About two weeks ago, my son asked me to remind him of something I’d told him many times while he was growing up. He wanted me to tell him again how one day I decided I was going to give birth to a left handed major league pitcher. I used to tell him how I’d put the crayons in his left hand and say to him “I was either going to marry a baseball player, or have one. Since I married the other Tom Browning (not the left handed pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds), you’re gonna be a baseball player.” “Besides,” I would tell him “I gave you a really cool baseball player name.” I named his big brother Nolan, after Nolan Ryan. He died 3 days after birth and Blake was born 2 years later. It was love at first sight. He was my best friend, who eased my broken heart, and for that I wanted to give him the best possible life I could. For the first time since I’d been telling him that, he was struck by the undeniable fact that he had turned out to be a young, southpaw phenom who at 14, was clocked at 80 mph; a fact that even a longtime family friend & ex-major league pitcher turned major league scout refused to believe at the time without proof. This spark of physical brilliance and incontrovertible hint of a child prodigy, was underscored by his very first time at bat as a little guy of 6, where he had hit a grand slam…and then followed that up with a home run on his second turn at bat. I had Babe Frickin’ Ruth & Nolan Ryan all rolled into one on my hands, I thought to myself.
Today being Father’s Day, I thought a lot about how we define a good parent. What credit – by simple virtue of our role as character builders & shapers of lives, good or bad - are we compelled to take as a result of how our kids turn out? What credit do we have a right to take if our children turn out to be extraordinary human beings and what right do we have to disavow our progeny if they fail to meet our expectations?
Having children and having parents, I feel competent to at least take a shot at answering these questions.
First of all, I have not met the man or woman who is so extraordinary & beyond reproach in every area of their life as to be unequivocally qualified for the awesome challenge of being responsible for the life of another human being. But until Apple invents The Android powered quintessential provider and nurturer, we are all we’ve got, so we humans are the only shot our smaller, more vulnerable humans have at surviving this world and hopefully, making a positive difference in it. Fortunately, none of us completely grasps this daunting prospect as we launch headlong into the romantic idea of changing diapers & cleaning throwup out of our hair at 2:00am. While holding these precious, tiny humans in our arms for the first time, we idealistically promise to give them everything in life we never got, completely oblivious to the Sword of Damocles dangling precariously over our head, ready to drop at any moment within the next two decades. Luckily, we are blissfully unaware that our last good night of sleep is woefully behind us and anything resembling such a thing will heretofore be chemically induced, or we would probably run screaming in horror at the thought of reproducing a mini model of ourselves with a clean slate; pure, innocent and vulnerable…just waiting to show us how utterly imperfect we are.
Interestingly, as humans, we are so damn competitive and backstabbing sometimes (well, some of the less evolved of our species…but certainly not me!), that this tends to get in the way of our focus on what our responsibility as parents really is. We may love our kids, but feel such an overwhelming need for outside approval that we shortchange our kids by putting unrealistic expectations on them in a vain attempt to have them live out our lost dreams. Or maybe we’re just so wrapped up in our own needs that we fail to properly meet all the needs of our children. This is not to say that every parent is a selfish jerk deep down, but even with the very best intentions, we can and will screw up every once in a while. One way or another as parent or child, we hardly come out of these relationships unscathed and it is our ability to overcome adversity, in addition to being capable of giving as well as receiving love that makes us uniquely qualified for a job we will never be qualified to do.
If that sounds fatalistic, I apologize. It’s just the only way I know how to describe the undeniable reality that there isn’t a parent alive or dead, who hasn’t at least once, hated themselves - at least a little - for failing at this job.
So, back to the initial question: Should we take credit for who our children turn out to be? Whether we should or shouldn’t - whether we realize it or not - we always do. We take credit for their accomplishments & we grieve for their failures. When a parent rejects a child, I believe it’s not because of the child’s failure, so much as the self-loathing that parent feels for having perceived themselves as a failure at life. According to the philosophy of causality, we do, and should take credit for the accomplishments as well as the failures of our kids. However, according the chaos theory, we may be let off the hook due to the fact that a butterfly was flying over Panama, causing a tsunami at the exact same moment our baseball prodigy decided to drop out of college, resulting in a yearlong sabbatical wherein he engaged in a valiant quest to define stupidity.
Ultimately, I think the best thing we can give to our kids is love. Sometimes that’s all we have to give. If we know how to give that, then it doesn’t matter what the world around us does. We aren’t good parents based on our ability to give our kids an I Phone and an expensive car. Because if we give them love, we give them the ability to reach for the stars and accomplish whatever they want…even if it’s not what we would have chosen for them. When we give them love, we give them a shot at true happiness, and you can’t buy that with all the money in the world.
Ever since I can remember, my father meant the world to me. I was the only girl in our family…even the dogs were boys. My mother was not much of a mother and she decided to leave when I was still young. To this day I am grateful that she made that decision, yet I still fault her for not doing it a few years sooner, as well as not closing the door completely on her way out. Good or bad, I was in awe of my father. I loved him very much and I also hated him at times, but one way or another, he somehow defined who I was. He was my protector when I was afraid of monsters in my closet. I can remember lying in bed, scared to death and unable to sleep, waiting for him to come home so I would be safe. I KNEW the moment he was home, that nothing bad could happen to me.
My father being human, had a tragic flaw. To be fair, I’m sure I have one too and one day I’ll work up the courage to ask my son what it is. My father’s tragic flaw was his uncanny ability to attract, and welcome terrible, destructive women into his life. I will never approve of his choices in woman, but I realized one day, that this will never stop me from loving him and it will never take away the wonderful memories I have of a man with a good sense of humor, who would watch scary movies with me while sharing a bucket of clams and giving me the necks, because he was so sure I had no idea he was giving me the floppy, disgusting part of the clam which he would rather die than eat. For all our differences later on, I still admire the man who would sacrifice to send his kids to good schools and put braces on our teeth and do everything he had the means to do because he was willing to forgo luxuries of his own and a life with less demands on him. …I still wish he would’ve married Eileen though. But even so, I treasure the times he would become childlike, rolling in laughter with me, like an idiot…like I have done countless times with my own son. My dad is the man who played hide and seek with me, took me to fancy parties at beautiful ballrooms in big hotels, drove me to downtown LA once a week to see a specialist when I was covered head to toe in psoriasis and then we would finish up the trip with a stopover at Olivera Street for taquitos or to The Pantry for sunny side up eggs on a giant slab of ham & sourdough bread or Felipe’s for French Dips, or some other cool, hidden treasure of old Los Angeles. He was the one who gave me my love for jazz & The Dodgers, he taught me to cook by buying out the Time-Life Culinary library in a frustrating & fervent attempt to turn me into the perfect Italian housewife against my will. He was the man who threatened to send me into a horrifying life of teenage social suicide, by sending me to my Grandma’s for a month if I didn’t learn to cook. He would take me to the beach and listen to my music & whether he likes it or not, he was more than likely the impetus for me becoming who I am, an artistic and creative person…despite the fact that he wanted me to be a CPA.
As far as my own son goes: This was not the easiest year for either of us. The economy took its toll and with financial loss, came a lot of trauma. I had to make difficult choices, but always with his best interest at heart. Nevertheless, there are certain things we just don’t have any control over. We’ve always been close and as much as I wanted this dream of him becoming a major league pitcher, for him, I had to come to the acceptance that he might not want it as much as I do and I would never want to make him feel bad for not wanting the same thing out of life that I want. It’s very hard to watch your kid grow wings and make his own choices, but you gotta have enough confidence in what you’ve done as a parent to step back and let them make their mistakes, guiding them without suffocating them. He dropped out of college and stopped playing baseball for a year. As much as I hated it - because I knew he wasn’t happy and was grappling for something that seemed elusive to him - I just told him I loved him no matter what he decided.
That conversation he had with me a couple weeks ago, was the first step in a decision he had made that he would wait until last night at midnight to tell me about. He wanted to have an accomplishment under his belt before telling me about it. He’d been playing on a semi-pro, summer league team with a lot of kids who were in colleges all over the country. He doesn’t even want his dad going to the games yet, so I don’t feel bad that he waited to tell me. I think his confidence was blindsided and he needs to build it back up without the hopeful eyes of his parents inadvertently putting pressure on him while he gets his game back. There are scouts at these games, so I have confidence he’ll have his shot at the big leagues if he gives it everything he’s got, or at least it may get him back into college where he can play ball. He was so proud to tell me that he’d struck out a kid who was a 4th round draft pick. I couldn’t have been happier for him. He had a quality to his voice I hadn’t heard in a long time. He was happy and he was doing this because he wanted to…not because I wanted him to. I’m cool with whether or not he makes it to the major leagues. I just want him to be happy. …but if he makes it to the major leagues, I hope he buys me a really nice house on the beach!
Can I take credit for this? I dunno. I do know that your kids listen to everything you tell them. From the moment I heard the word “fuck” come out of his sweet little mouth and I laughed like hell, I knew he was listening to everything I was saying. So I figured the best thing I could do was tell him he was going to be a baseball star one day and hopefully, he’d believe me.
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there who make a positive difference in their kid’s lives!