Editor’s note: Part One is here.
When my older son was ten, he worried a lot about whether he would have enough time with me. One day, he started crying while he was listening to Harry Chapin’s song, “Cats in the Cradle”, which captured his fears that we were not physically present in the same space to build the strong father-son connections we both wanted. At the time, I was flying around the country during the week, trying to provide for my family, praying that weekends filled with “quality time” would make up the difference. Clearly, it was not enough. Hearing a warning signal, I chose to dial my schedule back, spend more time working from home, and resolved to connect wherever I was, whenever he and his little brother were available, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to do so.
Seventeen years later, “Cat’s in the Cradle” is still pounding through my brain, as my wife, our younger son, and I are getting ready to see him off to business school. My heart quakes with the question of whether the relationships we’ve built will remain strong. I am optimistic, because of the significant investment in being present day-to-day that we’ve made with each other, learning how to connect even when we are apart. Through this daily exercise, we have developed the physical, mental and emotional fitness necessary to tackle the first of many big decisions that he and his brother will inevitably encounter in life related to careers, life partners, health challenges. Our investment has already started to pay dividends as we go through this transition.
The myth of quality time and the consequences of not being present daily with our families was first driven home to me when I was my sons’ ages. Because my father and I disagreed on many things as I entered adulthood, and we were both ambitiously pursuing our dreams, we never invested the time required to develop the interpersonal tools to resolve our conflicts. As I entered high school and then went off to college, we grew distant.
That was a huge problem when I returned home to write the Great American Novel while working a day job. My dad was disappointed that I had not chosen a more financially secure path, but he recognized I was pursuing a career that was important to me and was thrilled to be earning a paycheck. It was a start. Thrust together for a year without the tools to interact in a positive way, we battled mightily, but I believe that he came to appreciate how deeply I wanted to pursue a career in the creative arts.
When my first book failed to secure a publisher, he asked me to move to California to help him open up an office for his growing fund-raising business for non-profits, where I could continue to practice my craft as a (paid) writer, while I also tried to land a job. During our year together in LA, without my mom to intermediate, we had no choice but to attempt the hard work of building the day-to-day relationship that we had for so long neglected, while I struggled to further define my life’s purpose.
We continued not to see eye to eye on many things, but we did find that when we put our differences aside, we enjoyed each other’s company. At the end of the year, I took off for NYC in hot pursuit of my plans to become an advertising exec, with my dad’s tacit approval and support. I was now the one sacrificing our newfound connection, just like in the song that had upset my older son.
In later years, when I was between jobs and looking for work, my father-in-law stepped in, making countless hours available to help me figure out how to navigate various career shifts, as I was now firmly rooted on the East Coast, and my father was physically 1,750 miles away.
Through these interactions and a lot of struggles on my own, I have begun to appreciate how important it is to strengthen our interpersonal muscles, developing the physique that is required to engage in the healthy debates that are necessary for personal growth, with a heart full of love and compassion, and a mind filled with respect—and a deep appreciation for each individual’s innate, practical wisdom. These capacities are not the result of “quality time” moments, however memorable and necessary those events are. They are the outcome of the consistent, diligent, daily application of the minds and hearts that have been engaged in solving problems.
I feel grateful that I have had two strong, male family guides (in addition to my wife, my mom, and many mentors) in my lifetime. This experience makes it possible for me to try to be the very best sounding board I can to my own two sons, as they navigate the mysteries of life in their early twenties, and together we face the next chapters of growth and loss.
My current experience with our older son illustrates the importance of making the investment in being present. It has not been easy for him, either. Despite an outstanding track record of success, and much hard work on his part trying to forge an initial career path, the doors he would have liked to see open haven’t provided the passageway that he had hoped. Like me, he’s struggled to find his way. I’ve tried my best to listen, stand in his shoes, wrestle with the stream of data that the universe has given him to guide him on his path. There have been many heated debates, emboldened by hearts that have been conditioned through the daily training program of love. I am proud, so proud of the man he has become. I am certain that none of this would have been possible if I had not decided to spend much more time at home.
In a couple of weeks, I will help him move to school. We will pack up a U-Haul and drive ten hours into his future. I will, I’m sure, dissolve in tears when I leave him. I will not, however, listen to Harry Chapin’s “Cat in The Cradle” anymore. The cycles of love between father and son have repeated themselves with such penetrating force in my life, that its lyrics are now indelibly recorded on the soundtrack of my soul, an endless loop on auto-repeat. My heart cannot contain the pain and joy of its message. I am too deeply moved by the timeless cycles of life, and the power of grace, sweeping through me.
How can parents meet the challenge and be more present with their children?
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