The exhausted dad: Deep thoughts by a kindergartner
The exhausted dad
| November 16, 2022 1:00 AM
If you really stop to think about it, being alive is absolutely terrifying.
Surely every person on the planet faces existential dread at some point in their life, and most of us feel it often. As the tiniest of specks floating aimlessly through the totality of a seemingly infinite universe, humans can either spiral into a neverending series of unanswerable questions or simply shrug their shoulders and see what’s playing on HBO.
These grandiose, “What’s the meaning of life?” questions apparently come along earlier than most remember. My 5-year-old son dropped a few jolting inquiries recently.
A few nights ago, as I tucked him into bed (and after my medley of nearly a dozen children’s songs), he said:
“Daddy, I don’t know if I’m going to have a good dream or a bad dream. How can I make sure I get a good dream?”
I know plenty of random lyrics from 90s songs, but I don’t know much about the science behind dreams. And anyway, even if I knew there to be an answer, how would I explain it to a kindergartner?
I replied: “Well, there’s no way to know for sure, but you can think about something happy and I bet that’s what you’ll dream about.”
Total bull-(expletive deleted). I remember plenty of nightmares as a kid that involved me being chased by monsters made of pizza and candy.
My words didn’t seem to bring much comfort to him anyway. So, before I left the room, I provided an addendum:
“Even if you have a bad dream, you can always come to Mom and Dad’s room for a hug.”
And that was the end of that. No middle of the night wake-up. No nightmares (that he remembered anyway).
The next day’s question, however, was much more difficult.
As I was working on my computer, I heard my son start crying in the bathroom that shares a wall next to my desk. The wailing came on so suddenly I figured he got a body part stuck in/on the toilet somehow.
I walked into the bathroom and found him sobbing, though thankfully all his appendages seemed intact.
He said: “I don’t know what heaven feels like!”
I had to ask him three times to repeat the word, “heaven.” Between his 5-year-old voice and all the blubbering tears, I kept assuming he meant something else. Maybe it was a new Star Wars character or something.
But no. He said heaven, a word my wife and I never used in conversation with him. It’s hard to fit the topic of the afterlife into his preferred conversations about Paw Patrol and The Avengers.
“Where did you hear about heaven, buddy?” I asked.
Him: “Claire at school said she someone in her family was in heaven. And, and and, she didn’t know what heaven felt like and I DON’T EITHER!”
I just about teared up on the spot. You hear a 5-year-old say something sad like that and see if you can stop yourself from crying.
“Oh, buddy,” I began. “You’re so young you don’t need to think about that for a long, long time.”
He started crying harder. In that moment, I remembered being a kid and having someone tell me that “I didn’t need to worry about it.”
I can’t speak for everyone, but I never found words like that to be very comforting. Instead, it always felt dismissive, or that the person who said it just wanted to say anything that could get them out of the conversation as fast as possible.
As uncomfortable as I was with the question, I didn’t want to be that person to my little kindergartner.
So I tried again. And I just tried to be honest:
“Oh, it sounds like Claire is really missing someone. That’s so hard for her. I bet that made you sad.”
“YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!” he bellowed.
“It’s OK to feel sad. Nobody knows what it feels like. That’s what makes it hard to think about. It can be really scary to think about.”
He took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said, wiping his tears.
“Thanks for sharing that with me. I’m glad you told me you were feeling sad.”
He took a few seconds before he reached out for a hug. Keep in mind, he was still sitting on the toilet.
“Daddy?” he said with a tiny little smile.
“I need to finish going poop now.”
Phew. Back to the conversations I understand.
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Tyler Wilson is a freelance writer, full-time student and parent to four kids, ages 5-11. He is tired. He can be reached at email@example.com.