“I can’t right now, honey, I’m driving,” I said.
Then a little whine: “I want it.”
“I know you do, honey. But I’m driving right now and I can’t reach it.”
More whiny: “I want my toy!”
“We’ll get it when we get home.”
“I want it now!” At that point she began to cry. Softly at first, but she punctuated her sobs with a verbal reminder – “I want my toy!” – and each interjection increased the volume and intensity of her weeping. I chose not to respond, to rest in the belief that I had stated my case and repetition would only serve to inflame rather than inform. She experienced my silence as a provocation, I suppose, and yelled at me: “Get my toy, Daddy! I want my tooooooy!” Then she interpreted my inaction as a hostile refusal, a rejection of her as a person, and she took her anger to the next level: “I want to go to Grandmommy and Granddaddy’s house!”
I didn’t begrudge her the desire for the toy. I completely understood her frustration at having her play interrupted; I didn’t think she dropped her toy on purpose, and I could identify with how vexing it is to want something you had and now didn’t and couldn’t get back. I didn’t begrudge her expressing her annoyance. I encourage her to use her words and, for the most part, find this to be an acceptable approach in any situation of anger on her part. I didn’t even begrudge her for wanting to go to her grandparents; certainly at that point in the interaction, I too wanted her to go to her grandparents and leave me alone. If she’d been with her grandparents, one of them would no doubt have recovered the toy for her. I could appreciate the shattering unfairness of being stuck in the car with Daddy and her toy on the floor out of reach.
The crying turned to wailing which turned to screeching. She started kicking of the back of my seat, and shouting, “No, Daddy! You’re mean, Daddy!” I am fine with her thinking that I am mean, and when she screams, “You’re not my friend, Daddy!” she has no idea that this does not wound me in the slightest. It wasn’t how she felt about the toy or even about me that pushed me over the edge. It was just all the goddamn screaming.
“Enough!” I roared at her. “I can’t get your toy because I’m driving! I wish you could see how important it is that I don’t crash the car! I can only do so many things at once and I’m driving right now! I have to make sure that we get from one place to the other in one piece and I can’t get your toy right now, okay? I know you’re miserable to be without it for the whole rest of the trip home, but your screaming is giving me a headache while I’m driving!”
And she shouted back, with impeccable three-year-old logic, “No, Daddy! You are not driving!”
It shouldn’t have, but it did: it pushed me right over the edge, whatever tiny piece of patience I had left vanishing in a cloud of wrath. “You think you could do this?” I shouted. “I’d like to see you drive the car through downtown Charlotte while I sat in the backseat and screamed at you and kicked your seat and fussed about my silly toy!”
Deep down in the blackness of my terrible soul some part of me desperately hoped that my child would respond with reflection and penitence. That she would grow quiet and then say, “You’re right, Daddy. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take out my frustration about the toy on you. I appreciate everything you do for me.” That foolish, broken part of me was sorely disappointed when my child failed to offer such a response. Instead she did what any three-year-old would do: she doubled down and filled the car with a guttural howl, unbroken by consonant or breath. I, then, recognized that I was a Bad Father and that a screaming child in the backseat of my car was a merciful punishment for my impatience and irrational anger.
In case you hadn’t heard, there is new research to suggest that yelling at our children is not good for them. And it doesn’t just mean all the time. Ming-Te Wang, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh who led the study, states, “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad.” So there it is: scientific proof that I am a Bad Father.
Thankfully, this week I was doing some reading and I came across someone else who also engages in the same kind of behavior. It’s good to know I’m not alone (as I’ve stated before), but this time I’m really in esteemed company. It turns out that God is also a Bad Father.
According to the Book of Job, at least. In case you are not familiar with the biblical story of Job, let me fill you in. Job is a good guy; the best, actually. Job is perfect in every way. And then Job has a really, really bad day. He loses his livestock, his home, his children, and his health. He has literally nothing left. And he has some things to say about this. “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness!” (3:3-4a) Job blames God: “For the arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison; the terrors of God are arrayed against me (6:4)… Know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me. Even when I cry out ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice (19:6-7).” But Job knows that no fight with God is a fair fight: “If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice… If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!... For he is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both (9:16, 19, 32-33).”
God does show up, though, and Job probably wishes he hadn’t. God is not at all happy: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God demands (38:2). “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me (38:3).” And then God delivers a speech of infinite, cosmic exasperation, dripping in sarcasm: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! (38:4-5a)… Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great! (38:19-21)”
Or, in other words: “Enough already! I’m trying to drive the universe!”
Sometimes things just fall and it’s nobody’s fault and there’s nothing wrong with not liking it, but there’s only so much complaining any reasonable person can take. Even the Maker of the universe himself, the one who laid the foundation of the earth and knows how to lead light and darkness to their homes, even he can only take so much whining. God never tells Job that he’s wrong, or that he doesn’t have a right to feel angry. He just wants Job to pipe down while he’s busy keeping the cosmos running. So, according to the Book of Job, I haven’t done anything that God hasn’t done.
This doesn’t make me feel any better about my parenting. If I believed that God felt towards me the way that God seems to feel towards Job, then I wouldn’t belong to a Judeo-Christian faith tradition. I’ve always identified with Job, believing that if God treated humans the way he treats Job, then we absolutely have the right to complain. And I don’t like that Job, in his unfailing perfection, responds to God’s impatient ranting with the perfectly compliant response: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes (42:3b, 6).” I always felt like Job was caving, giving in to all of his prior words of bravery simply because he knew there was no way to beat The Man. I always wished Job had continued to stand tall in the face of such cruel and dismissive words and say, “That all might be, but you haven’t answered my question – why did this happen?” Every time I read the Book of Job, I find myself wishing Job had stuck to his guns
Of course, Job gives exactly the answer I wish my daughter would have given me.
Maybe I should be glad my daughter didn’t cave. Perhaps I should rejoice that I’m raising a child who doesn’t give in, who refuses to submit to a belligerent authority. My little girl is not, at the ripe age of three-and-a-half, going to back down to a barrage of verbiage decrying her inability to see the bigger picture. Maybe that’s a sign of her immaturity and when she’s older she’ll be able to concede that her dropped toys, as important as they are to her, aren’t the only concerns in the world. But maybe it’s a sign of her determination to cry foul and stand her ground in the presence of an injustice.
That all sounds good now, but it doesn’t mean anything to me when I’m stuck in the car filled with her cries of injustice at something I can’t fix. Perhaps the deeper lesson for me is that it is painful to be the one blamed by a loved one for something I can’t change. For the first time in my thirty-five years of existence, I have read the Book of Job and sympathized with God. While my child screams and wails and yells at me about how mad she is at me for something I didn’t do, I can think, “Oh, now I get it, God. How exhausted you must get with me.”* Perhaps in those moments, when I’m slipping into becoming a Bad Father, I should be grateful that I haven’t had the experience that Job had, that I have never felt God yelling at me to stop complaining and cut him some slack because, hey, running the universe is a tough job. I’ve experienced God’s silence, but perhaps that’s a more compassionate response than yelling. Because yelling at our children, even if you’re usually a really good parent, is bad for them.
I’m grateful that God has been a consistently better father to me than I have been to my child.** It’s the truth I go back to in those moments when I give in to my lesser, weaker natures. Just as having children often makes us appreciate our own parents more fully, I can now appreciate God’s grace a bit more thickening than I did before. I know that I can still spend a lot of time in the backseat screaming and wailing about everything that has fallen and desperately wishing someone would pick them all up. I’ll give thanks that God has been a better father to me than he was to Job, even though I’ve been a far worse child than Job was. Perhaps I can draw on this grace for just a bit more patience the next time my child rails against the world (and me). And maybe the next time that I rail against the world, I might do it just a bit more softly.
* I’m aware that the prologue of the Book of Job suggests that Job’s suffering might actually be something God did. A topic for a different blog.
** My reliance on father language for this post is not meant to be a theological stance, but rather to echo my own identification as a father. I am a firm proponent of inclusive language and theology.