Some months ago, for a large project I’m working on, my son Jeremy asked if he could write something about fatherhood. What he delivered took my breath away. Now, as we leave one tumultuous year and enter another, I believe what he says can be applied not only to fatherhood but to anything at all.
A day does not go by that I don’t think about fatherhood in some way. At 20, I’m a little young for that, sure, but I wonder: How will I raise my kids to be good people who are confident, courageous, smart, kind, and respectful? I look to my father to shed a little light on that.
I’ll start with an anecdote: I rock climb. Sometimes with a rope, sometimes without. When I use a rope, I need someone holding the other end to keep me from plummeting to my death, should my grip give. That person is the belayer. It’s not the belayer’s job to pull the climber up the wall. If that were the case, the climber would undergo no stress, build no strength, and gain no experience. The belayer’s job is to be there in case the climber falls. The belayer keeps the rope just slack enough so the climber doesn’t feel any tension on the way up and feels essentially alone on the wall. Yet the rope has to be taut enough so that if the climber falls, they don’t hit the ground or lose much progress on the wall. Climbing and belaying are hard things to do. There’s a foundation of trust that fuels the climber-belayer dynamic, and I can’t help but think fatherhood is similar.
My dad is my belayer, despite the fact that I don’t live at home anymore and don’t talk to him every day. I know, however, that he’s there when I need him. He’ll work out the problem with me and tell me about times he’s dealt with similar situations. He’ll tell me what he thinks is a good course of action, but only after hearing my story and exploring how I feel about what I’ve said. He is not a “helicopter parent.” That is, he doesn’t pull me up the hard parts of the wall and prevent me from climbing. Helicopter parents remove the essence of life from the lives of their children in the same way helicopter belayers remove the essence of climbing from their climber. Dad doesn’t remove my essence. Instead, he ensures that it thrives. It’s how his parents raised him, and it’s what I’ll do when my time to belay comes.
In defense of the helicopter parent, it’s got to be damn hard watching your climber do so well and then start to falter. As a wiser adult, you probably know how to get past that part, and the last thing in the world you want to see is your child fall. I get it. But how will they get stronger if they don’t have the chance to succeed or fail on their own? The answer is: They won’t.
One of the more underrated jobs of the belayer is their ability to encourage the climber to get back on the wall. They can suggest alternate courses of action or simply say, “Try that move again.” Teaching resilience, the power to get back on the horse — or wall, rather — is hard. It’s very hard when belaying, and I’m sure it’s difficult for fathers. The horse I’ve been on and off for a while has been romance. I found a girl and then it turned out I didn’t. Found another, same story. My pattern isn’t what I’ve wanted it to be, but my dad gets me back on the wall. I know one day I’ll reach the top of that wall, and half of the adventure is the journey, the climb. One of the only people who get me back on that wall is my father, and romance is just one example. Grades, friendships, enemies, jobs, really anything I do, Dad encourages me to get back on the wall and maybe try the maneuver a little differently. To “fail forward,” as one of my professors says.
My point is that from my perspective, fatherhood is not necessarily teaching kids to reach the summit. Rather, it’s to make them feel not so high up, while making them feel like they’re on top of the world. My dad taught that concept to me by showing me the peace sign and telling me a story. With two fingers in a V, he says, “My parents walk with me whatever road of my life I choose, and if I need their help or walk a bad road, they support me. They allow me to go down one path” — he traces up one of his spread fingers with his index finger to indicate that path — “and if that doesn’t work, they taught me to try another path the next time” — he traces back down the first finger and up the other one. Like his parents did for him, my dad can’t guarantee my success or my failure. He just tries to help my attitude through it all. And attitude makes all the difference.
How I see my father is derived from how he presents himself to me. How he looks at life and fatherhood is how I look at life: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That’s so true, I think, and understanding that ensures you’re on the better road just by doing your best.
There are more people for you to love in the world than there are people who love you. That’s a little depressing, yet also an exciting reality. To me, it’s what keeps the chaotic river of life flowing. One of the people I know loves me, and whom I love, is my father. My life belayer.