A couple months ago, our son Wilder turned a year and a half. It felt like a turning point.
For one thing, we finally stopped giving his age in just months, which drove me nuts - “oh he’s 17 months and 4 days, and I’m a psycho!”
But more importantly, he’d made the transition from being a big ol’ squish ball into something more and more human. Things were hard, sure, but they were getting fun too — he had a favorite show (“trash truck”) a favorite toy (“trash truck), and even a favorite phrase (“trash truck”).
And he finally started calling Lauren ‘mama’ and me “dada.’
A new normal of ‘we are parents’ had emerged and it felt...pretty good.
Until it didn’t.
It began like any other day
“dada?!” screamed Wilder, like very loudly, right into my ear.
“I’m right here bud, what’s up” I said, holding him and worried he might be one of those kids who can’t control the volume of their voice.
“dada!!?” he cried, louder this time.
No problem, I thought — I can handle this —classic parenting stuff— “it’s ok dada’s here, what’s - “
(sees my wife Lauren) “dada!!! hug!!! dada!!”
There he was, screaming ‘dada’ and pointing his little snausage finger toward his mama.
I understood how Jesus and Julius Caesar must have felt, betrayed by their own. Et tu, mio Wilder?
Except this was even worse. Neither Judas nor Brutus had even a hint of comedy in their backstabbing. But Wilder not only bit the hand that fed, quite literally, but did so with the comedic genius of a Catskills lifer.
The boy had simplified the “Who's on first” joke into its purest essence:
mama was dada,
mama was also mama,
I was nada.
I wish so badly I could tell you that I handled this like a mature adult. “He’s just going through a phase - nothing to worry about,” I’d write in my adult journal next to my daily tax reconciliation and notes on world affairs.
But that adult I am not.
Speaking of Metamorphosis, how’s about you morph from a free subscriber to a paid subscriber? Could be dope.
And so it went until Christmas
Slowly and surely, Wilder’s misparenting me had worn me down, quietly, until Christmas.
We were with Lauren’s family in Atlanta and I was in charge of keeping Wilder away from the kitchen so
Lauren dada could help get stuff ready and also just breathe a few breaths. Wilder’s been acting like a deranged stalker around her lately; anytime he saw her, he’d loses his shit. Gone were the few shreds of respect and humanity he’s managed to cobble together in his short time on this earth, replaced by Raw Animal Need.
He’d run toward her like he’s an ex boyfriend, screaming every one of their inside joke words in quick succession, hoping praying pleading for her to take him back: “milk, trash truck, up, down, walk, sit, milk, milk truck, down up” and of course, the knife in my back, “ dada.”
It’s literally like he’s a toddler and she’s his mother. It’s insane.
For a while I managed to distract him with Christmas lights and peekaboo, but eventually I took a cheese break and he broke through, storming into the kitchen, yelling ‘dada’ the whole way.
Like if I was a bodyguard for a famous musician named LaurLaur, he’d have just gotten past me and ran straight for her all while screaming my name. It was advanced psychological warfare, and I crumbled.
He noticed me on his tail, weak and frail, the human embodiment of a bad knee, so he turned around screaming NOOO and pushing me away. Kicking me. Open palm hitting, and then more kicking, all while screaming ‘dada’ in the direction of Lauren aka LaurLaur aka mama.
All, by the way, in front of Lauren’s family. It’s one thing to destroy your father’s porcelain sense of self at home, in private, but to do so around the people to whom he has promised to care for their daughter by being a ‘dada’ of sorts for the entire family? Savage.
I’m fragile as a bubble in a ceiling fan store, so I naturally pop, by which I mean imploded, shutting down into sadness autopilot. I walked out of the kitchen, huffed and puffed my way into the living room and started doing Sudoku like one of those 1950’s dads with his newspaper, screaming for everyone to pipe down because he’d had a tough day at the oil field factory farm.
Truly though - I was pissed. Hurt, and deflated and sad and broken and mad at myself for being so, all of which I only realized when Wilder walked back into the living room and I felt myself wanting him to see me upset so he’d feel bad and apologize.
Just to make sure we’re all following — I am now playing insecure mind games with a 567 day old child. Despicable stuff.
And believe it or not, he didn’t apologize. He didn’t even know I was upset, which hurt even more than the incident itself -- a classic case of “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.” which is a legal term for all my fellow lawyers and detectives.
I spent the next few hours in one of my classic ‘holes’ from which rescue is nearly impossible. From the outside, this looks like me just staring off into space, dazed and mildly irritated. On the inside, it’s a full on panic attack made up of equal parts indignant rage - how dare he?! - and terrified rumination - what did I do wrong? why am I such a fucknut? I kept playing back what happened, rationalizing, wondering if this is just a phase (obviously) or if my son simply doesn’t like me (seems crazy but hey it could be true!!).
“I’m gonna have to live with this kid who hates me for 16 years,” was a genuine thought I had in my actual brain about my actual one and only son.
So then I sorta, just...avoided Wilder (again, my blood offspring) for the rest of the night. Like, I actively felt myself holding back from playing with him. I didn’t want to get hurt again!
Why me god
My two biggest fears in life are failure and rejection, and here during Dadagate 2022, Both were true 🙁. There I was, failing in my role as a husband and father AND ALSO being rejected by my only son, the oldest of his name, heir to the Dobrenko fortune (pending).
Now look, I’ve seen Star Wars - I know father son relationships are messy. I understood that Wilder and I would have ups and downs and all arounds, but only in the abstract.
I hadn’t felt it yet.
Whereas on that eve of the day when Jesus became ‘mas,’ I viscerally experienced the harrowing realization that our father son relationship consisted of two people - (1) my son Wilder and (2)…
Not just the fantasy Dad version of me I’d constructed in my mind without even knowing it, but all of me. Me, Alex Dobrenko.
The same Alex Dobrenko who said “I love you” for the first time to his college girlfriend and then took it back because he wasn’t 100% sure and didn’t want to lie.
Anxious, prone to fits of melancholy and low self worth, excitable, irritable, distractible, and those are the good parts!! (badum chhh... i’ll be in the Catskills all week trying to catch up to mini Rodney Dangerfield my son).
Before that night, I saw our bond as this simple, idyllic thing, picturesque and full of joy and hard moments, sure, but never any doubt that we loved and—more importantly, liked — each other. (even though this already wasn’t true - he was often annoying and very much not chill, slept like an idiot, etc. but still throughout it all I hadn’t changed the mental model of what I believed was true about us.)
But now I was like, ‘oh shit. I have to be in this relationship?’ I’m a mess! I thought becoming a parent meant creating a whole new identity for yourself that your child would have to believe since they’d never known anything different? For a while I joked about talking to him only in a British accent and disappearing whenever there was a full moon so he’d think I was a werewolf in London.
Logistically that was going to be hard to keep up, mostly because I’d get sleepy and come home by like 9pm, having forgotten my British accent and ruining the whole bit. But at least I figured I could just create a mirage of an all knowing wise and kind Dada who had his shit together.
And that’s not all folks. Because this is just the beginning! Like if parenting is a video game, the phase where the child is only 13608 hours old is the very first, most simple part of the tutorial before the actual game even starts when the game checks if you can hold a controller in your hands without eating the TV.
Soon he’s gonna talk back and communicate in no unclear terms that he hates me. And then if he’s like me, he’ll swing hard the other way and try to make sure I like him and doubt that I do. Then he’ll be 16 and his friends will call me from a birthday party where he got way too drunk so his friends put him in the shower and he just kept screaming “call my dad please call my dad” so they called and I’d come, take him home, and tell him to sleep it off, which he would …on his dresser. Obviously that’s all a made up example and not what happened with me and my dad. That’d be impossible.
Wilder, I am your Dada
After a couple days of sulking which, on the outside probably looked like nothing but on the inside felt like being parched in a hot sauce store, I realized I should give the kid another shot.
So I got down on the floor with him and
Lauren dada. I was nervous, timid, shy. I didn’t want to have my heart broken again, but as I’ve said to everyone who takes my “finding love finding you” workshop, we are all broken vases full of water and flowers — love means accepting that our vases will break once more (Cohort 10 is currently open for registration - send $55178 which, if you type upside down in a calculator, spells bliss, to secure your spot!).
But this time, Wilder didn’t push me away. Instead he sorta fell into me and I started tickling him and he absolutely lost his mind laughing. And then he and
Lauren dada started to tickle me and I acted like it was the craziest thing in the world (in many ways, acceptance IS), and all was great. He started to run circles around the living room, each one ending with him falling into me giggling. I lifted him up and then put him down and we’d repeat, and every time was the best time and all felt good with the world.
And then he saw Lauren walking away and started screaming DADA and kicking me until I let him go and try to find her.
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U + Me = Us (Calculus)
I know myself—prone to tantrums and irrational anger where the smallest little thing creates life or death stakes to which the only possible response is a full on, unadulterated meltdown.
This is also apparently what children go through between the ages of 2-3. The terrible twos, they call it. Toddlers move through it, onto the other side into the thriving threes, the fond fours, the fiscal fives, etc.
While others - grown men who disintegrate when their baby calls their wife ‘dada’ - get stuck there forever.
Except...I can’t really stay stuck. As my close personal friend and mentee Sheryl Crow once said, “A Change Would Do You Good.”
Everyone tells me that kids watch what you do, not what you say (which means you can say crazy shit!). Which means that if I model responding to hard big shameful feelings by storming off sulking, and then writing an essay about it a week later, he will too. And that, I cannot stand for. Writing is MY thing.
If I want to be Wilder’s dada, I must model how to be my own dada.
Instead of running from my feelings or pretending they’re not there, I will have to show him what it means to be in touch with your feelings, especially when they are ridiculous and absurd and make you act like a baby child toddler. Because those are the hardest — and maybe most important — ones to feel okay sharing with the world.
So I guess what I’m saying is - yes, I did all of this on purpose as a Teachable Moment to show Wilder that he and I are a couple of big babies, terrified of the world, each praying that dada Lauren will come back soon.
And now, for something different.
Yesterday morning Wilder started crying at around 530am. I was up at 4am because of the time change, and so I went in to see if he’d sleep on me for a little bit.
I picked him up and he snuggled up into me. A snoozer. Usually we’d get another 30 min, maybe 45, before he woke up.
But yesterday, he just kept sleeping, waking up only to squeeze himself into an even tinier blob for maximum cuddle before melting once more into me. His body, already close to 30 pounds, and the smallest it will ever be.
I fell asleep too, napping as he napped, waking every few minutes into this hazy, warm, all consuming cozy sort of love, beyond and before words, simple and true, real, and right.
I checked my phone - 830am. He’d been napping on me for three hours. I couldn’t really feel my legs, but I did feel one thing: dada. Not just my personal dada but the Eternal Dada — dada before Dada, the pure all knowing form that exists between a dada and his sona, what words can’t ever fully capture even though we’ll spend the rest of our lives trying. More walls will come up, more barriers, more emotions and apologies and cuddles and shitfits, ruptures and mends, again and again, all looking for the source experience of dada that we’d managed to find during that nap, the one that’s always there, before us and after, moving through.
It is me, and it is him, and it is us. A dad and his lad, a dada and his...ladda.
Emerging from the nap lair, we learned that Lauren had made pancakes an hour ago. So we sat and ate, him mostly just licking the syrup off the plate. There’s an analogy here, about providing him with what he needs (pancakes) and not just what he wants (syrup), but it’s weird to say that what you NEED is pancakes cuz they’re so good but hey, maybe that’s the point: maybe in parenthood and any deep, real sorta love, all you need is the emotional equivalent of pancakes — nothing complicated or painful or full of struggle but just a delicious fluffy, golden brown stack of the good stuff, crispy at the edges and soft in the middle and — Wilder just woke up and called Lauren ‘dada.’
Brb, I’m moving to a hotel.
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💬Let’s talk about it
I love hearing from yall in the comments, genuinely. Let’s dive in — here are some questions to jump start your brains.
Do you or have you ever had parents? What’s that like for you?
Do you or have you ever had children? Do they hate you and if not why?
Are there any wise phrases or advice you can share with me and the world about how to not fall apart when your kid calls your wife ‘dada’?
How was your holiday did you make any resolutions have you broken them yet?
THE MORPH FROM FREE TO PAID: genius.
1) I have had parents! It has been quite complicated but good.
2) I have not had children! It has been quite complicated but good.
3) See #2.
4) I don't make resolutions, but my word for the year is MOVEMENT.