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As someone who has fought my own depression and anxiety, I never realized how it affected those around me. I also never knew how noticeable it was to those in my life. It wasn’t until I began to get treatment myself that I found out how visible it was in others. What scares the hell out of me is when I recognize signs of it in my kids. No matter how slight they may appear to others, each one is a serious event to me.
All of my sons are unique, as most children are. Very seldom are any 2 kids identical in demeanor. The differences make them individuals, and it also has made me develop new parenting skills as each of them crosses into a new stage. Saying that it has not been a challenge filled with frustrations and mistakes would be untrue. They frustrate me, anger me, and drive me crazy. The reward for all that is getting to see these boys grow.
My middle son is perhaps the most free-spirited of the 3. He is almost always happy, and usually content with whatever he has. He takes care of his belongings, unlike his brothers, and is thankful to us for everything we give him. Watching him play by himself is a joy. His imagination is unbelievable, and when he is in those “other worlds” he draws you in with him. There is no object he can’t turn into a toy and no piece of clothing that can become a superhero costume. He is his own person, and that is awesome to me.
He does occasionally have his moments when he is almost entirely shut down. Usually, these times are related to being tired or hungry and are typical of exhaustion or lack of blood sugar. The times when those aren’t the obvious causes are when I become the most concerned.
A few nights ago he just wasn’t himself, and the more time that passed, the more apparent it was becoming. I initially was frustrated with him and his ‘moping.’ The more I watched him, though, I realized it didn’t appear to be an ordinary 8-year-old pouting session. My wife and I both asked him several times what was wrong, all we got was a shrug of the shoulders and a sad face.
Finally, I looked him right in the eye and asked what was wrong, one more time. I had to know as his father it was my job to know, and he was going to tell me. If it was something stupid, he was going to be in trouble. No matter what it was, I was going to get it out of him. His answer was simply “I don’t know” and he preceded to break down crying.
The words crushed me.
I immediately felt a sense of guilt and shame. Guilt because I feel like it’s something I may have passed on to him, and shame because I didn’t recognize it immediately. That my own son was showing signs of what could be depression and I didn’t initially give him the support he needed, made me feel horrible.
I have spent too much time in my life dwelling on things that I should have handled differently.
I didn’t know what else to do at the time, so I just grabbed him, picked him up and held him tight. He sobbed, and I sank. No matter what triggered this event, it was my job to help him through it. Up until this second, I hadn’t done that. I immediately thought back to all the times in my childhood when something was wrong, and I didn’t know what it was. All those times that I was told to “get my ass off my shoulders.” and quit sulking. All the moments I needed someone just to hug me and tell me it was ok came back, and I was devastated yet again.
I foul things up with my kids fairly often; this time was different. Here was a scene that I knew all too well, and in fact, I should have been an expert in dealing with this. I completely dropped the ball, and I failed my son. I recovered, but I still have to believe that I had already done the damage. I can’t get that out of my mind.
Moving forward is all I can do at this moment. It is what I have to do for not only my son but myself. I have spent too much time in my life dwelling on things that I should have handled differently. This is my child, and he needs action not regret. He needs support; he needs love, and he needs understanding. If this was just a singular event or a signal of a deeper issue, is something we don’t know yet. In either case, it is my job as a father to address it appropriately.
I want all of my boys to look back on their childhood and be able to say that they had a dad that understood and supported them. A father that was fair and also consistent. An upbringing that was about growing them into adults not just punishing their mistakes. I want them to be able to one day say “my dad understood and cared.”
In short, I want them to have what I never did.
J.W. Holland is the political editor for the Good Men Project and a contributor to the Huffington Post and Babble.