Sometimes my eight month old daughter falls asleep slumped against my chest, sitting on my left arm like a barstool, with her face against my shoulder, her arms fallen to her side because they’re not long enough to meet around my neck.
To convey the responsibility I feel toward her in that moment is impossible. Metaphors would strain credulity. My commitment is total. My love is unconditional. My every breath is slowed to keep her asleep yet I am more alert than I have ever been to keep her safe.
And then sometimes she wakes up. And she cries or whines, laughs or giggles. She’ll playfully strain against my arms, as if she wants to get away. Except she’s five feet off the ground and cannot walk. She has no plan. And yet, I let her work the muscles. I let her continue to fight her way off the ledge pushing against my chest and face, putting her hands in my mouth. She pushes away and yet is safe, completely secure in ways few of us ever are.
That instinct–to want to let her explore and push as much as she wants while still keeping her completely safe–that is when I feel most paternal.
After a few months of this, something strange started happening.
I would have dreams, or daydreams, where I would think about myself as a small child. I would imagine what I was like and at times “see” myself. Yet, I would be observing as I am now, a father. I would feel that paternal instinct toward myself, and it made me realize that I had never really understood what self care meant before, though I had preached and tried to practice it.
Self care is not necessarily “treating” yourself—allowing myself to rest, or eating delicious food, or letting myself off the hook. Nor is self care necessarily pushing yourself, which I had thought, honing self discipline and building a better me through hard work and grit.
To care for oneself means to act as one’s own parent, with unconditional love.
To say, “I want to keep you as healthy and safe as possible while still allowing you to experiment and push away.”
Some part of me remains a child, exploring the world and pushing around helpless, with no regard for danger. Becoming a father allowed me to see that part, and to become aware of the protections and deflections I employ to not encounter that part of me. Since becoming a father, I’ve developed a much clearer sense of what is important in life in the long run by virtue of acknowledging that part of myself that is the most honest and the most vulnerable.
It’s what spurred my writing. I had wanted to write for so long, but did not do so because I feared ridicule and so I thought I was protecting myself. I became aware of a thin line between protecting a loved one from the world and preparing them for the world. It made me realize that I was only hurting myself by staying closed off. The realization spurred me to write and to share what I wrote with people.
It’s also the reason that I am confronting long standing health issues that I had neglected or previously decided were unimportant. I’ve begun treatment for allergy shots, had a consultation with a doctor for double jaw surgery, and am meeting with a psychologist to be screened for ADHD. These are all problems I’ve been aware of since at least late high school if not earlier.
I had to become a father to see myself through time, not as a snapshot of immediate needs, but as a long-term project. I am not just me today, in this moment, following up yesterday and preparing for tomorrow. I am me across my whole life, from helpless child to old man–son, brother, friend, student, teacher, husband, uncle, father, and who knows what else–and I am worthy of investing the effort and money that one would invest into a child in their care.
This is what becoming a father taught me about self care.
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Charlie, you are also a son-in-law. I am proud to have you as a husband to my daughter, a father to my granddaughter, and I love you as a son.
What a moving piece, Charlie. It really struck a chord for me, because I've been reflecting on the ways in which some of us experience unkind things at the hands of our parents, which might just be a reflection of the ways in which they are unkind to themselves..
I find it hard to find meaningful articulations of self-care that resonate (beyond the bath bombs and the eat something delicious, as you say). This was one of the most poignant I've read.