As I write this article the week after Father’s Day, I’m thinking about a day several years ago when I discovered something important about fatherhood. My now 16-year-old son Will was three, and we’d been playing with his toy dinosaurs on the floor for a few hours. “Son, I’ve got to do some work-work now,” I told him, using Will’s term for my office work. “You play by yourself for a while, okay?”
“Okay, Dad.” Will looked at me with the all-knowing smile of a three-year-old. Without missing a beat he added, “Now, will you play with me some more?”
His answer hit me like a Zen koan, a response intended to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment. Enlightened, I was. It occurred to me in that instant that no matter what I did in my career, no matter what contribution I could make to my profession, nothing would ever be as important as sitting on the floor playing games with my son for as long as he liked.
And that’s what I did. I put off my “work-work,” and stayed in the moment playing dinosaurs with Will. As my wife often tells me, when you’re a parent, it’s not about you. Ever since, I’ve tried to live my wife’s advice, putting more emphasis whenever possible on the family side of the work/family balance.
What followed were long afternoons sitting in the hot sun at baseball games I thought would never end, hours watching lacrosse practices on cold, damp March mornings, and even longer evenings helping with (and stressing over) homework. Weekends where I spent more time chauffeuring than relaxing became the norm. But I never minded. Spending precious moments with my sons meant so much more to me than missed golf outings, extra workouts at the gym, or lazing on the couch watching football games. And work rarely entered the equation, except when it had to. I learned that oft-quoted saw is really true–when you grow old, you’ll never remember those extra hours you spent at the office, but you will remember the extra time spent with your kids.
But this Father’s Day was a first for me. Will was away from home on a high school community service trip, and his younger brother Connor spent the week at a sports camp. Both called or texted me on Father’s Day, but it wasn’t the same as cooking dinner together around the barbecue, enjoying a movie afterwards, or even sitting on the floor like we used to, playing games. And I saw the writing on the wall.
I got a glimpse for the first time of what it will be like to be an empty nester. Connor starts high school this fall, and in two years Will is off to college. If Father’s Day 2015 is any predictor, I’ll be a complete mess, lavishing my pent-up paternal affections on the family dogs. Or maybe not. As usual, my wife’s calming influence and advice have centered me. Don’t forget, it’s not about you. In the past, to be a good father, I needed to be there for my boys no matter how busy or distracted I felt. Now that they’re older, things are shifting. To be a good dad today means giving them less of me, and giving my children more time to explore or find new adventures by themselves. But I’m confident our shared past has shown them I’ll always be here in case they need someone to talk to or guide them. Whether they’ll be home with me for Father’s Day 2016, or for the years after that, I take comfort in knowing that wherever they might be, I’ll always be their dad.