I learned something very simple, very basic, and very important about parenting while on vacation, overseas, these past three weeks. I was being selfish. I have two teenagers who needed their dad, and this three-week trip was an indulgence that wasn’t necessary, was too long, and resulted in my not being there for my older son when he needed me.
As luck would have it, I got sick and we returned a few days early, right as his crisis was in full bloom. Only due to this odd, lucky timing was I able to get down and talk with him, and address his anger and issues. I could support him as he continues to struggle through his teenage hormonal and otherwise raging insanity. In other words–normal teen growth and development.
My wife, to her credit, recognized the same thing, that we were gone too long, while we were on vacation. The e-mail and occasional phone calls were enough to reveal that having a good babysitter, in this case a wonderful single mother isn’t sufficient when your kids need and want YOU. It won’t happen again and we’re in full agreement on this.
The other thing that became abundantly clear to me was that those children without dads (or mothers for that matter) really do suffer. Okay, this isn’t some new revelation for me, but when I reflected on how my son wanted his dad around when I was just gone for a few weeks on vacation, I thought about those children without dads in their lives all the time. No wonder it’s a societal problem of such substantial magnitude.
One of my first parental theories and assertions, which I wrote about in my very first column, “There’s No Such Thing as Quality Time,” (find it in “My Columns” on my web-site – brucesallan.com) is that good parenting only works when you’re there–a lot. You cannot schedule important moments with your kids, moments when they’ll open up in the same manner that you might schedule a business appointment. It only happens when you’re present, on a regular, full-time basis, if possible.
I recognize the time limits that single parents have and I don’t want to imply that single parents are being negligent. Rather, I want to assert an ideal that is not always possible but, in my case, is completely possible. I chose the selfish interest of an exotic vacation over my sons’ best interests, in a classic case of the cobbler’s kids going without shoes. I know better.
So, what was the big drama? What was so important that I had to be there? Actually, it doesn’t really matter though I will share some of the details. What mattered is that he wanted me there; he wanted to discuss his hurt and angry feelings, and there was no appropriate surrogate. I could feel some of this when I tried to get him to express himself via e-mail. He doesn’t like to write; I do. So, that didn’t work. But, I wasn’t reading between the lines enough and maybe I should have just come home earlier.
Almost immediately upon my return, my 16-year-old son and his girlfriend wanted to talk with me. Her mother was out of town and her stepfather was very sick, struggling to take care of himself at the moment (nothing serious). During this period, he wasn’t answering his phone. So, they had no one.
They faced a very typical scenario, one that we read about, one that is often depicted in a humorous light in movies and television. They attended a party of peers, with supposed parental supervision, in which things got out of hand. There was too much drinking and a little bit of drugs going on. As neither my son or his girlfriend have their own license or car yet, they faced the choice of getting a ride home with one of their drunken friends.
Thankfully, some of our parental lessons actually took hold, as they turned down those rides and spent the night on the floor at the house where the party took place. The next morning, when I arrived home, they walked the distance from the party to our house. Upon arrival, they immediately wanted to talk about it.
We discussed the obvious rights and wrongs of what had occurred and I took my son’s girlfriend home. Her stepfather, by then, was feeling better, so she was not alone.
Later, my son and I had a deeper heart-to-heart talk in which he opened up about the situations that had been plaguing him during the past few weeks, beyond a wild party that got out of control. Alone together, he actually broke down in tears at one point, and I did my job of dad by listening, not judging, and gently offering solace, advice, and feedback.
You can’t do that when you’re thousands of miles away. Of course, parents need their time alone and there’s no guarantee that something won’t go awry the moment you leave, but for me it was clear that I was gone too long. When they’re grown and gone, they’ll be plenty of time for such long trips. This time, I blew it. There was no long-term damage, other than some self-recrimination from which I will survive, to quote songstress Gloria Gaynor!