Becoming a dad ruined my life. Now, before you fire up an angry e-mail, delete my blog from your bookmarks, or un-follow me on Twitter, let me offer some context. I’ve been a dad for about five-and-a-half years now, and with this past weekend marking the annual occurrence that is Father’s Day (which I’ve always felt is kind of a “whatever” holiday thrown together so dads wouldn’t feel left out after all the early May Mother’s Day love), I got to thinking about just how wildly off course my life has veered from the professional and personal plans I’d so methodically laid out for myself in the pre-child wilderness of my early twenties.
Getting married altered the trajectory of those plans slightly. Having a kid altered it a bit further. And by time I had three kids, well, the change was irrevocable. It sounds like a cliché, but then clichés are clichés because they’re often couched in truth (which I’m pretty sure is also cliché…). In that sense, it wasn’t just my vision of my life that changed, it was my vision of that vision. That moment when you hold your child in your arms for the first time, all the theoretical “truths” about parenting you’ve stored away, all the “When I have kids, I’m gonna…” goes right out the window.
Suddenly, you’re staring face-to-face at your legacy. The biggest responsibility you’re ever going to have. It doesn’t matter what else you accomplish in your life, what artistic, scholarly, or professional heights you may achieve. The yardstick you’re going to be measured against from now until forever is whether you raised this kid in a way that’s worth a damn. And unlike all our other personal failings or foibles that we can tuck away into a dark corner and hopefully keep away from the public’s wandering gaze, how our kids turn out forever brands the kind of person we are, for good or for ill.That terrified me. It still does.
It terrifies me to watch my boys getting older and beginning their own processes of interacting and engaging with the world. It terrifies me that I’m not able to peer past the mists of time twenty years hence so I can know now what I’ll know then. I think what makes it that much harder for me is that I was lucky enough to have the kind of father I did, who not only worked hard all his life to meet our family’s needs in a manner so methodical it would make Mr. Maslow proud, but also consistently embodied everything that ultimately matters about being a person. How we are with each other. How we live.
When I measure myself against my dad, it’s a standard I don’t feel I’ve met (and it’s one I don’t think I’ll ever meet) so the fact that there are three little people who are looking at me now, wide eyes blinking at me in anticipation, as some kind of exemplar, or guide, the same way I looked at my own dad when I was their age, well, I just kind of feel bad for them. I wonder if they have any inkling just how much of their life is the direct result of their mother and I making things up as we go, crossing our fingers, and hoping things fall into place. I wonder if they’ll ever have that realization.
(As an aside, I feel very blessed to still have my parents in my life, and this past Father’s Day I’ll be lucky enough to have them staying with me for their annual visit to California. While I’ve never asked my dad about this stuff, I think maybe I should. In a weird way, the knowledge that they felt as perpetually clueless as I do every single day might offer some kind of reassurance — and knowing how they faked it so well might help me out too.)
So, circling back around, becoming a dad did ruin my life. And I’m so glad that it did.
It took away every imperative I prized and rebooted it as part of a new paradigm — one where I’m not the star of the show, but rather the supporting actor whose job is to make the star look good. Given that my kids recently got into Star Wars, allow me to squeeze a metaphor from there. Becoming a parent means you have to be Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of Luke Skywalker. You send them on their way armed with some tools and a few well-chosen bromides, and hope that when it’s time to blow up the metaphorical Death Star in their lives, they have it in them to remember the nugget of wisdom you dropped that one time.
My parents gave that to me. I hope I can give it to my kids.
Zaki Hasan is a professor of communication and media studies and has been a media critic for over 15 years. You can read his musings on pop culture at www.zakiscorner.com.