Thoughts About Fatherhood
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) My son JJ just graduated from Grade 1 and is now home for the summer. I remember being that age, when the two months of summer school holidays stretched out in front of me like a nearly infinite time, and the idea of being able to do all those things that going to school precluded was intoxicating. Of course this was all in the first week, before boredom set in and moping around without direction or goals was all that seemed to be available. I didn’t have the Internet to babysit me for hours at a stretch and video games were still uninvented, but there was TV and there were books; nevertheless, the phrase “I’m bored!” became something of a mantra. Being his age is tough; a year or two more will make a big difference. When he’s just a little older, he’ll be independent enough to gather a group of friends and, as a group, find plenty of trouble to get into. But right now, with me being a single father, we are inseparable and he needs me or, in a pinch, another adult he knows, to be within view, or at least earshot.
JJ, after just one week of summer, has reached the point where he hangs around repeating his bored mantra. It may be even more difficult for him, because all he really grasps about what I do every day is that it doesn’t involve me getting suited up and heading to an office or worksite. As far as he knows, while he’s at school, I do pretty much what he would do, given a lack of direction: spend the day online. Naturally, he fully expected to pull me away from the keyboard so I could spend the extra hours provided by summer vacation with him.
In the first week of the summer, I got him used to the idea that in the time between driving him to school at 7:30 am and meeting him at the school bus stop at 2:10 pm, I actually did stuff. He’s starting to grasp that in that small window, I manage to put out as much as 2500 words of finished copy; research, write, illustrate, and post up to 1500 words for Pagunview.com; do the laundry, dishwashing, meal prep, and housecleaning; and deal with personal correspondence. He is wise enough to begin to grasp that all that stuff needs to get done despite the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer being upon us. Unfortunately, he also seems to think that my schedule should be reflected by him lying on the couch with his concentration fixed on his tablet watching video game reviews by an assortment of social outcasts, for the bulk of the day.
JJ having just recently mastered the art of riding his bicycle without needing a steadying hand, I had assumed that we had created a sure-fire pastime for summer days. I hadn’t realised that my watching him ride is as important as him riding in the first place. Living in a very rural area, the friends he is used to seeing daily are scattered and are mostly miles away; just playing with them requires planning and working out the logistics. I’m tempted to be selfish and get some of his friends’ stay-at-home moms to take him on to hang out with her kids for several days of play dates, but the truth is, I can’t reciprocate and take several, or even one, of their kids and spend the day breaking up fights, keeping them out of danger, and feeding a variety of different tastes and appetites. Well, I probably could, but I just don’t think I’m equipped to handle it with the grace and fortitude I’ve seen their mothers demonstrate. So we struggle along, me encouraging him to do something active, him responding that he needs me to join him in the activity. My work suffers a bit, and I’ve adjusted my routine to work more at night in order to spend more of the day with him.
But the extra time I spend with him has made me think a lot about what I want for him in his life, and about what’s important, and what’s just about me wanting a surrogate. Because I love him with a fierce, profound, intensity – a kind of love that, before being a parent, I had no idea existed and would never have thought myself capable – I want him, above all, to be happy. And because my son is very special in his capacity for empathy, his sensitivity, and his inclination to love others, I worry that the world is going to hurt him. Until now, I have protected him from the sharp corners and sharp elbows that are everywhere in this world. But that time is coming to an end; he needs to be prepared to meet the world on its own terms, a little more each day.
I want, as I said, above all, for JJ to be a happy child, and ultimately an adult with a sense of joy in his life. That’s hard for me to help him with because, as one who has suffered from bipolarity (manic depression) all my life (although only recently conclusively diagnosed and, even more recently, treated and controlled), normal, healthy happiness isn’t something with which I am very familiar. I cannot intuitively relate to the healthy happiness of a well-adjusted child. My memories of my emotional states in childhood are garbled and morbid. But I most certainly know when my little boy is happy or sad or frustrated or angry; and with my relatively newfound emotional equilibrium, I am able to employ parenting strategies that seem to work. They work because JJ and I are so close that we hardly need verbal communication to understand one another.
I’ve given a great deal of thought to how I want JJ to grow up, and to what I’d like him to grow into. I’m not entirely sure of a great many things but there are some absolutes that I consider crucial and which I stress in all our interactions.
Above all, I want JJ to be a good man. I want him to be kind; I want him to consider, in everything he does, the impact his actions will have on others; I want him to be inclusive and accepting of others’ differences; I want him to commit random acts of kindness; I want him to go to bed every night and ask himself whether he has contributed to the net overall happiness in the universe. I want all that for JJ because it is morally the right thing to do; and on a pragmatic level, I know for certain that he will be happier in general if he has a sense that he has done good things rather than bad.
I want JJ to be strong. I want him to know that real strength doesn’t consist in beating or dominating others but in conquering his own inclinations to do harm. I want him to have sufficient self-respect to be able to stand tall and refuse to be dominated by others; I want him to be prepared to be in a minority of one if those around him are wrong.
I want JJ to discover what he is good at and what he is passionate about. I want him to nurture that talent and that passion, and eventually develop a strategy to make a living doing it. But I also want him to be curious, to read or otherwise teach himself about everything that he might find interesting or intriguing; I want him to develop a lifelong habit of looking into things that arouse his interest. I want him to develop critical thinking skills so that he doesn’t fall victim to those who would attempt to persuade him of falsehoods. I want him to recognise that despite his love for humanity, there are people out there who spread lies, who sell hatred and intolerance; I want him to be intellectually and emotionally prepared to reject their views.
I want JJ to be a man of his word; I want him to believe in integrity and honesty in all his relationships from business to romantic. I want him to be loyal to his friends and always live up to his commitments to them. I want him to help his friends, and even strangers, to the very best of his ability and not expect reciprocation. I want him to realise that being in a position to do something kind and helpful for someone is a privilege. I want him to recognise that the smallest gesture or act of kindness can have profound and unforeseen positive consequences.
I want all those things for JJ because I genuinely believe that if he can embrace those things as essential aspects of his adult character, he will be a happier person, a person who will have few regrets and who will be able to look himself in the mirror and be comfortable. I want those things for my son because I don’t believe that human interaction is a zero-sum game. On the contrary; every one of us has the capacity and the power to improve the world in a small way, every day we breathe of the atmosphere we all share.