I’m resigned for a while to a new distance with my son. In my memory he is pre-computer, consumed with books, baseball, and building forts. He couldn't walk past the piano without playing it. That’s the old him. Now he lives for the short bursts of screen time we allow him. (As I type this, he's watching a movie on the iPad and playing a video game; the screen-time loophole being that it doesn’t prohibit multiple screens.) Now, it's not just my time and attention that's shredded. At the end of the day his backpack disgorges spiral notebooks and folders and forms that need signing. Managing that pile occupies him right up until bedtime.
He is receding. He is still sweet, clever, and kind, but that impossibly large body I stand over while he sleeps is a different busier kid. This is natural of course, but in my reaction to it, I’m flirting with becoming that tiresome guy you meet at weddings. He’s the guy that goes on about how quickly children grow up. No couple with kids is safe from his instruction: Cherish every moment with your children.
This lament is natural, but not helpful because, unless you are a total brute, the sense of loss is inevitable, no matter what kind of parent you are. If you neglect your kids, you look up and they have grown and you've missed it. If you are fully present in their lives, then when they’ve grown you lament the hole they’ve left in your life. Either way, you've done your job and now they're off backpacking out of cellphone range or making girls with unruly hair laugh in coffee shops.
The answer has to be avoiding the lament and focusing on the product. Try to give your kids the benefit of your experience, love, and discipline—so that they can leave you strong. This also means giving them the example of what it looks like to enjoy your job so much that sometimes it takes you away from them. You hope they’ll have a job like that one day too. There’s got to be a way for the guy at the weddings to say something more like this to new parents. It would be more helpful. Still: I’m pretty much that guy.
While my son is becoming more independent, his younger sister is drawing closer. With my son, I am a mix between 1950s dad—demanding, strict and prideful—and the more modern one. We talk about feelings and motivations in a way that would force some men to talk about football and power tools just to cleanse the palate. With my daughter, there was once too much of the 1950s father-daughter relationship. I was adored but held at a distance. She turned to her mother first. But now, because I have been gone, I am fresh audience at the end of the night. She's been having a hard time adjusting to her new school. She misses her old friends. Recess is hell. At bedtime, I stand at the rail of her bunk bed under the stars on her ceiling made by her nightlight. We go over the hill and through the dale talking about fear and taking risks and doing what you love and not what other people want you to do and what makes people happy.
Her mother used to be the shoehorn into new experiences, but the long talks have changed my role. So despite the fact that my wife is a much better skater, I take my daughter out onto the ice for the first time. I try to link it to one of those conversations about trying new things. “I think this is a metaphor," she cracks. Once we get going, she’s irritated that she’s not immediately awesome. She falls a lot and gets frustrated, but she powers through. In the end, she's looping the rink, thrilled. She wants to go again tomorrow. She wants to take lessons. She's making plans and drawing conclusions. "It's easier to learn if you haven't learned before," she says.
Wise, grasshopper. It’s true of parenting too. So I’m trying to be alive to the child of the moment and not bound by my previous view of who they were. I discover, for example, that my son has learned to banter, a key life skill. During a conversation in which I’m trying to gently put a name to the pompous behavior of a person we both know, he gets it immediately. “Nice to meet you,” he says holding out his hand. “I’m very fascinating.” At work I get a text: “Hi Dad. I got the text to work. I made an ID and am testing to see if it works.” Me: “How did you get around the age requirement?” Him: “It’s me, from 1988.” Me: “I’ve lost you to the dark side.” Him: “I’m an old man now.”
Sometimes both the old and new show up at the same time which is what happens when my son insists that we stop at the same burger place we do every Christmas break. It’s just the two of us—and a couple of red mesh plastic baskets—behaving like Bart Simpson. He tries to steal the change in a way he knows will get him caught. He hides my drink. We play rock-paper-scissors to pick who has to get up and get some napkins. (When he loses he wants to play two out of three.) There was no great weight in our lunch except that unrestrained 10-year-old joy and laughter is so pure it’s amazing they didn’t make cave paintings about it. For a minute I’m 10 again too and I have the coolest walk.
Re-entry mostly teaches you what you already knew about parenting but forget every day because you're greedy. Connecting with kids is like trying to connect with the Wi-Fi on the Amtrak train. The signal is mostly a trickle. Sometimes it doesn’t even exist. You'd like to fix it, but it's not in your control. Their lives are moving along and you’re just a passenger. The best you can hope for is to enjoy the scenery and be ready when the signal gets strong. Then, you can get a pretty good download for a little while until the train moves to a new place.
Two weeks after the election I joined my daughter for a 5K race. I hadn’t run for two years. My feet don’t like it one bit. I also hadn’t worked out in the previous six weeks. I figured my lack of preparation was OK though because I’d seen my daughter run last summer. This was going to be a casual jog and probably some walking. The bell went off and we were clotted behind a bobbing and stationary pack. I looked down to tell her that things would clear up but she was already gone. She’d run off the road and was passing people on the grass. I sprinted to catch up. She never let up this pace. At the finish line I was red faced and regretting every cigarette I’d smoked in college. I asked her if she wanted to hold my hand as we crossed the finish line. She smiled, said no, and sprinted ahead of me. I think this is a metaphor.