Last week, a former co-worker told me he and his wife were going to have their first child within a month. I congratulated him and tried to say something that didn’t cover all the usual bases: it changes your life completely in ways you’re not prepared for, you see the world differently forever after, it’s really hard at first but gets easier, etc. In the end I went with a variation on the first – this guy works at a startup and the metaphor seemed apropos – followed by my standard caution of “you will think you are supposed to know what you’re doing but you will not and that is completely normal” and an invitation to let me know if he needs someone to talk to about it. “You are not alone” is the nicest thing you can tell someone about to be a parent.
Then yesterday, Erin, Abigail and I were at our friend Mike’s annual backyard pig roast. He and his wife have a five-year-old and many of his friends have kids now, too – at one point the party looked to be two-thirds filled with either kids, parents or grandparents. I was catching up with a friend in-between bites of roast pork and running Abigail to the bathroom (we’re in the midst of potty-training her). He has two kids and his youngest is seven months. As talk turned to our kids – specifically the patterns that repeat themselves with the second kid – he said “It’s crazy how cliched it all is.” He said this not as a complaint so much as a matter of fact.
Most people feel very confident in the ways they are not going be like every other parent right up until they actually become a parent. And then it all seems to fall away. Sometimes this is because of all the things I thought about telling my startup friend. Other times it’s because, developmentally speaking, most kids follow a certain timeline in the first year or two. Mostly it’s because parenting is hard and in moments of desperation you fall back on a combination of nature and nurture that combines the brain patterns formed by lifetimes of child-rearing with a few things you saw on TV (shout out to Mr. Cunningham on “Happy Days” and Steven Keaton on “Family Ties”) and some knowledge gleaned from moments when your own father said “OK, pay attention because I’m only going to show you this once and then I want you to do it.”
These cliches stitch themselves into the rest of your life, too. Or mine, anyway. If not for my job, which requires me to have some sense of the reigning cultural zeitgeist, I would be well on my way to filling my free time with Hitler documentaries and clips of Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts DVD (an infomercial I will watch to the end every time I stumble across it). The speed with which my summer plans became ruled not by music festivals but by yard work was astounding. An evening that ends with a glass of scotch is a fine evening indeed. I have no feelings of wistful regret about this. If anything, it feels like “Whew, finally.”
At this point in my life, I’m more interested in helping others set the world on fire than I am doing so myself, which is the perfect mindset to be in as a parent or a person approaching forty. I’d like to say the pleasure I derived from all this would be embarrassing to a younger me but probably not. I was an old person even when I was a young person. More often than not, I find myself considering the parents whose lives are marked by challenges far outside the usual patterns: poverty, violence or extraordinary health and medical needs, for instance. The ones who don’t have the luxury or comfort of cliche. I’m not knowledgeable enough about that intersection to write about it (yet?) but it’s certainly on my mind more now than ever before and I struggle with how to do something about it.
Meanwhile, I came home from work on Friday night with a unexpected desire to wear the t-shirt Abigail got me for Father’s Day last year. It has the words “World’s Best Dad” printed across the top, her handprints in the center and the words “Hands Down” underneath. As Ian has said, these gifts are usually huge lies so I’m not usually drawn to it at the risk of seeming like a hypocrite. Better a t-shirt with “Pretty Good Dad Most Days with Occasional Moments of Brilliance” written on it. But for whatever reason, I really wanted to wear it that night.
Today we’re going to have lunch with my dad and on the way home we’re going to pick up a lawn and weed trimmer I’ve been meaning to get for a couple months now. Next week, I’m going to throw some carpet down on the back porch and paint the back stairs so the backyard will finally look the way I want it for the summer.
I try hard not to be a cliche. But sometimes I can’t help myself.
I like it too much.
A few other notable things I’ve written about fatherhood:
Love is a late-night cheese sandwich
Mark Wahlberg hates America
Learning to climb
Guys like Seth MacFarlane are why I bought my daughter a Tonka truck
And the Scott vs. Pink trilogy: Supergirls, Comic books are for girls and Pink