Jeff and I sit together in the home office of Dr. Mark, the social worker who sees our son, the son with anxiety, ADHD, and a few other letters that make life challenging, exciting, and sometimes funny. We are there to discuss Mark’s observations and suggestions.
The game of Pick Up Stix is mentioned. My son and Dr. Mark play at the end of each session, and Jeff remarks, “Yeah, Zach is remarkably good at that game!”
“Are you kidding?!” I wonder to myself. “Have you never seen him play? Why is your assessment of our children’s abilities so unrealistically positive? This is why I can’t die until the kids are grown; you are loving and present and hard working – but you have no clue.”
Failure to see the boys’ struggles for what they are is just one of Jeff’s deficiencies, the long list of his parenting failures that I rehearse whenever I feel overworked or under-appreciated: Why could he never pack a diaper bag without forgetting something? How is that we evenly split parenting hours and yet he has never once made a doctor’s appointment? Why is he so inconsistent with discipline, letting too much slide and then all of sudden losing his temper?
I don’t want Dr. Mark to think that I’m as unaware of Zach’s struggles as Jeff is, so I say, “Wow. I think Zach is unfocussed and clumsy when he’s playing.”
“Actually,” Mark interjects, “he plays much better when Jeff is here than when you are here.”
Bracing myself for the answer, I ask timidly, “Really?”
“Yes. And not just with the game. When you are here, Zach is all over the room – under the table, behind the couch. When Jeff is here, Zach sits still and is calmer. And that calm carries over into the game.”
Knots in my stomach. Panic in my chest. I’m the one without a clue. I’m ruining my kid.
“Why?” I ask without wanting to hear the answer.
“Because he’s afraid of Jeff. And I don’t say that in a bad way. Almost all kids are, even of the gentlest fathers, and even when Mom is the primary disciplinarian.”
Trying to let that sink in.
It’s not that I don’t know that fathers are different from mothers and that fathers are important. I’ve seen the documentaries about the unruly elephants raised without males. I’ve heard the President’s powerful speeches imploring fathers to step up to the plate. I’ve read the research about the different and complimentary ways mothers and fathers encourage their kids on the playground.
Far more important, I was raised by a great father and I’m married to a great father. I don’t question the importance of fathers in lives of children.
Still, I’m not prepared to hear that Zach performs better when Jeff is around, that Zach is more enjoyable to be around when Jeff is there, that Zach may learn better when Jeff is there because he can remain calmer and more focused. That knowledge would be hard to take at any time, but I’m a homeschooling mom, for goodness sake! His education is in my hands, and they may not be the right hands.
What do we do now? Should we put the boys back in school? Should I get a full time job and let Jeff homeschool the boys? Should I try to parent more like Jeff? Or should I take a deep breath and try, for something new and different, not to overreact?
Weigh in with your thoughts this week, and I’ll respond next Friday.
Editor’s Note (1/13/12): Read Tara’s response here.