New School, New Schedule, New Feelings

The chaos of the first full week of school is behind us and the chaos of the second week has begun, though maybe slightly less chaotic. Our kids are in a new school, and for the first time in their lives, are taking a school bus. This, of course, also means that they are getting up much earlier in the morning and we are all adjusting to a new morning routine.

After a couple of days, Gem was driving me to the train station and was sad that it feels so anticlimactic to let the bus take them to school, after five years of taking them to school herself.

“There isn’t a sense of closure, of dropping them off at school and being sure they got there safely,” she explained.

I could understand that.

Sadly, in five years I probably took my kids to school at most ten times a year, because it usually meant getting to work about an hour late. My wife bore the weight of the responsibility of taking them, but also the privilege of seeing them off everyday, making sure they got to school safely and on time. She thoroughly enjoyed it.

She also gets to pick them up from school, which I’ve done even less than I’ve taken them to school. I’ve tried to work out schedules with my office to take them to school more regularly, but it never works out.

I know I’m a good father and I love my children and spend as much time with them as a I can, but there is something so fundamental about taking them to school and picking them up that I’ve missed out on for so many years and it is an ache in my heart that no amount Motrin can relieve.

For years I took them to bed every night, or most nights. For years I was the Night Watchman, looking over my children when they woke up in the middle of night needing Daddy. But they no longer need me like that anymore. Very rarely do we hear the pitter-patter of feet into our bedroom in the dark.

What my kids need from me now is very different. Their needs are more emotional and intellectual. Can I help them with homework? Can I help them ease their worries? They can meet most of their core needs, like eating and sleeping, on their own.

One of the few core physical things they still need from us parents is getting them to school, where they learn new things, make friends, and begin to deal with the world as their own people. Besides us, nothing impacts them more than what happens at school. Going to school is a big event and a very important and dramatic time in their life.

And for years I was missing out on taking them.

Now, even though my morning is all discombobulated, I get to help with lunch and make sure their waters are ready and that they have everything in their backpacks. The best part, however, is walking out with them, saying hello to Lisa, their bus driver, and giving them one more hug and kiss before they get on the bus to school. Instead of leaving for work feeling as if I’ve left one of my most important roles undone, I feel like I’ve completed my job as Daddy for the morning.

It’s a nice feeling.

The next day, when Gem took me to the train station, I tried to explain to her that even though it was sad for her, I loved being able to see them off to school since I’ve never been able to do that consistently before.

“I hadn’t thought of that. Somehow, that makes me feel better,” she replied sweetly.

After five years of missing out on this experience, helping my kids off get onto the school bus every day has eased the little ache in my heart.

Am I Still the Night Watchman?

I am the Night Watchman. I’ve been the Night Watchman since my kids were about 18 months old. Because I worked in the City all day, I didn’t have much time with them when they were awake and both Gem and I were concerned I wasn’t building as strong a connection to them as I wanted. Our solution was for me to become the Night Watchman.

Anything that happened after we put them to bed was my responsibility. If they had trouble falling asleep or if they woke up because they had a nightmare or didn’t feel well or whatever the reason, I was the one who went to them, helped them feel better and soothed them back to sleep.

It was a job I loved.

The chance to be there for my children, to show them I could also take care of them and meet their needs and make them feel safe changed my relationship with them. It also gave me confidence that I can help them when they need help. It gave me the sense that no matter what was bothering them, I could help them feel better.

But I just learned I can’t be the Night Watchman in another language.

Dorit, our daughter, recently had an emergency appendectomy in Quito, Ecuador. Thankfully, both Gem and I were there with her, but it was so hard and frustrating for me because my Spanish is okay enough to have a conversation; it is nowhere near good enough to deal with medical and administrative issues in that language.

Nurses and doctors would come in and ask her questions and I couldn’t help her answer them. I didn’t know what they were doing to her and I couldn’t let them know exactly what was bothering her. I could hold her hand while they inserted the needle for the IV and I bought her flowers and balloons to brighten up her room during her stay.

But it has been almost a decade since I felt so incompetent and useless as a dad. A feeling I didn’t enjoy the first time around and certainly didn’t enjoy now.

I know that Dorit doesn’t look at me with less respect or love because I don’t know Spanish well enough. She’s healing and getting better and you almost couldn’t tell she had surgery to remove one of her organs a few days ago. But I know, for the first time in a very long time, I didn’t meet the challenge of being her Daddy, and that insight will take me some time to recover from.

I suspect this is just the beginning of events in my children’s lives where I won’t be able to protect them the way I could (or at least felt I could) at night when they were young. They almost never wake up in the middle of the night anymore. But they do have to deal with bullies and mean teachers and things that feel too hard or too overwhelming. They will have their hearts broken.

I can’t protect them from the chaos of our world. But maybe loving them, reminding them of how wonderful I think they are, helping them think through their problems to figure out some possible solutions, maybe this is more of my role now.

Right now that doesn’t feel like enough, but maybe it actually is and is probably what they need me to be. I’m not giving up the role of Night Watchman, but it seems as if my responsibilities are changing.