My 8-year-old son and I were at McDonald’s. It was just after 11 a.m. on a Saturday and he was in his blue soccer jersey and black shorts. He had a game in an hour. He was eating an ice cream cone and drinking a root beer. I was eating some chicken nuggets.
That evening I was going to baptize Tristan into the Mormon Church, and so I took him out to McDonald’s (his suggestion, not mine) to chat about his baptism.
“Are you nervous?” I asked.
Tristan looked down at his ice cream cone, then he shrugged. He does this a lot now. A year ago I couldn’t get him to shut up, but ever since he turned 8, he’s been much more withdrawn. He doesn’t like to get his picture taken, and he doesn’t like to talk about anything outside of his favorite video game, Minecraft, or farts.
“It’s okay to be nervous,” I said. “I was nervous when I got baptized. That’s why I brought you out for ice cream. Just the two of us so we could talk about all this.”
I told him about how Jesus was baptized by immersion, and that is just how he will be baptized. I told him that I was baptized at 8, too. By my father, and that I was really nervous to have all those people watching me. “It felt really scary because I didn’t really know what it all meant.” Then I told him about how he will be taking on the name of Christ, and how that means he needs to think about that and act accordingly. I told him a bunch of stuff that he already knew from Sunday school. I was trying to make him feel comfortable. To understand what all this meant. But I suppose it’s what I didn’t tell him is what I was really thinking about.
My father left my family when I was 9, less than a year after my baptism. When he baptized me, he was high on Vicodin. His addiction to painkillers would kill him ten years later. He was having an affair on my mother at the time. I didn’t know any of this at 8. I knew that when he came into the font to baptize me, he was stumbling. I could see that his eyes were glossy, and when he spoke, his words were slurred. I recall discussions between family members about my father’s addictions, and I remember not fully understanding what it all meant, but feeling anxious about it and wondering if he should be baptizing me.
It is only in hindsight that I fully realized my father wasn’t, according to the standards of the Mormon Church, worthy to baptize me. I struggled with this for years as a Mormon. I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know if it meant my baptism was void. I know now that isn’t the case. My father’s sins didn’t change a thing about the ceremony.
I often think about my father, in that moment, struggling to walk into the baptismal font. Then I think about my own son, and how badly I want to be a better father than the one I had, and wonder if I’m doing it right. And I suppose that’s what I was trying to do at McDonald’s with my son. I wanted him to understand what he was about to do, and for him to know that I loved him and cared about him, and that getting baptized was a good thing, not a scary thing. I wanted him to know that unlike my father, I felt worthy to baptize him. And that I would never abandon him.
But I didn’t know just how to say it, so I just told him the basics. I told him about baptism, and what it means, and basically said all the same stuff he’d been hearing in church for the past several years.
Tristan finished his ice cream cone and asked if he could have one more. I still wanted to talk with him, so I bought him another. Then I said, “I just want you to know that I love and care for you. I’m excited to baptize you, and I want you to be excited, too.” I went on, telling him that I was worthy to baptize him and he didn’t need to worry.
He gave me a really confused look. Then he said, “I’m not scared, really. I just don’t want mom to take pictures.”
He took the first bite from his second cone.
“So you are not worried about any of the big stuff,” I said. “You just don’t want Mom to take your picture?”
He nodded vigorously. “I just don’t like my picture taken.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just don’t like it.”
I laughed. “Well…” I said. “I’m not sure how you are going to get out of that. Your mother really wants pictures.”
Tristan rolled his eyes. Then he took another bite from his cone and said, “I know.”
I didn’t have a very good father, and it has caused me to worry about some really heavy things with my kids. And as I sat across from Tristan chatting about how he doesn’t want his mother to take pictures, I realized that he really didn’t have the problems I had growing up. Taking pictures was his biggest concern right now, and if that was all he had to worry about, than maybe I was doing an okay job as a parent, I do this a lot. I project my own pain, experiences, and fears onto my children.
“We better get to your game,” I said.
As we walked out to the car I said, “Do you feel less nervous? Did this chat help at all?”
He shrugged. Then he gave me a hug and said, “Thanks for the ice cream.”
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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.