Fiercely Guarding

This week I’ve got something very raw and vulnerable to talk about.

Someone close to me—I’m not going to say who—said something to my two-year-old daughter Niamh that shocked me. My wife Annie was napping and the three of us were alone together and feeding Niamh lunch. I gave her a cup of juice cut with 80% water, and this other person looked Niamh in the eye and said “You’d better drink water instead of juice, or you’ll become a fatty!”

I was stunned for a moment—did those words come from the lips of someone who loves me and my daughter? “Fatty”? FATTY?! My daughter is only two years old and already people close to her are tossing that vile word at her as a weapon of shame? Does a toddler need to bear a burden of anxiety over the shape of her body? Does anybody?

The word was spoken by someone with whom I often experience sharp values dissonance, despite our closeness. Ordinarily I would bite my tongue and remain silent in the face of such a remark, to keep the peace between us. But this was different—this was an attack on  my daughter, on her very identity. So I looked this person in the eye, and I said:

“Please don’t ever use that word in front of my daughter.”

The person laughed it off, and for a moment I thought that would be the end of it—my valiant defense of my daughter’s personhood met with avoidance. But a few minutes later, the person spoke up: “I won’t say that word to her. But studies do show that kids who drink juice instead of water tend toward obesity. And I only said that because she doesn’t understand what it means.”

I pointed out that Niamh understands more than you might think, to which this person agreed. My first thoughts after this conversation were a combination of outrage and pride at standing up for my daughter. When I had time to reflect, though, I saw more dimensions at work. I realized that the person was doing this out of genuine health concern, valid or invalid though it may be. They weren’t trying to shame Niamh or put her down. They weren’t even addressing her, really; they were addressing me, telling me in an indirect way that they were concerned with how I was regulating Niamh’s food and drink. Passive-aggressiveness aside, this is a well-meaning and helpful goal. But in the process, this person unwittingly engaged the shame machine and set it loose on my little girl.

One thing above all else that terrifies me as a parent: the magnitude and volume of messages that bombard my child all day every day, from family, from friends, from entertainment and advertising, from simply living in this society and breathing in its assumptions. Niamh is taking it all in, wide-eyed, curious, accepting, and already forming the conscious and unconscious scripts that will guide her thinking and her life. The messages she internalizes could be the most life-affirming and joyous, or the most hateful and stifling—it doesn’t matter, she’ll take them in all the same.

And the messages pour in, morning till night, and will continue as long as she lives. And some of those messages come from her mother, and from me.

There’s a warrior in me that longs to stand up to injustice, right wrongs, and defy a wicked world. That warrior wells up to fiercely guard my daughter in body and soul. But that warrior is not always mature and wise in its use of strength. Sometimes in my desire to battle evil, I accomplish nothing but inflicting harm.

A few months ago I had a minor crisis that I treated as a major catastrophe. I thought that something important might be lost in the mail. I had a total meltdown, stomping around, yelling, and snapping at anyone who tried to talk to me. While Annie, Niamh and others looked on, I ranted dramatically that if I didn’t get the package my life was OVER, and if the postal service sent it back I’d just KILL them, and so forth. At the time I was seeing it as an issue of JUSTICE—others were counting on me to receive this package in time, and a wicked mail service was standing in my way! I see now that it was merely an inconvenience. But that’s beside the point, here.

The point is that while my fury was not at all directed at her, Niamh stood and took in every sight and sound. And the very person who months later, as I described above, would speak words of body shame into her life, witnessed this and emailed me: “When we were talking about the mail issue, I noticed Niamh froze and riveted on you as you talked of murder and suicide. Even though she’s not saying those words, yet, she is certainly absorbing them.”

So, once again—the person who warned Niamh of becoming a fatty had my and her best interests at heart. At the time, I brushed this off, filing it away in a “who do they think they are, telling me how to parent?” box and deciding that I was dealing with the issue just fine, thank you very much. But unlike this person, I didn’t return after reflection to engage with the concern. After the “fatty” incident I did reflect, and I realized to my horror that my message of violence, even figuratively and indirectly, is just as much a soul-cutting wound. Every word that I speak into her life is a gift, unconditionally accepted, and if I give her poison…SHE WILL DRINK IT.

This is what terrifies me as a father.

So this isn’t a smug, self-righteous story about how I stood firm like a White Knight and defended my little girl. This is a story about the battlefield Niamh walks every day, with no clear good guys or bad guys. This is my story of how in my zeal to guard her from outside threats, I sometimes inflict the wounds myself. Fighting evil is an all-too-convenient substitute for doing good.

I still aim to fight against the shame machine, and what’s more teach Niamh to do the same—filtering voices, finding a voice, remaining sure of who she is. But I must never forget that everyone in her life can be at times an ally and at times an enemy, and that the shaming, wounding voices can come from anywhere, even her daddy. So I had better guard myself. I’ll be honest, I don’t know any magical strategies for doing that. As I described in “The Sheathed Sword,” the progress I’ve made toward healthy, nonviolent, shame-free patterns has been hard, grueling work. It’s uncharted territory, and slow going. But if I keep forging ahead, maybe I can at least help Niamh by leading the way.



12 Responses to “Fiercely Guarding”

  1. 1 Simon C
    January 5, 2011 at 11:02 am


    As if becoming a “fatty” is the worst fate that could befall a person. Your friend was wrong about a clear causal link between fruit juice and obesity, incidentally.

    But you larger point, sheesh. There’s no good answer.

    I think all you can do is try to make sure that your kid knows they’re loved and valued by you no matter what. I think that’s the most valuable thing a person can have.

  2. 2 Hans Chung-Otterson
    January 7, 2011 at 2:45 am

    “The shame machine”. Such an apt phrase. Thanks for this, Joel. I’ll likely be a father in a few years or less, and if I really let myself sit and think about it, the thing that most terrifies me are my own failings, and how those may (or most likely WILL) transfer to my child. Brenda & I sometimes talk about the flaws of our parents (not as a judgment, mind), and it’s clear that in many ways we have the same flaws. That’s how life works. At the same time, I have this burning determination to FIX (goddamnit!) those things so they won’t pass on to my child.

    Like Simon said, love the crap out of that kid. It’s all you can do.

    And cutting the juice with 80% water? I’ll file that one away for later!

  3. 3 Mick Bradley
    January 7, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Once again, SoulBro, you express my own thoughts and fears with deft awesomeness. Thank you.

  4. 4 Joel
    January 8, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Thanks, everyone.

    Hans, you’re so right that we carry failings and difficulties from our parents and grandparents. I think that’s what the Bible really means when it says that “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the children.”

    So, I had a new realization about all this: in all my drive to PROTECT Niamh, to fight FOR her, to SHIELD her from anything that might harm her…I’m setting up an impossible burden for myself. And what’s more, I’m falling right back into the adversarial mindset I seek to avoid: us vs. them, good guys and bad guys, me and my daughter against the world. And I can’t fight the whole world. Evenif I try, what will that mean? Grandparents who lay guilt trips, cut off? Friends who say cruel things, cut off? Will I doom my daughter to isolation in my desire to keep her from ever knowing harm?

    If, rather, I determine to be there WITH her, to love her and support her no matter what hurts her, even if I MYSELF hurt her…well, that’s something I can do. I can be there no matter what. I can comfort her no matter what. I can accept her no matter what. I can fail and apologize and keep trying no matter what.

    We have terms for this in gaming: you can play “Nobody Gets hurt,” where at the first sign of distress or pain we withdraw, retreating into a zone of safety where nobody’s buttons are pushed. Or you can play “I Will Not Abandon You.”

    “I as a player expect to get my buttons pushed, and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when that happens. I will remain present and engaged and play through the issue.
    I as a player expect to push buttons, and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when you react. I will remain present and engaged as you play through the issue”

    —Meguey Baker

    And the thing is, in a game, it’s perfectly valid to play “Nobody Gets Hurt.” Not everyone wants emotional vulnerability in their leisure. But in life…well, in life it’s not POSSIBLE to play “Nobody Gets Hurt.” People WILL get hurt. The shame machine WILL march on, and we all WILL pass on the woundings of our own abuse in little ways every day. And while I strive to be a supportive, affirming person who validates others’ worth instead of cutting them down, the fact is that I will fail sometimes.

    So I can’t give Niamh “Nobody Gets Hurt.” But I can give her “I Will Not Abandon You.” I can be there when her buttons are pushed, letting her know she is loved, listening to her story, helping any way I can. And I can be there when MY buttons are pushed…not check out of her life because of my own shame and frustration and weariness. I can remember each day, remind her each day, that we’re in this together. Niamh, I WILL NOT ABANDON YOU.


  5. 5 Zarah
    January 8, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Joel, thank you for speaking from your heart and being so transparent. I believe that just being aware of your thoughts/feelings the way you are puts you ahead of a lot of people, especially in terms of being a good parent. You will not always be perfect, but (and I say this as someone with a good share of “Daddy Issues”) as long as you always let Niamh know that you are proud of who she is, you’ll be perfect enough. Lots of love to all three of you.

  6. 6 Joel
    January 8, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you. Lots of love right back!

  7. 7 Meguey
    January 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Rock on, Joel. We should talk parenting and kids and dealing with being central figures in our children’s world sometime. Also, you hit directly on the pulse of what ‘I will not abandon you’ means. I would only edit it as follows:
    “I as a person acknowledge that I will sometimes get my buttons pushed, and I will not abandon you, my fellow people, when that happens. I will remain present and engaged as we work through the issue.
    I as a person acknowledge that I will sometimes push buttons, and I will not abandon you, my fellow people, when you react. I will remain present and engaged as we work through the issue.”

    —Meguey Baker

  8. 8 Joel
    January 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Awesome, Meg. Thanks! That’s a great rewording to apply IWNAY outside of games!

  9. 9 oberonthefool
    May 26, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    First, let me say that Niamh is a beautiful and unique name. Secondly, let me say that this is one of the major reasons why I will never have children.

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