Monday, June 22, 2015

A Letter to My Kid

A thing has just occurred to me: we are not alike. Or rather, we are exactly the same, just at different times in our lives. But let me explain.

First, a bit about my dad, the guy I grew up: a grouchy old dude who was always angry at something, unless he was drinking with friends. He'd been in the Army, then worked for GM most of his life. He had stories from the foundry, from sweeping floors in the admin building where John Delorean worked, from Army wargames and jumpschool, and slashing through jungles in Panama with a machete he still owned. He also told stories of fist fights he'd been in, guys he'd beat up for one reason or another, and I was always convinced the guys deserved it. My dad wasn't a large man, so this made him impressive and a little scary, even more so than his being grumpy all the time and his violent ways when he'd had too much to drink.

Now let me tell you about me as a kid: I was a wimp. Successful academically but not an athletic bone in my body. I was clumsy and awkward. Going to an inner city school district, I was picked on every day, something you can't even fathom despite all the modern awareness on bullying. I was beat up by girls and shamed by gym teachers. I considered myself a disgrace to my dad, who was by every measure I could come up with a certifiable badass.

I tried everything I could think of as a kid to meet his standards, but I was no good at any of the things he was interested in. I couldn't box, play baseball or football, or ride BMX, and having left school in 8th grade he couldn't help me do the things I liked. I made the most of the talent I had--academics--to make him as proud as I could, but I still never felt like it was enough. Not that my dad wasn't proud of me--he said it often, and he probably said "I love you" to me every day we ever spoke during his life. Back then, I knew nothing about the real reasons he would never be able to give me the approval I really wanted. But back then that didn't matter; the fact is I wasn't getting it.

At some point I realized my dad was not, in fact, super human. It's something every child realizes about their parents eventually, and it always comes with a broken heart. It didn't help that so many needs went unmet. Between my regular teenage angst and the bubbling tension always in my house, I spent the years between probably 15-30 hating my dad in varying degrees. It brings tears to think of it now. I left home at 16 just as my parents were losing their home to foreclosure (completely unbeknownst to us kids) and never really went back. When I was in their (new) home, my dad and I would usually butt heads.

In the meantime, I did "everything I was supposed to". That goes in quotes because it's a game, as you and I have discussed. I finished high school and started college, but I also worked full time and was in love with a girl I'd been dating too long and was too afraid to let go of. Doing all that while living in my parents' dysfunctional home was too much. I finally flunked out of college and decided I should marry the girl I was dating who had her life in far better order than I, figuring it was time I got it together and made a Man out myself, despite the challenges, which I was sure to overcome through stubbornness alone. I was 21 years old.

We bought a house, got a dog, and had kids, of which you were the first: our baby boy. My dad, of course, was ecstatic. He and I weren't at each other by then (he was far too distracted by conflict with my sister at that time) so there were many days he would hold you and I'd see a part of him I never knew existed. You may still remember his beard when he hugged and kissed you. But he was still the same old guy, and we had many differences, and struggled with boundaries. It felt like the same old shit to me, so I acted the same old way: I kept him out of most of my life except in ways I was in complete control of. Only writing that just now do I realize how cruel that was to him.

You began to grow up. You got a couple siblings who were similarly hugged and kissed by my dad and his beard, and similarly hustled out of the house before he had too much to drink. I kept on living my life as I had built it, never realizing you might have been imprinting on me in the same ways I did with my dad. I was so busy trying to fill the roles of Husband and Father I never paid much attention to those of Self or Son, or Brother to my own siblings. Only after all those relationships were strained did I realize the damage I had done.

You have never been a typical child. You and I were able to bond in ways I didn't with my dad, but you still seemed to have trouble meeting my expectations. I know now that's only because my expectations were too narrow, not because you were ever a failure. I imagine this was merely confusing to you, especially early on. It was frustrating to me, especially as you became more intellectually self sufficient and wanted to try new things and take risks online. You wanted access to information and devices I'd neither had as a kid nor understood as an adult. And you weren't athletic, which was only a disappointment because I was so afraid that when you started school you'd be picked on the same way I was, which is terrifying to a parent who grew up bullied.

You aren't grown yet, but you're well on your way, and handling it admirably. I think we have a strong bond, but we still have our "crucible moments." We are still clashing, but rarely because there's conflict. We suffer most often from misunderstanding. For 16 years you were our son, and now you reject gender. Know that despite every argument we've ever had over this I never, ever am rejecting you, or insisting you define yourself as anything different than you understand yourself to be. It's just not something I understand, and it hurts--not the fact that I don't understand, but the fact that you take offense, feel disrespected, possibly unloved. And because you get so, so angry at me. I am realizing now that your anger probably comes from my inability to understand.

And it hurts, too, because I recognize that anger. It's the same feeling I had for a long time before I started using it to punish my dad for not meeting my needs as a kid. I punished him for over 20 years for something he neither understood when it was relevant nor could change after the fact. Maybe that's just how things work: parents are ignorant to how they hurt their kids when the kids are young, and then ignorant again about why their kids hurt them back when the kids are grown. If that's so, this letter is a desperate attempt to break that cycle. I am pleading with you to break the mold with me.

Because, as I stated in the first sentence above, we are the same, just at different times. This is true in both directions.

My dad was 28 when I was born, and I was 25 when you were born. My dad had been abused by an alcoholic stepfather. His mother didn't stick up for him, and his older sister bullied him. He lied about his age to join the Army at 17 to get away from them. My dad himself was an alcoholic who I was happy to leave at the age you are now in order to move to school. I buried myself in CAP and school and relationships. You have hated me at times in the same way I hated my own dad.

Now, I am no longer a 'wimp.' I am not the same person I was as a kid trying to navigate teenagery and early adulthood. I have my own stories about my CAP days and dorm life and the rock band in high school, and built many more with adult friends doing adult things. I've spent 2½ years using a gym membership to change what I see in the mirror every day. The tagline on my Tough Mudder page is "trying to become a badass." You are so much like me at 16 I can only imagine how you must view me, the man you've grown up with.

And I have pushed you to do and like the same things I do and like, or did and liked as a kid. I know you'd rather be streaming some cutting edge game you found on Steam for 19¢ than watching hockey with me, even if I only watch a few games a year. I know you don't fit into the mainstream social groups in school and I haven't always understood your friends. I know we've conflicted, sometimes in big, scary ways over some pretty fundamental issues. And I'm 100% guilty of having the "do everything you are supposed to do" talk. I still maintain it's part of being a parent, but I know that means nothing to you. You have the luxury of being able to dismiss that excuse, and I envy you completely in that regard.

It was not until he was dying before I began to know my dad man to man. Only then was he forced to give up drinking and smoking, and I finally met the man who raised me. Or rather, the Man beneath the man who raised me: the Real Mike S. Many of the same qualities I knew were still there: the good and the bad, but he was himself, finally, not the wounded kid who'd spent 50 years hiding from the asshole who would slap him at the dinner table. He was still a pain in the ass, as all dads are to all kids, and because he was in his 60's then, probably more of a pain than he would have been at 42, my age now. The age when I am reaching out to you to meet you, man to man. Or man to not-quite-a-kid-anymore. Or adult father to almost adult child. I am probably screwing it up again. But I am eager to have that meeting, whatever words we use to define it.

You will still hate me at times, just as I will still have an overwhelming desire to defenestrate you occasionally. I think that's how it's supposed to go, but unlike the cycle I want to break, some conflict is natural, and the healthy way to handle it is with love and mutual respect. I am breaking out of my own addictions because they have chained me too long to a way of living I know will lead to less happiness than any of us deserve. I don't want to wait until my life is almost over, or you move across the country, or my first grandchild is born, or it's too late for any reason, to realize I've been living in a fog and never really built the relationships that should mean everything to me.

You need to know that you have my respect, even more because you aren't quite ordinary. I am proud of you, and I love you, regardless of how you define yourself. These things will never stop being true. I've made many statements about how some things 'just are' true as a result of being a parent, but among them the truth of this last statement is timeless, coded deep in our humanity. And it's true personally, between me as your dad and you as my child. But even on top of that, if I just met you today, I would like and respect you. I'd wonder who the man was who raised you and imagine he must be proud of who you are becoming, of how you treat others, how you stand up for those unable to for themselves, and even how you view the world despite your dark outlook on life. You are a positive force in this world, and for that I can take no credit. The person inside you is yours alone, and I am priveleged and humbled to be a part of your life.

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