Eight years ago we checked into the hospital at six-thirty in the morning so that the birth of our first child, Samuel, could be induced. While a team of nurses asked Angela questions about her health, my thoughts ventured to a different place. ”My life will not be the same when I leave this place and what scares me is I don’t know how it’s going to be different. I’m supposed to be responsible for this child and I don’t know what to do.”
I would have plenty of time to ponder these thoughts that day as Samuel wouldn’t be born for another fourteen hours (not that anyone was counting). I considered my fears of being a parent and wondered what he would be like. The wonder question was answered as soon as he was born. When the doctor held him up for us to see, Samuel peed all over the doctor.
Samuel was going to be his own person.
But the fears over being a parent stuck with me. To begin with, I wasn’t sure how to be a parent. As much as I loved my own parents and as much as they tried their best, they didn’t leave me with a deep reservoir of great parenting skills. Throughout my adulthood, whenever I was trying to decide what to do, I would try to figure out what my parents might do and then do the opposite. Most of the time, this approach worked.
But how would I teach my son the right thing to do or even the process of determining what to do when my mode of thinking was to do the opposite of my parents?
Whenever I have a question about something, my habit is to devour a set of books on the subject. With my usual fervor, I read five or six books on parenting, which turned out to be a waste of money. They seemed more suited to training an army than raising a child.
I happened to stumble across an article on parenting in The Wall Street Journal. The article (which I can no longer find) was dissecting a piece of research on the correlation between the physical touch of a parent to a child and the child’s ensuing well-being (whatever that might be). Specifically, the article mentioned playful wrestling between a father and son.
That seemed easy enough to try.
I’ve had my glasses bent and twisted, my nose punched, my chin clobbered with a roundhouse (which led to me instituting the rule of no hitting in the face), and lately I’ve begun to realize that Samuel’s thrice-weekly swimming sessions have given him a considerable gain in upper body strength. But when we’re exhausted (actually when I’m exhausted), we lay next to one another and talk. Sometimes, he protests and wants to get back to wrestling. But other times, he wants to hear the stories about my childhood and he’ll even tell me about his favorite things, which these days center around LEGOS, LEGOS, and LEGOS. Once in a great while, he’ll mention something or someone that frustrates him or that he doesn’t understand.
For a present recently, he gave me a set of handmade gift cards from him, redeemable at any time. One of those cards he’d written, “Restle.”
I wonder how much he will remember of my parents. Both of my grandmothers had passed away by the time I was his age and aside from a few pictures, I possess only the faintest memories of them. Will Samuel remember how much my Mom and Dad adored him. Will he recall the cars and Twinkies that his Grandpa gave him? Will he remember the Fridays during the summer he spent with Grandma, the games they played and the meals they shared?
For now he does. I hope that continues.
In being a parent, I’ve gained an appreciation for the efforts of my single parents (as my Mom and Dad were). They had no one to turn to, no one to take the children when they were sick or tired or both, and no one to talk to when they were frustrated or unsure of how to proceed. Having someone to share the parental load with makes the child-rearing road just a little bit easier. I can’t imagine having to do this on my own.
My son has the misfortune of looking like me and he even has displayed some of my temperaments, such as my stubbornness. Because of these similarities, I am tempted to think that he will be like me, that he will share my interests and desires. By his age, I’d discovered team sports, which unleashed a competitive zeal. Despite my early attempts, that same competitive zeal is nowhere to be found in Samuel. If it’s there, I haven’t found the key to unlocking it.
He is his own person.
But lest you think I’m making plans to canonize Samuel, think again. He is a child, one with a will and a temper, one who wants his way (more and more often the older he grows), and who is growing fearless in expressing what he wants. He can be frustrating, irritating, and even maddening.
We argue over toys, his always wanting more of them and their ever expanding presence in our house. It is hard to find a room in our house without one of his toys. He feels the need to vociferously express his preference to stay at home rather than go to school. I understand his position, but if anybody’s staying home for the day, it’ll be me rather than him. And he stridently negotiates how many of his vegetables he must eat before he can have dessert. By this you should understand that “all of your vegetables” was a position conceded long ago.
And yet he also has these moments where I see that some of what I say and do is getting through to him. One night he and I were at home while Angela was away. We’d just finished eating dinner and I was doing the dishes. He was lining up his LEGOs and looking for a youtube video to watch. I was staring out the kitchen window, washing the same dish over and over again, oblivious to all that was going on, worrying about about job changes and stresses and financial pressures. Suddenly, I felt two arms wrapped around my waist and looked down to see Samuel next to me. ”It’s going to be okay, Dad.”
Eight years of being a Dad have taught me that one of things I need to do as a parent, the one thing I struggle to do, is “Pay attention.” Pay attention to the life we are living, that he is living. Being a dad, learning to pay attention, has also been a lesson on living itself.
I can get lost in my thoughts, revisiting the past, planning for the future, wondering about the present, pondering my job, worrying about money, thinking about my next book or my next post, and in doing so, I completely miss what is taking place. But through his voice or his smile, his cry or his laugh, through the pain of stepping on another of his LEGOS or the frustration of opening the freezer to find the box of frozen waffles empty, I am reminded that life is taking place right now. Even as I attempt to write these words, he interrupts me every few minutes for help with his homework. When he finally finished his homework, he picked up a couple of LEGOS and asked, “Can you play with me?”