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An Ode To Fatherhood

R. Michael Cassidy: Sending your last child off to college is a privilege and a joy. But it has also left me choking back a lump in my throat all spring, as we participate in a series of “lasts.” (Sevidiana Wahidiah/flickr)
R. Michael Cassidy: Sending your last child off to college is a privilege and a joy. But it has also left me choking back a lump in my throat all spring, as we participate in a series of “lasts.” (Sevidiana Wahidiah/flickr)
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When my sons were younger, I used to long for a respite from the frenetic pace of parenting. If they had ever asked what I wanted for Father’s Day (they never did — I always got a necktie) I would have begged for the opportunity to sleep late, to read the Sunday paper from cover to cover, or to spend an afternoon playing golf. Those were unheard of luxuries at that point in my life.

My days of juggling athletic practices, school projects, camping trips, music lessons and the myriad other activities that make up the daily lives of today’s over-scheduled parents are about to come to an end. In two months, my wife and I will send our youngest son off to college. I should be celebrating this Father’s Day, but instead, I find myself wistful and nostalgic. I want to slow down time, but it is far too late. The clock is about to chime midnight.

My dad was a terrific guy, but he was not very involved in the daily lives of his children. And I think he was robbed.

Dads today have assumed the mantle of fatherhood with radically different expectations about the nature of their roles. My father did not experience the joys of organizing youth sports, chaperoning a school dance or teaching Sunday school. He certainly did not suffer the nightly frustration of what my wife and I have fondly dubbed “the homework wars.” And I am willing to bet that he never got out of bed in the middle of the night to put in a load of laundry so that his son could have his lucky pair of socks for an important baseball game. Societal norms in the 1960s and 70s did not exert much influence on fathers to perform nurturing roles, and my own father was no exception. He worked a lot, disciplined us when necessary, took us to church, mowed the lawn and taught us to ride a bike and throw a baseball. My dad was a terrific guy, but he was not very involved in the daily lives of his children. And I think he was robbed.

Being actively present for both the milestones and the more mundane moments of my children's upbringing has been a profound source of joy for me (even if, to be honest, I didn’t always recognize it at the time). Drawing the line between being an involved parent and an over-involved parent can be difficult these days. Children need to learn to handle autonomy, to make responsible choices, and to rebound from setbacks. So-called "helicopter" parenting can be an obstacle to that process of maturation. Only time will tell whether I have navigated this fine line any more successfully than the generation of fathers that preceded me, which took a far more "hands-off" approach to parenting.

The author and his youngest son, Jack. (Courtesy)
The author and his youngest son, Jack. (Courtesy)

When my oldest son turned one, I started a family tradition that has continued to this day. On each of my children’s birthdays, I write them a letter recounting the noteworthy events of the prior year, my personal observations about their development, and my hopes for them in the future. I seal each of these annual letters in an envelope and tuck them away in a secret place known only to my wife and me. When I began this tradition, my plan was to present each of my kids at their high school graduation with a book of “Letters from Dad” that would be a history of their childhoods. Having just finished writing my last birthday letter, I realize that I wrote these missives as much for myself as I did for them. Twenty years from now, my sons will likely have fathered children of their own. If they become the sort of men I hope we have raised, they will be far too busy with their own parenting responsibilities to reminisce about mine.

Sending your last child off to college is a privilege and a joy. But it has also left me choking back a lump in my throat all spring, as we participate in a series of “lasts.” When being a father has been one of the central and defining roles of your life, the prospect of filling that void seems more than a little bit daunting.

So, this Father’s Day, I will not rest. I will run from sporting contest to graduation event to the local home improvement store. I will collapse exhausted at 10:00 pm, without having done a single thing just for me. Yet I intend to enjoy every minute of it. There will be plenty of time to relax next autumn, as my wife and I wander around an uncluttered, peaceful and all too empty house.


related:

R. Michael Cassidy Cognoscenti contributor
R. Michael Cassidy is a law professor at Boston College who teaches and writes in the areas of criminal law, evidence, and legal ethics

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