"I wish I had a dad." My oldest son was 3 when he told me this, sitting in the bathtub, his shampooed hair shaped into punk spikes by yours truly.
Though this is not exactly the phrase a lesbian parent longs to hear, by that point in my parenting career I had learned that we don't always know what our children mean by what they say. So, despite my suddenly amped-up heart rate, I played it cool: "Huh, tell me more about that."
"Well," he explained, "because dads can throw kids up in the air, like Uncle Mark can."
"Isn't that so fun when Uncle Mark does that?" I asked. "You always have the biggest smile, and you laugh so hard. I love to hear that laugh."
"Yeah," the boy sighed, the glee of those moments returning to his face.
"And Mama and I can't do that for you, can we?"
"No," he said. "Well, you used to when I was a baby."
"That's right. Because your body was smaller then."
"I wish you still could do it."
"Me, too," I nodded. "Some grown-ups' bodies are stronger than other grown-ups' bodies, like Uncle Mark's is stronger than Mama's and mine. But do you know what's funny?"
"What?" he asked, checking the reflection of his hair horns in the faucet chrome.
"Someday you'll be so big even Uncle Mark won't be able to throw you."
Thus began our conversation about how tall my toddler and his baby brother will be one day, and how they'll be big enough to give their mommy and mama piggyback rides, and how someday they'llbe the grown-ups who throw children in the air and make them laugh.
As happily as that talk ended, it wasn't enough for me. That night, after my wife and I tucked our boys into bed, I made a silent vow: I will keep up with the dads, for as long as I can.
Now, I had a hunch that this vow was riddled with flaws, not the least of which being certain physical realities: At five-foot-six-inches tall, weighing 120 pounds, I'm competing way outside my weight class.
But I'm also stubborn as hell.
So, since that fateful night, over the past five years, I've provided countless shoulder rides, I've studied grappling moves and used them in epic wrestling matches, and, thanks to that whole weightlessness-in-water thing, I've earned a reputation as a relentless flinger of kids at the neighborhood pool.
Then the inevitable happened. Yesterday, I gave a bucking bronco ride to my now nearly 8-year-old, 70-pound son, and this morning I woke to searing pain in my lower back.
As I strategized the best way to roll out of bed without causing further injury, I counted all the dads I know who can still throw my biggest kid in the air: one. His name is Dave. He's a firefighter. He's six-foot-four. You could fit two of me in his chest.
Then I wondered: Aside from the tossing-kids thing, what exactly is it that dads can do that my wife and I supposedly can't do?
- We can't follow our boys into the men's bathroom.
- We can't introduce them to the "culture of men," at least not as insiders. The best we can do is vet a stellar crew of trusted men to help us and our guys understand the complexities of the world they're entering.
- I got stuck on number three.
So after I managed to untangle my damaged body from the sheets and feed my kids, I hobbled to my computer and spent an hour reading articles with titles like "Top 10 Ways to Be a Good Dad," to see what I might be missing.
Turns out those dad-defining articles rarely agree on the essential traits of dad-ness. Also, the vast majority of the "good dad" tips don't actually require XY chromosomes. For instance, when did the ability to "teach your kids about money" become a male trait? Or "help your kids build confidence"? In short, these articles were not so much about being a good dad as they were about being a good parent.
With this in mind, I took a closer look at my vow to keep up with the dads. And I realized that my quest itself is flawed, not only thanks to my aforementioned physique but because it's based on the false assumption that a parent can and should be everything a child needs. We can't. Uncomfortable as this thought might be, it's true.
When it comes to parenting, we will all, regardless of gender, experience moments when our kids' needs will exceed our abilities, when their interests will lead them outside our areas of expertise, when their explorations will extend far beyond our reach. In those moments, our children will be confronted with the task of figuring things out on their own. And that's OK. After all, isn't that what growing up is all about?
In the meantime, ultimately, my job is not to keep up with the dads; my job is to keep up with my kids, who have an uncanny ability to make clear exactly the kind of parent they need.
For instance, my almost-8-year-old has a budding sense of adventure. So when he says he wants to ride the "Cliffhanger" slide at the local water park, the one on which his body will plummet 70 feet in less than three seconds, he needs a parent who will say, "Right on, man. Go for it." Meanwhile, my almost-6-year-old, inspired by our neighborhood's brigade of skateboarders, is determined to test his body's relationship with gravity in as many ways as possible. So these days he needs a parent who won't cringe every time he tries a new trick on his Razor scooter.
Admittedly, personality-wise, I'm more safety monitor than risk taker. So, in these ways, being the parent my boys need doesn't come easily to me. But I'm doing it anyway. Why? Because I've made a new vow: When my kids' needs exceed my own limitations, I will stretch. And, for the well-being of us all, I've added this caveat: When I can stretch no further, I will find the courage it takes to step aside and let these guys grow.