My father was a perfectionist or as close to one as I’ve ever known. He wasn’t OCD or anal retentive; he didn’t expect bath towels to be hung precisely on the rack and cans of food to be stacked in the cabinet using a protractor. He never demanded my sister and I make straight A’s or require socks to match our sweater. Instead, he was one of those types who could do just about anything perfectly on the first attempt. Build a barn? No problem. Overhaul the engine in a 1978 Ford F150? Done. Run electricity in a basement? Please. He didn’t need a manual, diagram, or to consult a shaman. The man was blessed with an innate ability to learn through watching and figuring the rest out on the fly.
There’s only one problem I’ve found with someone who can do anything – they expect the rest of us to be the same way. Many, like my father, find it hard to understand why us plebs can’t install an air conditioning system and run 50 feet of water line over our lunch break. And it’s even worse if you’re working with, or God forbid, for one since most of us common folk don’t have the inherent capacity to just ‘figure it out’ in thirty seconds, like yours truly.
Being the son of a perfectionist wasn’t easy. Being the son of a perfectionist with no patience was nearly impossible. He not only expected me to learn to do it his way by osmosis, as soon as he noticed I was doing it wrong it became easier for him to just take the job over entirely.
If I heard the phrase “Give it here, I’ll do it myself” once I heard it 5,698 times.
Case in point. My father was a horseman; he had several beautiful saddle horses and routinely showed them in contests. As my sister and I got older they became his children, along with a black lap dog mutt that I can’t remember the name of, and paid each one special care and attention. One afternoon he was working out one of his chestnut sorrel stallions in preparation for a show the coming weekend. Noticing he had dismounted for a few minutes I inquired if I could take the steed around the track. Within minutes of making my way down the well-worn path my father comes barreling towards me with arms flailing, yelling at the top of his lungs:
“Get off, you’re going to ruin him!”
Apparently I wasn’t riding with the proper gait and he was concerned the horse would become confused as a result. So he immediately jumped back on and proceeded to undo the damage I had evidently inflicted.
I have dealt with confidence issues my entire life. It’s manifest itself in a fear of failing or disappointing others. To my mind the risk of failure or letting down someone is the primary motivator and prevents me from taking risks. While it’s easy to see how my childhood led to this I can’t blame my dad, he was brought up in much the same way and was doing things how he was raised.
It’s taken hours of counseling and analysis to recognize this behavioral pattern and where it came from. While I’m far from curing the nasty habit and doubt I’ll rid myself of it entirely, the introspection has created a level of sensitivity to this form of behavior when dealing with my son that my father was never able to take notice of in dealing with me.
My son is eight years old this weekend. He’s getting to the point where I can remember myself at that age. It’s also around this age when the influences, brought about when my father chose convenience over right parenting, began that would eventually lead to my adulthood insecurities and self doubt. And it’s the same age where I can now understand why he sometimes handled things the way he did. My son’s age and his desire to lend dad a hand is usually more of a hindrance than a help. He’s also beginning to ask, often unconsciously, for more responsibility and independence. He wants to do more on his own, explore the world around him without me, and embark on adventures outside the four walls of our protective castle.
And it’s here that, for me, being a parent becomes a labor of self-sacrifice. I know I can’t allow my own impatience and desire for a convenient and trouble-free life to erode my son’s budding confidence. I can’t let my type-A personality take over and help him grow into a man full of insecurities because I hid my self-interest behind the veil of trying to be a protective parent. Nor can I let my impulse to ‘get it done’ take precedent and instill a belief that he can’t do anything right.
But I also know all that’s easier said than done.
In those unexpected moments, when the real parenting happens, I will sometimes catch myself thinking how this would be made so much easier if I just did it instead of waiting for him to learn – since chances are I’ll need to go back and fix what he messed up anyway; or I’ll find myself telling him he can’t go somewhere because of an irrational unspoken fear of mine, or warning him that he shouldn’t do this or that because I wasn’t able to the same at his age. It’s in these moments where I’m still learning to sacrifice my own comfort and peace of mind for the sake of his childhood. And I’m learning to do this the only way I know how, by thinking back to my past and how I felt when I was in my son’s shoes, and how I now wish my father would have done some things differently and wondering what might have happened it he had.
In other words, it’s that ever-present reminder of how I need to let the boy be a boy.