I have three. I share them with my wife. They are between 26 and 31 years old. Geographically, they live upstairs and in the guest room 1,444 miles due south. They are of course my sons. I know them well. They are beautiful and smart like me, and small like their mother. Which doesn’t mean their mother isn’t smart. She kills me at Scrabble.
Now that my boys are men, I have begun to carefully examine my success or failure as a parent based on their success or failure as adults. As an evaluation, I use two methods of analysis. First, I will compare my parenting to how my father raised me. Then I’ll look at my position as a hungry young man climbing the nonprofit ranks and compare that to my boys’ current positions in life.
Let’s start with dad. He wasn’t the nicest person you’ve ever met. I have no doubt he loved his children, but he was a student of my lane or the highway, that’s how he was a parent. He got angry quickly and he hit even faster. Being with him was an uncomfortable experience. Therefore, he motivated me to get out of the house and never want to come back. On this singular point he had great success.
Being a parent is hard work and I did my best to fight against my genetic predisposition. I also made a concerted effort to be kind to my children. Nevertheless, I am willing to confess that I have hit each of my boys at least once in their life. Don’t ask me why because I don’t remember. Neither do they (I asked). And yes, I feel bad knowing that I caused physical pain to my children. It’s hard to raise three kids, let alone three spirited boys. That’s not an excuse. It’s just a fact. We all do things we regret.
Luckily, the impact of my sons hitting was minor. None of them seem traumatized by the experience and, unlike me, none were in a rush to leave the house. Long after college and well into my twenties, my dream of an empty nest remained elusive. Son number three said it well when he said, “Dad, you made it too comfortable for us.” And that’s when my wife and I decided to sell the New Jersey house and move to the Berkshires.
Reaction training has been my mantra. When my dad said black, I said white. As a result, (and despite the angry moments mentioned above), I was too nice, too kind, and too generous to the three boys. In doing so, I told myself that I was a good father. I have never set high expectations for my sons because I have never had very high expectations for myself. Be happy. To be in a good health. Find a job you love and earn enough money to live and retire comfortably. If I could do it, so could they.
Have they? May be. Type of. Kind of. They are still young.
The problem is my boys want to be happy now – not tomorrow, not next year, not 10 years from now. They want the perfect job that feeds their need for fulfillment and meaning, and they saw in me a role model who was successful, loved his work, and had the respect and admiration of his peers. What they didn’t see, however, were the miserable 20 years that led to my overnight success. They saw a fully evolved professional and missed the two decades of character building in which uncertainty, fear and nausea were regular visitors to my stomach and head.
Right now, the number one son is closest to self-realization. Five months ago he got a great job at a great company and seems happier than he has ever been. To his credit, he’s been through more than his share of character-building moments.
Son number two is furthest from independence. Yet, despite my lamentations, he is writing a soon-to-be-published book, running several Facebook pages that have garnered him great recognition, and, with his son number three, running a small business that restores old photographs and digitizes old videos. If you’re interested, check out Reiss restorations.
Son number three is on point. He has a job he loves but it’s far from his dream. Her dream is to never have a boss and always be financially secure. As far as I know, he has yet to have that defining moment that will set him on the path to success. He will be. Everyone does it. On a positive note, he gets a master’s degree and is getting married next month to a wonderful young woman.
I remember a conversation between my wife and her grandmother just before our wedding. My wife had just obtained her doctorate in psychology. Grandma said, “Who does he work for? What does he do ? Are you sure?”
I am sure that my children will be fine despite my unequal parenting. There is enough courage among them three to make it happen. And if things get tough, I promise I won’t hit them. I’m going to give him a hug instead because it’s the opposite of what my father would have done. I never got a doctorate, but I learned my lessons well.
Richard Reiss is the author of “Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir”. He lives in Canaan, NY, with his wife Paula. He can be contacted at [email protected]