When my son Andrew was born, I was overcome with emotion, one of the few times in my life, where I allowed myself to cry without restraint. It was an extraordinary event in my life…
Michelle and I had avoided having children for the first eight years of our marriage, as we had our sights on completing our education. We were married relatively young, I was twenty-three she was a year younger. We were still both attending the University of Lethbridge at the time.
Years later when we decided it was time to start a family we discovered that we were not naturally inclined towards procreation. I remember having a sperm test done, to determine if I was the culprit in our lack of success. I remember visiting the doctors office where I was secretly relieved as our odd practitioner (he always wore a Star Trek badge) informed me that “I could father nations”. At least I wasn't impotent. After that, we started the initial phases of fertility treatments and despite our efforts, we remained childless. After a couple of years we simply decided that having kids wasn’t in our future and we resigned ourselves to a future without children.
I can still remember the place and time that Michelle told me that she was pregnant. I was driving in a rental vehicle on my way back from the Stoney Reserve just west of Calgary. I was practicing Aboriginal Law for the firm Ackroyd and had been down attending a meeting with Chief and Counsel. I had just left Red Deer, and the phone rang. Michelle was on the line, obviously emotional about something. She blurted out that she had suspected for a while, but hadn’t been sure, but now she was, and couldn’t wait until I got back to Edmonton, to let me know that we were expecting. I don’t remember much about the rest of the drive home, as I was ecstatic.
The remaining months of the pregnancy were actually tumultuous. After visiting friends in St. Andrews, Scotland and our friends Mark and Ronenne in Cambridge on our first real vacation, I arrived home and back to work only to be met by the managing partner who let me know that I had until the end of the day to pack my office and vacate the building. The partners had met to discuss my future at the firm while I was on holidays and decided there wasn’t one.
Andrew was born on the 2nd of January, 2004 and we couldn’t have been more excited. It was bitterly cold that winter, and I remember bundling him up, as we brought him home from the hospital. Our journey as parents had officially begun and I didn’t have a clue what the hell to do with a new born.
Andrew was probably only two or three weeks old when Michelle caught me tossing him in the air and catching him. Now in my defence, I was being careful, and I wasn’t tossing him very high, but nonetheless, she was horrified. My response to the chastisement was that “I didn’t want him growing up to be a wuss”! Needless to say, my rational for my actions was met with disbelief and I promptly halted that misguided parenting behaviour.
Why tell this story? Fourteen years later, my kid is healthy, brave, and at times reckless. I doubt it has anything to do with being tossed in the air as a new born. But it may have something to do with my attitude and my perspective as a dad. You see, I think growing up constantly being bullied and put down, had burned into my psyche that fact that I was weak, and in my mind weakness was to be avoided at all costs. And the solution to being weak was to ensure that my son was going to grow up tough, so he could avoid the pain of being subject to ridicule and shame like his dad had experienced.
It all sounds crazy looking back on it, but reading Brené Brown’s books has me rethinking a lot of things, and I can see how so much of my parenting style has been influenced by what I experienced as a kid. I let Andrew do all kinds of questionable things as a youngster, like jumping off of a roof onto the trampoline (I am sure most of our friends think we are insane). Michelle gave up trying to override my tendency towards fostering Andrew’s recklessness a long time ago. Amazingly, and thankfully he has had little in the way of injury or scars to show for his bravery, and I am sure in part, he does a lot of those things to impress me, even though my encouragement is mostly subconscious.
The one thing that I haven’t encouraged in him (thankfully it isn’t too late) is to be vulnerable. In fact, I am sure that I have discouraged it most of the time. I have never been a fighter, but I have in the past encouraged him to be tough, and “stand up for himself” even to fight if necessary (there was a period of time when he was being bullied at school), a definite trigger for his old man.
It is such a cliche, but so true, that we men typically see vulnerability as weakness. We shouldn’t cry, show our emotions, or have too much empathy; it just isn’t manly. I am slowly discovering that this is all bullshit. That the emotions that well up in me as I watch a movie (sometimes even a commercial) are not a sign of weakness but that of being a healthy human. I know I have a long way to go in this regard, and frankly I am not sure how long it will take for me to allow myself the freedom to experience my emotions in their entirety. But what I do know is that I want to rectify my misguided approach to parenting before it is too late, and let my amazing kid know that vulnerability does not equate to weakness. That being a real man means embracing and owning our emotions, leaning into them, naming them, and working to understand them. Maybe, just like we are enjoying the process of developing our golf games together (he is already better than me) we can share the journey towards wholeheartedness together?! Hopefully then he will have a whole lifetime to live wholehearted, unlike his dad who is only just figuring it out with the last half his life already gone (turning 50 soon).