What is our natural role as parents?
Out in Montana I rode my horse Mags through a grassy field at 7,000 feet. I was looking at the mountains and almost missed a baby elk, no more than a day old. He was curled up in a ball like a house cat, only about a foot-and-a-half long.
The calf’s mom had left him hidden in the grass, while she went foraging for food.
The next day, Mags and I came upon a yearling bull moose and then a mating pair of sand hill cranes. We backed away from the moose because he was determined to stand his ground. The cranes followed us, squawking loudly because we invaded their territory.
But in recollecting our week in Montana, it’s the baby elk that I keep thinking about. It had black markings on its ears and a square face, distinguishing it from a deer. It looked helpless, but also so peaceful.
My own kids are well more than a day old. They’re 17,15 and six, but I still find myself watching them sleep. My little one still curls up on his side and places his hands in prayer position under his cheek.
I really do try to be a good dad, but there are times I snap when I should be more patient. There are times I need to forage for food rather than protect my young. They too are left alone in a field of grass, completely helpless, but completely peaceful.
I wonder if part of the problem with 21st-century parenting is that we think too much about it. The endless magazines, blogs, and support groups. They are all fine, of course, but it’s the doing that counts—the ability to reach back to a parental intuition you can’t find in any book.
That baby elk reminded me how little I control in the stream of life, especially when it comes to my kids. Maybe having been divorced when my two older kids were still very young was good training in the art of letting go as a parent. Dropping your babies off at someone else’s house and walking away goes against every instinct in the human psyche. But over time the reality of controlling only a portion of your kids’ existence, instilling values that you hope will carry over to the rest of their lives, turns out to be good training. Unconditional love never dies, it turns out, even when your kids are somewhere else.
The greatest gift I have been given as a dad is the chance to witness my children’s innocence. In a world filled with complexity, there’s nothing so simple, so pure, as a sleeping child.