Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” came out in 1974. I know because I looked it up before I wrote this. With Father’s Day approaching I was thinking about my relationship with my dad, and sons’ relationships with their fathers in general, and as it often does, that song crept into my head.
I was four in 1974, so the song must have lingered on the radio waves for quite a while because I wouldn’t have remembered it as a four year old. For anyone not familiar with the song, essentially it boils down to this: the first half of the song talks about a son who is trying to get his father’s attention. He tells him he wants to be just like him, asks him to play ball, wants his love. And the father is too busy working and fends him off with vague promises to play later. Always later. The second half of the song talks about the father’s attempts to get the son (now older) to spend time with him but the son has graduated from college and doesn’t have time. Then again the father wants to visit with his son, but he’s too busy with his own sick children and work and the father realizes that the boy has, as promised, turned out just like him.
That song had the power to make me well up with tears then, and it still does to this day. And here’s the kicker…it has nothing to do with my life or my relationship with my father. Because my dad was always there. But imagining losing that relationship? Imagining my father saying he was too busy to play catch with me? Imagining me telling my father I was too busy for him? Putting myself and my father in the song and imagining it was us? Heart breaking.
But I’ll come back to that.
There are so many things that my father has taught me about being a father, but I think he would find it ironic that some of the most amazing things he taught me weren’t things he really even necessarily knew, or was aware he was ‘teaching’.
He taught me it was okay to leave your comfort zone to teach your kids. My father taught me how to dribble and shoot a basketball. He didn’t play basketball himself. But he knew I wanted to. So he taught me how. He put a hoop out on the old barn behind our house and we’d shoot baskets together, although I lacked the strength to shoot it all the way up there unless it was “granny style”. When he would make a basket, it looked like the most effortless thing. Like probably there was no better basketball player around than my dad. I remember trying teach Emma, my oldest, how to ride a bike. I kept thinking…”How did dad teach me?” Somehow he’d managed, but I just could not crack the code. Where’s the instruction manual for teaching kids to ride bikes? In the end Emma taught herself. Well, I didn’t say he taught me how to teach my kids to ride bikes, I just said he taught me to leave my comfort zone.
My father taught me how to love babies. Oh, my own children did their share of teaching too, but going into fatherhood I looked on having children as just something you do when you get married. If it happens that’s fine, but if not…that’s fine too. Dad was the only man I ever knew who would stand in line with the moms when a mother was newly pregnant for a chance to hold their baby. It was a point of pride for him to make the baby smile and coo and laugh, and I think if the new moms would have let him, he’d have just kept their babies. That sounds creepy, but I swear it was super sweet. My dad came from a larger family, three boys and two girls, and seeing my dad holding his grand kids when they were born was very much like watching my grandfather hold court in his house for picnics and barbecues…his children’s children weaving in and out of his feet, a beer in his hand, smiling as if he was the luckiest man on earth. As I was searching for pictures to post with this, I came across a photograph of my dad holding some random baby. It made me laugh because I’d already written this, but try as I might I couldn’t figure out who the baby was, and why he would have been holding it, except his own enjoyment of entertaining them.
My dad taught me how to be a good husband to the mother of his kids. He showed me that cooking, doing dishes and laundry weren’t “girl jobs”, they were just jobs, and that splitting the work didn’t mean he worked his job and mom worked at home (because she had a job too), it meant that when he cooked my mom cleaned and when she cooked, he did, a true partnership. That partnership seems rare, and my willingness to help pick out curtains or do dishes or change diapers prompts envy from my wife’s married friends, but it’s just how I learned from my father that it was supposed to work.
He taught me that being a part of your kids’ lives doesn’t end when they graduate and go off to college. When I found my first job as a Chemical Engineering graduate, it took me away from Montana, the only place I’d ever lived. It was exciting for me. I loved spreading my wings and living alone. It wasn’t until I got married and had kids and realized that my children would never get to know my parents the way I knew them that I was actually sorry for having left it behind. The thought of annual visits back home where my parents would be an uncomfortable pair of strangers to my daughters broke my heart. But then my sister and her husband moved out to Pittsburgh for a job too, their kids in tow, and with all of their children and children’s children growing up in Pittsburgh, my parents moved as well, because they couldn’t accept the idea that they wouldn’t see their grandchildren grow up.
The lesson my dad is currently teaching me is how to be a grandfather, how to step in and offer help when it’s needed and diplomatically skip back to avoid stepping on his daughter-in-law’s (and prickly son’s) toes. He’s taught my oldest to fish, and acts as human jungle gym, punching bag and stress ball to my youngest, as no doubt I will when my time comes.
I’ve always said that the more you’re around your kids, the less you can stand being away from them, and the more you’re away, the easier it becomes to stay away. Fathers teach their sons how to treat their future wives and how to raise their future kids. Fathers teach their daughters what they should expect from boyfriends or future husbands, and how involved he should be in helping raise their children. In “Cat’s in the Cradle” the boy’s father is never around. He teaches his son that lesson and feels the effects it has on their own relationship too late. The most important lesson my father taught me, that the boy in the song never experienced, is to be there for your family. He always has been for us, and for me, and I always will be for my children, just as I was taught.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.