I met a dad at the park recently. It’s not unusual for me to run into other dads out with their kids, particularly at the park late in the afternoon, but I usually do little more than nod or say hello.
This time, though, we interacted because our kids were the same age and they started playing together immediately. This guy was extremely outgoing and energetic. He was calling my kids by name after just minutes and later coordinated and participated in a hide-and-seek game involving our four children and several others.
Later, he spun the carousel the kids were riding. When he did, he sprinted and jumped onto the back of one of the seats, holding himself parallel to the ground as he went along for the ride.
At one point, he vaulted over the perimeter fence as he ran to help his 3-year-old at the water fountain.
During a brief respite, while the kids were playing on their own, he stood, breathing heavily, bent at the waist, hands tugging on the bottom of his shorts and told me how tired he was. He said he went for a three-mile run at 6:00 a.m. that morning and afterwards went to work. Because he got to work early, he got off in time to pick the kids up from school. They had been riding bikes all afternoon before coming to the park just before dinner time.
After the brief rest and one-sided conversation, he was beckoned back to it. Chasing the kids around. Laughing heartily. Joking around with his kids and everyone else’s. He was the life of the party. He was also kind and warm. He called his kids “babe” without any self-consciousness.
I often worry that I lack the disposition and social tools necessary to provide a fulfilling and joyful home atmosphere for my children.
When the games were over, we stood by the fence near the park exit. He said that he’d left his phone in the car and he hoped his wife hadn’t tried to call.
“Let’s see. I wonder what time it is,” he said out loud, but seemingly to himself. “The sun sets at 6:15, so, I’m guessing it’s about 5:30.”
He held his hand up toward the sun and looked through it, like Maui from Moana measuring the stars.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. It was 5:34.
“Ah, I’ve still got some of those Army skills,” he said with a smile.
With that, he and his brood were off. He snapped his fingers and told the boys it was time to get out of there. They trotted off. The boys following him like he was the pied piper. There was no crying or whining or complaining. I almost followed along, too. I wanted him to teach me his ways and be my best friend forever.
After I cajoled my kids away from the park and to the car (navigating past a few sandy areas that required wallowing), drove home, and survived dinner and our tedious and elaborate bedtime routines, I sat down and reflected on my random dad encounter.
As I mentioned, I don’t hang out with a lot of dads. To be fair, I don’t hang out with a lot of adults in general. But the parents I casually interact with or share space with at library story time, school drop-off or pick-up, playgrounds, or grocery stores are usually moms. I mostly hear about dads secondhand. And often, these secondhand reports are less than flattering.
So, mostly, I liked seeing another dad in the wild doing his thing. Just being a dad. Doing it his own way.
Part of me, however, was jealous. It made me feel inferior to see a younger, fitter, more energetic guy owning fatherhood. Most of all, I was envious of his easy laughter and the way the kids were drawn to him. I wished I could be more fun, more freewheeling.
This chance encounter also struck a particular nerve because it exposed both my doubts about my parenting and my core anxieties about my personality and self-worth.
Because I am an introverted stay-at-home dad who sometimes struggles with social anxiety and depression, I often worry that I lack the disposition and social tools necessary to provide a fulfilling and joyful home atmosphere for my children. I often worry that I’m not enough. So, when I saw another dad playing so effortlessly with his children, being the fun dad I want to be, doing the things with his kids that I sometimes find the most challenging and cumbersome, it dredged up many of my deepest insecurities.
As a child, I wished I could gin up the courage to play with kids in my neighborhood. As an adolescent, I wished I could go to a dance or ask out a girl. As an adult, I wished I could talk myself up at a job interview or make small talk easily in the office. And now, as a dad, I wish being the effusive and exuberant parent I want to be came more naturally and took less effort.
It’s an obvious, but sometimes easy to forget, adage: parenting is not a competition.
In the middle of my pity party, as I sat on the couch watching a basketball game on TV, I heard the heavy thumps of my three-year-old’s footsteps on the staircase. He rounded the corner from the hall, rubbing his eyes and clutching his ever-present gray blanket, and headed straight for the couch to climb up into my lap. Just like every night for as long as I can remember, he wants me and only me when he wakes up in the middle of the night.
As I gathered him up, carried him back up to his room, and coaxed him back to sleep, I thought about a few scenes from the rest of my day. The way my 3-year-old’s face lit up when he saw me waiting for him at preschool pickup and how he ran down the hallway to wrap me up in a big hug. The way my 1-year-old clung to me all morning, pulling me by my shorts from place to place. How much fun we had walking around under the soft winter sun and looking at flowers in the park. My 6-year-old beaming as he told me stories about his friends after school.
Judging by how happy and content my children are, I thought, maybe I’m doing okay. It’s an obvious, but sometimes easy to forget, adage: parenting is not a competition. There’s more than one way to do things. I might not get the most laughs or be the life of the playground, but I’m patient, caring, and infinitely reliable. And, no matter what small moments might suggest, it’s virtually impossible for any one person to be enough for their children. It’s important to allow yourself to lean on others who have different personality traits and individual strengths to fill the gaps. A spouse or partner or friend or grandparent or, who knows, maybe a random dad at the park who is unusually enthusiastic about hide-and-seek.