Episode 021 - No One Gets Out of Childhood Unscathed

Wow, that was a long hiatus! Welcome to Season 3 of Caterpillar Goo. This season, let’s do a meditation on something that I think has great potential for changing the world: non-traditional understandings of masculinity. Our first episode of the season is an interview with Brad Clark, a member of the Austin Stay-at-Home Dads at the same time that I was a member. Brad is an amazing father, and I love following his continuing adventures on Facebook, especially in the summer when he and the kids engage in what he calls Camp Dad. Now that’s a summer camp!

Brad opens up about what it was like growing up a smart, creative, artistic kid in the middle of rural west Texas, the heart of high school football culture and cattle ranching, and how that childhood affects and informs his own parenting today. Thank you so much to Brad for sharing his time, and for being open and vulnerable in talking about some difficult topics.

Our opening theme is “Start Again” by Monk Turner and Fascinoma. Other music that appears in this episode:

“Bully” by Tarantula at 8:21

“Wild Ones” by Jahzzar at 11:25

“Ice Where Your Parents’ Love Should Be” by Kyle Preston at 16:27

Happy Clappy” by John Bartmann at 23:06

“Paralytic Insomnia” by David Hilowitz at 25:49

“All Who Are Weary” by Hyson at 29:27

Caterpillar Brigade” by Podington Bear at 36:41

“Catharsis” by Anitek at 42:33

Special thanks to Flora Folgar for her time, her support, her encouragement, and her editing skills.

Here’s the transcript:

I always loved art, but I had no idea how to do it, but I just wanted to make things, invent things, be a scientist, and probably because of Batman and all the gadgets and Spider-Man getting powers but having to invent his own webslingers. For like a 5-year-old, that’s it. You’re going to make this stuff.

Because I grew up in the middle of nowhere on a ranch, there’s not a lot of time to think about doing other stuff. There’s always something going on. There’s activity and a chore to be done. There just is. So, I was pretty lucky that I could still just spend the day making cardboard weapons to match He-Man’s sword, or sit and draw characters and just run around and play.

And so when I got further along in school and realized that the kids around me weren’t reading the stuff I was reading, and the kids around me weren’t drawing and had almost a hatred for art. There were several times, even at like 1st grade or something, you know, “Look at the microscope and draw what you see.” And mine came out pretty well, or I’d be really excited to try to draw it well, and then for I don’t even know what reason, the negative reaction towards any of that was so strong from the kids in my class and from just general. It just felt like any kind of trying to be better for myself was met with, “Oh, you think you’re better than us.” So that was really difficult, because I always wanted to connect with people.

I think being an only child and having interests and expressing that, I had very little feedback besides the dogs and the cows and my parents that… how you interact with other people and express that can affect how they react to you. So in school, and growing up, I had no idea what… why… like, “I told you this fact! If you don’t believe me, why are you dumb?” I’m sure that that was the impression I was giving off, and I had no idea. Right? I just get super excited about it, and then, my parents’ willingness to protect me from having to do the chores and the work that other kids were probably having to do allowed me time that they didn’t have. And maybe that created jealousy..

I got good at running. The playgrounds were the buried tractor tires and scales. And I figured out really early on that I could fit in the smallest tire, so I could run faster than the kids chasing me, and I could get to the small tire and wedge myself up in it. And if I got there first, they couldn’t find me very fast, so I could hide in the tire. And then I could, if they left me alone, then I’d come out, and I’d run somewhere else.

But ignoring it, I just never knew how to do that. They were doing stuff to me. They took my stuff. What do I do? I ignore it, and then I never see that thing again? Or do I tell the teacher? Most of the time, I got in trouble equally or worse than whoever was picking on me. They did something; if I retaliated, I got it worse. If I didn’t retaliate, I was still involved, and I still got punished, and in west Texas, that meant the stupid… In elementary school, it meant the principal with a paddle with holes drilled in it, in a big wooden plank with tape wrapped around it that whistled when they swung it. And then you’d sit in the hall and hear the other kids screaming. And then it was your turn.

And then you’d be in trouble because they also now came out of that not learning a damn thing except that, “We both just got punished, and now I’m going to get you. When we’re out of here, I’m coming after you.” Right? And then you had to ride on the bus with them.

By the time 9th grade, yeah, I’m in high school, that question now just was like, “Oh no. What’s wrong with me? I’m broken. Something’s wrong.” I’m not the sports kid, and into weird things and just on top of being incredibly shy and not wanting to be in front of people, or talk in front of people, and I didn’t want to. If I got up from my desk, the things I cared about it at my desk were going to be stolen. The kids that didn’t like me or that were bullying me were going to do things to make it worse for me to be up in front of everybody. So every time I had to do something besides just sit at my desk and get through the day, it just meant that I was a target.

And so, again, I would look at that and go, “Why are you acting that way? That’s stupid.” And if you tell people that, that does not work. Guess what? It just makes them not like you. And I didn’t care for football either. I was like, “This doesn’t have swords or guns or adventure or bull whips like Indiana Jones. This is just people standing around, then they run into each other. This is dumb.” This is also a very unpopular thing to have as an opinion in a group where everybody plays football.

But so, that’s the pattern that’s been over and over again, everywhere I went. And it turns out, again, that that is not the best way to approach socializing with other kids. But I liked being around girls from birth. I don’t know. I remember just liking being around girls for whatever. I just, I like them. They’re not mean, usually. They would like to draw, or they would do other things. “OK, well, I’m sorry that you’re an idiot, and I don’t want to hang out with you, but your girlfriend is nice, and I like her. I’m going to hang out with her, and if you have a problem, too bad.”

Again, not great social skills. It sounds stupid, and it sounds like it’s a… like, “Oh, well, you know, you could’ve tried to be friends with people.” Yeah, but I didn’t want to be friends with people that were doing the things they were doing, and I didn’t know how to be friends with that and be OK being around it. Like, “Oh, they’re going out and drinking alcohol on the weekends. Well, that’s… I don’t want… That’s not what I’m doing. I’m underage, one. Two, do you know what that does to you?”

So I just went like, “Art. I can hide in art.” And I ended up hiding in the art room and theater and finding creative ways to just not be around the rest of the school. I loved animation. I loved special effects. I liked movie stuff. I liked building things. That’s what I still wanted to do. It was just hiding in the arts until I could get out of town. And as soon as it was done, that’s where I left. It’s like, “I’m going to go to school in Florida for film. That’s what I’m doing. I’m just going to go, just get out and start over.”

I went to school for film originally. And I was in the game industry. That was where I wanted to be, and I got hired. Yeah, animation was the direction I was going, and quickly I ended up in a bunch of other different positions, some technical, some animation, some programming, some just solving problems and figuring out solutions for things. And I loved it. I mean, I loved doing the work, and I liked the challenge of it, but I was stuck on a computer all day in an office. That was years of my life. Well that means you come in, and you leave at dark, and the weekends disappear, and there’s no sun, and you basically are on your computer for 14 hours a day. Carpal tunnel. My wrists and arms locked up.

That was my experience from going from working in a world where I was working all the time and handling stuff, and people were relying on me, and I could figure out anything, to realizing that this is not healthy. We’re going to have a kid. I’m going to try to stay home and be the parent for awhile, because that was, in our relationship, the better choice. She, my wife had a better job, more stable hours. I was flexible with work. I could pick up work easily. I could do freelance, or I could stay connected to the industry easier.

I’m just going to do this for like a year. It’s no big deal. But also, I’m sick of working, and I want to see this kid before…” I’ve watched other people around me go through divorces working overtime, through multiple kids that are, they don’t even know who they are. I’m not going to do that. And it’s expensive. Me working overtime to not see my kid to pay extra taxes and daycare? This is stupid. I’m not doing this. My wife is fine with me staying home. She wants to keep working. Let’s do this. And that was what the catalyst was.

So then, I’m now staying home with my baby, and I look around, and I’m like, “Yeah, I am a guy staying home with a baby. And this feels comfortable to me, but why is everyone else freaking the fuck out?” You know? Like, you go to a store, and everyone’s like, “What are you doing? Oh, look at you! How lucky! Are you taking the day off work?” And it’s like, “No. What’s wrong with you?” You know, it was like that same reaction of like, “Dad’s can be parents too. What kind of… What’s wrong with all of you?” You go to a playground, and it’s like, “Oh. What’s this guy doing here?”

So like that transition, coming from… It was the best thing I could have ever done was to quit full time, working in an industry that was toxic and overworking, and I was hiding myself in the work. Now I’m a parent. I’m a dad. I’m a stay-at-home dad, so that’s what that is. Because my reaction to that was, “I can figure this out,” it made for a great fit most of the time. “Oh, she’s crying. She’s upset. Go through the list. I can handle this stage.” 16:08

And you can’t fix shit. Nothing is solvable, because that little person that you’ve just introduced into your house is a separate human being that I could not connect with growing up. I was a… If it was an animal, fine. If it was a human, already I didn’t know what to do with you, really.

And it turns out that now you’re living with a bully worse than any of the kids that you’d grown up with who’s now got everything that is a flaw, they can trigger immediately. And really, it’s just everything that I was self-conscious about or worried about or scared of came forward, because you start imagining all these things and projecting things out, and it comes back on you like, “Oh, you’re responsible for that. You have to fix it. If you don’t, all these things are going to happen. Oh, it’s your fault. You’ve failed. You can’t do this.”

And I thought all of that was squared away. I thought I had handled all of it. Turns out, when you have children, anything that you thought you had handled by basically just shutting down, putting away, or walling off does not stay there. Surprise! No one tells you that part of parenting. Like, guess what? They are going to mirror back every insecurity and every worry and every stage of your life. As they grow, they are going to continue to shine lights on and break through and expose and wear away anything that you’ve put up in defensiveness and not dealt with.

I’d never dealt with it. I had masked it. I had pushed it back. I had let it just sit there simmering, and when I would get angry or upset, it was always me. This is my fault. I’ve had, at that point, 20-plus years of people giving me social feedback that something’s wrong with me, so at that point, I was just the ultimate self bully and self punisher.

2004ish, if you were a man with a baby, “You must need help. You can’t handle this. No man should be out with a baby.” And you’re like, “OK. I’m not just borrowing some friend’s baby to try to pick up women. I just want to go play at the park and have my kid see other children.” And the overwhelming reaction is, that is wrong. Also in here is, “You’re an idiot. You’re wrong. You’re lying to yourself. Everyone else has already told you you’re a failure. You’re a failure.”

How do you separate that? You push it away until the kid reflects back because she’s had a bad day, or she doesn’t understand how to walk or just learning to be a human, and then you suddenly feel like you have failed because you can’t understand what they’re going through, or you can’t fix it. And now you also can’t fix it for the person you’re living with and who you love. So now you feel like you’ve let everyone in the house down, including yourself.

And then we had our second kid, and I met more dads, and the economy crashed, and everyone was out with their kids everywhere. You’re finally around enough people that are good at what they’re doing, and you’ve made new friends. And you’ve got that experience, like, “I can handle a baby.” You’re changing them in the dark in the middle of the night blindfolded, half asleep, and the baby ends up back asleep. You know, it was not a big deal. Like this is easy.

I think when the economy shifted, and everyone suddenly was having to just survive, parents, men and women both, were like, “I don’t care who’s watching the kid. We can’t pay for daycare.” So you’d go to the park, and there’d be all kinds. It wasn’t just nannies in one end of Austin and moms in the other and then some random dads in the middle of Austin. It was just like everybody was out everywhere trying to just get by. I just feel like I watched that happen as we were having our second kid, and I was like, “This is now just the world. Everyone is just the village mentality. Everyone’s gotten this experience a little bit, and it’s not as weird.”

And I’m sure some of that is confidence, right? You’ve gotten more comfortable as a parent, but also, you just quit getting that reaction from people, like, “Oh, there’s a dad.” So I think for me, when I realized that I was a good parent was when we finally started music together and started going to classes, and the environment basically normalized adults laying on the floor playing with instruments and singing and goofing around, and also my kid made a best friend, and I connected with other parents, and I was like, “OK, this is good.”

And I was in a room full of new mothers, I was the experienced mom of the group. They were all having panics about all this, like being a new parent. And I ended up being the experienced parent, which was a weird feeling. There was just such a drastic shift that, on top of me being confident with my kid and it not being weird to just see a guy with a baby, having the experience of being the mother hen, the experienced mom in the group, was such a good feeling for awhile. And it took the self-confidence and kept it high, and also the worry about being out and someone bothering me about it went away.

And that was all great. That felt comfortable. And then it turns out you still didn’t deal with anything. I had done such a good job of lying to myself that I had taken care of it, that when stuff went wrong, and went wrong-slash-a child’s normal development, and they developed differently, as far as a strong-willed child who is ready to take on the world, and you included, that cycle of “Oh, I need to be prepared for 3 hours of just surviving my child.”

The next child didn’t have that fight. They would just stop. “I’m not going to talk.” Or they just would start to react, and in me, I reacted the way that I did for the first kid, which was, “This is a fight. I’m going to have to survive this for 4 hours, and then it’s going to be fine.” And instead of handling it, I would immediately jump to that place of “panicked, scared, bullied by my own kid” father, which is a terrible place to put yourself in when your kid is just upset because they didn’t get the right cereal spoon or something.

It was just anger, just grouchiness and being snippy. It wasn’t that I was just stomping around. No, it was just lots of little things that I would find and pick at and dig at. And we didn’t spank the kids, and we didn’t… It wasn’t a physical thing, and I wasn’t trying to be verbally abusive. And it wasn’t even that it was that intentional. I was super aware that I didn’t want that to be the message, but it didn’t matter because in my actions and in my words, that was coming across. I didn’t need to say, “Oh, you screwed up,” whatever, and berate them, but just in the interaction, you’d look at it from the outside, and you’d go, “Oh, that is not healthy.”

When I fail, if I get upset, if I yell or I get… if I storm off, or I just explode and take out angry words and just… what words are the most punishing, most manipulative, like just a societal model for what will cut someone down to nothing. Because I practiced on myself for years. I know exactly what words are going to hurt and do damage. It didn’t make me a good father or husband or a good person. It just was exhausting.

And I couldn’t stop it. I could just see it. I could just watch it, and I couldn’t do anything about it. And then every time that would happen, it would reinforce that I was a failure. The bully that was in me, I would attack myself twice as hard. And so it would just continue, and it would just stack on and on until I just couldn’t handle it. I just didn’t feel like I would ever be able to fix it.

You hit a point where you have to get help and you’re afraid to ask for help, because that means that you’re a failure. In my head, it was, “I don’t even know how to ask for help, because what are they going to do? There’s nothing they can do. I should be able to fix this.” I couldn’t be a good role model. This was not how they should be seeing human interaction.

But I finally, finally, reached out to one of the other dads, and I said, “I don’t know how to get help. I know that you have experience with mental stuff, and I just don’t even know what to do.”

He said, “Well, I have a therapist I go to see.” And it was, he was like, “I was freaking out all the time, and then they just said this one thing to me, and once that was it.” I was like, “Are you kidding? It was that simple?” I just basically went, “OK, it’s OK to get help. It’s OK to get help, and it’s OK for it not to work and me to try again. Why am I afraid to try? Why am I punishing myself for punishing myself? It doesn’t even make sense, so finally, I’m going to do it.

I went in, talked to her for a little bit, went “OK.” Came back. “Yeah, all right. I’m going to come back and talk some more.” It started off just, “Yeah, tell me what was your parents’ sacrifice,” whatever. “I was scared to upset them.” Just the history of my worldview. And then she said a couple things, and I just couldn’t even speak. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t talk. And when I did, it felt like I had taken, she said it was like shrapnel, but it felt like a cloak of 100-pound weights had just been dropped or something sharp that was keeping a wound, like a splinter that wouldn’t leave. It just came out. And the moment that happened, it was just like, “Really? Was that it? That can’t be it. I don’t trust it. It can’t be that easy to have asked for help, talked for a little while, and made it better. That’s bullshit. No way.”

I went home and talked to my wife, and weeks went by. I was trying to do some of the things that we had talked about, and it didn’t feel like it was working. It still just felt like I had masked it, and I’ve worked around it. Like cheating on a diet or something. It was just like, “This is not…” And so we talked some more, and there was another few sessions where it just was… I think one session was basically an hour of me barely able to breathe and crying, and another layer, and another piece of just glass being taken out, and over and over again, where it was like, “I don’t think there’s anything left. There’s nothing still in me that is hurting me. I’ve described it. I’ve talked about it. I’ve pulled it out. I trust that I’m enough, and I’m OK. I don’t have to punish myself for this stuff anymore. It’s OK to fail. It’s OK not to have everything under control. It’s OK to be broken.

Obviously, you can’t just flip a switch and be fixed permanently and perfectly, but I know what that process was. Once you go to the gym, and you see the weight machines and you’ve been shown how to use it, you don’t suddenly forget. Once you’ve learned it and learned the process, it’s familiar enough that you can come back to it, and it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, I’ll never be able to do this.” And that’s how I feel like with when I know that I haven’t slept enough, or when I know that things are just rough. I start to react badly or, “Well, I messed up.” And that’s where it ends most of the time. I may still react poorly. I still may watch myself explode a little bit or throw some fuel on the fire just to watch what happens, but the fallout after is not there.

I felt like I needed something for me, I started back in martial arts. I went, and I just wanted to do something again that was just for me, to get out of the house. I lost like 40 pounds, and I didn’t think that… I wasn’t trying to lose weight, it was like, “Oh, I feel good.” I don’t feel like I’m the fat kid anymore, which was also the other ridiculous part of growing up. It’s ridiculous that I was being picked on about it, but it’s ridiculous that I accepted that as the truth.

And I finally went, “OK, well why? What is that? Why am I accepting that negativity and holding on to that?” The embarrassment of just taking your shirt off at the pool or with the kids or whatever, you’re just like, “I can’t. I don’t… I’m ugly.”

And then I finally went, “Well, why? How stupid is that? What is that feeling keeping me from?” It’s keeping me from doing all kinds of stuff. “I should be better.” And what came out of therapy was, every time you feel like that… You should be? Says who? Why are you putting that pressure on yourself? You’re learning. Accept the learning process. Accept that you’re doing this, and that’s OK. That’s why you’re doing this.

And that was the biggest shift ever, because I finally was allowing myself to go through the process of learning, and it wasn’t embarrassing to not know how to do something, or it wasn’t embarrassing to fail. Because it was just a way to build. This is now something I get to work on, instead of punishing myself over and over, why didn’t I do it already. How stupid is that? “Oh, you should already know how to do this.”

You know, I watched my kids from birth fail over and over again to try to learn how to walk, to speak, to read. The only way they got through that is because they didn’t care. You don’t have a baby who’s embarrassed to try to speak because they can’t speak already. They just try to say the words over and over again until they figure it out. And you encourage that. “Yes! You said, ‘Da.’” You know? The encouragement level is so high for even an attempt. Why don’t I give myself the same permission?

And so every stage of my life, every point of contact, it just opened up so much more richness in my ability to try things and learn things and to not punish myself over it. It was incredible. You know, I’m going to go to the pool and learn to dive with my kids. And so, if you want to see something funny, it’s that for a summer camp with me and the kids was me on a diving board learning to high dive, without my shirt on and moms watching their 4-year-olds walk up the ladder that a 6-foot 40-something-year-old is on at the same time learning to do the same thing that they’re 4-year-old’s doing, and I was like, “I don’t care if I’m… I don’t have 6-pack abs; I just… I’m getting to learn how to dive with my kids, and I get to show up, and I get to be here.” And it was the most fun thing ever. I was the only adult, and what happened out of that was people were like, “Ah, I wish I could’ve done that. Oh, that’s so great you’re doing that.” Yeah, it is. Nothing’s stopping you from doing it either. And I would’ve missed all of that because I wouldn’t have given myself permission to do it.

Asking for help and then accepting the help, was the biggest thing that, besides meeting my wife, that was such a huge shift in my entire world that was… that I didn’t know I needed. There’s… It certainly is felt. It’s felt in my relationship with my wife. It’s felt in the relationship with the kids. It’s felt with being brave enough to just stand up in front of a group of people and learn to dive. And yeah, I’m going to fail bad, and I’m going to try again. And a few times, I smashed hard, and everyone felt it and heard it, and I was like, “Yes! That was awesome! I completely tried the best I could and failed, and I’m going to get it again.” And then I’d go up again. And I couldn’t have done that 3 years ago. I mean, I couldn’t have done it before going to therapy and just coming to terms with allowing myself to actually go through the process of being vulnerable and learning how to fail in a way that gives me growth as opposed to just punishment.

And I still don’t really understand how. I don’t know what therapy did. I don’t know how it worked. I don’t know why going in and talking to a stranger and just having reassurance that it wasn’t something broken in me from someone who I had no connection with, that allowed that to connect where I had blocked it off before. Clearly, everyone has their own stuff. Clearly, if you see one person that looks like they’re together, there’s a hole somewhere that they’re struggling with. No one gets out of childhood unscathed.