The impact of the other car jolted me awake. I pulled over, dazed, heart pounding, to the shoulder of the interstate. I couldn’t believe this was happening. We were covered in debt and doubts and I’d picked up an extra twelve-hour shift that Saturday morning to try and make ends meet. The worst part? The insurance agent promptly reported, “Mr. Austin, your auto insurance lapsed three weeks ago.”
Waiting on the State Trooper seemed to last forever, so I called to deliver the bad news to my wife. I felt like all I ever gave her was bad news. I can still hear her say those heavy words, “I’m taking the kids to Florida for a while, until we can figure things out.”
They were the longest two weeks of my life.
I hadn’t cried in front of my Dad in years, but that day, standing in my parents’ driveway, telling him my marriage might be over, I sobbed. I realized that in my constant struggle to be the center of attention, I had neglected the most precious person in my life.
For years, I had a wife, and I had friends. But my wife and I didn’t always live like best friends. We might go together to parties or dinners, but I had no idea how to build a genuine relationship with her. In my mind, a “best friend” was the person you told your deepest secrets, but how could I possibly tell my secrets to my wife? Friends get to go home when enough is enough, but a wife is stuck with you forever. I was sure if I was as honest with my wife as I was with my friends, she would feel duped. She might even think she married a fraud.
She went to Florida. And then she came back. We continued going to therapy, both individually and together, and in time we found one another again. We began learning how to communicate directly, using honesty and vulnerability. We cut down on all the things that kept us so busy, preventing us from truly knowing each other.
We also remembered the people we were when we fell in love six years earlier. We learned to fight together, instead of fighting each other. Today, the more I fall in love with my wife, the less I desire outside friendship. Friends are certainly valuable, but there is no greater friend than the one who lives in my house.
Today, I have my best friend back, and she is still wearing her wedding ring. My failure in our marriage wasn’t final.
In addition to nearly losing my wife, I’ve had a similar experience in parenting. I knew how priceless a father’s love could be, but I lost sight of my value as a parent. For the first two years of my son’s life, I struggled with the fact that our budget wouldn’t allow me to constantly shower him with new gifts, new clothes, and the latest and greatest of everything. I saw friends and family members giving all sorts of cool stuff to their kids and I wished I could do the same.
I don’t have any more money today than I did two years ago, but what I do have is an incredible bond with my kids. More than stuff, my children want me. They crave my consistency, attention, and love. Everything else can come and go, but my kids know they have my time and my heart.
In most cases, kids become what is put into them. Garbage in, garbage out. There are beautiful stories of those who have risen above their environment and DNA to become something magnificent, but those stories are rare. Our children, more often than not, become what we shape them to be–directly or indirectly.
More than anything, my kids know I’m always going to be there. Everything else will work itself out. We can’t afford seasonal trips to Disney, and we don’t shop at GAP Kids, but I believe my two little ones will look back, thankful for the time spent reading books from the thrift shop, playing with playdoh, and piecing together hand-me-down puzzles. They will remember my love.
I’ve fallen flat on my face more than once in the past thirtysomething years. Walking through hard times has taught me a powerful lesson: the sting of failure doesn’t control or define our lives. In marriage and parenting: failure isn’t final.
I am not my failures.
Neither are you.
*Originally published on Good Men Project.