Be Careful How Helpful You Are

The man who believes they are indispensable is always always wrong, William Manchester once wrote. It’s a fact that runs counter to the sense of importance that most dads—and most parents, period—imbue their roles with. Because you see how much your kids and your spouse need you. Would anyone get to school on time without you? Who would pay the bills?

In 2016, Jeannie Gaffigan, a mother of five, and wife and longtime collaborator of the comedian Jim Gaffigan, found out she had a tumor in her brain the size of a pear. It was quite possible she might die, but if she didn’t, her recovery would be long and painful and she might never be the same. It was an incredibly difficult time for the Gaffigan family. In an interview, she explains just how afraid she was that the family would not be able to function or survive without her: 

I was like being wheeled into the OR being like, “my computer password is, you know, the Fresh Direct password is” — I was like, there’s just too much to impart. And as I was recovering, I realized that doing everything for people completely robs them of their ability to function. And so there were two things there. It taught me I was overcontrolling my life, my people, and my kids. And secondly, it should be that they’re just fine on their own. They don’t need the Nazi bootcamp that I was running. 

Of course the lesson here is not that you or your kids’ mother are not important. That would be absurd. What Jeannie realized is that by holding on too tight, by being so helpful, she was actually holding them back. “There I was useless,” she said, “and everybody was okay. Everyone was fine. They were better. And Jim—stuff came out of him that he never had before. And things blossomed in my kids, and I watched it from afar. They didn’t need me, but they kind of did.”

In the end, your kids and your family need you for so many things. But most of all, they need you to help them be self-sufficient. They need you to be slightly dispensable, so they can learn things for themselves. They need you to help them realize who and what they can become. The people you have set them up to be.

P.S. This was originally sent on November 21, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Dad’s email and get our popular 11 page eBook, “20 Things Great Dads Do Everyday.”