Monday, June 20, 2005

Reflections on Fatherhood

Most people live among several subcultures: where we work, where we live, where we socialize, where we play, etc. (and god save us from those who don't). In my work subculture, it's fairly common for people to wait until their mid- or late- thirties to get married or become parents; it's also common for people to never get married and never become parents. So, although i would have been considered a very old first-time father (i was 30) by the standards of the community that i grew up in, i'm still something of an aberration within the community in which i work (probably in more ways than one, but here i mean because i'm a parent of 11 and 8 year old sons). So, as the wise old man of this particular subculture, i've been asked on a few occasions if i think that parenthood is a requirement for fulfillment in life. My answer, which might surprise you, is no.

My children are by far the most important thing in my life; and i love my sons, as most good parents love their children, with an intensity that borders on the pathological. I can't imagine life without either of them. I don't know if you can call this a purpose in life, but it certainly gives life more meaning for me. But the terrible secret of being a parent is that the joy you derive from having kids has a fairly significant price. That price, to put it simply, is the end of your own life. I don't mean that your children will sneak into your bedroom some night and snuff you out with a pillow (necessarily). It's just that you have to subjugate your own desires to those of your kids for a fairly long period of time.

Most parents do this willingly, and accept the consequences to career, freedom, social life, etc. A certain percentage do not (most are probably men). Not surprisingly, it's often the older parents who have the greatest difficulty. If you've been doing things your own way for 40 years, it's very hard to change. And, yes, i've personally seen this happen more than once. It's not that hard to understand. Everything that makes having children wonderful and worthwhile can also seem like a crushing responsibility because of the drastic change it causes to your life.

But i know many women and men who i'm sure would have been great parents who chose not to be. Frequently i've become envious of people i know in this category. They often have had significant career and financial success, but more relevant to me is the freedom they have to travel and to alter their own lives to find new experiences or meet new goals. I don't regard these people as selfish because of their choices; in fact it's my experience that my good friends of this type are extremely generous, and are often the sort of creative, high-energy people that draw other people to them. Most of the people i'm thinking of are entrepreneurs or educators.

I know enough people who've been successful at both aspects of life that i can't regard a happy family life and personal success as mutually exclusive. But i think that fulfillment in life can't be reduced to a list of experiences that you have to check off. I doubt that it can be reduced to anything: there is no formula because there is no simple answer. Every path you take in life requires you to skip at least one other path; and if you're an intelligent, compassionate person you'll always wonder about the path not taken. For me though, fatherhood reduces whatever doubts i might have. If i weren't a father, i wouldn't get to read things like the following, which my younger son Henry wrote in my father's day card:

Dear Dad,
I love you more than anything in the universe. Except mom. I love you the same.

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