This is a true story that took place on a Tuesday night many winters ago. I know it was a Tuesday because that was the night my wife was on call each week and had to work late. On Tuesdays, I had to pick up the kids from daycare after work, give them dinner, bathe them and read bedtime stories. The father I wanted to be embraced this opportunity to do some solo nurturing. The father that I was often felt rushed, irritable, overwhelmed and on the cusp of parental incompetence.
On the Tuesday night in question, my three year old daughter spilled her milk during dinner. There was nothing unusual or unexpected about this. She had been spilling her milk just about every Tuesday for several weeks. In prior weeks my reaction to the spillage had been the model of consistency; i.e. I was consistently flustered and irritable as I gruffly muttered and cleaned up the mess.
I felt ashamed of my impatient reaction to the trivial accident of milk being spilled. The father I wanted to be was rudely shoved aside by the primitive and automatic responses of the young and inexperienced parent that I was. Every Tuesday night I vowed to do better on the following Tuesday. I didn’t. Instead I continued to cry over spilled milk.
My behavior surprised and shamed me because I had the knowledge and motivation to do the right thing. I was sick of the apologies and excuses that followed my outbursts. I imagined my kids saying: “Dude, it’s OK….if you’re really sorry just stop acting like a jerk every time the milk gets spilled.”
The default response of my recalcitrant nervous system to milk soaking the tablecloth and running down the sides of the table was involuntary. So my rational and mature self could not be trusted to control the situation; that self folded like a cheap suit when the milk got to flowing. Stronger measures would be necessary. Out of the box measures.
In my desperation I introduced my children to “Harry the Happy Boy”. Harry appeared out of nowhere and the moment had the aura and feel of a logic defying dream sequence. It was actually more a matter of becoming Harry than introducing him. I said: “Harry the Happy Boy doesn’t mind that R. has spilled her milk. Harry the Happy Boy understands that R. has small hands and is still learning how to hold a glass. Let’s all clean up the milk together.”
I uttered these simple wise words in a sing-songy voice while displaying a very broad fake smile on my face. The kids looked at me with a mixture of relief (Dad was not being grumpy about the milk spillage) and apprehension (Dad was losing it and needs medical attention). They silently assisted me in cleaning up the mess and we went about the evening’s business without further incident or discussion of Harry.
In the week that followed I thought a lot about my unexpected outburst. The spontaneous emergence of Harry fascinated me. I did not see him coming but I began to understand why he came. Harry’s casual, helpful and supportive response did not come naturally to me: I had to fake it to make it. Harry was the vehicle for auditioning a new response paradigm. I meant every word that Harry spoke even as I was hamming it up and exaggerating the artificiality of the moment.
The following Tuesday came and R. spilled her milk yet again. The three of us around that table froze for a moment and there was a brief silence. I think I was biting my tongue. My six year old son broke the silence: “We want Harry the Happy Boy!” The children laughed as I obliged and produced the kind and saccharine Harry just as my son instructed.
Harry made a few more appearances over the years when I needed him to bail me out and take over in some other fraught parenting situation. Next time your feelings are taking your behavior to somewhere you don’t want to go think of Harry and reverse the process. Let a change in your behavior lead your feelings to a better place.