When Did I Become the Senior Dad?

Category: Weekly Columns

While walking with a friend the day after Thanksgiving, we shared our respective holiday experiences and noted that we were both now the senior dads–the main paternal figure in our respective families. We laughed together, but it was a moment of melancholy and reflection, both of which were feelings I had this Thanksgiving.

My father died four years ago and my mother died just a year ago, so this was our first Thanksgiving in which neither of my parents was with us. Yes, the aging of my parents effectively made me the “man in charge” for many of their later years, but I still viewed them as the senior generation and offered them the respect and deference that they continued to deserve during those difficult years. But now, other than an older 3rd cousin that I adore, it’s now me representing that older figure in our small family.

What does that mean? How do I view my role differently now? What are my obligations in this role? What deference, if any, should I expect now that I’m the senior male adult in our family? These are the questions that I was thinking about at our wonderful turkey meal this year. My wife is an extraordinary cook so we had a terrific feast, but a quiet one with just the four of us because of last minute cancelled travel plans. That boosted my awareness of the changes that have taken place in the hierarchy of my family.

As we’re all adjusting to our newly blended family, it’s natural that my wife and I are struggling to figure out our respective functions in the family. We both believe there is inherent value and I might even add sanctity in the mother and father roles. We also believe they are different and we like to celebrate those differences. Consequently, she does look to me to be the man while I absolutely look to her to be the woman of the family.

The difference, however, is her parents are still very much alive, healthy, and an active, though a geographically distant presence in her life. For me, the realization that I’m now “the old guy” is sort of daunting. I feel it is my responsibility to make sure that certain rituals are observed and that my sons are taught to treat their elders respectfully. That now means me. I thought no yuppie ever became an elder? Didn’t our generation say to “never trust anyone over 30?” Is Mick Jagger really over 60? Am I now over a decade older than JFK when he died, two decades older than when George Gershwin died, and three decades older than when James Dean crashed his Porsche? Tell me I’m wrong, please?

It’s a sobering reality as, of course, we all age but my generation was convinced we’d do it better than our predecessors. No, we’re just getting more plastic surgery and realizing the same changes that happen to everyone who gets older. We are more forgetful, absent-minded, our bodies aren’t as responsive as they once were, and like in Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Glory Days,” we tend to tell stories from our past and relive those memories repeatedly. I’m no exception as my family and wife are tired of many of those stories.

Still, becoming the patriarch of my family carries weight with me. It forces me to think more deeply about my choices and how they affect my family. Dr. Bruce Powell, a brilliant educator, said that our children see, watch, and remember almost everything we do. So, we model for them and our good and bad behavior is completely absorbed by them. I remind myself of this every time I drink more than two glasses of wine in their presence, when I swear, and especially if my wife and I quarrel in front of them.

I never said I was perfect, though I strive for an ideal that now seems even more important, so I hope to be the best model I can be. At this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, I didn’t say much and I now realize I missed an opportunity. We have a wonderful ritual that we do every Friday, when we celebrate Shabbat–the Jewish Sabbath–that I believe is a great fully established tradition in our family.

We go around the table and each person present, whether it’s just our family and/or guests, takes turns telling the best and worst things that happened to them in the previous week. The only rule is that only one worst is allowed. The result is we each get to reflect on our lives with extra emphasis on the things that are good, the things to be grateful for, and it allows us to learn what each person feels is most important to him or her.

My boys have no memory of not performing this ritual. Now that I am the senior dad in the family, I will look to reinforce this tradition, establish others, try and be the best patriarchal figure I can be, and also work to better model a loving marriage for my sons with my lovely bride of just one year (we married December 27, 2008).