Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Forever My Father - Go Radio (mp3)

We’re asked the question innumerable times as kids and teens. We’re constantly asking ourselves this awful trap of a question from the minute we begin to grasp that yes, one day, we will actually grow up and become our own versions of the old people we see sulking around us, bossing us around, stressing out over tire pressure and leaving the house on time and carping about some coworker named Hanrahan.

Unlike having my wisdom teeth pulled or my first kiss or the first time I dove off the high dive, I don’t recall much about the moment I actually realized I would become a grown-up.

Maybe it happened the way the whole Santa Claus bubble burst, which is to say gradually in such tiny increments that I don’t know the day it began so much as I know the day I couldn’t go back. It wasn’t until my college years when I saw my own mom crumble into pieces as she dealt with the death of her own parents that I knew I couldn’t remain a child.

My mom kept this cool pre-fabricated booklet that chronicled my elementary school years. In addition to a folder for pictures and keepsakes, it included a list of factoids (height, weight) and blanks. “Favorite sport,” “Favorite book,” and the aforementioned “What I want to be when I grow up.”

In second grade, I wanted to be a baseball player. I had moved up from catcher in first grade to second baseman, a huge leap forward in baseball evolution. Modern people don’t know this, but in my day, the catcher on a first grade team had to sit in a little box several feet back behind home plate. No mask. No big cool mitt. Just stand in the corner and wait for foul balls. And, if you caught a foul, the batter was out.

So basically, the catcher was for the kid who couldn’t play anything, and the catcher’s only job was to be the asshole who broke the heart of players on the other team. So a move up to second base was kind of a big deal.

In third grade, I wanted to be a priest. The only two denominations I’d ever known to that point were Baptist and Presbyterian, and neither of them had jack squat to do with priests. But I was at this new school, Lutheran School, and their religion seemed really intense and formal compared to mine. That's my best guess.

And so on with fourth grade (football player!) and fifth grade (fireman!) and sixth grade (fireman again!).

And then I moved up to junior high, and I stopped filling out those surveys because the book ended. And I went to a school with all boys, so we stopped playing those games where you fold paper into funky origami shapes and predict your future and your girlfriend. And we stopped playing any and all games where the point was to find love or romance, because we were too busy playing games where actual points were scored using spherical objects of some size or another.

I’m not saying I stopped thinking about the future just because I went to a boys school. But it certainly decreased greatly in frequency, and I stopped talking about it. Even late night sleepovers with friends rarely involved talk of adulthood. We were too busy wondering whether Jean Gray and Scott Summers ever actually did it or playing a 12th-level paladin or 7th-level dwarf. Talk of romance and adventure always revolved around the characters we created, not ourselves.

By eighth grade, even if the words never passed my lips, all I knew for certain was that I wanted to be a dad someday. I knew it so intensely that I took it for granted. Nobody talked about it. I think most of us assumed it was just going to happen, that it was part of growing up. Circle of life yada yada.

In fact, I more specifically remember my friend Scott proclaiming he didn’t want kids. He said he didn’t want kids because he was so scared he would screw them up, because he felt so screwed up himself. And I remember being so scared, because I wanted to be a sympathetic friend, but I was also horrified that his opposition might be contagious, and I couldn’t have this particular desire taken from me.

Even though I spent most of my adolescent life feeling like the garbage monster from Star Wars, my desperate awkwardness never wrecked my warped certainty that I would be a good and loving father.

The only obstacle I ever saw that would prevent my fatherhood was the need to find some woman foolish and desperate enough to see me as a worthy mate and partner. That part was in question right up to the point where the preacher said I could kiss her and walk out of the church as husband and wife, and there were times after that when I was pretty sure it was all just a dream from Dallas.

Fatherhood has had some crap days. I’ve had days when I wanted to flush my own head down the toilet rather than listen to my daughter whine or attempt to negotiate with my son during a demonic temper tantrum. But the crappiest days are the days I’ve gone to sleep feeling like a failure father, when my own flaws and shortcomings and failings bleed into the lives of those wonderful creatures who share my blood and my roof.

I never thought my parents were perfect, and I never expected parental perfection of myself. I just want to be “good enough” or maybe just a smidge better.

For better or worse, Happiness was never my parental goal*. A sense of purpose and meaning, a sense of responsibility, and the comfort to know that I will love them no matter their flaws or their failures yet demand and expect that they always yearn to improve.

I can’t help but believe if they have these things -- purpose, responsibility, love, drive -- they’ll find joy more often than not.

* -- The latest Atlantic parenting-related article (“How To Land Your Kid In Therapy”) is so exciting for parents like me to read, because it validates our fear that too many parents are too involved, too controlling, too insistent that everything in their child’s life be like Candyland instead of like Sorry!  

** -- The T-shirt text on the right is a bunch of shit, because happiness is not a fish you can catch or some pet hamster you can simply buy and keep.


Daisy said...

This is a great post and I can't believe there are no comments! Having attended an all girls highschool and college I spent lots of time making origami notes and lists of future children's name etc... I think I always knew vaguely in the back of my head that in would be a mother, but I never considered it when asked what do you want to be when you grow up. It was well after college that I began to think of motherhood as a career choice.

I am stealing the idea of writing down what you want to be when you grow up each year for my kids. My 4 yr old currently wants to be a Black Eyed Pea and my 8 yr old who once wanted to be a monster truck driver and a basketball player now wants to be an accountant. They do grow up fast.

Bob said...

My dream as a young child was to be "an ice cream man on a battleship." I'll bet Freud would love to get a hold of that one.

BeckEye said...

Oh, Phoenix. I wanted to be HER when I grew up. Not the dark version, of course.

Actually, my first choice was to grow up to be Olivia Newton-John. Once I finally understood that you couldn't become someone else, I wanted to be a veterinarian like every other girl my age.