Editor’s note: This post has been revised to correct the attribution of the song “Cat’s in the Cradle” to its author, Harry Chapin.
One gloriously sunny Saturday morning, I found our older son hunched over the rail of our back porch, sobbing. At ten and already a big music fan, he was listening to Cat Stevens’s rendition of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in a Cradle”, its lyrics highlighting the cycles of life that can challenge a father’s and son’s connection.
Alarmed, I crouched down and pulled him to me. “What’s wrong?”
He threw his arms around my shoulders and hugged me tightly. He could barely get the words out. “I’m… so worried…”
“About what?” About death? I wondered – a conversation I dreaded having with him.
“I’m worried that we are not going to have enough time…”
I froze as he hit that line drive to my solar plexus. Harry Chapin’s words “and we’ll have a good time then, son” reverberated on the speakers and in my brain, words that had broken my heart, too, when I was around his age.
“I will always be here for you,” I said. “I swear we will have plenty of time.” Then I shoved a glove in his hand and tossed him a ball
This was not one of the many false truths we sometimes tell our children, but an emanation from my wounded heart. I had already made a series of career decisions that would enable me to be more involved in my sons’ lives, but I knew that in this moment I was agreeing to something more. I had agreed to step up to an even bolder model of parenting, one that my father had implemented and then abandoned when I was a young boy, having set an example that was hard for even him to follow.
The problem is that we come from a very long line of hard-charging men who sacrifice everything to achieve their definition of success. However wonderful that outcome can be financially for our families, as dads, emotionally, we still sometimes get a zero. Accomplished, fine, upstanding members of the community, we can be busy, absent or tyrannical in the home.
I never knew my paternal grandfather, for instance, because his drive to make money was coupled with a refusal to pay federal income taxes. When my father was thirteen, he had to borrow money from all the local farmers in town to post bail for my grandmother, after my grandfather fled to Canada. My dad, determined to regain his footing and recover from the humiliation, proceeded to sacrifice his personal dream of becoming a doctor when I unexpectedly arrived, but never gave up the goal of reacquiring the financial security that he briefly knew as a child.
I remember him vividly as a young father. He was extraordinarily energetic and playful, working several jobs simultaneously to make ends meet as a high school science teacher: driving school buses, painting barns in the summer, teaching night courses at the community college. Somehow he was always home for dinner, often tickling, wrestling, and doing “gymnastics” with us before bed. (My mother was not amused). He got by on little sleep.
Unfortunately, as my brothers, sister, and I got older, we were able to interact less with him daily, as his responsibilities at work increased, and his focus shifted from supporting the family and building a nest egg for retirement, to accumulating wealth and personal recognition. I was disappointed to have to share him, but I was very proud of him as my father, and vaguely understood that he had personal needs, too.
I was about 10 myself when my family first subscribed to the myth that quality time heals the wounds inflicted by not being present as a father or mother, that we can make up for all the time that we are not available in children’s daily lives by creating focused moments of connection with them through “quality” activities.
Like all myths, it does have a bit of truth. Guys express their love through action or symbolic gestures more than words. In the moments when we are highly engaged in movement or activity, there can often be a powerful connection, an expression of love, a glimmer of authenticity.
However, quality time is not a surrogate for day-to-day parenting. I think my father understood that, too.
My parents were extremely busy most evenings with work-related commitments. As a compensatory strategy for not being present, they introduced the notion of quality time — moments when we would all be together, for dinner (once a week), some weekends (at a nearby cabin on a lake), and road tripping across the nation. These moments were great when we really made an effort to connect. As my parents’ relationship unraveled, they became less and less so.
As an adolescent, I was constantly in motion with my dad on the weekend, cutting wood, weeding the beds, running errands, going to the hardware store, working on projects. Plain and simple, I had become an extra hand to help him get our family chores done, an unpaid employee of Grayson, Inc. helping to rebuild the family fortune. I loved being with him, but mentally, emotionally he was not available, as he was now juggling a lot. I craved more connection during these moments.
During the week, we had almost no contact, as he was busy earning a living. He was so much more needed by his students, many of whom came from broken homes, that sometimes it felt as though interacting with his own children was another job, an afterthought. He helped us with our math and science homework. To help make ends meet, my mom had entered the workforce, as a middle school teacher, who then became school head. Though she too was super busy, too, she helped us with our other studies, and did the laundry, cooked, kept up the house.
So when I swore an oath to my son that we would have plenty of time, I had committed to an epic test. It would not be enough to provide for my family. It would not be sufficient to build a lifetime of memories with my wife and our boys on long family vacations and weekend getaways. I was going to be present, and available, on my son’s terms, not mine, whenever he needed me, day-to-day, in the moment.
That was particularly challenging, as I was commuting to Chapel Hill every week from Connecticut, launching a national non-profit start-up to help kids with learning disabilities. As hard as it was, the experience actually taught me how to compartmentalize my life and be extremely disciplined and efficient about how I use my time. It also taught us all the need to become better communicators. We talked by phone every morning and every evening, no matter where I was. In some ways, this practice, this shared understanding that we would communicate every day was better than being present in the house but not talking, as some families do. We did homework on the phone. I taught them algebra, remotely. I worked with them on their essays, faxing and emailing documents back and forth.
While we have also been blessed to be able to spend a lot of quality time together, I am willing to bet that the moments that they boys most value is the minutes, hours, days that we have spent together grappling with the challenges unfolding in our daily lives. That’s where the action is. That’s where we build relationships. That’s where we find love. And it’s all free.
Four years ago, I was blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was given the chance to rewrite my history with my dad, whom I had disappointed years ago by not being the man that he had wished I (or perhaps he) would become, studying to be an engineer or going pre-med. So forty years after I left Austin for college, although it didn’t make a ton of sense, my business partner and I decided to take on a project in Texas, not far from where my father now lives. It was of great interest to state leaders and my dad. Over the ensuing forty-two months of struggling day after day to achieve a shared vision what a practical, real-world, 21st Century education for middle and high school students could be, my father and I have finally begun to understand and appreciate each other for the unique men that we are. We’ve spent a ton of lost time together working out the daily challenges of our lives.
We have discovered that we share some of the same DNA, however differently we express it. Though the project ultimately failed to be the success that either one of us had hoped, it matters little, because we finally learned the fine art of being present with and for each other.
It is now my dream that my sons—and an entire generation of men and women—find a better balance between the needs of their families, the object of their ambitions, and the desires of their heart. Thankfully, there are many families who have figured this out and can serve as models so we can all finally learn how to be present.
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