Tell me, parents, if this sounds familiar: When Finn was born, we had to fill out paperwork at the hospital. In the line that read “Father’s Name” I wrote my own dad’s name.
There is a moment in your life as a father that you realize that you are more than simply an adult who has had a child. It’s the moment you realize that you have taken the place of your father. That child of yours? That’s the old you. You’re now on the Big Stage. You’re the father.
For the rest of time, when your grown child tells a girlfriend or friend or therapist “Well, growing up with my dad was sometimes…” or “My father and I, we were always…” or “When I was a kid my dad used to…” That’s YOU.
For better or for worse, my kids are going to be talking about me long after I am gone. What they think of me is both in, and out of, my control.
And that revelation leads to this conviction: I simply don’t often think abuot how monumental my actions are in shaping my kids.
I try to be a good dad, and Lord knows I love my kids like crazy. But I rarely consider what kinds of memories and impressions I am making on them. I rarely think about how my actions are going to define what Being a Father is for them, or how for my daughter it affects Her Relationship with Men or how my son is developing his ideas about What It is to Be a Good Husband.
This was something I learned:
In the developing world, aid organizations tend to work with mothers rather than fathers. That’s because while fathers are the head of the household and the decision makers, their commitment to family and community is, let’s say, simply less steadfast, statistically, than that of mothers. Mothers, on the other hand, will almost invariably ensure aid is passed on to their children and the community.
This isn’t limited to the developing world. Fathers in this country can be awful. Which is why every one of us has a completely different paradigm in mind when it comes to fatherhood. How often have you had that conversation with somebody about their father, and thought “My father was nothing like that….”
Fatherhood, I think, is made up of all those small moments. How I listen to my kids, and how I get frustrated or angry (because I do sometimes) and how I apologize and how I discipline and how I treat their mom and how much I am willing to validate their feelings and get down on their level to see what matters to them instead of what I think should matter to them.
But there are also the single moments that sustain us, all the way up through adulthood.
I have in my mind the snapshots of my father playing soccer with me in the yard or going to the beach in the west of Ireland where we would be thrown about by the waves of the North Atlantic or him taking me and my friends to the Intrepid museum in New York City. (My father is in the photo, to my right, left side of the photo. Liz’s dad is on my left.)
I think I remember those things about my dad not because they were great memories, though they were, but because it sticks out now as something that was purposeful and mindful and a moment when he was conscious of how I would experience the relationship between a father and son.
I recognize when I’m doing that. And I recognize that I don’t do it enough. This isn’t to shame my behavior but to remind myself of the impact I have on them, in the large things and the small.
(I have a good friend who struggles with the idea of God for this very reason, by the way. Because he had a distant and often verbally abusive father. And here we are, in our church community, talking about how God is our father. But to my friend, that’s not some warm vision of love and care but rather something to be feared and something from which to hide. That is a heck of a thing to try to overcome.)
My kids see me as flawed sometimes and heroic other times. They think I know everything, and they think I understand nothing. I want to be human to them, but that only works if I continuously acknowledge my faults and sins and shortcomings, if I continue to apologize and forgive and discipline without anger. I’m the most human when I love them and the most loving when I am human. And I want to do better.
Which brings me to…
The Top Five Mistakes I Make that My Children Have Helpfully Pointed Out to Me.
1. Almost messing up Pajama Day.
A while back I received an email from their school that there would be Pajama Day on Friday. I wrote to a teacher and asked if kids had to come in their PJs. Because if you told me I had to come to work in my PJs? I would be mortified. The teacher wrote back, in a gentle but firm tone, that she was pretty sure the kids would be over the moon for it. I checked with the kids and told them they didn’t have to wear PJs and they looked at me like I’d told them they were no longer obligated to celebrate their birthdays.
2. Not acting cool at a pizza party.
I was taking Finn and three friends out for his eighth birthday a year ago. The day before he asked me – and he prefaced this question by telling me how much he loved me – whether I could act a bit “cooler” with his friends. Because I’m a pretty goofy guy. So we role-played. Instead of going “Kids! Pizza! Whoop!” I tried out lines like “Hey guys. We’re gonna grab pizza. That cool?” and I kind of mumbled it and my eyes had that lazy look to them like I didn’t even care. Finn breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s perfect, dad. Thank you so much.”
3. Magic Donkey and the Lava.
I used to simply carry Lucy to bed. And one night she told me that just being carried to bed probably needed a little more story telling. When I asked for clarification, she suggested that maybe she needed to be carried to bed because she couldn’t step on the lava, and that it would be better if I wasn’t her dad but instead some kind of magic donkey who could walk on lava. Which meant I should probably be down on all fours and she could ride my back, if that was okay. (It was okay, of course. It also inspired one of many songs in the Grennan Family songbook, sung to the tune of “Fly me to the moon,” that went “Ma-gic Don-key…will carry you o-ver the la-va.”
4. Buying Clothes that Are Absurdly Too Small for Them
Somewhere between my house and the store where I go clothes shopping for the kids, I completely forget what they look like and what age they are. I get to the store to shop for my seven year old daughter and I find myself browsing the footie pajamas for nine month old babies, confident that they will be a perfect fit. It means a lot of returns. It also means that Liz handles that duty way more often than I do.
5. Not Doing the Voices.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to take over reading duties from your wife. It doesn’t go well. Liz reads them the entire series of Harry Potter, which is about six hundred thousand pages long, and she does different voices for every character. And the one night she’s not here and I take over and they’re all like “Who’s that supposed to be?” and I’m like “Hagrid” and they’re like “That’s not Hagrid” and I’m like “You want me to read or not?” and they’re like “When’s mom coming home?”
If I am forgiving, then I have to believe that they will be forgiving too. Which is good, because I think I’m going to need it.