This weekend marks my sixth Father’s Day and I can’t think of a better time to reflect on fatherhood than an arbitrary holiday created because men felt slighted that there was an arbitrary holiday created to honor mothers.
That I’ve been a dad for going on six years still seems ridiculous to me. Weirdly, it feels ridiculous that it’s been six years already and that it’s only been six years. One of the biggest surprises of parenthood has been the way it distorts time and memory. I used to think about what I would be doing in five or ten years, but now I almost exclusively measure my life in minutes and hours. How many minutes until the bottle is ready for the baby? How many hours until nap time? How many minutes until we can leave the playground? How many hours until they wake up?
And my recollection of the past now seems to have similar time constraints. It is exceedingly difficult for me to remember much of anything about when my second child was a baby, let alone my first. Parenting tunnel vision is real. It’s as if my parent brain only has room to process what is necessary to keep me and my children alive. Let’s focus on keeping these kids fed and cleaned and safe, my brain tells me. All this other personal history stuff? That’s what pictures and videos are for.
It took me a long time to feel somewhat okay about this feature of my parenting experience. This impermanence used to frustrate me to no end. I would chastise myself often and tell myself to do better. Just focus, I would say. You can remember everything if you just try hard enough! But slowly, as time passed and more memories faded into blurs of color and sound, I came to realize that the life of a parent can be so mundane and routine that attempting to catalog it and remember it all is a hopeless task. I learned that the truly memorable parts in the journey—the traumatic and the transcendent—can’t be controlled. You can only wait for the transcendent to find you and hope that the traumatic never will.
For example, I remember when my oldest son was two and he fell while I was getting him ready for bed and bit his lip. I remember his blood and my anguish for having failed him. Luckily, our traumas have been like this one—small.
I also remember the time a butterfly made a surprise visit on a spring afternoon and brightened our day. For whatever reason, that little moment felt transcendent.
Interestingly, my oldest son doesn’t have such gaps in his memory. Or perhaps to him most things are transcendent (or traumatic). For example, he regularly reminds us of the time (probably two years ago) that he woke up shortly after going to bed and came downstairs to find my wife and me in a compromising position: eating ice cream out of coffee mugs. Busted!
I’ve tried to think back to my childhood to see if I held onto any trivialities or if mostly the traumatic and transcendent remain. And despite a few random things, like the song about little league baseball set to the tune of This Old Man that one of my best friends composed, it’s mostly the big things that jump out. Like the time that my dad forgot to pick me up from elementary school and I had to wait in the office for maybe an hour. Sorry Dad. I hate to put you on blast, but I’m making an important point here.
You see, I think the only reason I remember that moment is because it is the only time in my entire life that my dad slipped up and wasn’t there for me. Literally every other time, no matter what, he was there. He was relentlessly reliable and steady. He was so consistent that I never had to think about ever being let down. He has supported me at every turn. And though our roles as fathers are quite different—he got up and went to work every day to support our family while I get up most days and try to keep the kids from destroying the house—my dad’s temperament and steadiness as a father greatly informs my parenting.
I’ve written about how much my mom has influenced my parenting style, but I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly thanked my dad for setting me on the right path. So, I’m doing it now.
My greatest wish is that when my children are grown, they can look back and say that, no matter what, I was always there for them. That I was always reliable and caring and steady. I hope they can take me for granted. I hope that we make some transcendent memories together and that their childhood memories will be as free of trauma as mine are.
And as I embark on the second half of the first decade of my parenting journey, my aim is to let the past drift away if it so chooses and revel more in the ordinary present. Just because the things we hold onto for the long term might be the big ones doesn’t mean that the fleeting moments are any less valuable.
If you love this post, I have some good news. My book, Fatherhood: Dispatches From the Early Years, is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and pretty much all of your favorite online book retailers in paperback and ebook. Don’t wait…everyone is doing it! (And by everyone I mean more than zero people.)