The day I felt like a Terrible Father

tim chan —  September 10, 2012 — 6 Comments

This is the story of my worst day as a father, the day I felt like a complete failure of a dad.

It was a Saturday in early July, shortly after we had moved into our new home. As was often the case, Olive and I decided we would split the parenting duties for the day. She would watch Allie in the morning while I unpacked the house. And I would watch Allie in the afternoon while she unpacked the house.

The Day I Felt Like a Terrible FatherThe morning came and went without anything unusual happening. I did a bit of unpacking, but I wish I had done more. We had been living in our new place for three weeks already and there were still boxes everywhere. It was driving me nuts that our place was a mess.

Allie couldn’t do too much at this time besides roll over from time to time, but she only rolled sporadically. I could place her down somewhere for a while, do some house chores while watching her, and she wouldn’t go anywhere. It was actually quite handy.

Except something did happen this particular afternoon.

Feeling a bit bored of just watching Allie and wanting to be productive, I placed Allie down in the middle of our bed and started unpacking some boxes of books. It was harder for her to flip over on a soft surface, and our bed was quite big. There was a lot of room for her to turn and yet not fall. Plus, I was close by and would stop her from rolling off the bed – or so I thought.

Now our bed is fairly tall, 28 inches to be exact. Allie was only about 24 inches tall. Her falling off our bed is the equivalent of me falling off the 2nd story of a house.

So there I was, taking books out of the boxes (ironically it was books on how to be a good parent) and placing them onto our shelf. I was feeling pretty good about being able to multi-task – watch Allie AND unpack. I was so productive. And proud of myself. I should get an award of some sort.

Then all of sudden I heard a heavy thud behind me.

There was the slightest moment of silence after the noise as my mind raced through the possibilities of what might have happened.

The cry that came out of Allie was loud and sharp, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Worse than when she got her immunization shots. Worse than when she was being held by a stranger. Worse than the time we dressed her up in the cute bear suit that didn’t quite fit her.

I rushed over to my wailing daughter, shocked at how fast she had rolled off the bed. I had just looked away for a few moments – how could this have happened?

Tears were streaming down her little chubby cheeks. I picked her up but she was inconsolable. Then Olive rushed into the room.
“What happened??” she asked me.
“She fell off the bed,” I answered sheepishly.
Olive gave me a look, a look that said “How could you let this happen to our one and only daughter?”
She quickly took the crying Allie from my arms and whisked her away from her dangerous and reckless father.

And I was left alone standing there. Shocked. Trying to process what just happened. Feeling guilty. Very guilty. The guilt felt like a heavy knot in my stomach mixed with a sour taste in the back of my mouth. My head felt dizzy and my throat felt tight.

I felt like a failure.

I had failed as a father. Failed in protecting my daughter. Failed at keeping her safe. That was my job as a father. It was so simple. But no, I had to do my own thing and be productive. What for? To feel better about myself?

What was worse in that moment was that I could not console my daughter. I had done something to hurt her, but I was helpless in comforting her. Her mother, the more responsible parent, had taken her away from me, the stupid and selfish parent.

I’ve thought about this moment many times since. This was the first time I truly felt like a failure as a father, and I didn’t know how to handle it. I apologized to Allie afterwards, but how could she understand? She wouldn’t remember this moment and how I failed her. But I remembered. The memory was very clear.

We all fail as parents, in one way or another. As much as I hope to be the best parent possible, there is no way I will be perfect. This is just the beginning of many mistakes I will make as a father. So should I lower my expectations of myself? Should I just shrug off my failures? How do we as parents respond when we make mistakes and let our children down?

Before my daughter was born I feared I might be a lousy father. Those fears are coming true. In the journey of parenthood, I will have many opportunities to learn how to respond to failure, disappointment, and guilt (more thoughts on this next week). And most importantly, I will be challenged to learn how to forgive myself.


Have you ever felt like a failure as a parent? What happened and how did you respond?


photo credit: Scott Ableman via photo pin cc
photo credit: tacit requiem (joanneQEscober ) via photo pin cc
  • Oh Tim, I’m so sorry that happened! My mom told me once that she did the same thing when I was about Allie’s age. I had just learned to roll as well, and my mother put me in the middle of her bed, turned around to grab something, and in that split second, I rolled onto the floor and started crying as well. She told me that at that point, she felt like the worst mother in the world! (I should say that my mom is a very loving, caring, and careful person, and an excellent mom at that.)
    So you’re not alone! On my part, I turned out fine, and of course I don’t have any memory of the incident. And I’m sure my mother forgave herself at some point (I don’t think she carries any residual guilt from that day).

    I would say you had a great response in that you felt obvious guilt over what happened, and you apologized to her. This will probably come in handy when Allie is older and can understand and respond to you. (I speak here as a daughter whose parents apologized to me when they wronged me, which means a lot.) Even though Allie won’t remember this incident, you will, and your apology to her shows you deeply love and care about her even though she cannot respond.

    I don’t think you have to necessarily lower your expectations of parenthood. You can keep trying your best to be the best dad possible, but it’s also important to remember that you will fail because you’re not perfect. However, that doesn’t mean you’re a lousy dad, it means you’re human. =)

    And for the record, I don’t think you’re a lousy father at all! You (and Olive) clearly love your daughter so much, and you take great delight in being her parents. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on parenting!

    • Thanks for sharing the story of your mom!
      I agree that making mistakes is part of being human – and perhaps part of learning to be human is accepting and embracing the mistakes that we make, while still striving to learn from them and be better

  • Hannah

    I dropped my sister by accident by lifting her over my shoulder at 9 years old. She’s perfectly fine. She also rolled out of her bed at least 2 times. Bed was about 24 inches high. My other sister fell down the stairs on a monthly basis when she was a toddler, they are rather resilient. She’s a social worker in the down town east side and helps seniors and prostitutes and drug addicts. So, don’t worry so much . =) Also if you are worried about brain damage that occurs, there’s this wonderful thing called neural plasticity, the younger the are the more plastic / resilient the brain is.

    • Glad to hear about the neural plasticity of a baby! I guess God knew about our clumsiness, and so designed some protection for the good of babies everywhere, haha. I think because it was the first time it happened, it was especially traumatic.
      Something I do want to reflect on more is how to respond to mistakes I make that do have more serious consequences of my daughter – whether intentional or unintentional.

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