The day I yelled at my toddler for waking up too early from her nap was one of the most shameful moments of my life. It also marked the beginning my shift onto a new, better path.
I was 30 when I became a father. Twelve years of unencumbered adult life had cemented in me a certain level of selfishness. My career as a firefighter afforded me an abundance of time off, time I used to pursue hobbies and additional career paths. I would spend my days at work on one of the busiest engine companies in my county and my days off standing in front of a painting easel, convinced I was on my way to a rewarding second career. When my daughter was born, I was sure I could maintain the pursuit of a demanding career, a time-intensive side hustle, and still play Mr. Mom when my wife was at work. How hard could it be, right?
Most days I could get the kiddo down for an hour or so nap after lunch. This was my time. Nap time was when I would shirk my role as a father and don my painting apron. This particular day was not much different from any other. I’d come home from work, had breakfast with my family, then taken over parental duties as my wife absconded to work. The kid and I spent the morning playing and taking a stroller walk around the neighborhood before lunch. Then, finally, nap time. Before she even had time to settle in and fall asleep, I was in my garage, paint laid out on my palette, and baby monitor propped up next to the easel.
I was working on a particularly frustrating section of a frustrating painting when I heard a rustle and coo through the monitor. Glancing at my watch and realizing it’d only been 30 minutes, I thought this can’t be, nap time is not over. But no sooner than those feelings of disbelief had bubbled to the surface, I heard clear calls of “da da,” a sure sign of a fully-awake 18-month-old. With a quickened pulse and building frustration, unwilling to accept the reality of the situation, I dropped my brushes and took off my apron. I walked into her room, saw her standing in her crib, hair disheveled, eyes wide and curious, and I snapped.
I don’t remember exactly what I said—and am, to some degree, thankful for that—but I’ll never forget the look on her face. She pushed back from the front of the crib, falling onto her diapered backside as her bright smile became a look of hurt and rejection. She started crying and so did I. What had I done? What was wrong with me? Here is this amazing little person, so excited to see me, to spend more time with me, and this is how I respond?
I picked her up and we sat in her rocking chair, each of us calming the other in our own way. I closed my eyes and took everything in—the smell of her hair, the weight of her body, the touch of her soft cotton blanket, the feelings of unconditional love and forgiveness. I felt a new catch in my throat as I realized how much I’d missed already thanks to my misaligned priorities. I realized in that moment how wrong I was to think I could do everything and nothing would suffer.
My daughter laid in my arms, her tiny fingers absently twirling the fabric of my t-shirt. Right then I decided not dwell on the mistakes I’d made, the things I’d missed. Instead, I resolved to miss no more, to fully embrace my role as a father and as a husband. Everything else could wait. This, right here, is what mattered.
It’s often hitting our lowest points that brings us to our highest levels. My transition from a selfish individual to a selfless family man was slow but steady. There were still a few moments misspent and occasional misplaced frustrations, but that moment stuck with me, popping up often to remind me of what (who) was really important in my life and why. I have my whole life ahead of me to paint pictures or write books, but my daughter was only 18-months-old for a month. Each day that goes by, I’m reminded again and again of how fleeting time is how thankful I am for life’s little slaps in the face.