Note: This unsolicited Father’s Day missive from my Denmark son, Stan Adam, might well be called “Work of Art’s Son.” I love the message and am printing it here in the hopes that readers will discover that some of the spirit will trigger memories of their own paths to maturity.
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Before becoming parents, most people imagine their 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 they imagined their parenting to be, nothing can prepare them for the constant fraying of nerves they are subjected to.
Seven years into being a father, I see that no matter how much fun and how playful I imagined myself to be before becoming a parent, and despite the fact that playing with kids is a great deal of fun, we still have to make time for it. Or I do anyway.
I have to consciously put down whatever 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 when 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, prod, tickle, chase, and play games with them is today.
At times, parenting is fun, but it’s also 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 what kids learn primarily from their parents.
Maybe the biggest surprise is how rare the moments are when you know 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 20 years, your kid will either on a therapist’s couch or in a prison cell, and rightfully and justly find serious retrospective fault with your parenting.
But having said all that, I feel that I’m a good father. And the reason 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 lot easier if you can merely imitate what you remember from your own childhood.
My father wasn’t perfect, but it never seemed that dad had to remind himself to talk to me. I don’t remember feeling that he was bored or restless when we talked.
It seems 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). 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, and I find myself deciding that I’d rather read the newspaper or work on a project I’ve neglected.
But also, my father was raised by strict Catholic parents who believed kids should be seen and not heard. My grandfather never expressed much interest in what a kid said. He did not discuss things with his own kids; he lectured them. And so it’s astonishing to 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 were 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 there are two different levels of parenthood. There are parents who are good because they had good parents. That’s the kind of good parent I am. And then there are good parents because they consciously decided to reject some or all of the ways 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 the parenting you do when your kid is an adult. Here too I find I’m incredibly lucky. I have so many friends who cannot resolve tensions with their parents. They either fight, year after year, or give up and stop talking.
My dad, on the other hand, somehow knew when it was time to stop parenting a kid. He didn’t really 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 grownup and (I like to think) encouraged me to think more carefully about my choices. In contrast I had friends that were constantly lectured and second-guessed, which only served to make them continue to act like kids.
In retrospect, I always believed 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.