Super Dad and the hero quest of fatherhood

The college dorm room I shared with my best friend was at the center of the hall and, for that reason or not, became a gathering space for many of the guys. 

At some point guys on the hall began using our door frame to mark their heights, like little kids do to measure their growth.

Then it got silly, and marks for fictional characters started appearing on the door frame with, eventually, Batman at the very top.

I don’t remember the conversation that prompted it, but one night my friend Porter took his pencil, went to the door frame, and wrote “Eric’s Dad” at the top of the list of heights, above even Batman.

My dad is not tall, but Porter wasn’t being snarky. He was marveling at, and maybe a little jealous of, how much I respected and admired my dad. All my college friends, even those who had never met him, knew my dad was my hero.

I used to take for granted that I had a father who was engaged in my life in the best way and who was truly a role model and friend even through my teenage years and into adult life. But then I began to realize that was not the norm. 

Years ago I was taking my student staff through a training session at our campus counseling center. The facilitator was talking about the relationship counseling services his office provided and asked my group of a dozen college students: “How many of you would like to have a relationship like your parents?” 

I immediately raised my hand without having to think about it. 

But I looked around the room and realized I was the only one with my hand up. And everyone was looking at me like I was odd, including the facilitator who was trying to make the point that most people need better training on relationships than what they learned watching their parents.

It’s sad that I was the odd one and that too few had the good fortune I had in having parents that I genuinely admire and who sent me into my adult life relatively unscarred.

Now that I’m a dad I realize how hard this is. But it’s the most important job in my life. 

Maybe becoming a father later in life, at age 40, has been a blessing. I’m less interested in career accomplishments and life adventures than I was in my 20s and 30s. I just want to be a good husband and a good dad.

I don’t always come up with the right answer or a wise insight or respond with compassion and calm. I worry I could be doing so much more to be a better parent. But my daughters know they are at the center of my life.

I don’t know if I’ll ever make it onto either of my daughters’ dorm room door frames someday in a superhero showdown. But I hope to be the kind of father they look back on with appreciation and affection. 

Mothers typically just get it done, with or without or in spite of the dad. Mothers deserve a holiday more than once a year. 

Dads, sadly, there’s a low bar to cross in our culture for us to be considered exceptional. You’ve just got to show up and keep showing up. At least do that. 

If you’re a dad, realize you will have no more important job. Ever. 

If you have a dad, even if he isn’t always a superhero for you, let him know you appreciate him.

It’s never too late to start being the person you know you want to be and need to be for the people you love. 

Making that attempt is the only hero quest that matters.

Pick a path and get moving

A thought worth considering from Donald Miller’s memoir about relationships, Scary Close:

“I wonder if what might help couples build great families is to pick a place for their family to go and then hit the gas, to work toward their vision and build it out. Relationships have a way of stabilizing when in motion. Until then, they just feel like a road trip to nowhere.”

A direction to go in and action to move you in that direction can invigorate not just a couple or a family, but an organization or an individual. Even if you’re not completely sure which direction to pursue, just start. Pick a path you wouldn’t mind pursuing and get moving. You can then course correct as necessary.

Just existing in a relationship or an organization or a life without direction and motion will suck the energy from everyone involved.

Sweet spot

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I woke up this day after Christmas, stepping around empty boxes and delaying the clean up of the remaining dirty dishes from last night’s family dinner, and I feel remarkable satisfaction and gratitude. It’s easy to let some post-holiday blues settle in right about now. All the excess. All the stuff and the hurrying and the unmet expectations. And for what purpose, right?

And, yes, we spend too much money on things. And we eat food that doesn’t make us stronger. And we fill our calendar with gatherings and then just go through the motions much of the time, rarely making meaningful connections with our family and friends.

But I’m not feeling any sense of humbug now. I’m appreciating how good I’ve got it. Lately, when friends check in and ask about my family, I tell them we are in a sweet spot. Our girls are 10 and 7. They are somewhat self-sufficient. They can occupy themselves with books and games, and they still love to play with each other and imagine. We can carry on real conversations with them and talk about important things. My 10-year-old even wrapped my wife’s presents for me this week. But they’re still kids, wide-eyed and innocent and smitten by stories and the possibility that magic just might be real.

And they, for now, think I’m pretty cool. In just a few years, however, they will think they are cool and realize I am not. They will soon enough, a little more than a decade from now, have their own homes and their own young adult lives. We will be a part of their world but no longer the center of it.

So, our family is in such a sweet spot right now. Our kids are fully kids, with all the delight and occasional annoyance that comes with that. Tickle fights are still a thing. And cuddling and story times. We are living the dream and need to embrace this time and love the sweetness of the present moment.

*Inspired by Gruber’s holiday reminiscence.

Our family code

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My wife surprised me with this beautiful gift on Christmas morning – our family charge, hand-lettered by a talented friend. (Thanks, Candice!)

We came up with these four reminders – “Spread love; Live now; Be true; & Shine!” – when our girls were toddlers, and they can recite them on cue. We even had t-shirts made when they were little with a family logo on the front and one of each of the four pillars of our code on the back. (Yes, we can get away with being that kind of family without our kids rolling their eyes at us for a little while longer.)

I don’t know if having such a family code of conduct has any measurable impact on our behavior. But I know I need to be reminded regularly of the kind of person I hope to be. If these reminders can guide a response in a key moment for my kids, it’s worth the effort, and the potential cheesiness, to try to imprint and hardwire in our most prized values.

The magical math of marriage

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I was intrigued by this book on marriage and ordered it last week. It just arrived, and I haven’t started it yet. I have not read many books on marriage. But I’m looking forward to thinking more clearly about how my wife and I can make our marriage even better.

I want to be more intentional about nurturing the most important relationship in my life. It’s easy to let the crush of busyness and routine, especially with two genuine, full-speed kids ruling our schedules, keep us from making space for our marriage.

I heard Joseph Campbell say that the key for a successful relationship is to put the marriage ahead of any individual interests. The marriage is a separate, unique entity. You don’t make sacrifices for the other person; you do it for the marriage, something bigger than even the two of you separately. And what we have together is more dynamic and has more creative potential than what either of us can realize on our own.

That’s some magical math. It’s synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 1+1 is somehow more than two.

Strong relationships are possibility machines.

Strong relationships are possibility machines, in families and business and in friendships. It’s worth making the effort to examine and nurture the most important relationship of all. Honoring my marriage will pay dividends to my kids. Loving my wife well is as much a gift to my kids as anything I could do for them directly.

What will matter most, what will mark the true success of our lives, is the quality of our most significant relationships.

Shine for someone

I found this anecdote a while back:

“Maya Angelou was once asked what was her secret to being such a good writer and poet. Her response was, ‘Because when I was a little girl, every time I walked into a room my daddy’s eyes lit up.’”

I can’t trace it to an interview with Maya Angelou or verify it’s her story, but it rings true for me and seems to fit what I know of her. Every person is unique and has the gift of their never-to-be-duplicated presence to offer. But that sense of worth needs nurturing, and the potential for a truly radiant spirit and creative gift can be quashed without regular doses of encouragement and eye-shining love.

Whose eyes have shined for you? Who has given you the courage to be your best, to dare to be more than even you have imagined?

My parents, my grandmother, my sister. They all made me feel like I was special. My wife has the most amazing eyes of anyone I’ve ever seen, and I was smitten on our first date when she shined those gorgeous blue eyes on me with as much delight and focused attention as I’d ever known, as if I were, at that moment, the most interesting man in the world.

And when I’m giving a presentation, I live for those in the audience who smile back at me, who nod and engage from where they are. Who laugh at my humor, or fake it just to be kind. And I want to be that kind of person for someone else when I’m in an audience.

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people offer me encouragement throughout my life. Who do you need to appreciate for the encouragement you’ve received? Who have been your biggest fans?

And who gets the gift of your shining eyes? Who do you light up for? Whose fire can you warm yourself at?

I want to regularly light up for my wife and daughters and for the people I work with and for strangers who cross my path. It’s easy to take for granted the people we see often. But those closest to us deserve to be reminded that we are grateful for their presence.

It takes courage to express enthusiasm when “meh” is the prevailing sentiment.

Most human interactions are self-absorbed and monotonously sterile. Genuine enthusiasm and delight and focused attention seem shocking by comparison, and it takes courage to express enthusiasm when “meh” is the prevailing sentiment. But don’t you grow a little bigger inside when someone lights up at your presence?

Have the courage to be encouraging, to embolden those you encounter. Give your complete attention to the person in front of you. Genuinely connect with the random people you see and may never see again as well as with the people in your life every day. Be known for the energizing effect you have just for the delight you take in acknowledging the presence of others.

Get excited and allow your eyes to light up when others walk in the room. Shine for someone.