Happy father’s day!
In honor of father’s day, Nurse Judy has invited me pen this week’s column and share some of my thoughts about why I have, and you the dad can have, the absolutely greatest relationship with your kids through all stages of their lives. I believe that inherently, mothers are more nurturing, protective, overtly emotional, physical, and “maternal” in their instincts, beliefs and behaviors towards their children. But from the moment I first saw Lauren, a day that all who know me recognize as the most impactful day of my life, I knew I was going to give Nurse Judy a run for the money. I, like many of my generation, had an ok relationship with my parents. But it was not the one I wanted with my kids, and that became immediately obvious that day Lauren was born.
I have been called a lot of things over the years. I am frequently referred to as Mr. Nurse Judy. After years of taking our golden retriever to the park up the hill in the afternoon when the local elementary school let out, I became known to a few generations of kindergarteners and first graders as Java’s daddy. I was known as a business executive. But the grandest name I treasure is that of daddy (or father or papa bear or…) Why? Because after building a relationship with Lauren for 28 years, and with Alana for 25 years, I continue to have new and grand experiences with them, experiences that are direct descendants of the beliefs I had in raising them. And now I have a daughter who jumped at the opportunity to go on a daddy/daughter cross country road trip when she left for grad school, where we got to eat yellow (yes, there’s a story there) in Indiana, and simply cross a bridge into Kansas, make a U-turn, leave and say “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And I have a daughter who is still my roller coaster buddy every August, and is accompanying me on what may be the stupidest thing I ever try – climbing Kilimanjaro. So how did I get here?
First of my early parenting philosophies was simply make time. I’m not talking about the “I’ll play with you when I get home and I’ll read you a bedtime book” type of time. I’m talking about the “take a morning off to hear your 2nd grader say one line in a play; use vacation days to chaperone school outings; play Barbie for hours on end; and supervise a cabin full of 5th grade boys on the school trip” kind of time. A typical dad probably spends more time away from their child than the mom. So take advantage of the time that you can have! As soon as my kids came home from the hospital, I never missed an opportunity to be with them. Each night, when an infant would wake up and cry, I went in. It was pickup and delivery to Judy to nurse them. Judy thinks I was doing this for her but she was just a benefactor. I picked them up, sang softly or told stories to them as I cleaned them up, and then brought them to our room. And then back to their cribs. Every night. We built up quite the relationship. Bath time? That was mine too. Nightly bedtime ritual? Well we both had one. But much of my daughters’ love for the great rock and roll of my youth comes from that time we spent every night. As they became toddlers, every weekend I took them to Miz Brown’s diner in Laurel Village. So Judy could get more sleep? Hmm, ok, but not really. It was completely selfish on my part. Want more time? Be the home that welcomes the gathering of the friends. While perhaps not directly involved in your child’s life at that moment, the benefits are extraordinary in what you get to witness, the welcoming environment you’re modeling for your kids, and the lifetime of relationships with your childrens’ friends, who consider you an extra dad.
Next on my list of dad-parenting beliefs is “don’t look for a reason to say yes; assume that’s the answer, and instead force yourself to look for a reason to say no.” It’s simple but at least for me, it was initially uncomfortable and unnatural. But once I grew comfortable with this practice, it was an epiphany! Saying yes to as much as you can say yes to, is so much easier than saying no. And it has such wonderful benefits. Questioning, exploring, learning, experiencing…and you get to be a cool dad! Talking about going on a family camping trip when you’re asked if they can try camping in the house? Say yes, and set up the tent in the living room, light the fire, roast marshmallows, and sleep in sleeping bags. We can all think of valid reasons not to do this and I’m certain my instinctual reaction was “too much time; too much effort, and then I have to clean it all up and put it away.” But saying no wasn’t going to lead to the magnificent shared family memory we now have 20+ years later, and I certainly don’t remember anything about setting it all up or taking it down. “Dad, can I help?” Of course there are reasons to say no; it will certainly take more time. And you may have to watch your language. Unless it’s urgent, so what? Invite your 3-year-old to crawl under the car with you. Rub some dirt on their nose to make it official! And let them help! “Can I go someplace?”; “can someone sleep over?” Yes. And yes. Unless something is a threat to their health and well-being, be quick with the yes! Might some of these yeses have less than ideal implications to you and your free time? Probably, but that’s not what you’re going to remember! Only after saying yes can you then figure out if there is a “no” reason significant enough to change your mind. The more you say yes, the more they will ask you. As school children. As teenagers. And now as adults.
You will recognize my last pearl of wisdom as a modification of the Peter Pan syndrome. Let them be kids as long as possible! While it may be cliché, as we all know and live every day, once that’s gone, it’s gone forever, and I know that I, and maybe you, wish you could get it back! So don’t take it away from them. Don’t be in such a hurry to “help” them see things as you see them, through adult eyes and perceptions. They are emotionally, physically, and intellectually naïve – it's a wonderful time so don’t rush to take that away from them. In fact, for a truly wonderful relationship, force yourself to see the world as they do! That’s why I once found a pet/fish store open till so I could go out and replace the fish that had died when Lauren was asleep (and yes, I brought the dead fish with me to try to get a match!) Of course she would have to learn to deal with the death of a beloved pet, and eventually beloved humans. But she didn’t have to learn about it that day, and it let her be a kid a little bit longer.
In the summer of 1988, my family of 3 (Lauren was 1) was invited to a swimming party at the home of my then senior VP. He had 4 adult daughters. While everyone was subtly vying for his attention, I spent the greater part of the day with Lauren in the pool. Late in the afternoon, the VP’s wife found me and pulled me aside to tell me that her husband had spent much of the day watching us play in the pool. Why? As she explained, he had been the wonderful corporate soldier. Moved all around the country when he was asked to. Frequently travelling. Successfully moved up to senior VP of one of the world’s largest companies. And she told me that if he had to do it all again, he would rather have spent the time in the pool with his daughters, because now he was here, envying me and the relationship I was already building with my child. Over the course of my career, I was often asked to make those same sacrifices, but by then I had already learned my golden rule – I worked to live; not lived to work. And while I had a satisfying and rewarding career, I never reached for those corporate stars that were dangled in front of me. Because one day I was hoping that I would have the type of relationship with my children that allows me to eat yellow with one of them, and climb a mountain with the other.