By James Raper
Full disclosure: This is my first ever blog post. I mean I put myself out there on Facebook and everything, but this feels like a whole other animal. Be gentle.
I’ve been thinking of a few different “dad” related things to write about ever since my lovely wife gently and not-so-subtly suggested I submit something to TMoM. Do I write something focused solely on my own kids (too personal)? Or do I share something influenced by my perspective as a therapist (big fear of coming across as patronizing here)? Honestly, I’ve been a bit flummoxed. So I decided to write about something that every parent is intimately familiar with: anxiety.
The past few months with my 2nd grader has put my own anxiety to the test. This kid is the best: very sweet, thoughtful, and always thinking. He has also been in some form of physical/occupational/speech therapy since he was 16 months old. You’d never really know it to look at him, and he’s pretty much graduated from everything other than a little bit of ongoing speech stuff. Nevertheless, the combination of him being my first-born, and being a little physically vulnerable for the first few years of his life, has led me to watch him like a hawk (though I try not to let him know this most of the time).
Fast forward to spring of this year. As a part of his school curriculum, he takes swimming lessons at the local YMCA. It’s a great opportunity for all kids to learn a vital skill. His group was taught by a retired man, who is a cross between Santa Claus (in looks) and a salty U.S. Navy sailor from the 1940s. So along comes my kid who’s already nervous about this whole swimming-strokes-thing and he’s now face to face with a tough swim instructor who is a little bit intimidating (if only for the serious ZZ Top beard that made whatever he was instructing hard to discern). So, I take this opportunity to put in some required parent volunteer hours to see how it goes. It was tough on my son – furrowed brow, tears, and some stomach aches. And it was really tough on me. I wanted to swoop in, make it easier on my boy, listen to his feelings and validate them (hey, I’m a counselor). But instead I let him struggle on his own and with me only on the periphery. I was there, but he had to do it, and I needed him to know that I believed he could. My job in those moments was to tolerate my own anxiety and instead communicate to him that he could do the same. He did great and had the experience of going through that dark tunnel of self-doubt and coming out the other side.
As my clients will attest, I use the word tolerance frequently in therapy. And really what I mean is a tolerance of ourselves and of our emotions. Too often we try to quickly get rid of the emotion that seems front and center (think anxiety). Most of the time there is no long-term harm done by trying to reduce our anxiety quickly (think compartmentalization, emotional eating/drinking, perfectionism, etc.). However, I want to suggest that there is a real gift in continuing to sit with ourselves and our feelings, without the compulsion to “do”. In doing so we build a greater tolerance for appropriate emotional discomfort, and we can learn to tune in to the messages that those emotions bring. If we can practice doing this as adults, we can model this for our children. And life becomes just a little less scary and overwhelming.
I think all parents have scores of stories just like my swimming story. To be honest, the longer I’m a parent the more I think I’m becoming Steve Martin’s character in Parenthood. And while I’m very much a fan of being a human being in front of my kids (“yes daddy makes mistakes”, “yes, daddy gets scared”), there are moments when I need to tolerate my own anxiety so that it doesn’t get in the way of an opportunity for my kids to walk (or swim) through whatever the next gauntlet is that presents itself. It’s a gift for them that I don’t want to take away.
And I’m still trying to find a way to ride off on a horse with bathmats strapped to my legs.
James Raper, PhD, LPC-S is Associate Director/Therapist at the Wake Forest University Counseling Center. More importantly he is married to Paige (educator at the Arts Based School), and dad of two truly awesome boys (8 and 3). James was born and raised in Winston-Salem and Charlotte, and if he didn’t love his job so much would be a stay at home dad.
Find out more about Fatherly Fridays here.
Previous Fatherly Fridays:
Ten Easy Ways Dads can be More Involved with Their Kids – by Travis Finn
5 Parenting Tips from a Seasoned Dad – by Kim Williams
Programmer Preschool – by Scott Rigdon