So two of my favorite human beings decided to make a podcast. Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama host Renegades: Born In The USA, available wherever you find your podcasts. If you don't happen to be one of those "pod people," let me assure you that you get a heaping helping of conventional wisdom from these two gentlemen, who just happen to be very good friends.
Okay, end of advertisement. The reason for the mention was that on a recent episode this unlikely pair met at another interesting crossroad: Fatherhood. They discussed their challenges finding their way in that strange void where no one had given them an easy to follow diagram. Both men had distant and challenging relationships with their own fathers, and the way was never clear. I benefitted greatly from a map supplied by my own father, with whom I shared a sometimes tricky but loving relationship. I feel as though I would still have appreciated a little more guidance, but the circumstances of my son's birth were such that my dad was gone before I became a dad. So I started off imagining that I would simply follow the path plowed by my father as I started on my own journey, a generation later.
Unfortunately, I didn't spend a lot of time talking with my dad about how he wrangled that nearly instantaneous change from husband to father. Though I was sure that bringing another life into the world that I could help support and nurture was something for which I was on the cusp of being capable, I had no idea what skills I would actively need. Another neat coincidence in my life was that I had plunged into a new career and bought a house at virtually the same moment that my son arrived on the scene. The only good change is a sea change.
In my mind, I felt I was setting up as the helpmate, the Late Night Guy. I could see the mother of my child struggling, so I chose to fill in whenever I could sense her powers lagging. I chose a support role, and that seemed to be right, even if at times I had no idea what I was doing. Hindsight suggests that I probably would have had more success if I hadn't been hanging around waiting for my wife to tell me how to help. I took such pride in being the person who changed my son's first diaper, it didn't occur to me that there would be thousands more in that first year. Assembling the Tomy tractor on his first birthday, I finally felt like I had arrived at my station: Put-together guy.
Looking back on that first year, I recall those late night strolls around the house with my son in my arms. Swaddled in a blanket, I held him close and played the home version of Goodnight Moon. I was anxious to impress upon him just how asleep the rest of the world was, and how it would be a really great idea for him to follow suit. Sometimes he would not be convinced. Sometimes his mother would come to the rescue for a late-night drive. Twenty-three years later, she and my son still enjoy the open road, together and apart.
I stayed home and looked for things to put together. I have built my share of Hot Wheels garages and supervised many Lego assemblages. I pushed my son around the neighborhood in a jogging stroller until he was old enough to tell me to knock it off. Some of his first words. I rushed his first Lionel train set once I was convinced of his love for locomotives. I put that together too. I was looking for that bonding moment that would make me feel as though I had stuck the Fatherhood landing.
Turns out I was looking in the wrong places. It wasn't the toys. It wasn't the torturous games of catch. It was in the laughter we shared. From the pull-off-the-blanket-peekaboo to the Looney Toons on Saturday morning. And the movies. All those movies. Walks in the park, up the street or in Anaheim. Carrying him until I couldn't anymore. We have yet to laugh until we couldn't anymore. Twenty-three years into the game, I'm starting to catch on. Being a father is being there. As much as you can.
The mother of Bruce Springsteen's children gave him some advice. She said that their kids were at their most gorgeous in the morning, they were most alive. She suggested that he didn't want to miss it. I got a similar suggestion from my wife. She wasn't wrong. Thank goodness fathers have mothers to clue them in on the parenthood gig.