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How Avoiding Punches Became Part of My Self-Care as a Dad to a Child With CHD

Five years ago my son was born into this world with a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. In the early years of his life he’s endured three open-heart surgeries, a feeding tube, and lots of therapies and doctor’s appointments. It’s also a difficult ride for a dad to be on: giving meds, doing tube feeds, driving to appointments, worrying. It all gets really exhausting.

Two years ago I did a kinda unexpected thing — I signed up for kickboxing at a local dojo. The beginning was rough, I had no idea what I was doing and the workouts were totally kicking my butt. Epsom salt was my best friend. Over time, however, I noticed my form getting better, I was advancing in rank, and kickboxing started to become a really good self-care activity for me. I was getting in shape, I was accomplishing something, and while I was on the mat, I wasn’t thinking about anything else but kickboxing. This was a godsend for me.

After a year and a half of training, well… let’s say went face-first into the uncomfortable part of my new self-care routine: sparring. I knew it was coming; the students who achieve a certain rank get to begin attending advanced classes, which included sparring. And if you wanted your black belt, you can’t really avoid sparring… and I want that black belt. It’s one thing to hit a bag or to do mitt drills with a partner — it’s another to have someone trying to actively punch and kick you. Needless to say, I was quite nervous.

On my first night of sparring I remember feeling completely numb, and my fingers wouldn’t quite work as I fumbled around with my headgear and mouth guard. My legs felt like jello as I walked back onto the mat facing opposite teammates who were way higher in rank and experience than I was. I kept thinking, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Dude you can’t go to work with a black eye!” And then the instructors gave the rules: jabs only, one minute rounds, pair up and go when the bell sounds. I stood across from another student, touched gloves, said a quick prayer that sounded like, “OhGodOhGodOhGod,” and then put my gloves up… and proceeded to eat a jab right in the middle of my face. POW. I remember my head snapping back and then suddenly the fear went away and my brain said “move!” and then everything I was taught in class kicked in: move your head, hands up. By the end of class I had taken a few shots but had given a few back. Most importantly, I felt really, really good. It was almost electric! The best part was the community-building of my teammates complimenting one another for good work — like a family.

Every time I spar it’s a little bit uncomfortable, because you have to mentally prepare to stand across someone and work on your training. If you don’t slip the punches — if you don’t move — you get hit, and knowing you might get hit requires a bit of bravery before stepping onto the mat.

In the end, I know if I can survive life as a Heart Dad, I can survive sparring and vise-versa. It’s given me the opportunity to be a better version of myself; to pour that same focus, energy, and determination into being a Heart Dad and fight the good fight.

Image Credits: Chris Perez