A friend is going through a really rough time. He just committed his adult son to rehab because of a recently discovered drug issue following a series of misadventures that include a car accident. His wife is angry with him as she struggles to find her own truths about how to help their son. My friend also happens to be a recovering alcoholic who has spent most of his adult life trying to put his love of the bottle behind him so it doesn’t ruin the life he’s built.
The question he wrestles with is this: How much responsibility does he have for getting his son back on a healthy and sustainable path? When do the obligations we as parents have to help our children become healthy, well-adjusted and productive adults expire?
When do the kids take over responsibility for their own lives?
As a father who has messed up more than a few times with my own children, including my oldest teen-age daughter who no longer speaks to me, I have immense compassion for my friend as he tries to solve his dilemma: In one sense, he’s a Dad who loves his son and feels an obligation to help him. In another way, he also knows his son is a now man/boy who needs to be responsible for his own life if he wants to grow. In other words, he’s screwed either way.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says to me. “I feel like I can’t afford to make a mistake.”
“Don’t look at me, I have no experience with drugs,” I say to deflect. “And, I’ve made tons of mistakes with my own kids. I’m no expert.”
I’m no expert.
I remember when my two older daughters were still very young, one was still in a high chair, and I was an actor portraying a father rather than a real dad. I was so scared of making a mistake that would totally ruin the future of my precious little girls.
The question, “How come, Daddy?” used to throw me into conniptions. What if I gave them a bullshit answer because I didn’t know the answer and years later they called me out? What if I was totally wrong?
A thousand years ago when I envisioned some sort of life as a writer I wrote this (It’s a little ironic that it’s so appropriate now):
“How come, Daddy?”
The littlest one fidgets in her high chair, rubbing the jelly off the bread and peanut butter, and then inserts her entire finger into her small mouth, which this day, like other days, is awash with the morning’s foods: cheddar cheese from the scrambled eggs, crumbs from the toast, and smears of vanilla yogurt, her favorite.
She likes to repeat what my oldest daughter has just said, saying it often enough that the words take on a life of their own. They float here in the dining room, with the vines painted on the stucco-colored walls and the French doors. The morning sun exposes the smudges from little fingers in the doors’ panes of glass that the cleaning potion missed but which I notice only now. “Daddy, how come?” intones the older one. Though only four, she already appears way too grown up. I wonder if she might just skip portions of her childhood, leap-frog over entire years so that in no time she will be a young woman with little time for her old man.
While my daughters eat they are watching a Disney movie. It’s not something my wife likes me to do, let them watch TV and eat at the same time, but their chairs have perfect lines of sight to the enormous electronic baby sitter inside the armoire. Meanwhile I am looking for a five-letter word for “Madras money.” My attentions run between the newspaper, opened fully across the dining room table to the crossword puzzle that confounds me with its checkerboard riddles, and the kitchen sink, laden with crusty dishes from the night before demanding soap and some scrubbing. Everywhere but my two little girls.
But my distractions don’t matter to them. They are oblivious to my crossword puzzle conundrum. I have learned that “How come?” knows no boundaries of time or place or even the proper rules of engagement. I might go for the easy way out: Sometimes the girls ask and I filch answers out of thin air while I continue to devote attention to my distractions.
My little girls do not realize how double-edged their questions have become. When they ask “How come?” I face an opportunity to bolster their knowledge and reward their curiosity. But each “How come?” is also an opportunity to fail, to disappoint, to let them down because they will discover I am an impostor, a mere mortal, a faker posing as a father, someone only portraying the Supreme Being who knows all the answers.
I probably badgered my parents with bucketfuls of “How come?” I know this is the province of every Mom and Dad. So, as the volume and frequency of their questions rise to glass-shattering levels, I finally turn away from my crossword or turn off the radio or stop doing the dishes and I listen to them.
I get down off my chair and face them, these little packages of a thousand questions. All of a sudden, sitting on the wood floor, its gouges and wear a reminder of other parents and their children, and looking into their eyes, I forget the dangers of not appearing to know everything. They teach me to see a much less complicated place. The how comes so prominent in my daughters’ lexicons are chances to see the world from three feet tall.
All of a sudden, it is I who learn something from their take on the world, a view not yet tainted by the “important concerns” of our adult world; an outlook unblemished by the hundreds of credit card offers for zero interest that come in the mail everyday, or the images cast by teen idols decked out in tight, strategically torn jeans and equally planned tank tops in TV commercials for soft drinks, or the ecstasy promised from driving the newest leather-interiored, gas-guzzling, road-hogging SUV to the mall.
My children teach me that it is we adults who routinely twist things into Gordian knots, who shrink from saying what we really think—or even try not to think what we think we should not. It is in a How come? that I can find table-turning education at the hands of daughters and then I have the privilege of understanding them—and life—better.
As they await my answers I think that I spend too much time in the adult world worrying about adult things. About pleasing bosses and customers or how I can HBO without paying for it, or whether I will ever see the Detroit Tigers win a pennant. I’m lucky I don’t play golf or I would have even more to fret about.
Once they asked what had become of our two cats, Tigger and Roo. They hadn’t said anything before about why Tigger and Roo weren’t sitting in the windowsills or on lying on the couch anymore. I explained that cats sometimes just get sick and they die.
“How come, Daddy?”
“Well, just like when you great-grandmother Mimo got sick. She died too.”
“Are you going to die, Daddy?”
“Yes, honey, one day I will die.”
As I wipe breakfast from the little one’s face and she and her bigger sister, satisfied for now at the answers the impostor has offered, turn back to their Disney movie, I understand how this time is a precious, short-lived way station. My two little girls will grow up all too soon, the make-believe and the music of their childhood faded into memories.
And they won’t need me so much because they will discover their own answers. I will be left here in the dining room with the echoes of “How come, Daddy?” And, hopefully, once in a while, they will find that their Dad was really was not such an impostor after all.
I pulled up the essay from more than 10 years ago reinforce my point about both the timeliness of our roles as parents and the limits of our responsibility to get our kids to adulthood. I struggle with both of these ideas everyday.
I miss the days when my daughters adored me unquestionably and needed me. At the same time, it’s extremely cool to see them grow into the little women they are today.
Everything has both pain and joy. I know my friend is wrestling with questions that have no perfect answers. Just like we all do.
When something is missing in your life, it usually turns out to be someone.
My ex has a big sign up high on the wall in her kitchen. “Life is all about plan B.” I don’t know whom she is quoting. And I have the impression she doesn’t really believe in anything resembling Plan B. But it has been all Plan B since our divorce almost three years ago.
I have been thinking about Plan B a lot recently. Plan B’s are the ugly step-children of Plan A’s. They only exist because of all the Plan A’s that have gone awry. I find myself working down the alphabet of Plans with my oldest daughter Paige, who hasn’t spoken to me hardly at all the past year. One of my most important relationships is in such a bad state I have had to completely reframe my hopes and expectations.
It’s not all due to the fact that she is about to turn 15 either. Some of her angst/doubt/separation expressed as anger (toward mostly me) is as they say a natural expression of what it means to be a teen-ager. But that’s like saying that some of GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s gaffes on the campaign trail are simply due to his being rich. My oldest daughter’s anger is of course tied to all the things that teen-agers normally have to deal with. Much more of it I fear has to due with me.
This is not exactly how I pictured things, even after her mom and I divorced. I mistakenly thought that expressing my love for her and her sisters often and sincerely would give comfort and assurance despite the fracturing of the family they knew and wanted. It’s not how it has turned out. A little over a year and a half after the divorce in what had up to then seemed a smooth transition for Paige, she blew up at my fiance and I and stormed into a cold February night. The language she used toward us didn’t come from the tiny baby I first carried into our home in Ann Arbor in 1997 either. I remember thinking as she raged and I dodged the fists she swung at me that there seemed little left of the adorable little girl who smelled like baby powder and loved to sit in my lap.
I tried to remain calm even as I felt the delicate bricks in the foundation of our relationship crumble beneath me. The one or two moments where it appeared we might be back on a path toward rekindling our connection since have vanished like a scented candle whiffed out by a sudden breeze.
Accepting the idea that my vision for a tight, connected and relatively normal relationship with each of my daughters–the same one I pictured before the divorce–is no longer possible doesn’t come easily. And holding so tightly as I have to that vision causes problems for both myself and my daughters. The Buddhist in me knows that all things are in transition at all times. Nothing is permanent. Yet don’t we as parents hold on dearly to the hope that our little girls and boys will still love us and need us when they grow up? Don’t we yearn for their adoration throughout their lives? In fact, don’t we want our very relationships with them to remain basically the same no matter what?
I have had to completely reframe my relationship with Paige. No longer are we talking and joking around. I could no more put my arms around my little girl-cum teen-aged woman than I could grasp exactly what happened between us. She and I are traveling on our own roads and right now in completely different directions.
The deterioration in our relationship has cast both our futures in to new territories where the old hallmarks of our father-daughter relationship no longer apply.
And that I think is the key to understanding and, ultimately, being satisfied in life. All of our relationships, even those we covet the most, are always in transition. It is the process of nurturing them, coaxing them along to be what we want them to be that is at the core of our mission. We have to realize that our relationships are always in process, always shifting. Sometimes they will feel like shit and not be at all what we want. We may even have to jettison some relationships like my friend Abby did in order to survive.
I adore Paige and I miss her greatly. I realize that only one of us right now wants to be in this relationship. So I will wait and hope that her path crosses mine again sometime soon. And I will realize that whatever happens, relationships change.