I have a conflict. I have a strong desire, a deep longing, to protect you. To protect your bodies from harm, your hearts from pain, and your emotions from adolescent boys (among other things).
But, I have a clear understanding that I will fail at this. I will not be able to keep you safe, always and from everything, throughout your life. I am reminded of this daily as I sit with kids and parents who are hurting. I hear the regret in the parents’ voice, the shame they place on themselves for having failed, for having made mistakes or been inadequate. I see pain every week in my office, and I come home and see your innocent eyes and want to keep you safe. We also hear about tragedy on a daily basis. Some of it distant. Some of it hurts deeply. I have some old friends who, just this week, are experiencing unspeakable pain, and it hurts me. I ache for them, not because I have been without pain, but because I have sat with pain in my life.
As your father, I will protect you fiercely. But when my protection is inadequate, I will be there to walk with you in pain, sadness, grief, and even anger. I will feel these things with you, I will encourage you to feel them, I will help you find a way to live with them, and hopefully make them smaller. I will remind you that you are loved. You were made to be loved. You are worthy of love and belonging. You will struggle. People will hurt you, and you will hurt others, but your inherent value will not change.
It is more important for me to make sure you know you are loved and worthy of love, than it is for me to make your life perfect and pain free. When you know your worth, and when you live from a place of knowing that value, then you, too, will love others despite your pain. You will affirm the worth others have, despite their pain and pain they may cause you. You will love deeply and vulnerably, and this experience will bring greater joy than pain, even though being vulnerable is hard and messy.
In a way, I do want you to experience pain. Not that I want you to experience something unpleasant, but I want you to grow. And growth often requires pain. When you’ve experienced pain you can empathize and walk with others in their pain. As you’ll learn someday, we all need people to walk with us in our pain. And if one day your pain leads you to an office like mine, to talk to a doctor like me, do not allow others’ misperceptions or assumptions to deter you. You will be doing courageous work. It will require vulnerability. But the process, even though it may be painful, will help you grow. It will deepen your understanding of yourself, and it will create space for you to care for others.
As a parent I have to accept my limitations, whether it be to protect, perfect, or parent just the right way. But I commit to being open about my failings, and the pain they may bring me, and the pain they may bring you. I commit to fight the parent shame we feel as we attempt to do something impossible or compare ourselves to other parents, and instead I will be with you in the messiness of life. The growing pains, the unfair results, and any foundation-shaking tragedy that may intersect your life. I will be there to remind you of your worth and that pain does not alter or define your worth. Let’s walk, together.