Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Praise of Parenthood

In high school, I had to carry around a hard-boiled egg for a week as part of assignment, ostensibly to teach us 17 year-olds that having kids was a full-time job.  We had to carry it with us everywhere – to every class, to the dinner table, to the movies.  The teacher signed the eggs to prevent us from switching out one that had escaped our grasp and some of the girls even made egg-cellent little carriers to show off their ‘kids.’ My nephew recently had a similar assignment.  I think it’s fair to say that eggs have come a long way, baby!  In my mind, the thing looks like a cross between a doll my sister carried around as a toy and something out of a horror flick (no offense intended to my nephew, whom I’m sure thought his kid was the best looking of the bunch).

At the conclusion of the assignment, he had to write out some of the lessons he had learned and I have to say, I was duly impressed, all familial biases aside. The other thing that impressed me was that he was open to more input from us old folks who actually had kids. The eternal class clown in me bandied about the temptation to post something clever on his Facebook page. It runs in the family and my very kind-hearted nephew didn’t sign up for that. But I stood the risk of having it come across as glib, cliché, or downright trite.

I stewed on it a bit.  After all, when someone has glimpsed something about parenting at his age that is beyond the movie stereotype, the response has to be with real time-honored, dare I say it, wisdom. I’ll give this a PG-13 rating for honest content, so if there are sensitivities involved, click the little ‘x’ and watch a YouTube video or something.  No harm, no foul.

So, my numbah one nephew, this is for you.

Marriages don’t always last forever, but once you’re a parent, it’s for a lifetime. When you’re in love, no one thinks about the possibility that there may be circumstances that end that bliss you’re feeling. Hormones rage in torrents through our bodies and we can’t imagine that the one we’re infatuated with could be anything other than our ultimate mate for life. No one else could possibly understand what we’re feeling. But things happen; there will always be misunderstandings that no amount of talking can explain; feelings get hurt; pride takes one in the chin; people split up.  But the kids…what about the kids.

Our family has different kinds of family structures and we’ve all managed to turn out OK. Is one better than another? I won’t go down that path because I was raised by your grandmother who was a single mom during a time when most women weren’t able to find jobs other than teachers, nurses, or something administrative like secretaries, bookkeepers, or clerks.  There’s not a thing wrong with professions like those, but I hope you see that women are capable of pretty much anything men are and quite frankly should be paid equally and more to the point, have the opportunity. The late 60s and early 70s were a rough time for a single mom. When my mom found herself a young 23 year-old divorcee in Salt Lake City, she found herself at the wrong end of a lot of upturned noses and gossip, yet she sacrificed what would otherwise be the best years of one’s life to raise your aunt and me. And she did it with a lot of grace and humor and bills for stuff we broke. And there were a lot of sleepless nights and questions she had to answer and the little league games and the gymnastics lessons and the clothes and the new dining room table that, on the day it was delivered, got bathed in lasagna fresh out of the oven. You grandma wasn’t just about business though. Sure, she found a way to pay the bills and keep us fed and dressed, but we laughed and played and to this day talk about the silly tricks she played on us to keep herself laughing when she just wanted to cry.  Being a parent is a precarious balance of obligation, childlike joy, unconditional love, and self-sacrifice. And growing up in that single parent home, I never lacked for a thing and although I grew up for the most part without a dad, I was equipped to be one myself because of what my mom instilled in me.

As you know, I ended up graduating from an Ivy League school and flying for the Navy.  Your aunt has been married for 17 years and has done so many things both professionally, as a volunteer, and now is a parent herself. And then there’s your own dad. Because he’s here, it shows that you don’t have to have the same blood to be family. Your dad’s dad was my stepdad. One thing my mom said to me about him that has always stuck with me. When they married, he filled the role of my dad even though he didn’t share my bloodline. Your grandmother told him, “You can’t discipline my kids until you love them.” I think he did come to love us and we took to him as well. Your dad came along when I was 13 and as “luck” would have it, found himself also the product of a single parent household when our mom was once again on the wrong end of a divorce.  And then there’s you. Like your dad and I, you understand what a single-parent household is like. You also have the challenge and benefit of a blended family. And then there are my kids, also products of single-parent households.  As far as I can see, we’re all doing all right. Why is that? Because the parents gave it their best and we all loved our children. I think that’s the ultimate answer in what makes the best family: love.  I won’t go on about what love is all about, but if you read between the lines of what I’ve written so far, you can see it has precious little to do with how you feel, but rather what you’re willing to do. 

Four of my five children have grown up and are flying out on their own.  My oldest is a parent herself now and I still scratch my head some times wondering how I could be a grandfather before I’m 50. But the little ones are there and growing into their own little personalities. I can see their mom in their faces…and in their mannerisms. The old “I hope you have kids just like you” is far from a threat. Rather it’s hope that their kids are as beautiful and wonderful as they are. My oldest son is well on his way to being a dad.  He’s dating a beautiful girl and I won’t be surprised when I get the phone call some day soon when he tells me that he’s engaged. Most recently, I danced with my daughter at her wedding and the tears that I had when she was born poured down my face as she rested her head on my chest while everyone looked on. True to form, I tried to make light of it by saying, “Everyone’s looking at us!” but the music played on and we shared the kind of moment only a father can share with his daughter. A lifetime of memories flooded through my mind as I remember the day she was born, her first steps and trying to feed her and her twin sister at the same time, the way she loved books and could read before her older brother, her favorite Disney characters, and before I knew it, she was a young woman talking with me more like a friend than a child. And the guy that tapped me on my shoulder would sweep her off her feet and they would run out the doors together to the waiting car.

It proved to me that despite the circumstances that caused my own divorce, my children would be OK. It was another opportunity for me to forgive myself for my own shortcomings and to extend that same forgiveness to my own father as I’m sure he has beaten himself up about his own first marriage. I think it’s fair to say that your dad has gone through that same sort of self-flagellation and forgiveness as well. But remember what I said?  Being a parent is forever, so although I may have been left alone on the dance floor, figuratively speaking, I was far from alone. Some day, if you choose to be a parent, I know without a doubt you’ll be a good dad. I say that because I see within you the capability to see others, to give, and again most importantly, to love. You already know that.  You already know that changing poopy diapers, and giving up sleep, and foregoing a night out with the guys in order to make the relationship or to stay with the kids so your other half can spend a night out is all part of being a parent.  Being a parent is pretty daunting, it’s a LOT of work, and the work never ends, even when they’re grown. Parenting is a lifetime commitment. But being a parent is pretty cool, too. You can be glad that you have parents who love you.

I have confidence in you. I really do think you’ll make a great dad. You have a great example to learn from.  Just take your time, will ya?

This posting was originally published May 13, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing

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