How Scary Should Daddy Be?
My wife and I are thoroughly modern parents. Well, we think we are, anyway. We're somewhat older than most other parents around us. We got started late, in her mid (and my late) 40's, and my daughter was only 2 when I celebrated the half-century mark. Not Charlie Chaplin late, but late. Some of our inclinations may be holdovers from an earlier era, but my daughter has never been spanked or received any corporal punishment, nor will she ever. We don't argue in front of her (not that she'd let us talk) and we take equal turns putting her to bed, doing bath time, transporting to/from school, making lunches, singing, playing, and otherwise being goofballs together. My daughter regularly uses "Mom" and "Dad" interchangeably to address either of us, and only corrects herself sometimes. My wife is the family athlete (which I wrote about recently) and brings home most of the bacon, while I'm a soft-spoken, underfunded, head-in-the-clouds dreamer. So, not a lot of 1950's-style John Wayne-genuflection going on at our house, although I'll certainly keep screening The Quiet Man every March 17th so Laura can rip Maureen O'Hara a new one for putting up with the gender roles in that film. (For my daughter's sake, of course, and reasonably so.) We are, for all intents and purposes, partners in the best sense of the term.
Nevertheless, something happens whenever I raise my voice that doesn't often happen to my wife.
Our daughter freezes.
If my voice is only warning loud, she listens and I have about 3 seconds to state my business before she goes back to her dirty work. But if I'm mad loud? She busts into tears and starts sobbing-gasping-sobbing pitifully. It's not pretty. It breaks my heart, in fact.
I don't often do it. When I do, it's involuntary. On the 12th try to get her to stop squirming and just brush her teeth. Or the 5th explanation about not hitting me in the face with her toy guitar, and then getting hit in the face with her toy guitar.
I've had a self-imposed moratorium on my "mad" voice ever since the first meltdown happened, but it still creeps back in now and then. (Those toy guitars pack a wallop.) This got me thinking about why my little girl reacts this way more for me, and much less for Mom.
I believe when a child reacts, it is always pure. When they merely act, they may have the ethics of a roadside carnie, but reacting is unrehearsed. At least to a certain age, something beyond 3. So it's all on me, then. What am I doing that makes her fall apart if things get a little too real between us? I'm not doing things differently from Mom, who is, in many ways, much more a force to be reckoned with. You may surmise it's my "dad voice", but I'm very soft-spoken; a raspy, lifetime asthmatic who mumbles low enough that my wife's most oft-used phrase is "did you say something, Sweetie?"
So part of me thinks my daughter needs Dad to be scary sometimes, or, at least, to have some scare potential. (Bear with me. I know I just said it's all on me. And it is.)
This occurred to me while I was grilling dinner outside one night and she came out to keep me company. It was late and she's always a little scared in our yard after dark, and I cautioned her against getting too close to the hot grill. The problem is, the grill sits in a spotlight, with darkness all around. She had to stay in the half-light to keep a safe distance.
"I'm scared of the monsters," she said.
"Sweetie, there are no monsters. Maybe a raccoon or two."
"I'm scared of raccoons, too!"
"So am I, Sweetie! Let's go back inside."
"Oh, Dad. You're not scared of anything."
And there it was. Dad's not scared of anything. How could he be? He spends his time coaching her against fear, and explaining how to navigate through a big old world like he knows something. And she's supposed to soak it all in. Trust everything he says.
Add to that she's never seen me cry. I think that's huge, and a difference from Mom. Because of what's nowadays called toxic masculinity, I've been trained since I was a boy not to cry, or at least never to be seen in that state. And that's why it's all on me, and on many men my age. We are walking dinosaurs. We are, essentially, lies. Now I'm a lie that my little girl takes for granted, with greater ease than Santa Claus.
"You're not scared of anything." She trusts it like I was once taught to trust God, Walter Cronkite, and John Wayne.
I had no handy response ready, so, when in doubt, we tend to print the legend...
"No, Sweetie. Daddy's not scared of much."
I lied to my daughter. I wish I hadn't, but my internal wires were fried by the alternative (revealing the truth) and smoke may have been coming off my hair just then. Maybe I'll self-correct when the moment is right, down the road. Or, as with Santa, she'll figure out the impossibility of the statement on her own, and by then maybe she won't need any super-humans in her life. But today, she's only 3. She needs someone on her side who can scare away monsters and, right or wrong, I gave her that. If she believes it's possible to grow up to vanquish monsters, maybe she'll eventually believe she can deal with most of life's monsters herself. That's the finish line here, for me, and not my legacy.
I do make little inroads toward the truth when I can. I tell her when I'm sad, or when something hurts me (like a toy guitar to the head) but for now, Daddy is still monster-killer supreme.
And that's a scary thing to be.
There's another kind of "scary" that a Dad can be, which is the kind of scary you may have thought of when you read my title question, possibly intent on answering with a remedial "A parent should never be scary at all!" And I would agree with you, wholeheartedly, if that were the kind of scary I meant, because that kind of scary was my Dad. (And hopefully not yours.)
My Dad's keys in the door lock, or footsteps in the hall late at night could herald anything. Fighting. Pot throwing. Collapsing drunk on the floor. Overflowing bathtubs. Or violence. In the late 60's and early 70's, the violence in a man's home was his own business and no one interfered, at least where I grew up in the Bronx. My mother was smart enough to take us out of there, something I admire her for to this day, and she gave up a lot of her life plans, I'm sure, which a supportive partner might have helped to realize.
I recall once, after the divorce, we were upstate at a bungalow we used to stay at in summer, and my Dad showed up after being tipped by one of his cronies that we were there. Mom had a 1974 Chevy Nova which she ordered us into while she deflected Dad's violence with her own body on our scramble to the car. I could see him manhandling her through the front windows, until she finally broke for the car herself. He followed in a rage and tried to pull us out while she climbed into the driver's seat, fired it up, and begged him to leave us alone. Stupid drunk that he was, he decided that we may be leaving, but he was keeping our passenger door, which he violently swung out, again and again, trying to break the hinges (and one of them did snap). Mom peeled away and left him right on his ass in the middle of the gravel road, our door flying shut with the car's inertia, and all of us crying for the hour's drive home, a secret safe place he never found. Our passenger door never closed right
after that, and it was my job to kick it from the back seat for us to get out every time we parked.
Cut ahead 40+ years and it's easy for me to raise my child with the belief that no good will come from physical punishment. And there's only the most meager and lazy of rationales for me to ever be purposely scary. No. I say let those "wait till Daddy gets home" parenting tropes lie on their asses in the road, back in some dead parenting past. Maybe my kid will be a little spoiled some day on her road to adulthood. Sometimes I indulge her whims beyond a point that is, well...normal. But she'll get over it. Life is tough. There really are monsters out there to deal with, and they'll take everything if you let them. If you're too turned inward, not looking out for ways to help shape a world that churns out fewer of them...
Some of them seem trustworthy, and some attractive. Some of them want to be your mentor. Some want your vote. But I think she'll understand this eventually, and see through such people. And I'll help her.
I'll have told her some of the truth about life's monsters before long, with the help of some good films perhaps, and how not to be scared when they come.
Sadly, I'll tell her that sometimes they are you.
And finally, she'll know that we, as human beings, always have the choice to place our monsters, and even those destructive parts of ourselves, squarely in our rear view mirror, and drive on fast.