A wise young man once said:
”You need a license to drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish, but they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”
Heard that kid ended up in the matrix and hasn’t been heard from since.
I bought a badminton set this past weekend, hoping to set up the net and enjoy the last bit of summer weather with my youngest child and his friends. Upon returning home I eagerly opened the rectangular box and watched, in horror, as out tumbled a cornucopia of plastic poles, hooks, fasteners and bundled twine. My lawn was peppered with a mess of indecipherable pieces, some looking like IUDs and others like the makings of an IED. Standing there in shock, I reached down into the darkened depths of the cardboard pandora’s box and wedged into the bottom seam was a folded sheet: ”Simple Instructions For Use.”
Two and a half decades ago I sat in awe as a kind, smiling obstetrician plucked my first child from within my beautiful bride. Her body was trembling and cold from the anesthesia, I was similarly vibrating and frozen on the inside. This amazing, blessed gift had just arrived and the two of us stared at each other with utter disbelief. Like a tsunami heading towards us from the horizon, our unified dread rolled at us. We had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. The most important addition to our young lives, the most expensive and expansive accessory we’ll ever have – and, yet, it didn’t come with an instruction manual.
No two people could have ever been more clueless about what to do or how to be parents. We were two deer caught in a blinding, collective headlight. We both came from broken homes, carrying the well-worn baggage of watching our families fall apart and our lives with it. How were we ever going to parent this new life without a rule book, without a Wikipedia on Mom and Dad do’s and don’ts rolling around in our noggins?
And so the journey began.
We sought advice from friends, parents, grandparents and anyone willing to talk to us. We made tons of mistakes, hoping just to be lucky enough not to repeat them. On an ordinary Friday morning, soon after my first child came home, I found myself sitting with my favorite octogenarian at our local deli. My grandfather ordered cinnamon toast and black coffee. For the better part of my life to that point, he had been a central male role model in my life; I wanted, no needed, his advice on being a parent.
The Obi-Wan of my galaxy rarely had to search for an answer. Yet, this one gave him pause. He took off his glasses and wiped them on the folded white paper napkin with the word STAGE imprinted in blue.
Here’s what I can tell you. Be consistent and get on the same page with your wife. Kids are smarter than you can possibly imagine, but they want their parents to protect them from a scary and complicated world. The better you get at setting boundaries and sticking to them, I think the more your child will feel secure and happy. I don’t really know much more.
Which brings me to the purpose of this introductory essay.
I was struggling with writing a memoir. For inspiration and mentorship I took a break and read a handful of award-winning reminiscences; one of which was WILD by Cheryl Strayed (much better book than movie.) The prose that spilled from those pages were like kindling for a fire within me to keep writing. Inspired, I looked to see what else the talented Ms. Strayed had penned. I happened upon her collection of Advice Essays she had written under the nom-de-blog, Sugar. The book, TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS (go out right now and order it), was a raw, candid, very personal examination of life, love, and loss—all through the prism of answering the ”Dear Sugar” column on a writer-centric website.
I cherished every essay, every story, every powerful, thoughtful morsel of advice; parceling out pages one by one over several months.
This set me on a quest to find similar books for padres. Maybe, in the quarter-of-a-century since I welcomed my first kid onto this big blue marble, someone had finally written that elusive Dad Handbook—a collection of tiny, beautiful pearls of paternal wisdom. To my surprise, there aren’t any, unless you consider Being a Great Dad For Dummies to be the Holy Grail for fatherhood. (And, yes, that’s a real book.)
So here I am, offering up my quarter century of life experience as a Dad to three kids, two out of college and successfully on their own. I’ve coached their Little League games, flag football teams, and Rec League hoops. I’ve been Room Parent and Grade Rep. I’ve done endless Field Trips, college roadies, club sports and sleepovers; confronted an ADHD diagnosis, taken asthma trips to the ER and played nursemaid to broken bones of every variety.
There have been late night tears, early morning fears and life-long struggles to battle. Lots of mistakes have been made along the way and lots of memories. So, perhaps, for a dad starting out, reaching a vexing problem for the first time, struggling with choices with no discernible right track or just needing confirmation that it’s just as hard as it seems—I can be that older brother who’s been through it all. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone is enough to give you the confidence to keep going.
For those wondering … Still married (to the Mom of the kids). Run a small business for past thirty years—and have found a way to solve the work vs. children conundrum. In my fifties.
As I reach the end of my days of having a child living under my roof —entering a new phase of fatherhood—here’s what I know for certain: It’s so damn worth it. All the effort, all the encouraging and lessons, all the sleepless nights – from when their infants to becoming teen drivers—all the failures and successes—it’s the stuff that makes life worth living.
Ok. There it is. Let’s do this thing. Together we can create the Dad Handbook.
You got questions – I (hopefully) got answers.
• Team sports?
• Sex? Drugs? Rock n ’Roll?
• College prep?
• Making time for kids?
• All of the above and whatever else is on your mind.
Send your Question to: Ask Gil Buckman and look for your answers in an upcoming column.
Onward Fellow Fathers.
Photo: Getty Images