My youngest is sitting at the table, weeping. He’s shaking with what I imagine is frustration, overwhelm, with a side of anguish. His body convulses slightly. Big silky tears are smudging a math worksheet dense with pencil lines, eraser scuffings, and mixed fractions.
To be fair, multiplying mixed fractions is a super pain in the ass. First, you have to convert the mixed fraction to an improper fraction, like this: 2 1/2 X 7 2/5 = 5/2 X 37/5. Then you have to multiply across both the numerator and denominator. 5/2 X 37/5 = 185/10. Then you have to convert it back into a mixed fraction 185/10 = 18 5/10, then you have to reduce, if possible – 18 5/10 = 18 ½. It’s a long, grueling process if you’re new to fractions. I might have given a class of fifth graders four or five problems for homework, but he’s looking at twelve. Hence the anguish and overwhelm.
And, of course, the day is compressed. I have promised we’d watch a particular movie this week and the only time we have available is this evening. My youngest almost never has homework. It is a problem of unlikely convergences. My oldest needed driving to play practice in Whitefish, and well, this is how these things happen. Now we’re crunched for time if we’re going to get homework, dinner, and a movie all packed into the evening before a reasonable bedtime.
I’m trying to reason with him. “Just start,” I say. He knows how. We’ve demonstrated that he knows how. He’s just not. In my mind I’m imagining every job I’ve ever had which features an endless line of unpleasant work that just has to be mustered through. The driveway which feels like it’s the size of a football field, but never-the-less has to be cleared of snow one shovelful at a time. The edge tiles that must each be cut and laid one at a time. The endless lines of drip-irrigation that must be unrolled one at a time, each dripper hole punched, each hole filled with a dripper. This is an important moment for him. Slogging through work that is doable, but seems insurmountably endless is one of the features of life.
“I caaaaan’t,” he wails. “You can,” I reply robustly. “You’ve got this.” “They’re so long, and there’s too many of them!” He replies. “OK,” I say, “I’ll send your teacher an email and say you just weren’t able to do the problems. But we’re not watching that movie tonight if you don’t do this work.” “Nooooo!” He cries, “I don’t want thaaat!”
What does he want? Aside from not having to do the work. It’s made clear to him that he must do the work. He has all the tools. He’s capable. “If you had started working diligently, you’d be done by now,” I point out, which has to be the least helpful thing to say ever. “Here, let me help you . . .” But he pushes me away. “Nooo! Dad! Go away!” he screams. He doesn’t want my help. But he wants my help. “But kiddo . . .” I try again. “GO AWAY!” he stamps his feet and bangs the table as he’s yelling at the top of his lungs.
Yelling at me like this provokes the kind of incredulous anger I always regret losing control of later. “Listen to me, young man,” I say with my seething teeth clenched. “You will not speak to your father this way.” Fuck me, I’m speaking in the third person. At least I have learned enough by now to walk away for a moment.
I look back and am defeated. My beautiful child is hunched at the table, sobbing. I sit down next to him. I take a deep breath. “Kiddo,” I say, summoning all the cruel times in my own life I’ve ever had to do something repetitive and awful for the sake of just getting it done. “Don’t look at how far away the mountain is. Just put your head down and take one step at a time.” This is my version of the Taoist chestnut, ‘The journey of ten thousand steps begins with the first one.’
Through tears, his voice choking and hiccuping, he says, “Dad – you’re the mountain.”
Oof. A vice clamps on my heart and now I’m ten. I’m at my grandparent’s house. I’m hiding from my grandfather because, well, he just seems scary. I don’t remember any specific incident, but I’ve polled my cousins, and they all concur that when we were young, he definitely radiated an ‘I’m in charge, better not cross me’ vibe. By the time I came to be a young adult, he was one of my most trusted confidants, a wealth of advice and wisdom, and also kindness and gentleness. I don’t know if he changed or if I changed. It’s a great mystery of my childhood.
Trapped in my memory are also night-before-due evenings when my own father would review my highschool English Lit essays. I remember struggling with wanting to be done, knowing that if I let my father in on the process, we’d be working and reworking it a mind-numbing, frustrating number of times. Also knowing that if my father edited my work, I’d get a much better grade. That man could spot a grammar error from twenty thousand leagues. So I know the feeling he’s experiencing – just wanting to be done, come what may. But now I also know the feeling that compelled my fastidious father – if I don’t teach this child how to work, he’ll struggle later.
The trade-off is always, at what cost? I can’t just let these things skate, what’s my job as a parent if not to teach my child how to take care of things that need doing? Watching my child puddle into his chair and onto the floor, I’m torn.
“Dad – you’re the mountain.”
I’m both deeply proud and deeply ashamed. I’m proud because here is a child who, with alarmingly brisk readiness, has expressed a pretty complex emotion. I try to raise children who are both willing and able to talk about how they feel. But there’s shame too. It’s complicated because I’m a human being, with human failings. And this is the child that tallies and remembers all the failings. He’s also the child with whom I’m the most likely to lose my shit. And I’m a big guy and can be scary when I’m mad. Though I can say with some degree of humility, it’s not often, but every time I’ve ever lost my temper with this beautiful child I’ve regretted it, and count those moments as my life’s biggest mistakes. And I’ve made some doozies.
I try to teach my kids by example what to do when a mistake is made, which isn’t as easy as our society would have us believe. If you ask someone what to do when they make a mistake, they’ll probably come up with one or two actions – say sorry, or try to fix it. But making a mistake is a much larger, richer, process that requires a great deal of thought and humility. Here’s what I teach my kids, and how I try to live, when a mistake is made:
1. Acknowledge a mistake has been made. 2. Own your part in making the mistake. 3. Acknowledge the damage done to the aggrieved party without minimization or rationalization. 4. Express genuine regret via an authentic and unconditional apology. 5. Do whatever can be done to make it right. 6. Explore all the lessons making that mistake has to offer. 7. Work to ensure that the mistake doesn’t happen again. 8. Work to forgive yourself for making the mistake and move on.
That’s a lot of stuff to do after fucking up.
I teach my kids that not every step on the list can be undertaken. Some mistakes can’t be made right. Sometimes an apology will make it worse. Some wounds we will always carry. I can confirm this through hard-won experience. Sometimes the best we can do is work towards healing. To greater or lesser degrees, we all come out of childhood scarred, and I am aware that in a small way, this essay is part of me acknowledging the failings I’ve accumulated – a tiny chunk of atonement.
What I can do is talk openly with my beautiful child about losing my cool. In quiet moments, usually at bedtime, he will ask me about it, and he tells me how afraid of me it makes him. I sink into owning my error, acknowledging the hurt and fear that are a result. I ask how he feels. I listen. I walk through the steps. I apologize with a sincerity that burns like magnesium in water. What I can do to make it right is only to ensure that the memory of dark moments see the light, to make sure there are bright moments for comparison and context. I get better, over time, at having a softer response to the mind-shaking disrespectfulness he is able to conjure. The tween years are legitimately trying.
Step eight – forgiving yourself – is the hardest.
I fear an imagined future where he withdraws from me entirely, a memory full of hard words spoken over tear-damp math worksheets – the long, loving bed-time make up sessions inadequate to the task of fending off the fear of future hardness. I shudder, imagining a cold, empty gulf growing between us, mirroring the vast emptiness between his mother and I. It happens all the time. You see it all the time. I crouch behind this fear. I name it in the darkness where it lives. I pull it to the sunlight. Unlike so many of my fears, this one doesn’t diminish easily. It lurks behind every decision I make that impacts my children, which is basically all of them.
I let him work on his own, and he buckles down to do some real work. I’m proud of him and tell him so. It kills me that he won’t get a perfect score on the worksheet and I know it, and I know he knows it too, but I refrain from hovering, or requiring endless corrections. His effort is significant. He eats his salad. Tears begin to dry on the now nearly indecipherable worksheet. I offer him an ice-cream bar for dessert. We turn on the movie. We snuggle. I hope it is enough.