Below is a Chapel Talk* I gave a couple of weeks ago now. The tragedy of Newton, CT has hit me harder than any other national news event that I can recall. There’s no doubt in my mind that fatherhood is the reason behind it. President Obama nailed it yesterday when he said that parenthood is like removing your heart from your body and letting it walk around outside of you. My boys are an incredible gift. I’m thankful they’re healthy.
Delivered December 6, 2012 at St. John’s Chapel, Groton School
“So, What’s it like being a dad?”
“It must be cool, you know? Like, that’s your kid and all.”
“Uh, Yeah. It’s cool. I mean big responsibility and all that, but yeah, it’s cool.”
That was a conversation that Ray Dunn and I had just before study hall sometime last year. Short and awkward, that conversation has stuck with me for some time now, and I often find that question floating around in my head. “What’s it like being a dad?”
I’ll be honest. When I signed up to do this Chapel talk, on St. Nicholas’s day (Patron saint of children) I fully intended to do some reflecting, do some writing, arrive here, and share some truly brilliant insight into what it is like being a parent. Give you some pointed, wise, and timeless advice on how some day, you too can be a parent.
Anyone want to take bets on whether or not that’s actually going to happen?
I did do a lot of thinking about this question, and like I said, it still runs through my head from time to time. “What’s it like being a dad?”
Well, for one, being a dad is terrifying.
I have a serious paranoia streak. I’m not like those people on Doomsday Preparers, but I can see how one could get there.
If I let myself, I could wake up every morning and ask myself, “What am I going to do today that is totally going to screw my kid up 20 years from now?” That’s if I let myself.
Not only is the idea of raising this human being that could become the leader of the free world, or a psychotic mass murder, or somewhere in between, terrifying but the entire process leading up to the birth of this child is an experience, that frankly, I don’t want to go through again.
Let me share with you my experience with our first-born, Parker.
We were still living in Vermont at the time and Parker was a week overdue. Maria’s water broke at about midnight on Sunday. As nothing was really happening besides that—no contractions, etc.— we were told to get some rest (right) and come into the hospital at 8 a.m.
We did and as there still wasn’t much going on, they hooked Maria up to an IV and start pumping a drug called pitocin which speeds up the process of all hell breaking loose.
Fast forward to Tuesday at 3 a.m. There’s some contractions going on now. Things are moving, albeit slowly.
8 a.m. Now hard labor is going and Maria is told to start pushing. This goes on for three hours.
Now I should stop here and let you all know that the crazy person that I’m married to has decided to do this without painkillers.
Those three hours were awful. Terrifying. It was three hours of watching the person that I decided to spend the rest of my life with, go through this insufferable amount of pain. And there is nothing I can do. I’m totally useless.
There was one point at which Maria reached over, grabbed me by the love handles, and lifted all 195 pounds of me off of the ground.
All I could think was, “This hurts. But not as much as that.”
At one point, watching this all, completely helpless, in one of many acts of hypocrisy I have committed, I remember praying. Please just let her get through this. Please. I can’t raise this kid by myself.
It’s also hard. Fatherhood is hard. It’s hard because so often, my initial reactions to situations is an emotional one. It’s typically something that I should know how to handle better, but often don’t. These aren’t new lessons for me. In fact they’re ones that I’ve learned years ago, mostly through coaching.
I learned quickly in my coaching career, that I am not Bear Bryant. To start, I coach the wrong sport. But I am not a hard-nosed disciplinarian. I learned that in my first year as a swimming coach after college.
It was just me on the pool deck, and this group of swimmers had totally exhausted any patience that I had left. In attempt to show them how tough I was, I went ballistic. I stopped practice, started yelling, snapped a clipboard, and lined up an innocent pull buoy lying on the deck.
So I lined up this styrofoam football sized buoy one places between one’s legs in order to keep one’s legs afloat while doing pull drills took three steps, and set it flying into the stands of the observation deck.
Unfortunately, the shoe I was wearing followed it.
It is very hard to feel tough wearing clogs. It’s even harder to feel tough when you’re standing on a wet pool deck, with one clog on, one clog off, balancing on one foot so that your sock doesn’t get wet.
That was the first lesson. The second occurred three years later on a pool deck in Florida. I was coaching the college team this time with my former coach and mentor. It was New Year’s Eve Day and it was pretty evident both by the smell in the van on the ride over, and what I was seeing in the pool during warm ups that the team had been out late celebrating the night before.
Coach stopped everyone and I prepared my tough guy assistant coach stance and look. Rather than berate them however, Coach took a totally different approach. Rather focus on how angry he was that they had clearly broken our trust and were thus far putting in a dog bleep practice, he put it back on them. He essentially said that they had let themselves down. The only thing that was going to decide where they went in this practice, season, career, was their actions and their commitment.
I’m not doing a great job of summing this up, but it was one of the greatest teaching moments I’ve ever been a part of. It was like the zen of coaching or something.
It’s a lesson that I’ve found I need reminding of as a parent. It’s hard to remember to stay within yourself when put in a situation like when all you want your kid to do is eat a damn pea.
Instead, you find yourself locked in this battle with this stubborn little 3 year-old who refuses to eat even one pea. 25 minutes into it, you’re stuck at the table wondering “Can I give in? I can’t give in. If I give in to this, I’ll be a total failure as a parent. I can’t give in. ”
30 minutes in you’re asking yourself, “Wait, which one of us is three?”
Then the next thing you know, 45 minutes has gone by, you’re both in tears. No pea has been eaten. There is no winner. No lesson learned. Except a reminder to stay within myself.
Parenting is hard. It’s also the most joyous thing that I have ever done.
I have an unhealthy relationship with a wild piece of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom. In the NEK is a lake called Seymour in a town called Morgan (Emmett’s middle name) and in that town is a house that my grandparents bought in the 50’s and is now owned by the next generation down. It’s a place where I have been going since I was Emmett’s age. In Vermont we call these places camp. I have missed friend’s birthday parties and weddings in order to spend a weekend at camp. I didn’t say it was a healthy relationship.
This summer, Parker and I spent a lot of time up there. Maria too. She likes it. But Parker and I, we love it. Parker loves that place like I love that place. I can see it already.
One weekend we pulled in at around 6 on a Friday. I let Parker out of his car seat and he began running towards the lake, stripping off clothing, yelling “I love camp! I love camp!”
I can’t tell you the feeling of pride and joy that I had. The boy got it.
After a weekend of swimming, fishing, kayaking, peanut butter and fluff sandwiches walks around the mile, wearing little more than underwear (Parker not me) we prepared to leave on Sunday. As we drove away, Parker was in tears. “I don’t want to leave camp!”
I have to admit that I was too.
This is in reality, no big feat. I’m a crier. Ask the boys in my dorm last year or anyone who has seen me in the handshaking line.
I was crying because here is the most special place in my world, a place where I have uncountable numbers of childhood memories. A place that has so many emotions tied to it—for me. Here was this place that I had fallen in love with. And my boy had too. We shared something incredible on that day. Truth be told, I didn’t want to leave either. I wanted that weekend to last forever.
I don’t know how I could possibly forget that moment.
So, despite all of the terror and the stand offs over legumes, being a dad has been a wonderful and fulfilling experience.
I did want to leave you with some original piece of advice for you future parents in the room. Unfortunately I don’t have any. What I do have is some that my uncle gave to me before he passed away when I was the age of many of you of you here.
He said, “Andrew, it doesn’t matter how you raise your kids, what method you use or any of that. All that matters is you love them. And tell them so.”
* Apologies to my wife for sharing her birth story with 400 people without asking her. Apologies to my wife for doing the same thing here.