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.
5 months ago