FROM FULL SEND
TO FULL DADDY
HERE’S HOW I FOUND
THE MIDDLE WAY
Part TWO of Adam Carballeira’s “Just Chill Dad” Series
ONCE UPON A TIME
I finished reading the bedtime story and closed the book. “Goodnight buddy,” I said, tucking in my 4-year-old son. Then I went up the basement stairs, and up another flight, and into my bathroom. As I unscrewed the toothpaste, a fog drifted in from both edges and I knew I was going to faint. A voice said, “maybe I should sit down,” and I saw the bathtub rushing toward me. I heard a loud thud and the fog turned to blackness. Seconds later I woke up, lying in the tub with a throbbing head. I realized what had happened and asked aloud, “Did I just pass out from running up the stairs?”
HOW HAD IT COME TO THIS?
When I got married I felt I was in the prime of my life. I was passionate about learning, travel, and adventure. I wanted to be awesome. I thought these things made me important, were the reasons my wife loved me, and what I needed to do to love myself. I was going–going–going – fully invested in my work, my hobbies, and my mountain lifestyle. At the time I believed that my endeavors were essential to my identity and my value. I was defined by what I was doing, by how I spent my free time.
I was excited to be a dad, but it wasn’t going to slow me down or alter my Coloradical lifestyle. I could keep going, and bring them along, I just needed more gear! Jogging stroller, then double jogger, baby backpack, bike trailer, Pack ‘n Play. We could still bike and ski and hike and camp. We could go to festivals and concerts, road trips and beach vacations. You know that guy at the show with the baby on his shoulders wearing headphones because the music is so loud? That was me. That guy on the Full Moon cruise, with the baby trailer, in the winter? Also me.
IT ALL WORKED GREAT UNTIL IT DIDN’T
As our family grew, so did our exhaustion. We now had a baby and two toddlers. Three little boys. Slowly, a weekend at home started to sound better than backpacking with kids. And staying inside watching Pixar movies was more appealing than going to an outdoor concert. I could sense that things were changing, and I was reluctant to let go of the activities that defined me. But I was tired of going-going-going all the time and “tag teaming” weekends with my wife. So, with great ceremony, I let go of my Epic Awesomeness. I hung it up in the closet like a Gore-Tex jacket. I was going Full Daddy.
I was going to put the Coloradical behind me and make it all about them. I was going to live in service to my family and sacrifice myself so they could thrive. So I did the dad things with the same gusto I used to do the mountain things. I became a diaper ninja, specializing in the hood-of-the-car-in traffic move. I could tie two tiny shoes at the same time, one with each hand.
I let go of my frivolous pursuits and earned my stripes as a dad. I made pancakes and bacon every Saturday, packed peanut-buttered lunches, and played lots and lots of Legos. Lots. I drove the kids to all their sports and playdates, while neglecting my own fitness and social life. I encouraged my wife to go ski and hang with her girlfriends, and told her I didn’t need those things.
I was the martyr. I would brag to people about it. I told people, “I’m happy just being here for them, I don’t need anything else.”
BUT I WAS PRETENDING
I had lost my self-reliance and with it my self-confidence, and contentment. These were the things that made me fit to be a dad in the first place. Without them, I relied on my wife and kids for validation, and when I didn’t get it, I grew resentful. I started being Mad Dad more often. I drank too much. My energy was low, my marriage was stale, and my health was degrading. I ignored all of this until I passed out into the bathtub after running up two flights of stairs.
We ran some tests, and my doctor called me in to talk about the lab work. “What happened?” he asked, “Did you just stop exercising?” I shrugged. “Well, you need to elevate your heart rate for 120 minutes a week, and lay off the beer and snacks, or you’re not going to see your kids graduate.”
I HAD A RECKONING
I realized that taking care of myself was the best thing I could do to care for my family. But I couldn’t go back to being a weekend warrior. I didn’t want to spend my free time alone in the mountains while my family was home, and I couldn’t just pack them up every time I needed a workout or an escape.
The Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah describes the Middle Way as being, “between the extremes of indulgence and self-denial, free from sorrow and suffering.”
I think many of us can relate to this paradox as parents: How can you give yourself fully to your kids while also staying true to yourself? We all know parents who are martyrs to their family. We also know some who seem to neglect their kids in pursuit of their own aspirations. I have been both of these people. Chah says, “This Middle Way is the way to peace and liberation in this very life.” OK Chah. But how do we find it?
I STARTED SMALL
Ten minute meditations, and thirty minute rides down the bike path. I would swim a few laps when we went to the pool, and run a little when I walked the dog. I ate better, did Sober October and Dry January. It worked. With even this small amount of self care I started to feel lighter in my mind and body. I stopped taking myself and everything else so seriously. Being a parent is stressful, but it’s also fun, right? I laughed and played more with my kids, and gave my family one less thing to worry about: Dad.
Eventually, my mindfulness practice deepened, and I started doing yoga. My little runs and rides turned into triathlon training, something I had never done before. My adventures lasted two to three hours instead of two to three days, but they were just as exciting. Self-care doesn’t have to be selfish or self-indulgent. I wasn’t doing it instead of being a good dad, I was doing it in order to. I was doing it for all of us.
As I started to get stronger, I felt my self-respect coming back. After my mini-adventures, I was calmer and more present with my family. I still had plenty of time for work and family, because I was more efficient and clear-minded. It all came together when the boys came to cheer me on in the Glenwood Triathlon. I was no champion, but solidly in the middle of the pack, and having fun! Seeing my kids cheering me on, I saw the balance: we want to support them, but we also want to inspire.
PARENTING IS AN ART, NOT A SCIENCE
But it’s more like a sculpture of ice or sand than one of marble. The purpose is to enjoy it, and then let it go. I once took a painting class from Majid Kahhak, at his studio in Carbondale. As I flustered over the details of my desert landscape, he commented on my scrunched-up face, “It’s not about the painting Adam, it’s about the experience you have while making the painting.” And then he took his knife and scraped it across my canyon. “Relax. If you have love in your heart, the painting will be good.” I was bewildered, but over time I understood.
Being awesome, I realized, has nothing to do with your activities or how you spend your free time. It’s not about what you do at all, it’s about being. Being present, being humble, being adaptable, adventurous, and fun. Living in awe. When we become parents, we need to change the way we spend our time, but we don’t need to change our values. We need to retain our agency and our integrity. And we need to integrate those into the way we parent, the way we work, and the way we live. “If you have love in your heart, the painting will be good,” Majiid had said. Of course! Being awesome is not about us at all. It’s about cultivating awesomeness, and giving it away.
The last step, for me, was getting sober. I needed to let go of trying to force things, trying to make myself feel (or not feel) any sort of way. A lot of people can find balance without this step, but for me, it had run its course. Substance use was the last thing tying me to the old way of being, and I wanted to remember who I was without it, to take life on life’s terms. With all this came a freedom I hadn’t known since I was a kid myself. Cruising through the days, working hard, staying present, feeling the feelings, and letting them go, having fun again. That was my Middle Way.
It’s hard to stay balanced in the middle. I still get mad sometimes and miss my workouts. I get stressed and spun out, but I try not to marinate in it. I keep moving forward. But I’m no longer defined by the things I do, more so by the way I am. I show up – for myself and others. I’m not so hard on everybody.
NOW THAT MY KIDS ARE TEENAGERS, THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER.
Anyone with a teenager knows, they don’t listen to you anymore, but they watch you more than ever. It’s hard, but I am trying my best to be the kind of man I want them to become. I don’t want them to be selfish and self-indulgent, but I also don’t want them to rely on others for their self-worth. Confident but kind, disciplined but flexible, hard-working but light-hearted. Self-aware, but not self-centered. I want them to be healthy, reverential, and full of wonder. Balanced. Awesome. The best way to help them get there is to work toward that myself. Of course, they will lose their way, fall down, get back up, and fall again, as I have done. But I will be here with them, I hope, in the middle of it all.
“JUST CHILL DAD” part ONE
About Bridges High School, where Adam Carballeira teaches English