Updated: Jul 17
One of the things that’s always made me feel a little sad is knowing that I’ll never get to raise a kid. As much as friends joke and I accept that vibe, it’s one thing to be like a dad and another to be one.
As I’ve gotten older and wiser, my desire to try to help people, counsel and guide them when I have the ability to provide guidance has constantly expanded until it became a major personal goal.
I don’t have the kind of lifestyle nor anywhere near the kind of money required to be a great parent. A few years ago I gave serious thought to signing up with Big Brothers to be a mentor or surrogate dad or something, but then something happened that was completely unexpected.
I met a kid on social media that seemed friendly and complimentary, and in talking to them briefly I found out that they were from Iran. And gay. They were struggling because their family had no idea what to do about it and wasn’t exactly supportive. They said they were turning 17 (which I’d later learn to be false).
Of course, the hard and fast rule for most people is that you don’t talk to anyone that isn’t 18 online, especially about personal or adult things, because you put yourself (and potentially them) at risk. The smarter version of me might have heeded this, but the part of me that desperately wants to be a good person who is making a difference in the world, felt like that would be an easy cop out.
What little I knew about Iran was vague and mostly negative, learned from half-remembered some news broadcast or article. This was a chance to learn about what it was really like, from someone who knew, while also being a source of support to someone who obviously had none. It seemed like a win/win in my cursory gut-feeling analysis.
In no time at all, I’d created a rapidly growing dependence, much stronger than my intention and gotten more involved than I'd planned to. Of course, it's not shocking for someone to quickly begin to emotionally rely on you when you’re the first person who has actually seemed to care and understand anything about them. It was something a more careful person would have seen coming a mile away, something a person with my life experience should definitely have known, but I was only thinking about trying to help, not what the real world implications of having someone thousands of miles away suddenly directly relying upon you as their main source of emotional stability.
It was a constant, intense mix of conflicting emotions. Moments of seeing the positive effect I was having, being told how much I meant felt good, but there was plenty of massive depression, suicidal comments, unexpected expectations. Raising your own child in your home is a very, very long way from trying to give effective support and advice to someone in a completely different world than you, too young to understand many things and too traumatized to bounce back easily. Trust was also complicated. Young people can be overconfident and exaggerate for sympathy, but I didn’t want to just automatically be distrustful to someone who was used to not being trusted, in an environment mostly unfamiliar to me.
To say that it was challenging would be a massive understatement, providing a substantial amount of my free time and emotional fortitude while still juggling everything else I had going on in my life. But then I would think about what they were going through, and feel like my sacrifice was minor by comparison.
Even though I had initially wanted to be a dad, this wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to do it. What do you do when the emotional effect of the support you offer merely through words on a screen somehow seems (by that person’s admission) to trump the sum total effort of someone’s actual parents? When you’re told that you’re pretty much the only thing they have to feel good about, the only thing standing between them and not wanting to exist any more? I was laser focused on how good it would make me feel to know I was making a difference and not at all about how stressful it would feel to be begged to fix things that were impossible for me to affect beyond some carefully chosen words, repeated often.
It took a few years of this roller coaster, some highs but a lot of lows, before I realized my once endless supply of patience and emotional reserve was emptying. I started to care less than before, slowly, a sort of emotional exhaustion and numbness crept in. I was becoming more and more unhappy, the pandemic and politics were also definitely draining the tank rapidly.
I finally got a therapist again, just in time. In what was the least surprising advice ever, I was told I had done a pretty bad job of setting boundaries and protecting my mental health. Changes had to be made or I would start losing my ability to care about anything. This was not something I had ever felt before, and it was scary because the numbness was alluring in a sense, after having felt so miserable about so many things.
So I had a difficult conversation, with the expected fearful pushback. This time, I made it clear that I could only give what I had available to give, and it was that or nothing at all.
It doesn’t feel good disappointing people who have come to rely on you, and even though I knew that the reliance wasn’t really a good thing anyway, I still felt a lot of responsibility because I’d allowed myself to be the lifeline. I’d helped build the reliance on me because I was bad at saying no to someone who didn’t seem to have much else and wasn't succeeding at finding any good local friends.
Eventually, slowly, there was begrudging acceptance, and as time went on, slow maturation. Realizations became easier to accept as the growing responsibilities of adulthood set in. But old habits of dependence are hard to break.
Love is a complex thing. Real love is not in how skillfully we proclaim our allegiance, but in the actions that we take, or do not take. It does not only conjure positive emotions. Love is sacrifice and making effort when it isn’t required because we want it to make a difference. Love is caring about other people’s right to be happy and supported and loved. It’s not just “I want to be with you as much as possible for the rest of my life”. It’s so much deeper, wider, harder, more confusing, more risky, more challenging.
I consider myself someone who is pretty good at choosing the right words in most situations, but trying to explain to a scared, lonely, damaged young person that you care about them but can only do so much, is a Herculean, if not Sisyphean task. (For those of you rusty on your Greek mythology, he was the ”rolling the same boulder up the same hill, over and over” guy.)
So, once I mostly got one very complex relationship with a well-meaning but confused and needy young person in a distant foreign country, into a somewhat manageable state, how did I apply my hard-earned lesson going forward?
This is not a flattering story, my friends.
I got contacted by someone who completely idolized me based on my social media, but also was dealing with a lot of heavy personal stuff and had a tendency to misunderstand things as they are from a different foreign country and still learning English. They even draw skillful fan art of me and put it on their walls. I knew my limitations better, but I still didn't want to instantly crush someone that I'd somehow managed to inspire.
I thought I could tread the razor's edge of being supportive but also setting the expectation early on that I was not going to have time or ability to be there as a mentor to have daily conversations with. I tried my hardest to explain this in the simplest way I could think of, so I could still fulfill my duty to the world of being helpful while protecting myself from reliance.
I guess the naivety that defines the playful personality I've created for Croc as a character, comes from an all-too honest place.
Setting boundaries is essential to mental health, but to many young people who lack the life experience to fuel their emotional intelligence, it just feels like a complicated way to tell them they aren’t worth it.
There are a lot of things that only time and hard lessons can teach, and when you try to carefully put things into a way that they might better understand as such, they often feel you are talking down to them, or that your advice might be relevant to your situation, but not theirs. They are hungry for love and support, but not as hungry for advice, especially when it’s honest and requires them to reassess their feelings and plans. Constructive criticism to young people who haven’t ever had much real support and struggle with self-doubt can feel like personal criticism, or worse, shaming.
I can’t ignore people who are trying to find their way and be good people. When someone is inspired by me and reaches out for support, how do I turn away? Who says “I appreciate that you’re young and scared and trying to do the right thing, but I just don’t have time to help you, hopefully someone else will though, so good luck!”
I know full well that what I’m doing in some ways can be bad for me, that I’m making it very hard on myself, but then there’s that part of me that says “that’s okay, this is your penance for all the (probably mostly imagined) bad things you’ve done. Shut up and make up for it.” There’s a fight between the me that will die to prove I’m worthy and the me that knows that’s kind of BS and I’ve already proven myself worthy.
It wages on to this day. I’m still doing my best, even though I’m sure those kids probably think I don’t really care every time I’m not there to make it okay when something goes wrong, which it frequently does.
The educational system is such a joke, and to know how lackluster it is in countries like America where it’s actually somewhat funded and contains (still very underpaid) teachers who honesty care and want to do their jobs well, and then compare that to third world countries where even the system we rightfully complain about would be a massive improvement to what is available to them.
When I was a kid, things seemed positively idyllic by comparison to the horrifying maelstrom of modern day. We definitely had our hateful bullies, but they weren’t online in a super-visible public forum. The one thing we had in common with today’s kids in every school is the complete and total lack of any kind of training for the harsh realities of life, something that only gets worse as the school system glacially plays catch up to both modern technology and the modern day reality of how much of kids lives take place online.
There is nothing ever taught about how to deal with relationships, love, aggression, antagonization, stress, confusion, the things that shape you and who you will become, more than math, science and social studies can ever hope to impact someone. Every cell phone has a calculator to do math for you, but it can’t tell you how to cope with devastating loss or crippling disappointment or financial ruin.
Sure, in a perfect world, you have loving parents to teach you all of that, but even in a world where you are lucky enough to have parents who are willing to cover it all, the world they grew up in is never quite the same world that you are. And as a kid, how are you supposed to explain how different it is, if it isn’t already apparent to them? Even as a caring parent, how are you supposed to know all of the ways that your child’s life is different now, when kids often aren’t very excited to talk about much of it for a myriad of reasons? How do you prepare your kids to survive, let alone thrive in an increasingly brutal and apathetic world when it’s all you can do to manage your own stressful life as everything changes around all of you?
If they’re LGBTQ, they go into a world where many people hate them just for daring to exist. Never mind that those who hate them typically already hold all the power and the wealth and have gamed the system to cater to everything they are and want. Too much will never be enough for them. I suspect if all LGBTQ were eradicated from existence, they would celebrate for a day before quickly needing someone and something else to hate and exterminate.
Even if I was in a situation where I had enough money and opportunity to raise a kid, even as much as I yearn to teach a child all of the wonderful important things that I’ve learned and know that part of me might go on a little longer in the world through them, I’m still not sure if I could in good conscience bring a child into a world filled with so many powerful villains, ready to strike them down in a heartbeat if they aren’t also clones of their greed and bigotry.
I’m not trying to be dismal when I say that I’m not encouraged by the direction it feels like the world is heading. I would love to say this is just a cycle and we’re in a downswing and headed for an upswing. But I can’t watch or read the news anymore, because it feels like stabbing myself in the brain with a poisoned dagger.
All we have between us and the yawning, hellish, ever-growing void, is ourselves and our love.
There is still so much beauty in the world, so many people trying so hard to fix it, that I could never give in to the darkness that claws away inside of me. I have to keep giving, scraping the bottom for a little bit more.
On the days when someone else’s mistake on the freeway causes a chain reaction of crappy unfair events that ends up making life a little harder, I have to resist the urge for self-pity and be thankful I’m even still alive to be able to feel sorry for myself. I must embrace my loved ones tightly and remind myself that tomorrow will be better, there are still a million reasons to have hope and find things to look forward to.
Whitney Houston famously sang that children are our future. Which they are. And our society has never really done right by them, maybe ever. Some people want to turn them into the monsters that those people already are. I’m trying to do my part to show the way, in my own insufficient, oft clumsy, but sincere way.
To the young people that I know will read this, and that I may be talking about them, I’m sorry that there are no perfect words to convey to you that no amount of love can fix all, that intentions cannot guarantee success, that trust is fragile and faith is a huge part of it. I care about you and I wish for you the happy, safe and valid lives you richly deserve but will likely have to fight valiantly and exhaustingly for. I have provided you the tools I have to give and the lessons that I have learned, but I cannot promise things or outcomes that are not mine to promise. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, it actually means I care enough to be gently honest with you even when I know it might sting.
But I love you, in my own way, for every effort you make, every time you don’t let life’s banal cruelty pound you into submission, every time you care for someone else in need, every time you remember that you can be someone else’s reason to keep trying and keep giving, even when you’re struggling with things, too.
You will be underestimated. You will be ignored. You will be doubted. You will be manipulated. But not by everyone, and when you do find those who treat you with the careful respect and complex honesty that you deserve, try your very best to listen, even if you think it doesn’t apply to you. Just remember that respect is strongest when it is earned through your words and deeds.
I may wince a bit when you call me dad. I appreciate that it's a compliment coming from the heart, and it’s not because I don’t want to support you in some of the same ways a good dad does, nor because you don’t deserve that kind of love (and I'm sorry if you didn’t get it from your real dad), but because I understand my own limitations and responsibilities and I want you to understand them too, without taking it personally. What someone would want to do, and what they’re realistically able to do, without doing harm to themselves and those they love in the process, are two different things.
Dad can be a fun term, one I have tried to embrace in many ways, but at the end of the day, dad means something very real and important to me and I don't want to encourage people to use it toward me without understanding that the role of a dad is enormous and something you have to fully commit to to do it right.
Dads aren't just online friends who support you and listen to you to make you feel better. Or virtually tuck you in and play video games with you. I don't want to encourage a title I don't have the ability to earn the way I think it needs to be earned. I'm not your dad, it isn't a responsibility I am comfortable with and I don't want to pretend I can be what I can't.
I am happy to be a friend, a mentor with the caveat that I have limited time. Being supportive isn't dad-exclusive, though I understand the appeal to make it playful.
What I want young people to understand when they find a stranger that inspires and encourages them, especially when they badly want to make that person a key part of their lives, is to try to realize that honest care can exist without needing to be constantly re-proven on a daily basis. I don't have to be a dad to be someone who cares. What you need isn't necessarily a dad, it's just people who honestly care about you and understand respect and support. Yes, older people with life experience sometimes seem better suited to that, but you need friends your own age, you're going to be learning some of the same lessons together and you won't learn it best until you experience it for yourself. Friends that aren't only available on the internet, who are only ever going to have a limited time to give you.
Rather than focusing on whether someone gives us as much as we wish that they would, we must try to respect that they care enough to freely give an honest piece of themselves to us in a exhausting world that never stops demanding, but also squandering, more and more pieces.
That's why Foster, whose personality most closely mirrors my own real world personality, wears the Big Dad Wolf shirt. He's not your dad. He can never be your dad, but what he (and I) can and will do, is care, be kind and supportive.
Perhaps the caption I wrote for the photo collage of I got from my dear friend a few Christmases ago, said it best: