Two Decades of Father’s Day

It’s Father’s Day and I’m the first one up. I’m sitting here reflecting on years gone by, and it’s dawning on me that Father’s Day has slowly and subtly changed for me over the years. So if you don’t mind walking with me down memory lane for a few minutes …

Father’s Day … The First Ten Years

My first Father’s Day, June 16, 1996, I brought my exhausted wife and a tiny pink boy home from the hospital. I remember laying his little floppy body into what felt like a ridiculously oversized car seat, pulling the straps over his head as gingerly as I could and snugging them up against his shoulders, then doubting that they could hold him any better than they could hold a blob of Jell-O, finally resorting to packing blankets all the way around him before feeling comfortable that he was safe. Then I got in the driver’s seat, pulled away from the curb as slowly as I could, and took the gentle back streets home from the hospital, scared to damage our little passenger.

As we drove along, I remember my wife and me looking at each other and silently recognizing the same thought played out on each other’s face — we had a baby in the back seat. And he wasn’t going away. This kid’s daily care and fate now rested on our shoulders and our shoulders alone.

The thought was there, but forcing that new reality to sink in was something else entirely. And it wasn’t helped by the whirlwind of emotions we were both struggling against, everything from elation to bewilderment to waves of terror.

A few minutes later I was hauling a baby carrier up three flights of stairs for the first time, easing it through the doorway to our apartment, and outwardly introducing my firstborn son to his new home while inwardly fighting back thoughts of “What next?” and “How can I do this?”

Sometime later that day, Mom and baby went down for a nap in the bedroom and I flopped down on the sofa, exhausted from two days of minimal sleep and high drama. And as I lay there half dozing I slowly woke up to the fact that it was Sunday and then, as my mind started catching up with the world around me, that it was Father’s Day.

Over the next ten years, three more boys would follow.

During these years, Father’s Day came to mean a break. It meant a morning that I didn’t have to change any diapers, wipe any butts, or clean up any breakfast faces. I didn’t have to fetch snacks, wipe up spills, find missing shoes, hunt down favorite toys, or settle arguments. Instead, I got to sit by myself on the porch — removed from the chaos inside — and experience a very, very short moment of total independence and try to reconnect with the Jim I used to know when I was a bachelor.

But as the years marched past, I noticed two things happening. First, the former Jim was growing dimmer and dimmer until, by ten years out, he had faded to a distant memory. Second, I noticed that with each passing year, a larger and larger part of me wanted to get up from the porch and go back into that house, go in and listen to a boy talk about dinosaurs (or the solar system, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Spiderman …). I wanted to spin someone dizzy, or go set up a train track, or make a plastic Godzilla chase someone around. I wanted to get in on the Playmobil action or go back to the swing set where I was hearing boys laughing. I wanted to pick up a football or pull a wagon or sit down at the table and help with that puzzle. In short, while my old bachelor identity was slipping away, a new identity was starting to form around being a Dad. And I loved it.

Father’s Day … The Second Decade

Now I’m at the tail end of the next ten years. Quiet moments on the porch can happen whenever I want. I don’t settle fights, I don’t spend my evenings setting up Lincoln Log towns in the basement, I never step on Legos, I don’t wrestle with four attackers at once or play Chinese Checkers or Nintendo, I don’t read bedtime stories or sing Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats, I don’t tickle-torture any more or spin anyone til they walk like a drunk, I don’t sit in beanbags and watch Scooby Doo, I don’t give rides on shoulders or take boys on errands to get them out of Mom’s hair, I don’t untangle fishing lines or have rock-skipping contests at the lake.

Instead, I spend Father’s Day enjoying life with my boys, just like every other day. These days I proofread papers, I give advice about new jobs, I go to track meets and basketball games and chess tournaments and ballroom competitions. We jump start cars. We talk about how the date went and commiserate about long work days. We gripe about tough homework assignments and celebrate good grades. We make aluminum foundries so some curious guys can dabble in metal casting. We talk about how to install ceiling fans so they won’t wobble (actual conversation last night). We experience the joy of a job well done, whether it’s reaching the end of that fat book or earning an Eagle or tackling that pile of dishes without Mom asking. We discover that Christmas feels amazing when you sneak out before your neighbors wake up and you quietly clear two feet of fresh snow off their driveways. We take treks in the wilderness to learn that the best places in life are all at the top of tough, rocky climbs. And we help each other see that life’s paths are hard enough to travel without heaping a lot of extra weight on our shoulders; but since we can’t always see the baggage we’re picking up along the way, we appreciate the value of watching each other’s backs.

In other words, my identity has shifted again. Instead of playing side by side with my boys, I’m now walking side by side, coaching them as they venture out into the world on their own two legs. They’re developing their own individuality — their own “bachelor identity” — and turning into amazing men who will soon be fully ready to charge out of my house into the world. And they’re as excited about it as I am.

Father’s Day … Years to Come

So to my boys …

I look forward to my next phase of Father’s Day too, when I can have a share in your lives as you bring your new babies home from the hospital and start down the road of losing your bachelor identity to your new role as dads. I can tell you now that you won’t actually lose anything at all. From the moment you load that first fragile baby in the car, you begin a wonderful journey of growth. And I’ll be right there with you, continuing to lend my advice, wisdom, and time, and continuing to enjoy my own journey as it leads me down new roads I have yet to explore.

Parting Thoughts

A couple of interesting studies have come out in the last few weeks. First, the Pew Research Center released a finding that more Millennials 18-34 are living at home with their parents than not. At first blush, this seems tied to the economy. But one analysis shows that over time, the number of young adults living at home hasn’t been affected by either economic growth or decline. It’s more closely tied with a different statistic: marriage. In the 1970s, 49% of those aged 18-34 were married. Today it’s less than 20%.

Let’s pair that finding with another study I just read this morning. Among Millennial men 22-34, the ones with the greatest life satisfaction were the ones with … ready for it? Kids. To me, that’s a big “duh!” But there’s obviously a whole generation that’s struggling to embrace it.

I wish I could take all of those men aside, one by one, throw an arm over their shoulder and say … “My friend, bachelorhood’s fun, but let me tell you where the good life really begins. It all starts with a beautiful wife and terrifying drive home from the hospital …”