Life is a journey… You may be wondering why I’m starting this post with a cliche. Still, phrases become cliches because they accurately and succinctly represent a common truth. So, life is a journey.
When I look back at my life, I find areas where my attitude has change 180 degrees over time and other areas where my opinions are the same now as they were 50 years ago. One place where I have made an about-face has been around my feelings towards having a family.
Early in my life, I never wanted to be a parent. I am sure that this was because I was constantly told what a burden children were. Statements like, “Your mother and I never fought until we had children” were commonplace in my home. It was a given that children were expensive creatures that only caused trouble and made one’s life difficult. In my childhood home, kids were placed a rung below the bad dog who peed on the carpet. So why would I ever want one of those?
My feelings did a 180-degree about-face with the birth of my daughter Anne 38 years ago; it was love at first sight. Having my own child made me realize what a blessing children are. I’m not saying that raising a child isn’t complicated or expensive; both are true. However, that is just part of the child-rearing equation. In fact, I now understand that my most significant life role has been that of a father. It was what I was meant to do.
William is our only boy. I had already raised three girls, and I was reasonably comfortable in that role. However, raising a boy was another issue; I felt wholly ill-prepared. I’m a very flawed person, and because of my flaws, I believed that I would be an inadequate dad for my son.
I didn’t have a role model to emulate or even a template to follow. My dad never taught me how to throw a ball or turn a wrench; I either taught myself manly things or pursued other interests. What if the way that I taught myself these skills wasn’t the “right” way? How could I possibly teach my son those things that I was never correctly taught?
I consider myself atypical and a bit odd. I’m obsessive and laser-focused, and I tend to overthink. However, despite my flaws, I keep friends for decades. I am fortunate to have male friends who genuinely care about me. I try to be a good friend to them in return. Did my male friend’s acceptance of me somehow suggest that I could also be a good father for a son? I didn’t know.
Physically I’m imperfect. My coordination is sub-par. I’m blind in one eye, and because of this, I have poor depth perception. Despite looking like a football player, it is difficult for me to do simple things like catch a ball as I cannot accurately judge distances. These attributes caused me to avoid team sports as I felt that I would be a detriment to any team that I belonged to. I worried about my inability to properly indoctrinate William in such areas.
As a child, I found happiness in solitary activities where the only judge of my performance was me. Electronics, science, computers, photography, cooking, meditation, camping, hiking, and other solo activities filled and enriched my life. These interests were easy to pass on to my girls, but would a boy be interested? My father thought my activities were weird and useless; would my son feel the same?
Early on, I had to face my fatherhood fears with William. As a young child, he was playing with a neighbor and the boy’s dad. When Will returned home, he wistfully said to me, “I wish I had a sporty dad.” I felt like the worst father in the world, but then a calm came over me. I looked at Will and said, “I wish I could be all the things you want me to be, but I’m just a person. I will teach you what I know, and I will be there for you. I will love you and accept you for who you are. That is the best that I can do for you.” William looked up at me and smiled. That was what I needed.
Over the years, I have tried to be just that. I have cooked with Will, showed him to fix things, made his Halloween costumes, took walks with him, helped him with his homework, and generally, I have been there for him.
As Will got older he started to pull away from me. I knew that this was completely normal, but I missed those times when I was bigger than life to him. Several years ago, my friend Tom took his son backpacking and asked if I wanted to come along with Will. Will was not interested, so I let the idea go. More recently, Will has taken me up on my offers, and the two of us have gone on camping and hiking adventures. These times have been a wonderful gift for both of us. William is eager to learn, and I can still teach him new skills like splitting wood or cooking a meal on an open fire. However, William is no longer a child; he is an adult. Our conversations have changed, and we now share our ideas, our aspirations, and our dreams. Our relationship will always be that of a father and son, but it is evolving into something bigger than this. Will can teach me things, as he shares with me those ideas that make him who he is. He is no longer an extension of me; he is his own person.
Conversely, I can now share parts of the less-than-perfect but real me without fearing that I will somehow crush a child’s fragile ego. Our connection is that of two people who not only respect each other but also accept each other. We don’t need to pretend that we are perfect; we are good enough just the way we are.
One of our favorite activities is hiking together. In the process, I have gotten to teach Will hiking basics, such as the proper way to use trekking poles. Will, in turn, has demonstrated his superior physical ability to me. For example, when climbing a hill, I try to hide my panting, and he kindly doesn’t acknowledge my pulmonary inadequacies.
Surprisingly, William’s personality is very similar to mine. He sees the beauty in things that most others find commonplace. He becomes excited in the moment and appreciates the trivial. He has strong opinions and champions the underdog. He believes that a worthwhile existence involves giving back to society and that a life of self-indulgence is an empty life. I’m not sure if these are things that he learned from me or just part of who he is. He is a pleasure to be around.
His interests also parallel mine. He recently won an undergraduate grant and will start an independent scientific research project in the fall. In addition, he had taken to playing the guitar and seemed genuinely happy when I gave him my old collection of rock LPs. (vinyl long-playing records).
Our next adventure will only take us a few hundred miles away from Naperville. We will pack up Violet the campervan and drive to a campsite. Our time will be spent talking, sharing, exploring, and (of course) hiking. Those few days won’t have the status of a trip to Paris or the calculated thrill of a journey to Disneyland. However, I will treasure them more than either. I’ll get to know Will a little better, and he will do the same with me. What more could either of us want?
William turns 20 in a few weeks, and I am so grateful that he has allowed me to spend just a bit of time with him. I have come to realize that there is no rigid formula for being a parent. There will always be more fabulous parents than me, wealthier than me, or more fun than me. That is OK as long as my children know that I love them and that I will do my absolute best for them. It turns out that being a dad to a son is really no different than being a dad to a daughter. Some of the ins and outs change, but the basics are the same. I don’t need to be the father that his friends wish they had; I need to be the dad to who Will is glad to come home to.