After 18 years of parenting
I’ve learned that, with a lot of practice,
I’m always gonna suck at it.
PARENTING IS A HUMBLING, EGO-BUSTING ADVENTURE
Sometimes there are good days. Lying in bed at night, I can start thinking I’m a pretty good dad. Then the smell of smoke or a mysterious thud snaps my eyes open. The reality is, none of us know what we are doing. There is no driver’s ed for this trip, no permit even. It’s like we were on an Alaskan pleasure cruise, hot toddy in hand, and the captain asked if we wanted to steer the boat. Then, when we took the wheel, he jumped over the rail into the icy water. No map. No manual.
My first-born, T, is graduating from high school this year, and he’s a great guy. Our ultimate goal has been to raise a good roommate. Despite our ineptitude, I think we reached that goal. He is conscientious, he can hold a conversation, make tacos, and do his own laundry. How this happened is blind luck or a blessed miracle.
WE HAD NO PLAN
When T was born, we were not ready to be parents. Honestly, we were a little surprised by his existence. But he didn’t slow us down from the mid-twenties lifestyle we had cultivated – he came on all the trips and to all the parties. On trips, he was like an extra piece of gear. At parties, he slept on the bed where everyone put their coats, always happy to come along.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the responsibility of being a dad. I had a dog, but this was really different. I was nervous about it, and I yelled a lot. I mean, I really wanted him to survive into adulthood you know?
I HAD TO FOCUS
I had to find a job that paid the rent. I had to get a reliable car and pay attention to the tire tread. We had to buy groceries every week, and make dinner every night. To add fuel to the fire, we had a couple more boys, E and L, so we were now outnumbered. It made me anxious and I regret not having more chill moments with my kids when they were little. I was busy trying to hustle.
When T was five he could already ski and ride a bike, because of course. Once we rode by a grassy golf-course hill and I encouraged him to “send it,” not realizing a sand trap lay just out of sight. He sailed down, me yelling, “yeah buddy!” and him yelling in fear. Then he launched off, and disappeared over the knoll. The last thing I saw was his upside-down- jeans flying out of sight. As my life-in-prison flashed before my eyes, I ran down and looked over the hill. He was sandy and stunned, but fine.
THIS IS HOW IT WENT.
This is how it went for most of his childhood: my wife and I making horrible mistakes in judgment, and him turning out okay. He got crushed by waves, slid across pavement, and sank in the pool.
I remember one sunny day at Sunlight Ski Area, me and T had done the Tercero Chair (the bunny hill) many times, and I decided we were ready for the Primo Chair all the way to the top. As nature would have it, a storm blew in, and we were stuck at the summit in a sideways wind. We tried to ski, but he was getting blown away. I carried him down with crying and tears from both of us. Safe with cocoa, he asked, “Why do we do this?”
I HAD SCREWED UP.
I had screwed up. Neglectful and irresponsible, yes, but the problem – I was trying too hard and making it all about me. I wanted to keep living the Coloradical Lifestyle, and I wanted my kids to be a part of it. I wanted us to have this epic little family, and I wanted to photograph it and blog about it and put it on Instagram. It was all about how their existence could augment and enhance my own, and not the other way around. I vowed not to take T skiing or biking or camping again unless he asked to go. Instead of treating him like a pet, I’d try treating him like a plant.
But I’ve never had a green thumb. I don’t have the patience. My wife is amazing at this. Our house is full of plants and the garden bursts with flowers and food every summer. She goes out there barefoot and plants seeds every spring, I swear she whispers to them when she does it. They grow like hell, and she goes out in the afternoon and sits down, singing and clearing away weeds. She makes sure they have water and space to grow, not really trying to make them grow but just kind of loving them and allowing them to. Weird, right?
This is a MUCH better metaphor for parenting than treating your kid like a dog or a car or a bike or anything I know how to take care of. You know, plant the seed, nurture it, watch it grow, and all that crap. It’s not about you at all.
THE AMAZING THING IS, KIDS ARE INCREDIBLY FORGIVING.
No matter how upset we get, they are ready to play catch or read a book when we calm down. We give them terrible advice, we are bad role models, we tell them to do things we ourselves don’t do.
“Be Nice!” we scream, Pringles in one hand, iPhone in the other, “Stop scrolling and eating junk food!”
They know we are full of malarkey. We know they know, and they know we know they know. But when we come back to Earth and smile at them, they smile back. Every time. That cute, toothless, second-grade smile. Just yesterday I had a drag-out yelling match with L, and today he gave me a spontaneous shoulder rub. Forgiveness.
AND KIDS ARE RESILIENT!
This I KNOW from teaching middle school for ten years and high school for ten more. Kids can sink in the cold mud and crawl out, again and again. Sometimes it takes time, and a lot of support, but they can bounce back from almost any darkness. Most kids have at least one terrible year, each for their own reasons, but they tend to hit the bottom and bounce back up. It’s uncanny, but even kids who seem like a total disaster for years… almost all of them end up just fine as adults.
I’ll walk into a gas station and see some kid who single-handedly derailed my entire 7th-grade class for a whole year, and he will shake my hand and tell me about his great job. And then he will drive away in a car nicer than mine. Like plants, kids are designed to survive. With a little water, love, and light, they will be fine.
CASE IN POINT
So our first-born will graduate from high school in the spring, and go off to be a good college roommate for some other kid. That’s all I could hope for. Despite my fat-headedness, he still loves to ski and ride his bike.
Moreover, he also loves to run and play music, and do other things I am incapable of. He is funny and humble and responsible, as I hope to be someday. The weird thing is, all the dumb stuff we did with him – the parties, the sand traps, the storms, and scary waters – they made him adaptable. He is who he is not despite the fact that we were inept parents, but because of it. Kids learn as much – or more – from your worst parenting moments as they do from your Instagrammable ones. So in this time of unbearable uncertainty, give yourself some grace. Or, in the wise words of my teenage son, “Just chill, Dad.”
LEARN MORE about Bridges High School, where Adam teaches English.