The pilot walked slowly toward us, his face stern. We’d been sitting nervously for 30 minutes. When we arrived at our seats on the plane, my 4-year-old daughter had thrown up.
We’d been on vacation. A magical vacation, until then. A week of princesses, rides, food, and fun. Yet, the pilot didn’t want a kid onboard who’d thrown up. Never mind that she was by then asleep, and just wanted to go home.
“You have to leave the plane,” he told us.
Anger welled in my gut. Maybe, in the post-pandemic world, a 4-year-old spitting up is an act of war.
Things went downhill fast. I asked if our bags could be pulled from the plane. They told me they’d be in the baggage area, so I hurried down. Not our bags. Ours were on the plane, now flying. I asked if our bags could be held at our destination, and was laughed at. I asked if we could book a flight for the next day, and was told the airline doesn’t fly on the weekends. Pulling up Google, I showed them the listing for their flight the next day. The worker said, “Well, I can’t help you.”
Stranded at an airport with two children, no flights to our home airport (which only this tiny, awful airline served) and no clue what to do next.
I am a calm man. As a parent, I’m the silly guy. The guy who loves to do improv theatre with the kids. The guy who makes silly voices and pretends to be a robot or a tree. As a former teacher and occasional substitute, I know how important a thick skin is. I’ve had kids throw things at my face, and managed to keep my cool.
Yet, at that moment, in the Orlando airport, exhausted, and astonished at the poorest service I’d ever experienced, I broke. The pot of water boiled over into a full explosion.
I screamed at the nearest airline worker until I could barely breathe. I don’t even recall what I said. All I wanted was to get my kids home, and at that moment, I felt that I’d failed as a father.
While I essentially threw a tantrum, in a situation completely outside of my control, I saw my 7-year-old son’s face.
He stared at me with these huge, panicked eyes.
And if I wasn’t completely broken before, I was then.
Use an anchor to hold on to better times
Showing emotion in front of your kids is fine. Hell, put on any Pixar movie, and I’ll be crying long before that final scene. But, how could I show him that things would be OK? How could I reassure him, when I had no idea what to do?
There’s no simple answer. But one strategy I’ve used often is what I call the “anchor” approach.
When you’re feeling adrift, search for one, specific “anchor” to ground you.
An anchor is an intensely positive emotional moment. It’s not something nebulous, or imagined, but a memory, preferably something pretty recent. And it’s something that brings immense joy or happiness. In the airport, the anchor was simple, we’d just had an amazing trip to Disney, and focusing on that experience helped us pivot out of despair and into moving forward. I thought specifically about my son’s face after piloting the Millennium Falcon with me on a Star Wars ride. That grin stretched from hemisphere to hemisphere. And as far as my anchor was concerned, the grin was still there, even days later.
An anchor doesn’t need to be a big vacation. I was substitute teaching recently in my daughter’s class. That night, she looked at me with eyes wider than dinner plates and told me I was the best teacher she’d ever had. That love and that intense memory are the types of emotional anchors that can help a parent weather any storm.
No matter what happens in your life, the anchors are there. They’re moments of joy, of pride, of gratitude. The time your spouse gave you an extra kiss for no reason whatsoever, jump-starting your day. The time your boss paid you an unexpected compliment. The student who drew a picture of you with a smiley face.
The anchors are there.
No matter what you’re going through, try as hard as you can to focus on one positive emotional memory. One of my strongest anchors this week was my little girl holding my hand, saying “I love you, Daddy.” Last week, my wife praised me on my new job, and I recall feeling intense pride. Doesn’t matter what the anchor is, hook onto it. Use it. It’s that simple.
Because even when the world is boiling and seething around you, there are anchors.
We did get home from Orlando. A crazy end to an otherwise amazing trip. And I had a long talk with my son, about why Dad lost his temper. About how Dad’s only human, but he’ll try to do better next time.
He responded, with those same big eyes, saying “Yeah … you’re the best, Dad.”
And I added another anchor to my bag.
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