Friday, September 07, 2007

The irrelevance of fatherhood

When my kids were small -- very small -- and I'd take them out somewhere, inevitably some person would stop to pinch their cheeks and look at me and say, "awwww, are you babysitting today?"

It drove me crazy and I'd say to them -- as politely as I could -- that, "no, I am fathering today."

But back then, I was naive, fighting the societal norm that, for the most part, fathers don't matter. I first suspected this when the same kids would run for mom when things got tough. I told myself it was nature; there's a physical connection with a mother that no father can duplicate.

I was playing catch with my youngest son once and I tossed him a "fly ball." The normally sure-handed lad badly misjudged it and it hit him in the nose. He went... screaming... for mom. Perhaps he thought it was the first salvo in a Dad attack.

I am rarely disappointed in my children -- far from it -- but I find myself quite often disappointed in myself where fatherhood is concerned. I always envisioned myself as providing a somewhat moral or ethical compass; one that my kids would follow, if not unquestioningly, then at least hesitantly.

Kids don't do that. Or, more accurately, I guess, my kids don't do that. They, like me, go off and make their own mistakes, suffer their own disappointments privately, and never seek counsel or help unless it's somehow associated with money. On those occasions, my relevance becomes my checkbook. A father should be more than that. I should have given something to my kids that didn't have a dead president on it. At the very least I should've given my kids the knowledge that Dad once struck out on his own, not quite sure who he was, made a stupid mistake or three, and wondered why everyone else seemed to "get it." If I had, then maybe how I navigated my way through that would count for something; maybe there'd be a credibility that my kids could've counted on.

I thought about this last weekend when I read Jeff Opdyke's Wall Street Journal column, in which he talked about the decisions he has to make now that his kids have reached an age where the things they ask for are more expensive than the "old days," when it was only a candy bar. The gentleman has determined that the kid could learn a lot by his saying "no."

Good for him. I wish I had.
As fathers, the one job we have is to get the kids out the door when they become adults, able to understand and handle the world, which includes handling money and making good decisions. The tragedy of it all is we don't get a second chance at it.

I was at the Twins-Indians game the other night with my youngest son, with whom I've always thought I had an honest relationship. We watched the game and then drove around Minneapolis at midnight (it was an extra-inning game) trying to find the 10th Avenue bridge, so we could stop and get a look at the I-35W bridge collapse.

I dropped him at his apartment around 12:30 a.m. and not once during the evening did he mention that he had a problem -- several problems -- that let's just say, "affect" his future. Not a word, until he called his mother a night later and dumped it on her.

I'm obviously disappointed that -- as it turns out -- I'm not a father that can be turned to for counsel. I'm not a father who can be listened to when I say "drive carefully," or "choose your friends carefully" or even "stay out of trouble." I don't blame my son for that; I blame his father who, as it turned out, didn't adequately prepare his son for the "real" world, and didn't teach him that there are consequences to actions back when they were minor, and the lesson could be learned less painfully than when you learn them as an adult.

Now they're not minor consequences, and there's little I can do about it, but sit and worry, wish I could have been a better father and generally wonder how I could've been so stupid to miss so many opportunities to teach my children something that would help them later in life.

It's true, of course, that as the nest empties, our offspring need to be free to make their own mistakes and suffer the consequences. It's how we learn. But it's the irrelevant father's hell that he has to watch.


GML4 said...

Another good post Bob.

As a stay at home dad for a 1 and 2 year old, and guy trying to start a day care, I worry a bit about my approach when children have "a crisis" When my kids have some sort of crisis (i.e. "I fell." "Maeve took my doll"), I try real hard not to react in the way they seem to want me to react (or as their mother may react). I urge them to tough it out, shake it off, or distract them to let them forget about their misery.

Yet, when Mom is there, she often holds them, comforts them, tries to intervene. So when she and I are both home, I would say the kids tend to go to her during a crisis.

So after reading your post here, I start having my doubts about my approach. Maybe I should be more "mothering".

I think about my relationship with my dad too, and we are not close emotionally. The majority of our conversations are about cars, and if I need to talk something out with one of them, I usually would talk to my mom first.

I would love to hear what your sons think about this!

Bob Collins said...

My lament -- if you can call it that -- isn't that I was too tough -- it's that I wasn't tough enough. I didn't say "no" enough.

Your description of you and your Dad reminds me of me and mine. My oldest son would always say, "Grandpa and Dad always talk about football or sports or something." I tried to explain that it's just "code" and as long as both sides understand the code, everything is fine.

There's a line in a Dixie Chicks song when a daughter is leaving home. "Her father yells, 'check the oil.'"

Of course, he wasn't really yelling "check the oil." It was "Dad code."