The most useful advice I ever got about parenting came from my wife, appropriately enough. I've repeated it a hundred times, to strangers in the street, seconds after learning they have children.
But I don't believe I've written it, yet.
So here goes:
"They're going to have to push away from us, no matter how good of parents we've been."
I think of that sentence as the "Source Code." Keeping it in mind saves a world of bother, a lot of arguments. You don't want wear a coat? Fine, don't wear a coat, if it makes you happy. No kid ever froze to death, at least not in Northbrook.
Let your kids walk a block ahead of you, order something they don't like off the menu, screw up in small ways. It's practice for them. When Ross had his bar mitzvah, I didn't write his speech, I didn't even read it. I sat back and listened to it with everyone else, secure that, if it were something dumb, well, it was his bar mitzvah, not mine.
It wasn't dumb, by the way. It rocked. The best way to make people trustworthy is to trust them.
The boys are 18 and 19—not boys anymore, but still well into the pushing-away phase. Both are working this summer, both going to college in the fall, Kent as a freshman at Northwestern, Ross a sophomore out in Pomona. At this point, my job is pretty much done. I just have to pay for stuff, try to impose minimum standards of cleanliness around the house—a tougher task than it sounds—and hope for what snatches of polite conversation come my way, which aren't much. I'm hoping that changes, someday, but there are no guarantees.
I miss the open enthusiasms they had as children, the lack of languor, but I'm not sorry their childhood is over. That was what was supposed to happen, what we were pushing toward, and it would be selfish and futile to desire otherwise.
If I had to encapsulate my emotions toward fatherhood in one word, I'd say, "lucky." I've always felt lucky, as a father. Not just because the boys are healthy and smart and interesting and never stepped in front of a speeding bus or got kidnapped by a fiend. But lucky because I enjoyed the sacrifices involved with parenthood. They weren't sacrifices at all, in fact, because I wanted to do it. There was no higher priority. I could spin that as some excellence of mine, but the unvarnished truth is that it was more a matter of temperament.
I should point out that the boys would certainly object, insisting that I was a terrible father, prone to anger and acts of staggering incompetence, not to mention my general failure to provide ponies, pool tables and the vast homes that all their friends' fathers managed to provide. ("They're going to have to push away, no matter how...") Duly noted.
One sentence in Adam Gopnik's magnificent memoir, Paris to the Moon, sums up exactly how I felt about being a father.
His wife gets pregnant, and part of the book entertains the reader with the peculiarities of having a baby in Paris—his wife's obstetrician encourages her to drink wine but warns against salad. Then Olivia is born; Gopnik takes one look at her, and realizes:
The world is a meaningless place, and we are weird, replicating mammals on its surface, yet the whole purpose of the universe since it began was, in a way, to produce this baby, who is the tiny end point of a funnel that goes back to the beginning of time, a singularity that history was pointing toward from the start.Exactly. Having kids is the most important thing you ever do. "The only really majestic choice we get to make in life," is how Gopnik puts it. I grasped that, immediately. Lucky. I hadn't dreamed of having children, never thought about it, really, it wasn't a priority, but keeping my wife happy was, and I feel so fortunate that I instantly got what we were trying to do here. Some dads struggle with that, like trying to force themselves into a too small jacket. Some guys never get it.
When Ross was a baby, he liked to be pushed in the swing set. A lot. And I would take him to the park in East Lake View, with its camel and Lake Shore Drive whizzing by, and push him in the swing for half an hour, an hour, even 90 minutes. It gave me great pleasure that other dads would come, push their kids, get bored, move on, and another dad would come and take his place, repeat the process, generations of dads, it seemed to me, while I would still be pushing, in no rush, with nowhere else to go, nothing better to do, pushing Ross as much as he liked, both of us enjoying the time together. It was both of our ideas of fun.