff to keep me aware at 11 pm. it still is hard to pay much attention that he deserves

    • Andy says:

      I believe that parenting has always been this way, even before electronics entered into the world. But they can make it a steeper slope to climb. It’s a slope I climb to be with my kids, so I lug my dazed self up the best I can. I think we all do. Except poodle owners. (Sorry I had to throw I joke in there, it’s a condition)

  19. This resonates. Each day I fight the good fight to drink in everything about the moments shared with my Little Mister (21 months). It’s worth it. It’s also nice to know that it’s not always easy for my parenting counterparts either :)

  20. Jo says:

    Give yourself a SMALL break…we’ve all been there. We all try to spread ourselves too thin and we are tired and apathetic to stories we have read umpteen thousand times and already know the plot and ending to. It isn’t the end of the world. You smiled when it was required and he never knew you weren’t ‘there’.

    Just, like you said you would, try harder next time. Don’t let yourself get so run down. Take time for YOU once in a while. You’re not just a dad, an employee a husband…you’re a human who needs ‘Me’ time.

    Take care Andy… xo

    • Andy says:

      Don’t feel too bad for me, I’m not continuously tearing myself apart about it, that just makes it worse. I just wanted to share a totally honest moment. Part of that moment was ripping myself a new one. Thanks for the words of encouragement. :)

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