“Hey, Dad,” Tristan said. “Check it out. I’ve got paint on my foot!” He had a big, dimpled grin, like what he’d done was a real accomplishment. Like it was something to be proud of. He was walking on his heel to keep from getting paint on the carpet. It was around 11AM on a Saturday and he was still in Sponge Bob underwear.
I started to put together scenarios. Somehow paint got on his foot, which meant there was most likely paint on the carpet, which meant a mess that may never be removed. I felt a burning hot rage rise up in my chest. It was a father rage. The kind of rage that comes from stains and messes and shit that can’t be repaired. It’s the kind of rage that is irrational and red-faced and without logic. It’s the kind of rage that makes adults look back on their childhood and say, “I’d never seen my dad that mad.”
Because of my rage, I can’t recall exactly what I said to Tristan, but it was probably something to the tune of, “Are you f….reaking kidding me?” Thinking back, I’m happy I maintained the sensibility to not use the f-word in front of my kid, but rest assured it was bouncing around in my head, and it was everything I could do to swallow. To make matters worse, I was already frustrated with the kid. I’d been hassling him for about two hours to get his soccer uniform on so we could go to his game on time, and yet there he was, still in his Sponge Bob underwear. The night before I told him that he needed to clean his room before his game. I noticed that there were tubes of finger paint on his floor, and knew that there would most likely be an accident if not cleaned up, but it was late, and I didn’t feel like handling it. Now, things had progressed, and I probably had red paint on the carpet, and it was partially my fault. I was kicking myself for not having him clean it up right then, and that only added to my rage.
Tristan didn’t go into great detail. He didn’t mention that he had, indeed, jumped from his bed, stepped on a tube of paint, and squeezed it all over the carpet. I found that out later. Rather, what he did say was, “It was an accident.”
He says this a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he thinks it’s a get out of jail free card. I’ve tried to tell him that accidents don’t have to happen. That they can be avoided. I tell him that’s why we wear helmets on bikes. And every time I try to explain something like that, his eyes gloss over and I can tell that he is in a bubble of some kind, and I can’t tell if he just doesn’t understand, or if he doesn’t want to. He’s a bright kid, and I think on some subconscious level he understands that if he admits that accidents can be avoided, he’d have to start taking responsibility for the bonehead things he does.
Tristan hobbled into the bathroom, making sure not to get paint in the hallway. The whole time he kept repeating that it was an accident. He told me that he was going to clean it up, but I doubt that he knew how because, honestly, I didn’t know how. I had no idea how to clean up paint. I think that’s what angered me the most. So much of being a father means fixing shit, cleaning things, being faced with problems that, as a man, I should inherently know how to handle, but I don’t. No one ever showed me how to fix a sink, or a toilet, or a car, or whatever…and yet for some reason I feel like I’m supposed to know. Like God was supposed to grant me the knowledge, but he didn’t. Perhaps this is all a divine joke. Or maybe I just need to not put so much pressure on myself.
I looked at the dollar-sized glob of red paint on Tristan’s carpet, and felt hopeless. I didn’t have a carpet cleaner or anything. I cleaned it up as best I could with paper towels, sprayed it with carpet cleaner, and then placed a towel over it and hoped that it would magically disappear.
Then I lectured my son. I didn’t say anything mean. But I did use words like “irresponsible,” and “frustrated.” I told him that he should’ve cleaned up his room before something like this happened. And Tristan had a flat, blank, frightened look on his face, and I recall thinking. “Good, he should be scared. This should never happen again.” And as I spoke with him, I felt empowered. I felt like I was getting through to him, but honestly, I don’t think I was. I think he was a frightened little boy, and I was pissed off father, and once the dust settled, we’d be right back where we were the day before.
We went to Tristan’s soccer game, and that evening some friends came over for dinner, Greg and Madelin. The towel covering the paint in Tristan’s room was still there, reminding me that beneath it was a red mess that I didn’t know how to handle. I ask Greg how he would clean up a mess like that, he said, “Soak it with water and then suck it up with a Shop-vac.”
After they left, I did just that, and I was surprised by how quickly it came up. You couldn’t even tell that it was ever there. Once it was gone, I thought about how mad I’d gotten at Tristan and compared it to how easily the paint came up, and realized that I had overreacted. I hate realizing that. A line from the 80’s move The Breakfast Club kept popping into my head. Bender, the rebellious kid in the movie, shows the jock a cigar burn and says, “…see this is what you get in my house when you spill paint in the garage.” I know that this is an extreme example, but I wondered if that was the kind of father I was becoming. I didn’t hurt Tristan physically, but I must have hurt him emotionally. The paint came up as easily as spilled milk, and yet I yelled at my son over it. There are many ways, better, less emotional ways I could’ve handled that situation.
I brought Tristan into his room and showed him that I got the paint up. Then I hunched down so I could look him in the eyes. “Tristan,” I said. “I’m sorry for getting so mad about the paint. I was wrong to do it.”
He nodded. He was listening.
“I want you to know that I love you. What happened wasn’t cool, but the way I reacted wasn’t cool ether.”
We talked about how the spill could’ve been avoided, and how I could’ve kept my cool, and once it was all done, Tristan gave me a hug.
I have no doubt that something like this will happen again. And much like how Tristan is figuring out how to prevent accidents from happening, I am going to keep working on how I react to those accidents.
You would also enjoy, The Questions I’ve Been Asked Since Having A Newborn (and the answers I would love to give).
Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.