It was a case of bad planning. I had my heart set on building that retaining wall I have been envisioning for about two years now. Today, Sunday, was to be the day. I awoke to find my partner, Sue, getting ready for work. My face froze in panic. "You're not working today, are you?" I pleaded.

"Of course I am," she informed me, tossing her hair back and wrapping it up in a pony tail. "I'm doing Debbie's shift. It's been on the family calendar for weeks."

"But my wall...," I stammered. "Well, maybe you can get a start on it," she offered on her way out the door. "I gotta go. Good luck."

Her departure woke up my daughter, Molly. She bounded into my bedroom with a big smile, ready for a day of play. I had no child care or play dates with Molly's friends set up. I collapsed on the bed. My day was ruined before it began.

To my surprise, I was wrong. That shouldn't surprise me. I watched every episode of "Father Knows Best" as a kid. But in our house the motto is more like, "Isn't Dad dumb!" I'm wrong a lot, and today was no exception. I told Molly she had to play by herself because I would be mixing concrete. I felt terrible to hand her a day of boredom and loneliness, and I knew she would protest. To my astonishment, however, she said okay, and she then played by herself for the next six hours. I built the whole wall before her patience broke and she marched down to where I was cleaning up, demanding, "Are you finally done yet!" I wondered at this unprecedented feat of hers. Is her cup so full from the attention she has received in her first six years that now she can sip from it all day if need be? I was about to feel very proud, but quickly doubted if I could ever count on such cooperation to be repeated. "Then again," I began to plot, "If I can work all weekend instead of having to play with Molly anymore, I could build that bike shed, rebuild the fence, and maybe even do something about the drainage problem behind the house." It did not take long for my imaginary list to get out of control. Before I could write down any of my plans, it was time to make dinner, then time to read, and then bedtime. I fell asleep putting Molly to bed, dreaming of that perforated ABS pipe I've seen at the lumber yard that you can lay down in a ditch to channel ground water away from your foundation. Molly woke up grumpy. She did not want to go to school. This worried me. "But you love school," I reminded her. "Not today I don't," she whined.

"Why not? Did something bad happen at school last Friday?" "No," she pouted.

"What is it then?" I implored. "The weekend is gone and I didn't get to play with you." Her eyes were wet, but she didn't want me to see them. We had actually played together Saturday morning, but that wasn't the point. I scooped her up in my arms and rolled onto the bed with her. Dad was wrong again. Her cup is not as deep as I thought. And she still needs Mom and Dad to fill it for her every day. I thanked her for allowing me to build the wall. And we made plans to ride bikes together that afternoon.

Then we had breakfast and I dropped her off at school. I watched her skip from the car to the school door. She swung her foot out with each step to shake her ankles. "That's how I ring my bellbottoms," she had told me once. Then she disappeared inside. I looked around the parking lot to make sure no one could see me. Then I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and cried.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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