I am the youngest of three. He is the youngest of four. It's our thing together: we are the babies of our families. My father loves to remind me, as his mother often did for him, that no matter how old I get I'll still be his baby. And indeed it's true. In my heart I am still 5 years old and laughing wildly as he reads my favorite story to me for the millionth time. Now a grandfather to my children, I watch as he reads the same silly story to the next generation. It reminds me of a lifetime of moments just like these, of the father he was and is, and of the lessons he's shared to help me raise my own babies up right. He taught me to work and love hard, and feel grateful for the hardness because it makes all the sweeter parts of life that much more so. In other words, he taught me how to parent. Here are five particular lessons I keep in mind:
1. Find your beach.
Life is hard. Being a parent is really hard. And when the noise and the chaos and the pace of it all begins to overwhelm, you need to know where to go to regroup for your own and your family's sake. For my father, this place is the beach. The beach was and is a transformative space for him. He's different at the beach. The sand, the water, and its salty, damp air offer restorative powers. As a parent now myself, I can appreciate how deeply you need that place in your life, literal or figurative, that refuels you to do hard work. As a child, I can picture him in some small boat floating out into the ocean. We'd often to beg to climb in with him and sometimes he'd relent, but I see now how much he needed that time to just be with his own thoughts. He took what he needed from those waters to find calm and strength. In parenthood, I can think of no greater lesson. Find your beach.
2. Notice the details.
Notice them everywhere in your life, your day to day, and in the innermost and uniquely wonderful parts of your children. My father's ability to do this is in large part what makes him such a phenomenal amateur photographer. One of my most favorite photographs by my father shows a set of stacked dishes and tea cups on a table at an open market in Italy. The picture is stunning with its colors and textures. With his lens he is able to capture life at its most micro level. Indeed, the best stuff can often be found in these tiniest moments. Singing from little voices in the backseat, sticky-fingered hugs, laughter from under the blankets long past bedtime. This is the good stuff. Don't miss the details.
3. Be a parent, not a friend.
This one goes down as probably the most famous speech my father ever delivered to me and my sisters and as a child, and I can tell you we weren't big fans of it. What was his problem? Why didn't he want to be our friend? Now, as a parent myself, it is clear that this was one of his finest and most loving parenting hours. Friends are for fun and fluff and light. And when it gets hard, friends can walk away. Friends are your peers, your equals. My father reminded me that he was not. He was a teacher, showing us that he deserved a different level of respect which had to be earned. Learn the difference between friendship and parenthood and elevate your status.
4. Do your job.
As annoyingly simplistic as these words were (and are), each time that I hear them, they are always exactly what I need. Regardless of the task, you need to show up and work and get it done as if it's a job. Perhaps it's a marriage that seems too hard to fix, a test you feel too inadequate to pass, a friendship you don't know how to salvage. You need to show up and work like there is no option to walk away. Giving up is not a choice. Loving my children is easy, but the day to day can sometimes feel long and tedious. And just when I feel like that last bit of me that is tethered to what is possible is about to break, it is my father who so lovingly and often reminds me to put my head down and dig in. Because I can, because I need to, and because 98 percent of life is showing up and working hard. Indeed, whatever it is, do your job.
5. Know what matters.
Not a family meal or holiday goes by EVER without my father looking around the table and uttering this now-famous line: "This is what it's all about." It's often met with eye rolls and giggles, but I think deep down we all look forward to hearing this, to have this reminder. The "it" he's talking about is the stuff of life. Living a good life takes work, hard work that isn't always fun or pretty. But it's worth it for these moments to love and laugh and be grateful for our time together as a family.
Dad, thank you for these pearls of wisdom. I had no idea how hard being a parent was until I tried it myself. You often downplay your role in raising us, but you were there, right alongside Mom, teaching us and shaping us all along the way. For that, for these lessons, I am grateful. Happy Father's Day.
Also, hey Dad? You were right. This is what it's all about.
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