Category Archives: parenting

On Being A Father

I have a confession to make; I never wanted to have children.  This statement is accurate, and I had my reasons.  Growing up, I was told that children were burdens, specifically that I was a burden. My personality was also inconsistent with parenting as I knew it.  I’m not a person who dictates by shame and insult; my personality is the exact opposite of that.  I felt that I didn’t have what it takes to parent.  No benefit and no skillset; not having kids was the logical choice.

The logic of teenage Mike does not reflect the feelings of adult Mike, so what happened?  One word, Anne, my oldest child.  Ann was a surprise in a troubled first marriage, and I was terrified.  However, something happened when I held her in my arms for the first time, my fears melted away, and I knew that I was up to the task.  I could not parent how I was parented; like so many things, I would have to figure it out for myself.  

I saw my parenting goal as singular.  It was to raise my children to become successful adults.  I love my kids absolutely and would do anything for them.  However, parenting is the job of raising children, which is much more work than being their pal.

You may be confused about what my identifier “successful” means, as the term has a specific connotation for many.  Let me define this further.

Does successful mean reaching monetary wealth?  No, wealth is fine, but money alone does not correlate with a satisfying life.  Success in this regard means having enough money to live comfortably.  In other words, to live a normal life without the constant worry of debt. 

Does successful mean obtaining a high-level job or career?  No, it is wonderful to have a job that interests you; however, a title by itself does little.  In my psychiatric practice, I treated many individuals.  The group that was the most dissatisfied with their lives were lawyers.  Many of these individuals made a great deal of money but hated their jobs and the climate they worked in.  I’m sure some lawyers love their job, and I mention the above to illustrate that title and money are not enough by themselves. 

Does success mean having a high level of skill or education?  Anyone who knows me understands that I value knowledge.  However, knowledge alone does not equate with either success or happiness.

Longitudinal studies have all indicated that individual happiness depends on connections with others.  However, the happiest individual does not have the most Facebook friends.  Each person has their own discrete need for connectedness.  Person A may need one hundred connections, while person B may need two. Of course, some individuals are happiest completely alone, but that is the topic for another post.  Most of us need some sort of healthy connection with others.  Single people can have wonderful connections, while some married individuals have terrible connections. It is all about the quality of the connection, not the type of connection.

Healthy connections can only happen through bilateral cooperation.  How many individuals expect the other connection member to meet their needs, or how many co-dependents assume all responsibility in a relationship?  

A sense of self is critical.  Self-esteem doesn’t mean that you are some sort of narcissist.  It means that you believe in your abilities and understand your limitation.  It implies that you know that you have equal worth with every other human on this planet. It means you can say no to demands you deem inappropriate.

Realistic confidence parallels self-esteem. I’m not referring to“participation award” confidence. I’m talking about the confidence achieved not only by success but also by coping with failure. Another term for realistic confidence is resiliency.

The ability to empathize is critical.  Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is understanding someone from their perspective rather than only your experience.

Kindness is mandatory.  Kindness is not a weakness; it is a strength.  Kindness allows you to extend yourself when it doesn’t serve your needs.  Kindness is an active process and very different from co-dependency or martyrdom.  Kind people can say yes, but they can also say no.  

Cooperation is required.  The ability to cooperate with others is needed in all relationships.  Those who have to win at any cost are isolated and alone.

Basic skill sets are also necessary to function in the adult world.  There is no job beneath any person. If a toilet needs to be cleaned, the successful person knows how to do it.

An appreciation for our role in the greater universe is necessary.  We all have a voice, but there is something greater than ourselves.

Accepting that everyone must be a steward to each other and our greater world is necessary for balance. We are not islands but intimately connected to others and our world.

The above qualities place someone on a path to a successful life.  Naturally, many other factors intrinsic to the person and external to their lives also contribute to one’s overall well-being. Personal health comes to mind.

All of this brings me to thoughts of my children and what an incredible blessing they are.  I have tried to be a good parent but can’t take full credit for their identity. My tireless wife, other adults, and my children’s friends have contributed to who they are.  Importantly, their own genetic constitutions impact them.  This last fact is beyond a parent’s control but likely as important as any other factor.

My kids are now adults, and I have witnessed them as such during this crisis time of Julie’s illness. I could give many examples, but the most immediate are those from today.  Our family has a tradition of making special days special for the honored individual.  My kids participated, but Julie or I have always orchestrated the actual process.

Today is Father’s Day, and Julie remains in the hospital.  This has been very stressful for Julie, myself, and our kids. Despite that, my Father’s Day celebration is in full swing. My kids baked homemade cinnamon rolls for me this morning and brought me breakfast in bed (a family tradition).  They asked me what I wanted for dinner and are preparing it as I write this.  

We visited Julie this afternoon, and everyone pitched in so we could take her around the beautiful Marianjoy gardens.  They knew I liked hiking, so we drove to a forest preserve for a family hike. Each of their actions required planning and execution.  Each required empathy and kindness.  Each needed cooperation and compromise. Each required a variety of skills.

At the moment, I’m staying out of their way, but I can hear their excited conversation and laughter emanating from the kitchen.  

This best Father’s Day is a present to me well beyond cinnamon rolls and cornflake chicken. My children are successful adults. They have taught me how to love. My pride in them is colossal.  My love for them is beyond limits. What more could I want?

Happy Father’s Day

A breakfast fit for a king.
Breakfast in bed.
Visiting Julie.
A hike in the woods.
A world filled with life.

Hiking With William

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.

Hiking with trekking poles.
We both like the exploration that hiking allows us.
Even local hikes can yield spectacular discoveries.
Teaching Will to cook on an open fire.
Camping doesn’t mean that you have to only eat pork and beans!
Will has taken to playing the guitar.
Sometimes things are more interesting when you view them from a different angle.
Will and I found this simple doorway beautiful.
During one of our explorations, we came upon an abandoned college campus.
You can find interesting things everywhere. You just have to pause a bit and look!
Nothing says hiking like a beautiful sunset!
Beauty in an old worn doorway.