When you have kids, you don’t become just a mother or a father. You become a teacher, a doctor, a cop, a waiter, a maid, and a referee if you have more than one kid. (Here’s hoping you don’t have a daredevil kid who requires you to be a firefighter also!)
On top of all that, on top of suddenly having to do a bunch of lame stuff like discipline your kids and clean up after your kids, and on top of your office becoming a nursery, your Netflix queue drowning in cartoons, and the car you once loved becoming a breeding ground for Goldfish crumbs and spit-up stains, the real horror hits: Not only have you become a dad, you’ve become your dad!
It’s already happening to me.
This morning, when my 5-year-old handed me a Batman action figure, I feigned confusion and asked, “Is this the Hulk?” He laughed. “Daddy! That’s Batman! The Hulk is green!” Then, he twisted the knife: “You’re turning into Pop-Pop!”
If he’d been talking about the increasing number of gray hairs on my head or wrinkles around my eyes, it would have been bad enough. But he was actually referring to the joke I had made, the kind his grandfather often makes, and he was right on both counts. It was a dumb joke — obviously I know who Batman is; I taught him about superheroes! — and I am turning into my father. Fortunately, I could do a lot worse.
Like most kids, it was tough to recognize my mom and dad for being good parents while growing up. (Understandably, it’s not exactly easy to do when you’re in the thick of being grounded, forced to do homework, or being lectured for watching too much TV.) Only once you’ve become a parent yourself do you realize how hard it is. And, often, only then do you realize the impact your own parents had on you and on your parenting.
Every day, I find myself consciously and unconsciously emulating my dad. I hear myself saying the same exact stuff he said to me when I was a kid, like, “Would it kill you to turn off a light once in a while? Money doesn’t grow on trees!” or, “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help sometimes!” or, “There will always be someone somewhere who’s better at something than you. Never stop practicing!” or, “Work, work, work, work, work, work!” (Fun fact: My dad is Rihanna.)
Even though I wasn’t listening enough to ever turn off a light when I was a kid, apparently I did absorb what he said enough to find myself now repeating his very same words to my kids. And now, they’re ignoring me.
Thankfully, a lot of what I picked up from my father simply required watching. When I was growing up, my dad had a private law practice. Just as he did at home, he treated everyone with respect: clients, colleagues, his secretary, everyone. He never hesitated to provide a day off to an employee who had a sick kid or to offer some pro bono counsel to someone who needed it.
He was legendarily supportive. Despite his hopes that I’d follow in his footsteps and go into law, and his constant urgings for me to study “computers and Chinese” in college (“It’s the future!”), he’s never undermined my pursuit of a writing career. (Even when it’s mostly led to him writing rent checks.) As I grew up and became a self-sufficient adult (hahahahahahahaha!), I was incredibly lucky to know if I stumbled, he was there to help, judgment-free. I hope one day my kids can look back and say the same about me. I am unbelievably supportive of my 6-year-old and my 17-month-old’s interests in LEGO and pacifiers respectively — so far, so good!
My dad also showed me how to be a good husband. And at my parents’ recent anniversary party, I was struck by how their marriage has always been a model of communication, respect, and equal partnership. Despite the fact that they got married during the Mad Men era, there was never any sexist garbage in our house. Decisions were never made unilaterally just because he was “the man,” whether it was about how to budget, where to go on vacation, or what to watch on TV. Her words carried just as much weight as his, both when they were dealing with us and when they were dealing with each other. I never had any reason to think women should be treated differently than men. I learned it by watching him — and them.
I will confess that I’m also turning into my dad in ways that are irritating to my family and me. Much to my wife’s consternation, I inherited my dad’s love of a good argument. Even when we’re just trying to beat each other at Jeopardy or fighting over the crispiest piece of my mom’s special chicken recipe, at least half of my interactions with my dad sound like out-and-out brawls. Really, we’re just having fun debating each other. In fact, in an attempt to introduce my 6-year-old to the “family tradition,” I keep trying to strike up debates with him on, like, what shirt he’s going to wear today or which movie we should watch – “Monsters Inc. is so much better than Cars — how can you not see that?!!” — but he usually just starts crying.
My wife hates the intense squinting my dad and now I both do when concentrating. (She thinks it’s aging me. She’s probably right.) I hate my need to constantly correct my son’s grammar — another obnoxious habit my dad drilled into me. (I could tell him me and my wife want to take him on a luxury cruise, and he’d be sure to say, “my wife and >I” before accepting.) I hate my father’s and my debilitating addiction to potato chips and that my 6-year-old already has the same affliction.
In the scheme of things, those are minor negatives. Now that I’m a dad, it’s become extremely clear how overall committed, involved, and caring my father was — and still is.
The other day, when we were at the park, my son wanted me to pretend I was a monster and chase him around the playground, like I often do. I hesitated — I’m tired! — until my wife asked, “Isn’t that the same game your dad used to play with you?” It’s probably not the most original game in the world, but even now I remember begging my father to play “Monster” with me when I was my son’s age. There was nothing more fun than being pretend-scared that the Dad Monster would catch me, except maybe when he finally did and I got tickled to pretend-death. My memory of my father playing with me — even though he was surely just as tired as I always am — was just the boost I needed. I quickly jumped to my feet, let out a fearsome roar, and sprinted at my son.
As I ran after the tireless 6-year-old on the playground, making sure to let him just barely escape my grasp, I couldn’t help but smile at my wife’s remark. I just hope that in that moment, my son was having as much fun as I had with my dad. I also hope, at some point, my jokes make my kid laugh as much as all that tickling.