I woke up yesterday to the news of Steve Irwin’s passing. I think this post on daddytypes (via a.wholelottanothing and Waxy) explains
the a dilemma that parents face when they have children. For some, the issue of personal and familial balance are small and easily navigated. For those who work in careers that regularly involve dangerous or life-threatening situations, I can’t imagine the psychological toll that just going to work as a cop or firefighter would take not just on the individual, but the family as well.
Fatherhood has changed me somewhat. I think most parents go through this on some level, consciously or subconsciously. For me, it has been far more overt.
It’s been a couple of years since Heather sought help and was able to get a successful treatment for post-partum depression. Part of my change as a parent came through near daily realizations that if Heather succumbed to her depression, all Leta would have is me.
The summer of 2004 was extraordinarily difficult. Heather was trying all kinds of different medications and none of them were reducing the anxiety and depression she felt. I ended up utilizing the Family Medical Leave Act as an emergency. Every day was touchy, even if I had taken that day and stayed home. It was like this for about two months. Every day was a new challenge and making it through the day wasn’t just a goal for Heather, but me as well. I was forced by circumstance to evaluate all possible outcomes and try to prepare for any eventuality. I don’t think I was fully prepared to face a life without Heather and the thought of raising Leta alone was more than I could bear. But I had to face it.
In those months of hope and fear I took a very hard look at myself. Harder than when Leta was born. I would have to make some sacrifices. I would have to make some changes. On some level, personal introspection is a selfish act, but in this case I felt it was a matter of survival. In the context of life-threatening careers, the only thing I had to worry about was working in a job that was sucking too much energy from me. The job was getting in the way of taking care of my family. The situation was worsened by Heather’s illness. No job was worth losing Heather over, particularly a needlessly stressful one. Every day I drove off to work, I’d wonder if that would be the day that I’d come home and be a single parent.
Fortunately, Heather sought help and was able to get the level of treatment she needed. While not as acutely felt, that residual “what if” is still there, even today. Accidents happen.
Which is partially what made the decision to take the jump into starting our own business much easier. Part of that decision was that if Heather ever reached that place again, I would at least be here for her like I couldn’t be that summer.
The outcome of those hard days has been that I’m less likely to do things that might mean Leta has a different mom or dad. Some of those are extremes and some are not. I believe the best thing I can do is have a healthy relationship with myself, a healthy relationship with Heather and a healthy relationship with Leta. Most of my energy goes there. I have things I do for me, but my personal enrichment activities (I said, mine, not yours) need to take into account my family. For example, in a former life I used to golf a lot. I got great satisfaction from it, and my game was slowly improving. I never took it that seriously, but it was nice to get away from the computer.
Two weekends ago, we went with my sister’s family to a driving range near their cabin. That was the first time I’d swung a club in almost six years. Golf isn’t a family-friendly game for us and unless Leta shows continued interest, I’m not pushing her into golf or anything else. Golf might be just the thing for some men or women and even some families, but in our house if I were gone every weekend with the boys, that wouldn’t fly, nor would I want it to. Heather came along, but it was clear that she and golf don’t mix. Which is just fine. Not a tough choice at all. There are other things we can try.
The past couple of seasons, I started snowboarding again. I’ve wanted Heather to learn because I’d love to share it with her as well as a way for Heather to look forward to and enjoy the winter. Leta gets to spend time with family and Heather and I get a date. Heather has taken to it quite well and the other day exclaimed that she was excited to hit the slopes this year. As Leta gets older, I’d love to teach her to ride a snowboard, but I’m not going to force it. And I think we’ll have a few years before it’s even a question. The point is, I’m trying to take something I love and share it with my family. If they dig, it can become a great family activity and a way to build memories. If they don’t, we’ll try to find other things to do together and we will go snowboarding less.
I think another good example might be photography. I love to shoot. I do my best work when I have my own camera and the time to find shots. It doesn’t have to be days and days, but pushing a stroller or supervising a walk while trying to shoot is difficult. Heather enjoys shooting as well and it’s something we’ve always shared as a couple. Who knows what Leta is going to enjoy? Either way, I’m going to make accommodations so that Leta gets to learn and grow. If that means fewer frames or that I forego shooting altogether, then so be it.
This all may sound extreme, but I’m convinced that I’ve been given the opportunity to be a big part of my child’s life. Most men only dream of such a gift. It’s going to be just fine if my handicap stays where it is or if I never pick up a golf club again. Teaching Leta a new song or what sounds letters make is far more rewarding than smacking a maddeningly small ball around for a few hours.
Mr. Irwin’s sad passing only reiterates for me the shortness of life, the importance of being there for my family and finding joy in those things that keep me with my family.