Before becoming a parent, most people imagine their future life with kids as one of endless patience, tireless playtime, and sweet, cuddly moments.

Every parent knows, however, that no matter how calm and reasonable you imagined your parenting to be,  nothing can prepare you for the constant fraying of nerves that a parent is subjected to.

I’m often amused when I talk to people who aren’t parents, and they say things like they’ll never snap at their kids because they remember how painful it was when their parents snapped at them. Yes. I used to think the same thing. Or that they’ll always make time to explain things and discuss whatever topic the kid finds interesting. Sure, in theory, but a kid asks questions faster than they can be answered, and their thinking is far from linear which is both delightful and incredibly frustrating at times.


Dad and me, circa 1971

Now, seven years into being a father, I see that no matter how much fun and how playful you imagine yourself to be before you become a parent, and despite the fact that playing with your kids is a great deal of fun, you still have to make time for it. Or I do anyway.

I have to consciously put down whatever project I’m working on, take a deep breath, and remind myself that my kids will not be this young for long. There will come a day in the not so distant future then they will not want to play and roll around on the floor with their dad, and so the time to be silly is now. The time to poke, tickle, chase, and play games with them is today.

And even then, after a few minutes I’m tired, or get irritated, or merely remember that I need to respond to an email for work. The stints of silly, squealing fun that I have with my kids are precious but brief, even when I do manage to stop thinking like an adult and make the effort.

Parenting is just a tremendous amount of work. Even when things are going smoothly, there are a million things a kid has to learn. Teachers can only do so much. Things like ethics, manners, safety, vocabulary, grammar, and problem solving are all things that kids learn primarily from their parents. Raising a kid is a staggering investment of time and patience in order to guide, coach, demonstrate and gently reprimand.

Maybe the biggest surprise is how rare the moments are when you know that you’re doing the right thing. The rest of the time you wonder with each decision if you’re giving in too often or not often enough. You wonder, with each contest of wills, if you’re fighting the right fight, in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. You worry, however irrationally, that in twenty or thirty years, your kid will (either on a therapist’s couch or in a prison cell) rightfully and justly find serious retrospective fault with your parenting.

But having said all that, I feel like I’m a good father. And the reason that I’m a good father is very simple: I had a great father. I know what great fathering looks like. I know what great fathering feels like. Being a good father is never going to be easy, but it’s a whole lot easier if you can merely imitate what you remember from your own childhood.

My father wasn’t perfect, but it never seemed to me that dad had to remind himself to talk to me. I don’t remember feeling like he was bored or restless when we talked. It seems to me he spent hours with me, playing, talking, and being silly. It wasn’t all fun and games — there were lessons to learn (grammar and diction in particular — two of my dad’s passions) — but I always felt like he was interested in what I had to say. I don’t remember having to coax him into spending time with me. Or even ask twice.

Now that I’m a father I think that is amazing. Every day I leave work and go home with good intentions, telling myself that I am going to talk to my daughters and play with them. But they are often fussy or uninterested. Or just bratty and annoying. And I find myself quickly deciding that I’d rather read the news, or work on a project I’ve been meaning to get to. And even when I’m not annoyed, my daughters regularly have to ask me several times before I break away from what I’m doing.

But that’s just the start of it. My father was raised by strict Catholic parents who believed kids should be seen and not heard. In all the years I knew my grandfather, I never knew him to express the slightest interest in what a kid had to say, and that’s how he was as a father as well. He did not discuss things with his kids, he lectured them, and that’s when he paid any attention to them at all. It has always astonished me that my dad could be raised that way, and then turn around and raise his kids in an entirely different fashion.

Dad always listened to what I said. If what I said was interesting, insightful, or merely correct — he’d let me know. When there were flaws in my logic, he’d point them out encourage me to give it another shot. I cannot imagine his father doing that once, much less several times a day.

And so it seems to me that there are two different levels of parenthood. There are parents who are good parents because they had good parents. That’s the kind of good parent I am. And then there are parents who are good parents because they consciously decided to reject some or all of the way they were parented and come up with something different. That is the kind of good parent my father was. And that is remarkable.

There are also two entirely different phases of parenthood: there’s the parenting you do for kids, and there’s the parenting you do when your kid is an adult. Here too I find I’m incredibly lucky. I have so many friends that cannot resolve tensions with their parents. They either fight, year after year, or give up and stop talking.

My father, on the other hand — somehow knew when it was time to stop parenting a kid. He didn’t stop parenting, but he did exactly what I needed him to do: he relaxed. He let go. He sat back and allowed me to make my mistakes (and pay the price.) He was still there if I wanted advice, but he didn’t offer it preemptively. That made me feel like a grown up and (I like to think) encouraged me to think more carefully about my choices.┬áIn contrast I had friends that were constantly lectured and second-guessed, which only served to make them continue to act like kids.

I think I always suspected that my dad was a great father. But now that I’m a father, my suspicions have been confirmed. I’m grateful both for my own sake, and for the sake of my kids, who benefit indirectly from the fact that he decided, somehow, not to be the parent his dad was.

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