Just over 2.5 years ago I became a father for the first time.
My son L. was born after heavy labour and delivery. After 24 hours of labour they had to use the forceps to deliver L. Although grateful that they didn't have to perform a C-section, I am still wondering if it could have gone differently. But that story is for another time.
After L. was born, a pediatrician came to check up on him. It was at that moment that I was confronted with the worst feeling you can have as a parent: helplessness. She listened to his heart and detected a murmur. During the delivery with the forceps, they hurt his left arm and shoulder. When L. was sleeping, he was holding his arm close to his body instead of the usual 'up-in-the-air' position babies like to take. The pediatrician did some tests on his arm and said that he might never get full mobility. In the future he might even have trouble getting dressed, let alone play ball. J. and I were devastated. We started crying. I know that some parents receive a lot more devastating news than that, but at that moment our world collapsed. The dreams of a perfect baby were coming to an end. The doctor started listing possible treatments for his heart and arm. All of them involved surgery. I was scared.
About an hour later they came to fetch L. for an echocardiograph. It turned out he had a 2mm VSD, basically a small hole in the wall between the left and right ventricles of his heart. When we got back to our room, another doctor was waiting for us. He was the head of the pediatrics department and wanted to have a look at L. He did the same tests his colleague had done before him. He looked at us and asked why we looked so gloomy. I told him about his colleague and her list of treatments. He looked at us bewilderd. "We should keep an eye on this VSD, but it's really very small and it will probably heal by itself. I'll schedule you for some appointments," he said, "and with regards to his arm, I think some pain medication to start and he should be better in a few days." I asked about his mobility. "Give it 3 or 4 days and he'll be fine. No worries." The doctor also reminded us to enjoy the moment. J. and I looked at each other and felt relief and anger at the same time. What just happened? It turned out that the first doctor was a student (it was a university teaching hospital) and she had felt the need to impress us with her knowledge of complicated surgeries and procedures. By doing that, she had scared fresh new parents for no reason at all.
That was the first time I was confronted with the pain of parenthood. The sinking, helpless feeling you get when seeing your child hurt. I realised that Iwould do anything to take away his pain. If I could sign a paper that would allow me to feel all the pain L. would feel in his entire life instead of him; I would sign in a heartbeat.
After 3 days L.'s arm had healed up completely and after 4 months the cardiologist gave him the all clear on the VSD.
My second major confrontation with 'the pain of parenthood' happened this week. J. and I are of the belief that we should allow our children to explore as much as possible. We give them the freedom to discover their surroundings. So when we visit the Zoo, for example, we let L. run around (we don't lose sight of him) and let him pick which animals he wants to see. So this is what we did last Sunday morning. The Antwerp Zoo is only 5 minutes away and we have a membership, so whenever we can, we like to go and see the animals during all the different seasons. We consider the Zoo to be our own garden.
After a nice visit we were heading to the exit.
J. wanted to quickly visit the giftstore; but L. wanted to see the flamingos one more time. We split up and I followed L. to the flamingos. He was running towards them, when he suddenly tripped and fell. He fell with his head on a bench. Blood everywhere. I know that headwounds bleed profusely, and in my career I've seen some terrible wounds, but when your 2.5 year old kid is bleeding, nothing can prepare you for it. I scooped him up and put pressure on the wound with my fingers while running to the first aid station. A visit to the ER was necessary and the good doctors glued his head back together.
When my child is hurt, it hurts me just the same. It is gutwrenching and nausiating. This goes, not only for the big events, but also for the small daily events that hurt my kid. I want to protect him at all cost. Somebody who looks at my kid in a funny way? ... I want to hurt that person and do mean things to them. Another kid in the playground who pushes my child... I want to punch that kid in the face.
But this is part of the catch 22 of parenthood. As a good parent you want your child to discover the world. You want your child to explore and to be amazed by new things. This is part of the learning process for every child, everywhere in the world. As a parent and a dad, you need to allow it. The catch? Every time your child goes into unknown territory, the chance of getting hurt increases. Not only in a physical way, but also emotional. When your child is sad because of a failed adventure with a new toy, you feel sad. You don't want your child to feel that way.
Parenthood is finding a balance. Nobody can tell you where the boundaries of exploration exist for you and your child. You'll figure this out for yourself every day again, and again, and again. Every stage in growing up requires more exploration, more independence and probably more hurt in the process. As parents, we know that getting hurt is part of the learning process and we know that kids need to do it; but it doesn't mean you have to like it.
Is parenthood and being a dad easy? Sometimes it is. Most of the time it is hard and difficult. It can be frustrating, it can be tiring, it can be emotional, it can be all of these things thrown together in a debilitating cocktail of feelings. I might say something controversial here, but I believe that any parent who says parenthood is easy is not a good parent. Parenthood should be difficult. If your choices as a parent sometimes don't keep you up at night or sometimes don't make you doubt yourself, you are not giving it your all. Parenthood and fatherhood shouldn't be easy.
Fatherhood is the most amazing experience, it grows you as a human being. It warms your heart.
You know what fatherhood does to you? It makes you a man.