Define that for me, will you? Not in the way of saying the act of being a parent. Flesh it out a bit. What follows is a short, top of my head list of duties I’m responsible for while ‘parenting’. I’m a chauffeur, a protector, a nurturer, a planner, a logistics expert, a ground level risk management consultant, an entertainer, a teacher, a shopper, a cooker, a soother, a first responder, a triage nurse, an entertainment director and judge, jury and punisher. I’m the creator of bad habits and the breaker of them. I’m a liquidity manager, decision maker, emotional support and an overnight on-call residential staff. I’m a cleaner and a problem solver. I explain the answer to every hard question that occurs in my presence. Thankfully I share all of these duties with an amazing coworker. I frankly find the concept of me being engaged in ‘parenting’ to be reductive. All of the roles I’ve listed and a thousand more are subsumed in my title. I’m a noun. I’m a parent. Specifically, in my case, I’m a dad.
My mother told me that one of her friends, a woman with children older then hers, told her that you can’t really know who your kids will be until they’re 40. Speaking as someone that’s 41, I find this measure to be both fair and accurate. As her son who’s only just recently crossed that threshold I should note that this doesn’t mean the job is over for her. Not by a long shot. For example, in the 30 or so years since my voice started to crack I’ve broken down in tears discussing hard topics with my mom only a handful of times. Maybe 3 times total. I’m an emotional and occasionally melancholy man, which would explain this exorbitant number. One of those times was in the last few months. While I was 41. Her job is clearly not done in my case, I’m what could be described as fairly highly functioning. By the way, what she did when I cried with her was counsel me with love and thoughtfulness. She was not at all engaged in something so dismissible as ‘parenting’. She was guiding and walking and ultimately crying with me so we could get to a place together.
That’s the danger of the verb-ing of the word parent. It gives the sense that it is an act that one can take in somehow. That there is a beginning (there is) a middle (sorta) and an end (no way). And even if you were to choose to construct it as such, a thing you could do reasonably, it is an act that is of a scale that defies perception. The only person that will have a reasonable perception of me as a parent is my wife. And even that will be colored by access and coincidence, schedules and circumstance. Not to mention opinion and bias. All the same issues will shade my perception of her experience as a parent. But the reality is that parent’s have bad moments. Thousands of them. They have to. They’re carrying a weight that’s too much and at times throughout the process they will get it wrong. I have already more times than I like to think, but I think as many times as anyone else working at it honestly. It’s okay, though. Because I’m not ‘parenting’. I’m not engaged in an act, with a start and a finish that are defined at the outset and that can result in success or failure. Well, I am, but it’s not today or tomorrow or next week. It’s a thing of a lifetime. Its the work of a lifetime.
Parenting also suggests a far more active role than I fear is prudent. Kids have far too much to do these days and are not left to their own devices nearly enough. (I dropped my career to go work where I could take them with me and have them in classes, so it’s possible that I’m not the best vehicle for this message. But that’s for another post.) The days of riding your bike aimlessly and endlessly around neighborhood streets, as I did when I was 10, for hours on end may be gone. That’s a shame . I suspect their is going to be an increased value to having the ability to self-direct in the future since so many parents are parenting so… vigorously. I’ve recently heard of some backlash to this trend and I’m delighted. I long for a time when dad is a passive presence for hours on end, oblivious as they chase their curiosities and explore the world around them, secure in the knowledge that if they really need me, I’m there to help.
I try to wear the title of dad like a shirt, but it’s creeped into my cellular makeup at this point. I don’t look to be validated. I’m a dad. I AM a dad. I’m not ‘dadding’. Dad is a fully absorbed part of my being and the part of it that is in flux, the portion that is ever learning and ever growing is also ever messing up. That’s okay. It’s part of the process. As is realizing that your kids are a bit more unbreakable then you fear.
Simply being a parent is a far more sane way for me to approach the task. A task in which ultimately I’m not the player that is to be reacted to. I’m the reactor. My kids are the ones actively involved in growing up. It’s a lot of damn work on my part, to be sure. But they’re the ones doing the work of discovering a world. I’m delighted to be dad, along for the ride for so much of it. I’m lighting the path and advising and hopefully keeping them looking in the right directions in order to get the best view of all this magic.