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No Longer All-Knowing Dad

"I ponder the inevitable evolution of a father in his children’s eyes, from a hero with the power to solve all problems to a human being whose foibles are fodder for their witticisms."

I begin to write this as Father’s Day 2011 comes to an end. It was a really nice day for me. My children were all at our home for a wonderful dinner. My gifts were great. But as the day draws to a close, I can’t help thinking about how much Father’s Day has changed over the years, just as fatherhood itself has changed.

My kids, you see, aren’t kids anymore. They’re all adults in their 20s. Instead of running around underfoot while I barbecue our Father’s Day dinner, they assume control of the grill that used to be my exclusive domain. Gone are the days of wolfing down a meal during the brief time all three of them could sit still in their chairs; instead, we enjoy a leisurely dinner full of good conversation and laughter. And they actually keep my gifts a surprise until I open them -- something they could never accomplish as children.

My kids are also much harder to impress than they used to be. When they were little, they thought their father was practically infallible. I could answer any question they asked, and even if the answer was totally made up -- which it often was -- they accepted it at face value.

Any problem they had, I could solve.

But this Father’s Day culminates a year in which I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that the tables are turning. I am increasingly impressed by my children’s accomplishments and personal qualities. I’m just as likely to ask for their help or advice as they are to ask for mine. And I often have the gnawing feeling that my children are just humoring me.

Among other things, this was the year I ceased being an elected public official and my eldest, James, became one upon his election as state representative. I am, of course, immensely proud of him. But it felt strange when James returned from a trip very late the night before Father’s Day, barely in time to join us for the holiday. He wasn’t on just any trip. He had gone to meet the president. Of the United States. It was oddly disorienting to wonder whether my son would return from his meeting with the Father-in-Chief at the White House in time to be at my house for Father’s Day.

It’s the natural order of things for children to surpass their fathers. It’s what we want, what we work for, as parents: to have our children become more than we are. But it’s still a little unnerving when it happens. I’ve seen it coming for a while, but the pace has accelerated since James’ election last February. People have been anxious to talk to him for all sorts of reasons relating to his job -- much more anxious than they are to talk to me.

I still have my moments, though, or so I like to believe. Recently I entered Town Hall and saw an old friend, himself a public official, at the other end of the hall. He waved and called out, “Mike, you’re just the guy I want to see. I have to talk to you.” The spring was back in my step as I strode down the hallway to learn the vital way my services were needed. When I reached the official, though, his question did little for my ego.

“Can you give me your son James’ cell phone number? I need to talk to him about something.”

And it’s not just James who’s passing me by. My son Mark started a new, very responsible job at the Yale School of Medicine this past year. He has quickly become indispensable. During a recent trip we took to Chicago, Mark received numerous emails and voice messages on his smart phone from people at work who needed his input and couldn’t wait for his return to the office. Normally I hate to be interrupted by work matters when I’m off on a trip, but I found myself secretly hoping for some job-related phone calls myself, just so Mark would know that I was needed, too.

Thanks to his new job, Mark owns a car that’s nicer than any I’ve ever had. When we go somewhere together I silently hope he’ll offer to drive so that I will get to ride in it. Of course, gas prices being what they are, the offer usually doesn’t come. Mark is no dummy, and he knows that if he waits me out the old fatherly instinct to drive the family everywhere will kick in. The fact that I’m paying for the gas, however, does not prevent Mark from pointing out that we would have arrived at our destination sooner if he had driven.

Mark has also surpassed me in the game of golf, which like many fathers I taught my children when they were young. Now Mark is bigger, stronger and a better golfer than I. The clincher came when he started taking golf lessons. It took one session for Mark to rid himself of the bad habits and incorrect techniques I had taught him. He magnanimously shares the tips he learns in his lessons, as he takes over the role of family golf instructor and does it better than I ever did. Once in a while, by luck or by guile, or with the help of one of his pointers, I can still beat Mark. But he and I both know that my remaining victories over him are numbered.

And then there’s my youngest, my daughter Katy, the true scholar of the family. The aforementioned Chicago trip was for the purpose of attending the University of Chicago graduation ceremonies at which Katy received her master's diploma. Katy’s academic record is impeccable, and she’s a skilled writer. Even though it’s unnecessary, she still likes to have her parents critique her papers before she submits them to her professors.

My wife, Jackie, an English teacher at East Haven High School, is usually Katy’s go-to person for final review of her writing. But Katy’s very last paper before graduation was about a political science topic. Since political science was, as best I can recall, my major in college, Katy thought I should be the one to review this particular paper.

So I did, and I gave Katy my honest opinion that the paper was terrific. What I didn’t tell her was that my opinion was based strictly on those limited portions of the paper that weren’t completely over my head. Of course, I suggested a few perfunctory changes here and there, probably more for the sake of my ego than the quality of the paper. The suggestions must not have been ridiculous since Katy used them. She proceeded to earn the same excellent grade that she would have gotten without any help from me.

Katy also has a playfully biting sense of humor that she’s not afraid to use on anyone, including -- or maybe especially -- me. Fair payback, I figure, for all the teasing I gave my kids as they grew up. Her clever remarks produce mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love her jokes and the way we laugh together when she makes them. On the other hand, they are another example of the changing of the guard, as the former teaser becomes the teased.

But then mixed emotions are the order of this Father’s Day. I think wistfully about how it seems such a short time ago that the three grown adults standing before me were little children. I ponder the inevitable evolution of a father in his children’s eyes, from a hero with the power to solve all problems to a human being whose foibles are fodder for their witticisms.

But I couldn’t be prouder of the people they have become. After years of worrying whether we were doing the right things for our children, maybe Jackie and I haven’t botched the whole parenting thing too badly after all.

And now when my children do ask for my advice, I know that it’s because they value my opinion, not just because I’m their dad. When they send me an unsolicited text message about something they’re doing, it means they want to share their activities even though they have become immune to parental interrogation. And when they ask me to go golfing or out to lunch, it’s comforting to think that it might be because they actually want to spend some time with me, not just because I’m their ride.

My job description as a father, like that of all fathers, has changed over time. But it’s still the best job I ever had.

Beth June 24, 2011 at 11:09 PM
What a nice article. Congratulations to you and your wife on your parental achievements (x 3)!!
Sam Giglio June 25, 2011 at 02:51 AM
Very nice Mike. You have such a great Family.

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