Last spring, my wife had a preventive double mastectomy, and the anxiety wrecked me. My dad had once flatlined during an operation, so every night before my wife’s surgery, I lay in bed rehearsing what I’d tell Campbell, our 3-year-old, when her mother died. I was being irrational, but tragedy felt inevitable.
The procedure went fine. For weeks afterward, as my bedridden wife recovered, I played nurse—managing medications, changing bandages, draining fluids—while also caring for Campbell. I was still anxious, fearing that at any moment my wife might take a turn and never recover.
Campbell, meanwhile, cried and clung to me. She was struggling, but I was overwhelmed, too. So whenever she freaked out, I’d just put her in time-out until she calmed down.
Then one night, two weeks after the operation, Campbell stood over me in bed and vomited bile everywhere. By the time we got her to the doctor, she could barely stand. Nurses ran tests, and doctors got an IV in her arm. She was malnourished, they said. She’d stopped eating—and I hadn’t noticed.
As Campbell slept in an examination bed, I melted into tears. She’d been hurting, and I’d ignored her, too consumed by my own concerns. Fortunately, she recovered in a few hours, but I still feel guilty. Every parent fails their kid at some point, and I’ll let down Campbell again, I’m sure. But it won’t be because I cared more about my fears than hers, or lacked focus.
The other day, my wife and I took Campbell to McDonald’s. As she played, she occasionally stopped for a chicken nugget. I didn’t miss a bite.
This essay is part of our Art of the Fail series.