I wish this was a post about toddlers as God’s tiny monsters. It would be funny, insightful, and honest. Exactly what I tell myself I signed up for when I started this blog. But, as jokes go, it’s also obvious; a bit of a cliche. We all know the score early in parenthood: your baby is evil when she isn’t being angelic.
But no, the monster under the bed is something different. It’s pervasive, unavoidable, capricious, and appears in the guise of love.
I’m going to imagine that you’re saying “Oh Noel, you’re no kind of monster” right now because my ego could use that boost, but…you are wrong.
It’s not an issue of evil; it’s a matter of simple reality. Whether you believe in a fallen world or cling to the hope of an always-striving humanism, you know this is true: we are, to a huge extent, the accumulated love and scars our parents gave us.
And now I’m the parent.
Some of you are true survivors, some have outpaced their wounds, and some of us underwhelm, given our beginnings. But all of us live with a past created in childhood by people with and without a clue about what they were doing.
During the bad days, my God I worry about my daughter, stuck with me as her clueless father. I’m old. I’m crotchety. I’m scared. Someday, when her friend’s dad coaches her U10 soccer team, *her* dad will be taking his cholesterol meds, trying to find a spot of shade on the sideline, with the grandparents.
Effort isn’t the point. Failure isn’t even the point. It’s what happens when effort and failure collide, those moments of trial when, say, you want a calm evening but you get a picky child at dinner and a late night of interrupted sleep. I don’t know if anyone’s at fault, but I suspect it’s me.
Anger. Ire. Rage. All that’s abhorrent when we face the void—that’s what rises. That’s what my child sees, her father, contorted, trying to love but just stuck in this place of dis-ease, of effort and failure smacked together.
Am I being dramatic? Yes. But honest, I hope. My girl is too emotionally in-tune to avoid it now. She reaches for me when I’m standing still, turned away, my face a rictus of pain and frustration, trying to reconcile disparity—the unconditional love of a parent hurtling against our human desire for conditions. She reaches for me and wants to stop it, stem the tide, have her Dad back and present. It’s beautiful, her part in this, but sad, as one more tic marks itself on her psyche (“held dad’s hand while he stood weirdly silent. must have been my fault.”), and a singular memory, maybe compressed into others, etches into her amazing little mind.
That mind is a sponge. Nothing I do can go unrecognized, unrecorded, unfelt. She’s an emotional (and verbal) memorex, repeating our words and emotions. When I really want her to stop something, I tell her to stop in my most stern voice, while doing the sign for “no” with my right hand. She immediately does an amazing impression of me, down to the furrowed brow, mocking the tone of my voice, clasping her little fingers together. I love her for it (my ego has enough punctures, one more barely matters), but then wonder about everything else she’s picking up. What parts of my dubious psyche is she watching and repeating and turning into her normal day?
Monsters. They show up as doubt, as certainty, as expectation, as regret. I want my daughter’s spirit to keep each of those at bay, slay them, so that she never feels the crippling defeats every adult I know takes as par for the course—some rarely, some often, some constantly.
Defeat trails our days, rippling out like a boat’s wake, crisscrossing other waves, making us seasick without moorage in coves and harbors of still water. But even the safest port in a storm can’t shield us from ourselves on those days when cause the storm.
How do we stand among the storms and monsters of our own making, our own minds? I don’t know, but we do. Eyes on the horizon, hope and future, leaning into the fresh wind of a child’s belief in our steadfast love. I tell myself that, morning and evening, and hope, hope, hope that it’s true.