Life would be way better if I scored the winning touchdown in the All-City High School Football Championship. Yeah right. Recall one thing, Al Bundy scored four touchdowns in the All-City game, and we all saw how his life turned out.
A friend of mine wants his kids to know the “real him.” The part of Dad that they never saw as they grew up. He wants his kids to see that “Dad” is not just Dad. He was an aspiring pro athlete, a naturally talented race car driver, a musician, and a writer. He was more.
It’s natural, I think. To want your children to know you as an actual person, not just the person who raised them. We want to be more than the loving face that wiped noses, bought ice cream cones, and pretended cartoon-themed Ban-Aides had healing powers. It’s a mistake, however, to believe that they’d appreciate you more if you could convince them of the hero you could’ve been instead of the hero you already are to them.
Some of us were blessed with natural abilities or adventure-laden lives. That may seem exciting and worth coveting, but neither of those attributes makes you a good person or a good parent. And that gets lost in our internal parental battle of self-doubt versus self-righteousness (be honest, we’re all guilty of it).
Why do you get to decide for your kid what is hero-worthy? Maybe your ability to pull off a dad bod and flawlessly deliver dad-joke punchlines is everything they need to make their soul content. No, really, couldn’t that be true? Please?
I’ll use a personal example. My grandfather, my Dad’s Dad, lived a fascinating life. Born in Italy, his mother died during (or close after childbirth), and he came to the US on a boat, by himself, before his 13th birthday to reconnect with his father. He dropped out of school in either the 8th or 9th grade (family lore is inconsistent) and worked the rest of his life. He was a dishwasher. A waiter. A cook. A cook who bought the restaurant.
In a severe East Coast cultural no-no for the time, his 100% stalky Italian ass married a full-blooded Irish gal. They moved out West and raised a family. And he worked up the ladder, any ladder he could find. Eventually, being one of the top car salesmen in the Bay Area at the time, he bought his own car dealership in California’s Central Valley. Then he bought another. He retired as a millionaire. Not bad for a guy who got in fistfights every day at school because he couldn’t speak English.
As a kid, it was a lot to admire. He had flashy cars, blingy jewelry, multiple houses, and stories. So many stories. He traveled the world. He was “successful.” He took a special liking to me. We went on long drives, and he talked to me. About succeeding in the cutthroat world of business. About having a woman who will push you and not hold you back in life. He talked about how you stand on principle and how you can get even with someone who wrongs you and remain classy.
He spoke to me. He believed in me. I miss him, and I cherish those memories every single day. Truly. You would think that he would be my hero. You’d be wrong.
There comes a time in every parent-child relationship when the child takes over the parent role–even if it’s just for a phone call or a Christmas dinner at your home. I remember mine. It was a late night, after 11:30 PM. My Dad called me. Dad only called to check how the car was running or to tell us if someone was in the hospital. Dad was never awake after 9 PM. No, this was bad.
He was having a hard time. A momentary crisis of confidence in a tough job market. He likely wondered, “does it really matter if I’m here or not?” We’ve all been there. I have, for sure. I was fairly certain he was in the club that felt my grandfather was my hero; I set him straight.
I read him the list of achievements above, then told him, “so what?” “You, Dad, you are your sons’ hero. Rags to riches is entertaining, but you taught us how to work and how to work hard. You taught us how to be there and be present when your family members are in crisis. You taught us that no matter what part of our world is coming down around us, you get out of bed and make something happen.
I remember that night clearly. Sitting on my front stoop, I told him, “don’t be fucking stupid; you are our hero. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t push further. We never spoke of the conversation again (typical men). I feel grateful I had the chance to tell him that.
That memory of me on my porch, cordless phone tucked between my head and shoulder with the antenna sticking out (remember those?), immediately flashed in my brain when my friend told me he wanted his now-adult kids to know the “real him.”
I’m pretty sure they know the real him. They saw the long hours he worked to build his own business from scratch, a business he now runs with one of his kids. They saw him, sick and tired to the bone, go to a little league game or piano recital. They saw the love in his eyes when they accomplished a life goal and the disappointment or pain when they came up short. They saw, because he was there.
Maybe they should know that he gave up a potential career in sports as a young man to care for his younger siblings. Or that his other passions got put on hold because life happens, and sometimes that’s just what’s needed to be done. But he’s not less because of those choices. He’s more.
You can’t sell enough records or hit enough home runs to equal the everyday acts of heroism demonstrated by loving your children unconditionally and selflessly and by just being there.
It’s a lesson for all of us. Whenever we feel we do not measure up in our children’s eyes or when we think how much our lives could’ve been, if only…Stop it. You don’t get to choose why your kids love you or look up to you. Let them know the person you are, the hero you are to them now, not who you could’ve been as seen through a prism wearing the rosiest pair of glasses ever created.
And if they don’t like you, fuck ‘em. They’re all assholes anyway. Just ask Al Bundy.