My daughter is in college, and she told me something recently that really jarred me. “My friend and I were talking the other day,” she said, “and we realized we’re two of the few girls we know who have a good relationship with their fathers.”
It was one of those weird life moments where I felt happy and sad at the same time. Happy that I was one of those two dads. Sad that so many of her friends have no emotional connection with their fathers.
No doubt about it — parenting is hard. And the hardest part of all is that you have to put your child’s needs above your own needs. That doesn’t mean allowing your kids to rule the roost, or that you don’t make time for yourself. Our kids need to see that we have a life and our life is important, too. They need to see the world doesn’t revolve around them.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about putting your own selfish needs and wants behind the very deep, very real needs of your children. Your kids need to know, on a gut level, that the most important job in your life is being their parent and that they can trust you. When they are young and you show them, bit by bit over time, that they can’t trust you, the seeds of doubt are sown. By the time they are young adults, they will have built a wall to protect themselves from you, and you’ll never be able to tear that wall down.
So when I scroll through the articles in the parenting section of Medium, I can’t help but wince at more than a few of the headlines. A recent sample:
My daughter has ruined my life
I’m tired of being a dad
Motherhood: it doesn’t get easier, it gets worse
Not harder. Worse.
What I don’t know about parenting could fill a container ship. But I do know one thing for certain: Your kids need to know you love them, and they need to know that love is paramount and unwavering.
If you have resentment or regret about having brought them into your life, they will know it.
If your love is conditional, based on their behavior, they will know it.
If your love for yourself is greater than your love for them, they will know it.
If you are ashamed of them, they will know it.
They will know it, and they will never get over it. It will go like a cancer to the very fiber of their being. If they are lucky, they will find a way to come to terms with it and still lead a happy, productive life. But they will never get over it.
My father showed me this very vividly. Dad died from colon cancer in 2019. He was a complicated man, and at times we had a complicated relationship. But there was one thing I never doubted: I knew my father loved me. He told me that from the moment I came into this world until the moment he left it.
Dad knew how important it was for me to know this, because he knew what it’s like to know the opposite. My grandfather never once told my father he loved him. Dad was the youngest of four children, a surprise baby who came into the world as my grandfather descended into the throes of alcoholism. He was a miserable person in a miserable place in his life, and he projected that onto his youngest son. My father’s father never wanted him and never loved him. And he made sure Dad knew it.
Dad was an intelligent, charismatic person. He was a survivor who made his own way in the world. By the time he died at the age of 72, he was a success in business and in life. But he never felt it; not really, not deep down in his soul. He never truly felt worthy as a person, because his father wired in him the belief that he was unworthy from the moment he was born. And he never got over it.
I’ll never forget what Dad said to me about how he felt when his own father died. “I felt guilty,” he said. “Because I didn’t feel…anything.”
I can’t think of anything worse as a parent than to leave this earth and not have your child feel anything. It certainly wasn’t the way I felt about him when his life was winding down.
In his final days, Dad wandered in and out of consciousness. Most of the times when he was awake, he wasn’t lucid. Seemingly unaware he lay dying in a hospice facility, he babbled on about places and events that were from times long ago, as if he was still there. His life was literally passing before his eyes.
One afternoon, I prepared to leave as he drifted off to sleep on a raft of painkillers. When his eyes closed, I went to his bedside and kissed his clammy forehead and told him I’d be back soon. But before I could turn to leave, Dad suddenly grabbed my arm with a grip so strong it startled me. He looked at me with an intensity I’d never seen from him, ever.
“Jack, I need you here with me, bud,” he said. “I love you.”
I smiled and patted his hand as I blinked back tears. “I love you too, Dad,” I said. And I sat back down in the chair next to his bed and stayed a little longer.
There will be a few times on your parenting journey when you may not like your child very much. But there must never be a time when they don’t know you love them and value them, unconditionally and unwaveringly. It’s the one non-negotiable rule of parenting. It’s our moral imperative.
The rest is just details.