by John Hoffman
Let me tell you about my really bad day – as a dad, I mean.
It took place some years ago when we were on holiday in New Brunswick. Our boys were 2, 6 and 9 at the time. That afternoon we’d stopped at Hopewell Cape to look at it’s beautiful flowerpot rock formations at low tide.
As soon as we got there, our rather impulsive nine-year-old took off and scrambled partway up one of the rock formations. Not a good idea! These steep rocks are underwater at high tide, so they are wet, and covered with various sea plants and shellfish. Very slippery and treacherous. Scrambling up there was one thing. Getting down? I didn’t see how he was going to do it without hurting himself.
He was too high to reach. So I couldn’t give him a hand to help him get down. I looked at my wife with my best “Now he’s really done it” expression and said, “How is he going to get down from there without breaking his leg!?”
“I can get down,” our son insisted. The he tried to scramble down. Disaster. He slipped, fell, really whacked his hand on a rock and started howling. It could have been worse, but I was still convinced he’d broken bones in his hand.
My thoughts and feelings came in a rush. “There goes the day! Here we are at one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and, before we even get to look around, we’re going to the hospital. Why did he have to do that?”
I can’t remember exactly what I said or did – nothing particularly bad. But I was “in a state,” as they say. So I was burning tons of emotional energy just trying to keep it together and cover up my feelings, in front of all the other tourists who saw what happened. That left me with zero energy to put into helping our injured son, which was what was really needed in that situation.
Luckily, my wife rose to the occasion. She took him off to a washroom to wash and assess his wound, which, luckily, was not a quarter as bad as I imagined. So, no hospital trip. I took our two younger guys down to the water’s edge to poke around a bit while I cooled down. Fairly soon, as boys (and their fathers) often do, we started throwing stones in the water. It was fun at first. I was feeling calmer. Just then, Aaron, who wasn’t that coordinated at throwing, managed to hit his older brother in the eye with a small stone. I couldn’t believe it. Another crisis, just as I was starting to pull myself together!
Again, I managed to control myself. I attend to my injured boys. (My wife was not there to bail me out!) Luckily, he wasn’t hurt that badly either. But I was going to pieces inside – frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and angry (mostly at myself). And, worst of all, this was happening on a day when I really, really wanted to feel good. So now I felt bad about feeling bad. That’s just the worst, isn’t it? I fell into an awful downward spiral of negativity.
I pretty much sulked for the rest of the day. And I slept badly that night. I kept going over everything in my mind, kicking myself for how poorly I’d handled things. When I woke up in the morning I still had a churning feeling in my gut.
I recovered eventually, but it took way too long. And that’s my point. I could have done a number of things better that day. But my biggest failing was not being able to recover from the stress of the day’s mishaps.
Being able to recover from stress is really important. Stress is inevitable. It’s part of life. It’s certainly part of parenting. Crappy stuff happens, even on days when you really want things to go well. Although it is possible to avoid some stress with smart planning, we also have to be able to recover from the stress we can’t avoid. So, for me, the lesson from my story is that we should all think about what we can do to help ourselves recover from stress. Knowing how to recover from stress helps us be better fathers.
What helps you recover from stress? Going for a walk or run? Listening to music? Talking to your partner or your friend? Meditating? Playing your guitar? Talking to a buddy who will make you laugh? Doing something fun with your kids? Having a nap?
Think about it. Talk to your partner about how you can help each other.
Learning to recover from stress is a crucial life skill. It’s also a key parenting skill. I hope that, most of the time, you can do a better job than I did that day in New Brunswick.