Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How to Handle Misplaced Disappointment

Honestly, up until a couple of years ago I would have considered myself a generally selfish person. I liked things my way; although I’m easy going about it when they don’t go my way (they, in fact, rarely ever did), I don’t like it. Life changes a person, I think, sometimes in ways you would have least imagined. Seasoned parents will tell a new mother and father that “life as you know it has ended,” and although there is some truth to that claim, it isn’t entirely accurate because it hasn’t ended more so that it has really undergone a metamorphosis you won’t likely understand, much less see, for a couple of years. Your life didn’t end, it merely shifted away from your complete control for a while…well, you probably won’t ever get it back.

When you become a father, you don't stop being you, but that singularity you once knew to be your personal character, that isolation of your own identity, slows down a little bit as other priorities take precedent. Crying babies used to make my hair stand straight up. I don’t even hear them anymore, and little babies make me smile, where before I could take them or leave them. I no longer flinch at even the filthiest of Matthew’s more creative diapers, and as the wallpaper is peeling off around me, I change him as I normally would. Heck, Natalie’s thrown up on me, around me, near me, over me… and even in my hands (we were in a hotel room and she threw up so much that weekend, I just stopped trying to catch it all; just let it fly Gnat).

I don’t know if it is me getting older, more mature, or just more parental, but I think I’ve incorporated the personalities of my children into my life, so much so, that my feelings begin to alter my perception of my daily activities. No longer can you be lonesome, alone, or lost. I can’t watch certain shows because I get misty eyed and start to feel foolish. As obnoxious at Ty Pennington is on “Extreme Makeover,” I get choked up at the back story of the family, suckered into the emotions like so many a housewife, and if there’s some “feed this poor little girl” infomercial on TV, I have to turn it. I’m terrible. I used to hit my thumb with a hammer and laugh, now all you have to do is show me one of those St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital cancer ward commercials and I’m wiping my eyes with my sleeves. What happened to me? Where did this sensitivity come from and why is it only getting worse?

When it comes to Natalie or Matthew, I have never before in my life wanted to give everything I have to make somebody happy than I do right now. Frankly, it is a sickening feeling that I won’t be able to ward off every possible trauma in their lives… but I didn’t think that it would start so soon, at least in my mind's eye so soon.

Maybe I’m just being a protective father, overly so perhaps, and maybe Natalie won’t even notice enough to make all of this hand-wringing on my part even necessary. Maybe I’m the one here that’s afflicted with the hyper-sensitive feelings, ones easily trodden and bruised, and hopefully she won’t be affected in the same way that I am right now. But I’m a projector, I place my feelings onto others, force them sometimes without them even knowing about it; if I experience a certain level of disappointment than others must for certain. I've convinced myself that the worst possible reaction will happen and I have begun to prepare for the results. Is it empathy to perceive someone’s feelings before they even get the chance to do so themselves, or is it just the mind-taxing angst of being a father? Did my father worry excessively about how I felt when I was two years old? Did his about him and so on? If not, where did I get these feelings from? I’m not supposed to be like this. I'm not supposed to have these emotions. I’m selfish damnit.

Well, I’m not very good at explaining how I feel sometimes, especially if it involves some heightened state of mental self-awareness that strikes you in the wee hours of the morning; sure, I joke around a lot, chat it up, lighten the mood and poke untold amounts of fun at the various elements of my life, but when it comes to Natalie’s emotional well being, I can’t help but… well, let me just explain it and perhaps you’ll see where I’m coming from (and where I should go from here).

Natalie’s birthday is merely three weeks away. The excitement oozing from her is brewing like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, as there isn’t a day that goes by that Natalie doesn’t tell me that her birthday is tomorrow, always tomorrow, and she usually does something activity that is birthday related, if it is putting aside a few lettered building blocks “for my party” or organizing some of the Thomas trains and Matchbox cars in a line so “they can come to my party.”

When she asks me to share some of my chips or a cookie after dinner, she needs me to give them to her in increments of three… not two or four, always three, because, “I’m going to be three at my party,” and when we went to Sam’s Club today, we needed to buy three bottles of apple juice, because “I’m going to be three.” (I bought six actually, but she didn’t notice).

We get an Oriental Trading Company catalog (and many others like it) in the mail about once every week, and every time it arrives, Natalie scours through the pages until she finds the Dora the Explorer page that has all of the elements for her party. She literally ooos and ahhhs over each and every item on the page, perchance picturing how it will all look on her special day. The excitement grows.

Part of our “Daddy’s Day Out” routine has been paying a visit to “the party store” (I don’t even know its real name, but it sells a wide range of things for any kind of party, I think it’s Party America or Party City), where she goes up and down every aisle in search for items for her birthday party… that and to scam a free balloon from whatever sucker’s working the balloon counter at the time. She picks out most things that are purple, a vase, a margarita glass that has a purple cactus for a stem, a princess hat with a veil, some bouncy balls, etc. It has become such a joy for her that it has replaced Target on her “must see” list of the day. Target, folks!

Invitations, complete with the Dora theme, went out a week ago… and then the regrets started to come in. Several of our friends will be busy that day so their kids can’t come. There’s another party that same day so one more won’t make it. My brother and his wife have a wedding to go to that day, so Uncle Jason and Aunt Bubbles won’t be able to attend. Natalie’s best friend at school, Christina (one of Kara’s coworker’s daughters), whom she insists will be coming to her party and is excited that she’ll see her house and her room, we know for a fact they’ll be out of town.

The list soon dwindled from eight or so three-year-olds to one or two. Will this matter to Natalie? Will she look around the table at her party, with her princess hat on her head, a Dora cake in front of her with three candles poking out, and be sad that more of her friends couldn’t come to her party? Does she know what disappointment feels like? Disenchantment? The disillusionment of real life, schedules and agendas? Kara and I well know that things happen and other people’s plans have been made and must be kept, but Natalie doesn’t know anything about things like that. Will she feel sad that, to her, nobody cared about her enough to come to her big day? I don’t know. I am upset at the possibility, however remote that she’ll feel the slightest tinge of discontentment. I am sad for her… empathetic I guess. What I’m saying is that I’m more upset that she might feel that way than I am that most of our guess list has bowed out, and do I have these feelings because I’m projecting mature situations on a soon-to-be three year old? Am I giving her the benefit of the doubt that she has the capability to measure these emotional reactions to a given set of circumstances?

I don’t know.

Again, I’ve never felt this way before, so I don’t know how to react. I don’t know how to feel about it, but perhaps this stems from my own childhood. For my 10th birthday party (I think it was my 10th), I must have invited a whole bunch of my friends. Why wouldn’t I have? I don’t remember what we even did for my party, bowling, skating, dinner out… I know now… it was miniature golf, of course. I had lots of friends, so I’m sure the guest list was an easy 10 to 12 kids, but only two showed up—Mark Lee and Mary Kate Leos—the rest couldn’t for some reason. I don’t remember being scarred for life from however I reacted to the event, but I’m sure I felt some tang of disappointment. Is this all the friends I have? Doesn’t anyone care about me? Am I not important?

Well, Natalie is, so I’ll be at her party. Kara will. Matthew will too (he doesn’t have a choice). Her grandparents all will. Kara’s sister. Several close friends of the family. Is that enough for her? Will she even notice that she’s missing a few familiar little faces? I hope not, and that’s were the vexation lies for me. As her father, she’s the center of my world, so nobody has a good enough excuse for missing my little girl’s third birthday party. I don’t care what kind of operation you’re undergoing, ever heard of outpatient?

But really, am I making too much of this? Is the only one being tortured endlessly over this me? Am I feeling this pain for no good reason? Will she even care about it as long as she sees Mommy and Daddy standing there? The fact is, I don’t want her to experience disappointment and the cynicism that the next time she has a party, nobody will come because nobody cares about her.

That’s just not true Natalie. I care. Damn feelings. Damn fatherhood. My only solace in this whole issue is that I have no idea who was at my third birthday party, where I was, even if I had friends or not. I don’t even know if I cared or not either, and if it weren’t for pictures, I would have no surviving memory of the day at all.

1 comment:

Mary-Kate Leos said...

Hey! I remember that party and I had soo much fun!! In fact, I was sick that day and didn't go to school but still went to your party (Mrs. Lee was so kind to tell on me to our teacher!). If only we learned then what we hopefully know's the quality of friends, not the quantity:)


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