Last week, I said goodbye to my family. I was leaving for a three-week trip related to medical care for children. It was one of the more difficult goodbyes I have had. Not because I realized that I would be gone for three weeks, but because I didn’t recognize my own emotional needs before going.
Terese and I have four children. Andre, Aidan, and Luc are 7, 4, and 3, respectively and our daughter Mayra is 16 months. They are quite the little clan. The boys are boys, through and through. They are rough, they are physical and they are affectionate. Constantly in need of verifying and investigating their relationship with one another, they poke and prod each other, they tease each other to tears, and they wrestle with determination, often with great delight. Beyond the obvious physical nature of their behavior is the beautiful but less easily perceived aspect of their characters: their emotional sensitivity.
Mayra, in contrast, seems to have developed a sense of emotional strength more quickly than any of the boys when they were her age. Part of that, I have to think, comes from fending for herself in the rough and tumble environment into which she was born. The remaining part of it originates from her character as a girl and her strong relationship with her mother, characterized by a mutual understanding very different than the relationships Terese has with the boys.
With almost eight years experience as a father I am convinced of the link between the physical and the emotional in our boys. The need for physical interaction with the world around them through soccer, wrestling, cuddling and chores (which they don’t perceive yet as a need), through imitating my work in and out of the home, serve to mold their perceptions of right and wrong and their emotional responses to situations. In short, it shapes their character.
Several weeks ago, Luc said something that illustrated our relationship in a way I won’t forget. We were getting ready for church. The others had gotten into the car and were waiting for Luc and me. Helping him with his cowboy boots that he insisted on wearing (Luc is the only one of the boys who could wear cowboy boots confidently at age 3), he smiled at me, dimples in his cheeks, fully aware he was saying something clever.
“Daddy, you know what?”
“I’m going to be a daddy this year!”
“Oh, you are?” I said, my eyebrows raised, wondering just where this was going. “How is that?”
Luc pushed his heel down into the second boot, “Well, all daddies are boys, aren’t they?”
“Yes. We sure are.”
He had spoken a truth of great depth. It’s a truth with which my wife couldn’t agree more. And it was vividly illustrated the day before I left on my trip.
Last week, the day before I left, my children clamored for physical affection. They wanted to wrestle, go on errands and just be with me. I was preoccupied, however. I was constantly thinking about the next three weeks. I needed to pack. I had to get a few more items from the store. I couldn’t seem to organize everything that I felt I needed to do around the boys’ demands. And the boys noticed.
The intensity increased in the house. When a dear friend who I hadn’t talked to in more than a year called, the boys declared an all-out revolt, attacking one another, attacking me. It was pandemonium. So I went on strike, yelled at the boys and shut myself in the bedroom to pack, asking Terese to pacify the armies.
I felt terrible. But the anxiety didn’t stop there. We went to church in the evening. It was five minutes before we were all in the cry room. The boys just wouldn’t sit still. And I felt dark inside. This was not turning out like I had hoped.
Later, at dinner, during a somber moment when we all realized dad was in a bad way, I pulled Andre in to my shoulder and cried. I told him I was sorry for my anger. He said, “I forgive you. I love you.”
A beautiful release came from those words spoken by my son and I could finally say goodbye to my family with my heart before leaving on this long trip.
Last month we celebrated the life and work of John Bosco. In a letter to his religious brothers and priests, he gave guidance on the temptations to anger and rough corrections when they were working with the foster boys who were in their care. He wrote, “There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future, as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement.”
Bosco’s work with boys was absolutely remarkable. Reflecting upon this over the last week has led me to realize just how much being aware of my emotions and meeting the physical need for affection in my boys helps them to build character and bring love into their hearts – as well as mine. Well, daddies are boys, too.
(Paul is married to Terese. They have four children and both work hard to keep their house a place of peace, joy and all good things. Some days are better than others. Paul is a pediatrician. Terese is a family physician. They are members of St. Sebastian Parish, Milwaukee.)