Babies don’t come with instruction manuals. The creator doesn’t provide a book for parents which explains how to grow a baby to physical maturity and mental health.
A baby is more complex than any artificial machine humans have ever created. We’ve been studying the human “machine” for as long as we’ve existed. We’ve managed to muddle through for many thousands of generations of change and growth. But we still don’t really know how to consistently raise babies into emotionally healthy adults.
My father was about to turn 30 years old when I was born. I was his first child. He was incredibly proud to have a son of his own. The photo above is one that someone snapped of his reflection when he was watching me in the hospital nursery through the glass.
I know all the things that are ahead for him (and for me) after this photo was taken. I know how unhappy he became. I know how badly our family fell apart. I know how miserable I became — and how confused I was by almost everything in my childhood.
On this day, though, he was full of love for his baby boy. He had the best of intentions. He wanted to be a great father. But with a job this difficult, good intentions aren’t aways enough.
My father probably thought he was mature enough and emotionally healthy enough — for marriage and children — when he and my mother started. But we know now that he was mistaken.
I’ve talked a lot about the effects of my father’s narcissism on me, so I’m not going to belabor that here. But what I can think about now — as his death becomes a more distant thing for me — is that he was damaged by his own childhood in ways he didn’t understand. Something turned him into a narcissist.
When I was young, I didn’t know anything bad that had happened in his family. After I grew up, I put together bits and pieces of dysfunction. I never could get a full picture, but there were hints of enough issues that I can guess at other things.
My father was the youngest of four children. He was very close to his mother. His father had a drinking problem. When he wasn’t drinking, he was a good husband and father. When he drank, he cheated on my grandmother and was abusive in ways that I could never get the facts about.
Nobody wanted to admit these things, but little bits spilled out from time to time. They had been a dysfunctional family — and something in that experience turned my father into something which was toxic for me. He was “programmed” in ways that made him lose three women who loved him and caused him to lose all three of his children.
It took me many years to believe that I was ready to have children of my own, in large part because I was terrified of being like him. I finally believe I’m emotionally healthy enough to be a good father, but am I right? Have I overcome enough of my own issues to be a good nurturer? I think so, but he thought he was ready when I was born, too.
It’s easy to create a baby, but it’s really difficult to successfully raise that baby into an emotionally healthy adult. I don’t know any job in the world that’s so difficult, because nothing can really prepare us for it.
Every parent is going to make mistakes, it seems, but it also seems as though the father or mother won’t know what those mistakes are until after the mistakes are already made. And for the person who had emotional damage of his or her own to overcome — which is most of us — how is it possible to heal ourselves while we also avoid damaging the child we’re trying to raise?
I don’t have any good answers for any of these issues. When I look at the job being done by most parents around me, I wonder how the human race survives. But somehow, we do survive.
Somehow, I survived, too. It’s taken years, but I’m healing. And I’m ready to try having children and raising them, if I find the right woman to be my partner. I think I’m healthy enough to be ready.
But my father thought he was ready. He had good and loving intentions. And looking at him in this photo reminds me — once again — that we never know whether we’re ready until we try.
Raising a child in an emotionally healthy way is the toughest job on Earth. But people taking that chance — finding ways to overcome their own issues — is the only way for us to keep the human race moving forward.
I know all the mistakes my father made. I know all the damage his actions did to me. But I’m still very happy to be alive — and I’m eager for the day when I can welcome my own child into the world. I’ll have to try to learn from his mistakes.