I first became a father not long after I turned twenty-four. At that age I wasn’t much more than a child myself. I was spoiled and immature and still looked to my parents to solve most of my problems, especially those involving grown-up things like money and responsibility. When my wife at the time told me she was pregnant, I thought she must be joking. We were the same age, and it seemed ridiculous to me that two narcissistic, only children who weren’t old enough to rent a car could be parents. But it was no joke. Several months later she gave birth to a baby girl, a tiny stranger I brought home to mooch off of me for the next twenty-five years.
It seems being a parent is one of the easiest jobs to get. So easy, in fact, that three years later my son arrived. When we brought him home, my daughter, who was still struggling to form full sentences, looked at him and said with complete conviction: “Take him back.” If having one child makes you a parent, having two makes you a referee.
As my children grew I repeatedly referred to a dog-eared book on how to be a good, or at least competent, parent. The book detailed growth milestones and minor illnesses but failed to answer the real conundrums of fatherhood. Things like: How to extract a gummy bear from the nasal cavity of a screaming toddler. How to respond when your four-year-old daughter loudly declares, “There are a lot of dark people here!” at a busy Bloomingdales in Atlanta. Or what to say when your son drops out of middle school to pursue his dream of becoming an electronic dance music producer.
By the time my kids were 14 and 11, their mother had moved 800 miles away and out of their lives. As a single dad, I took my daughter to her first gynecologist appointment, shopped with her for prom dresses, and cried like a baby when she graduated college with honors. I comforted my son about his mother’s departure, attempted to home-school him, and sat by him through dozens of counseling appointments. I was the same father to both, but each kid took a different path.
Today my daughter is 25, and my son is 22. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and works for a non-profit, while my son bounces from couch to couch in and around Asheville waiting for his lottery numbers to come in. Both kids are still on my cell phone and Netflix plans, and they both call me daily for advice, compassion, and the occasional hundred bucks. Even though they are good-hearted, law-abiding adults, I still worry about them constantly and wonder if some day, many years from now, I will become a burden to them—an ornery, selfish 70-year-old in a velour track suit complaining about “kids these days.” But for now I will just be “Dad.” It’s the easiest job to get and hardest job to have.