My wife, Krista, became pregnant shortly after we were married in 2002. Our son, Matthew, was born prematurely the following May 16. Although I was twenty-eight years old, I was ill prepared for fatherhood and even less prepared to deal with the health needs of a baby who had congenital lung problems, struggled to put on weight, and underwent two surgeries. He spent most of his life in hospitals and, after his second surgery, never regained enough strength to be taken off the mechanical ventilator. He died when he was nearly eleven months old, leaving me with little more than pain and regrets.
When my daughter, Maleah, was born about four and half years later, it was a time of celebration mixed with fear. She was short of her due date but only by a couple of weeks and seemed healthy. Still, the loss of a child never goes away and that trauma haunts even the best things that follow. The first time she slept through the night found me worried that she had succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. Even now, I worry if she sleeps in too long on a Saturday morning.
Cherish Each Moment
The greatest thing I learned from Matthew was to cherish each moment. I wish I had held him more, kissed him more, and talked to him more. I learned that lesson too late for him but it has made me a better father to his sister. That is his legacy.
I’ve been busy with this seemingly important thing or that and Maleah would interrupt me for a moment of play or just to be held. My first instinct was often, “Not now. I need to focus. Later.” Then I would remember, later isn’t guaranteed. Even if, by the grace of God, I never lose her to death, I can still lose her to life. She’ll always be my daughter and, I believe, we’ll always be close, but she’ll never again be the person she was at one or three or five or seven. She’s nearly nine, now, and rarely climbs into my lap and rarely asks me to hold her. She’s growing up. While her need to be loved won’t change, the way she needs that love expressed already has.
Good dads wear little shoes. This is true for moms, too. What does it mean? Simply, put yourself in your child’s shoes. What may seem trivial to you could be one of the most important things in your four-year-old’s life. They could be just as sad when their new toy gets scratched as you were when someone backed into your new car. You know life will go on for your teenage son or daughter and your child will soon forget that broken romance but, right now, for them, it feels like the end of the world. Be empathetic.
The Golden Rule
We all know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This applies to your coworker, your neighbor, and the person at the supermarket, but some parents seem to forget it applies to their children as well. Have you ever seen a parent who orders their child to be courteous—”say please and thank you and excuse me”—but doesn’t give that child the same respect—”give me that,” “get out of my way”? “Because I said so,” is an easy answer when a child asks why but is it the best answer? If he (or she) understands your reasoning, it can build his character and, as a person of character, he’ll be more likely to question the pressuring of his peers and, if their explanations lack the sincerity and caring of yours, he’ll be in a position to say “no” instead of blindly following. Take time to explain, take time lead, take time to put yourself in your child’s shoes.