This morning, after cleaning pancake syrup from the various nooks and crannies of a pair of highchairs, of which there are many, I moved to the bathroom and worked up a lather of shaving soap and began to strip away a three day scruff. Looking down, two toddlers stood pantomiming the process in wide-eyed wonderment. I took the brush and painted their little faces to match my own.
In the background, Easy Silence by The Dixie Chicks emerged from a lengthy shuffled playlist, with the words, “Children lose their youth too soon. Watching war made us immune. I’ve got all the world to lose. But I just want to hold on to the easy silence you create for me. It’s okay when there’s nothing left to say to me. And the peaceful quiet you create for me. And the way you keep the world at bay for me.”
Why, you might ask, would a man have a song like this in his playlist? I’ll tell you why. Years back when I was engaged to the only woman I’ve ever truly been in love with, she shared this song with me. Telling me that this was what she felt I made for her. That I was the eye of her storm. Her place of refuge and safety. But circumstances being what they were, I think I eventually became the storm and drove her to seek refuge elsewhere.
Years later, when we got back together, she told me that I never stopped making her feel safe, we had just moved in different directions. How true that statement has become. But now, standing in the bathroom with two small children, the three of us looking like we’d just entered a pie eating contest, I began to realize the simplicity of the lyrics and wonder, How do I protect these boys from the raging storms of life, while preparing them for it?
You see, as a single man, I have been blessed with an ability to create whatever I wanted out of life. If I set my mind to it, I could do or be whatever I wanted to be…within reason, of course. But, as a parent, going about the task of parenting alone, I have discovered that, while it is possible, it has consumed every minute of the day and drained me of every ounce of energy. And still, some days are better than others.
That is not to say that I regret my decision. Just the opposite, in fact. Every day I spend with these boys strengthens our bond and fills me with purpose. It’s just that everything that is involved in caring for children is a whole lot more than my imagination could have prepared me for. Even as I write this, I’m reminded of the constant cloud of fear I’m surrounded by, listening to the congested coughs in the next room over, preventing the boys from obtaining the restful sleep they so desperately need. Wondering if I’m doing enough to help them recover and prevent it from developing into a worsening condition. Worrying about whether or not I’m giving them the nutrition their bodies need to grow, if I’m doing enough to prepare for their futures, and if the maple syrup I see clinging to strands of blonde hair, while we shave together in the bathroom, makes me a bad parent.
These boys are strong, both physically for their age and emotionally, having dealt with cold, hunger, and abandonment from a young age; yet, they are still babies with their innocence firmly (thankfully) intact. And it is my job to protect that innocence. To be the eye of their storm. Knowing fully, that one day I will have to allow them to step into it and become that for themselves, so that they can be that for their wives and their own children. I know that my job is to prepare them to be that. To grow from strong boys, dependent on others for their care, into strong, dependable men.
And that can only be done through example.
One of my challenges is in the fact that, during the week, much of my parenting is done on between three and five hours of broken sleep. This makes for lessened patience and energy. In addition, I manage a household, one shift of a department during the night, and a real estate career during the day. Something has to give, right? It does. In the following areas: My health, diet, sleep, hobbies, and in socializing with other adults. This won’t always be the case, but, for now, it is absolutely the case. I have lost close to 20 pounds, most of which — anyone who knows me would say — is weight I can’t afford to lose. This is partly because I feed the boys and eat what is left over and partly because I have no time to hit the gym. I also spend most weekends at home alone with the boys. We try to get out and do things as much as we can, but after going on almost a full month of fighting coughs, colds, and the flu, most of our time together has been spent indoors. Where my weekends used to be golfing and riding motorcycles, now they are spent wiping faces and places. I feel fortunate to say that I have friends who have gone out of there way to spend time with me in ways which include my children, but others have not. They are still friends, but this may be a forced separation into two distinct groups: Friendships I continue investing into and friendships that slowly disappear.
Recently, I was forced to reevaluate a number of friendships for an entirely different reason and decide if there was any value in fighting to maintain those relationships. Decidedly, there was not, and my energy has been redirected into things that do still hold value. Such as my remaining friendships, my family — without whom none of this would have been possible — and the various avenues in which I generate income. In time, the gym will factor back in, as will hobbies and alone time, but for now, this is my priority.
All of this is to say the following: Regardless of the energy I have or what may be crashing down on my own head, the image I present in the face of it all, the way I react to circumstances out of my control, and the way I treat the little inconveniences that, on little to no sleep, feel very much like the straw preceding the straw that broke the camel’s back, are what my children see. And what they see shapes who they become. For this reason, I lose not one second of sleep over the friendships I have lost. I simply do not have the energy to worry about anything I cannot directly or indirectly control.
This willingness to abandon control over that which is out of my control, along with the emotional and mental fallout which that abandonment has surely brought, is the only way I can effectively control my own behavior; And in turn, teach my boys how to control their own behavior. All that we cannot control represents the storm around us. What is left either becomes the storm or is quieted through willful, careful, and concerted effort that is made to appear effortless to those in proximity to you.
Here is an example to illustrate my point. When I was learning to pilot an airplane, how much control do you think I had over my environment and circumstances? I wasn’t causing the plane to fly. I barely understood what was keeping the damn thing in the air. Something about air moving at different speeds over a foil creating lift, etc., but, what little I did control, was the difference between success and failure, flying and falling, literally, the difference between life and death. My passengers, once I became licensed, sat in complete confidence in my ability to take off, navigate, and land the craft they had willingly strapped themselves into. But my efforts were not what made those things happen. I merely exerted minimal inputs which translated into a response from a much larger force. I managed the systems necessary for this object to defy gravity and to function according to the laws of aerodynamics. And, since I’m writing about it, you can safely assume that I managed to do this successfully.
Someday, when my children are managing the empire we have amassed, however large or small, you can bet it will be due to the abandonment of what cannot be controlled and the management of what can. The intentional choice to manage and influence that which is in your control and abandon that which is not is the beginning of personal power. Only when you can manage the storms that rage internally, can you have any positive influence over the storms that rage externally.
In conclusion, the answer to the question I raised earlier is, simply put, I can’t. Not perfectly anyway. But parenting, I’ve learned, is at least in part, managing to remain consistent in the face of a million tiny successes and failures. Finding a balance between protecting and instructing children, helping them navigate through life, leading them by their tiny hands until they learn to do so on there own. And then pray they can find their own way forward from there.