Some days I don’t know if I’m any good at being a dad. Then there are days like this.

Last night was a tough one. The girls had a big day visiting with family and celebrating my niece’s 17th birthday, so they were both wired before bed and I knew going into it we’d have trouble getting them to sleep.

Storytime and off to bed!

We tried our usual bedtime routine anyway — a couple of cute YouTube videos (baby elephants!), teeth brushing and PJs, and then storytime. I read the girls I Took The Moon For A Walk and then Monster treated us all to her own unique rendition of Starlight Sailor — she can’t read yet, but she loves creating her own stories based on the pictures.

We’ve been working on encouraging the girls to sleep independently, and they’re largely pretty good at it.

Last night, though, Monster started crying as soon as we put her bed — these huge hysterical wails that just tear the heart out of you. We let it go on for a while, hoping she would quiet down, but it quickly became apparent that she wasn’t going to quit anytime soon. The girls sleep together, so I didn’t want her to set off Baby, and I worried Monster would work herself up so much she’d make herself sick.

Baby looked at me, gave an annoyed huff, and said

“She’s hurting my ears.”

Laying beside Angela, I could feel the tension radiating from her — that mother instinct to rush to her crying child and comfort her. But Angela was exhausted — she’s still getting over being sick and Monster had been crying and whining and throwing tantrums all day — and she needed someone to take over.

I didn’t really say anything to Angela. I just gave her a kiss, got up and went to the girls. She knew immediately what I was doing. That’s something I’ve always loved about us — we don’t always have to communicate with words.

Taking over for Mom

I’m still new at this dad thing, and I’m really fumbling along somedays. I had really good examples to learn from in my own parents, and most of my working career has been in caregiving fields, so I’m not totally unequipped for caring for small children, but I’m always acutely aware of the fact that it’s been less than a year since I came into these childrens’ lives as a father figure. In a lot of ways, we’re still getting used to each other and learning to trust one another.

Since we don’t cohabitate full time yet, I sometimes feel like I fall into the role of “the fun dad” that shows up for playtime. The girls think I’m a ton of fun, and I love making them laugh, but I’m not the person they usually turn to when they’re upset or sick or hurt — they look to their momma for that.

But here I was with a distraught three year old and her increasingly frustrated sister. I needed to calm Monster down, somehow.

I tried everything. I talked gently to Monster. I rubbed her back. I tried to make her laugh. I tried the authoritative approach. I tried giving her the stuffed penguin she loves and the pillow pet my mother bought her for Christmas. She just screamed and cried. Baby looked at me, gave an annoyed huff, and said “She’s hurting my ears.”

I sat down, pulled Monster into my arms, and tried rocking her. She squirmed and fought, and cried and cried and cried, so loud it made my ears ring.

Love is a friendship set to music. — Joseph Campbell

So, having exhausted all other options, I started singing to her. I’ve never sung to a child before. I’m not really a good singer at all.  I didn’t even sing her an actual song, just this gentle little melody I made up on the go. “That’s pretty,” Baby said, and yawned.

The crying slowed. And then it stopped. Monster rubbed her eyes, sniffled, and told me she needed a blanket.

Quietly rejoicing inside, I tucked the blanket around us and kept singing. This tiny child with a head of tangled red hair settled against my neck. Somewhere along, I heard Baby’s breathing shift into that slow, gentle rise and fall of sleep. Monster whimpered and start crying again, but softer, gentler, and I just continued rocking her and singing.

She got heavier and quieter, and finally fell asleep, her tiny breath warm against my throat. I don’t know how long I sat there, holding this child and singing in the dark, half-afraid that if I moved she would stir.

Long enough that my leg beneath me fell asleep, and I thought about how the days when I’m happiest are the days when I’m with my girls. Other days I’m productive, I’m busy and things are good, but the times when I’m truly happy and I feel like I’m on top of the world are days like this one — days when I can read to my girls, when I can hold their mother’s hand and share our knowing smiles when the girls do something cute, when my child screams and cries and just lets me sing her to sleep.

Finally, I decided she’d been out long enough I could move, and gently put her down. I went back into the bedroom to find Angela fast asleep, her cellphone still in her hand.

For me, Love is a house full of sleeping redheads. Maybe I’m not so bad at this Dad thing.

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