My daughter turns 10 this year.
I was 10 when my father died.
This means that I’m on the verge of having more accumulated dad-hours than my father ever got the chance to accrue, which is a weird thing to contemplate.
It means that, if my father and I both worked at the same corporation — let’s call it “DadCo” — that, fairly soon, I’d have more seniority than he would. I might be considered his superior; it would be harder to fire me, than him. When we both reached our next work anniversary, I’d probably get a nicer gift from the higher-ups. He might get a paperweight and I’d be in line for a crystal decanter or an off-brand FitBit.
I find it deeply unsettling that I might, one day, be more of a dad than my own dad ever was.
Because, as parents, whether we like it or not, we always compare ourselves against the caregivers who raised us. Do we have the qualities that made our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, guardians — whoever raised us — loom so large when we were young? It’s hard to comprehend that you can, one day, move beyond the standard that you used to measure yourself against.
This isn’t a criticism of my father. He died. He didn’t have any control of that. He had to retire from DadCo before he was ready. That’s not his fault.
But, as my daughter approaches the age I was when my father died, I am acutely aware of how quickly I find myself entering into uncharted “dad territory.” Because I, personally, have no experience with what it means to have a father after the age of 10.
Case in point: last week, my daughter had to watch the video at school. You know what I’m talking about. The “Your Bodies Are Changing” instructional film that they start showing kids around fourth or fifth grade. The video where the teachers make the boys go in one room and the girls go in another, and they watch the video giggling and squealing and recoiling in horror. The video about hormones, periods, hair in new places, and the scariest word of all … puberty.
“I’m scarred for life,” our daughter told us afterwards. She was so shaken that it seemed imperative that I take her out for after-school ice cream.
And, as I sat and watched her eat her two scoops — it was a two-scoop kind of trauma — I realized that I never talked about the video with my own father. We never had “The Talk.” We never discussed my changing body. He never even had the chance to teach me how to shave. That was all something I had to figure out on my own.
This — this video and everything it brought with it — was a completely new experience for me, in terms of parenting. What do dads say to kids on the verge of puberty? If my dad had been around when I hit adolescence, would he have taken me aside and had “The Talk”? Would I have actually asked him all the questions I steadfastly refused to ask mom? Or would everything have played out exactly the same, whether he was there or not?
The fact is — I don’t know.
I don’t really have anything to compare myself against when it comes to being a father.
I wish I’d learned more in the short amount of time I had with my father. It would be nice to have a clearer roadmap of what my future holds.
But maybe not.
Because now that I have almost as many working hours at DadCo as my dad ever did, I know some uncomfortable truths about parenting. First and foremost, I know that parents (bless them) have no idea what they’re talking about.
We don’t. We are all faking it. We’re all making it up as we go. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve been given.
My dad was faking it. He didn’t have any secret knowledge. He hadn’t unlocked some cache of forbidden wisdom that informed his every decision as a parent.
He was a dude who got married and had two kids. That was his reality. And he spent his days reacting to that reality as best he could.
And that’s exactly what my mom did. And that’s exactly what her mom and dad did. And that’s exactly what I do every damn day.
Yes, it would’ve been nice to have had a dad who could’ve taught me how to shave or drive a car, but he wouldn’t have been some unfailingly perfect mentor-sensei who knew the answer to every question in the universe. He would’ve been some guy pretending that he knew how to teach a kid how to shave or drive.
It’s a humbling thing to realize that our mentors are human. That’s doubly true for parenting mentors, because parenting isn’t really a skill. It’s a continual exercise in improvisation, reacting to vectors and variables that are unique to every single situation.
I don’t really think I would be a better dad if I’d had more time with my own father.
I just might be more confident. I would’ve seen the juggling act up close. I would’ve had front row seats to watch a guy pretend that he knew how to guide his kids through first loves, hardships, and existential questions, and I might have gleaned some tips on how to fake it myself.
But the great thing about faking it is — if you do it right, no one can tell.
So, once my daughter turns 10, I will start a new chapter in my life of parental “faking it.” I will pretend that I know what it’s like to be a dad to a kid in the double-digits. And, like all good parents, I will try to make sure that no one realizes that I have no idea what I’m talking about.
I’ll be just like any other dad at DadCo, only my on-the-job training was cut far shorter than anyone ever expected. Other dads my age got to spend more time job-shadowing their own fathers, which is wonderful, but ultimately doesn’t really matter. Because being a dad is all about showing up to the job and simply doing the best you can, no matter what your level of experience is. No matter how good your own mentor, teacher, or father was.
I know that now and I’d like to think my dad knew that, too. And, if he didn’t, he did a beautiful job of faking it — just like a real dad.