The Moment You Realize You're Acting Like Your Dad

It seems inevitable that we’ll all do it at some point in our lives. But we don’t have to accept it.

I was standing at my kitchen counter, furiously clacking keys on my computer keyboard like a chicken pecking the ground for feed as I was making lunch for my son. I had just picked him up from school, but it was just noon. They sent him home because he wasn’t feeling well. Tummy troubles. After four days of being down and out with a fever for three of those, we thought he was ready to return. Apparently we were wrong.

My son, who never takes his sicknesses too seriously the way we do as adults, was trying to get my attention. I could see the flicker of activity out of the corner of my eye, but I felt the call to answer yet another ridiculous email, as if it had some kind of gravitational pull. Then it hit me. I was turning into my dad.

I suddenly stopped, looked up for a moment, blinked as if emerging from some terrible nightmare. I looked down at my son who was asking for juice. I closed the lid on my computer and grabbed the bottle of apple juice from the fridge and poured him a glass. I fixed some tea for myself, and we talked while I worked. When lunch was ready, I sat down at the table to talk to him.

It’s not as if I never talk with my children. We make it a point to sit down and have dinner together every evening. During that time, we talk. No technology is allowed at the table. It’s too much distraction and we are better off without it. But even so, there was something missing.

I was doing what my dad always did — working hard. My dad was a cop. He worked in a profession where he was simultaneously reviled for what he did and loved for what he did. And he worked as much as he possibly could. This was the hard work — showing up every day, putting in the hours, doing whatever it took. In the forty-two years that he was a cop, he never pursued anything more, anything that aligned with his soul.

And like my dad for me, I was fulfilling the basic needs for both of my boys, which in my head was enough. The problem was that when I was present, I wasn’t often present. I was tired, stressed, thinking about what I needed to do next in the never-ending onslaught of tasks from my job. My hours were bloated. Granted, I was spending a lot of time doing what I love outside of my normal working hours, but it wasn’t balanced. It wasn’t the plan I had laid out for myself when I had all the wisdom of the ages that the teen years provide.

I remember it vividly, long-haired and wild-eyed, I was 17 when I laid out my manifesto for a good life: never cut my hair; never wear a suit to a job; never work in corporate America (aka for the man); and above all, never, ever become my parents. Fueled by Rage Against the Machine songs and grunge music, I shook my fist in outrage at the universe. So how did it go?

I went to college and majored and minored in what I wanted to do: creative writing major, geography minor. Yay! But then I cut my hair. I decided I was past that phase in my life. Strike 1.

After college, despondent and uncertain, I entered law school on a whim and took a job working for a judge. It was a real job, albeit a bit more of a circus than anything else. At least it wasn’t corporate hell. But I did have to wear a suit to work every day.

Strike 2.

After I got smart (no offense to you lawyers out there — it just wasn’t for me), I dropped out of law school and started flying airplanes. Totally awesome!

Then I took a job at an aviation company in corporate America.

Strike 3.

I should have been out at this point, having reneged on three of the four principles in my original manifesto, but there was still hope. Even .250 is a respectable batting average, though in reality it means you’re successful hitting the ball just 25% of the time.

And now, strike 4.

Here I was, in my kitchen, sick child who just needed some attention, and I was so distracted. Screw the balance I had convinced myself. You can throw yourself completely into this job and let it rule your life.

And I did. And it did.

But like a pilot who flies the airplane to the bitter end, I pulled up realizing it was not he machine that was broken, but the pilot. I went searching for better ground.

I found it for a little while in the form of a different job, still working for the man. But here’s the thing: when you’re doing it for somebody else, and their views don’t necessarily align with yours, it never lasts. They always want more of whatever you can give them — time, sweat, blood. It doesn’t matter to them as long as they’re getting what they want. They’ll tell you they care about you, that you’re important, but all they do is take, take, take, and that’s no way to be in a relationship.

Getting Out and Moving On

I mentioned that I’d been spending a lot of my so-called free time wrapped up in the things I loved. That’s true. And it’s some of what you see here. There is a way out, and I’m going toward it.

It’s not an easy path. It takes constant reinvention of yourself and willingness to go to places that seem scary. It’s taking time, and I have to be patient, and I have to urge my family to be patient, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

So I’m focusing on the things I love, doing the things I want to do, the things I’m passionate about, the activities that energize me, and I’m beginning to exit people and structures and institutions that don’t fit into that, that don’t share the love.

It’s not an easy process, but I feel good that I’m now doing it. It took me a long while to get here, but I know that the best of everything is in front of me.

My parents gave me a lot of great things in my life, and the most important of that was a will to find my own unique path forward. It’s not always easy, but I feel good about the direction.

I ponder all this for a moment as I sit there with my seven-year-old son. But just for a moment, because this is his time. There will be time to think about it later.