There’s an image from my childhood that’s seared in my memory. My father is standing with me in the front yard of our house in Owings Mills, still dressed in his work clothes. I’m about 11 and we’re having a baseball catch.
For some reason, my dad, ever the improviser, liked to make up imaginary scenarios that involved Latin players in the minor leagues.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to today’s ballgame. It’s the Toledo Mud Hens at the Rochester Red Wings,” I hear him saying. “Up at bat is Jose Fernandez, a shortstop from Venezuela…he’s hitting .236 on the season and he’ll lead it off.”
And then my dad would zip the ball on the ground in my direction and keep calling the play.
“And it’s a hard ground ball to second base…”
I’d do my best to field it and throw it back to him.
“Second baseman Chico Rodriguez has got it, he’s up with the ball and…OUT at first!”
My dad had limited mobility (or maybe just incentive). He’d only catch the ball if doing so didn’t require any bending or lateral movement. If the throw was low, and I can see this now, he’d extend his arm down but never, and I mean never, bend his knees. If it sailed by him (and it often sailed by him), so be it. He’d turn and walk to get it as I waited for the next play, fist pounding the mitt in anticipation.
Good times. Vivid memories. But—and I say this without any animosity toward my father whatsoever—baseball is really the only game I remember playing with my dad. Usually he was at work—he ran a pharmacy—or he was just doing something else (although I have no idea what) while my friends and I ran around the neighborhood doing our own thing. He certainly never rode bikes with me, rolled around on the carpet wrestling, sorted Legos or challenged me or my brothers to a Space Invaders battle on the Atari in the basement.
“Go out and play,” went the familiar refrain. And we’d be out until…we came back. My parents usually had no idea what I was really up to; and I was equally in the dark about how grown-ups filled their time.
Such was the way of life and parenting back then in the late ’70s and ’80s. So rare was the occasion that the dads would actually play with us that they stand out in my memory like special occasions. Backyard baseball, football, sledding, riding bikes, all of it happened on our own.
But somewhere between my childhood and now, it seems that the expectations for fathers have changed. I am more in the mold of the modern dad, who gets down on the floor and sets up Hot Wheels tracks and takes part in the occasional FIFA ’15 challenge on the Xbox in the basement. It’s a life that’s a far cry from the stereotypical breadwinner of my dad’s generation, who left most of the nitty-gritty of parenting to the wives.
Don’t get me wrong: I love it. The full-heart joy I feel when I see our boys laughing and having a good time…there’s just nothing better.
But I have to admit I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a dad of prior generations. The expectation was that he was the one who made the money, took care of home repairs (or in my dad’s case, called a guy from the Yellow Pages to take care of the house) and, if there was time, taught the boys how to play sports. Let’s be serious, the bar for “good father” was definitely lower back then.
And in my father’s father’s generation, forget about it. I asked my dad if his dad or his friends’ dads ever played with them after school. His response? “No. They were all working all the time.”
There’s a lot of discussion these days about whether women can “have it all”: a balance between their professional lives and their parenting responsibilities. But I think the men of our generation face similar challenges. We long to be there for all the moments with our kids—their school events and sports and backyard games. We also want time for rewarding careers, fulfilling marriages and hobbies of our own.
It’s all about balance, right? I have no desire to be some cold, distant father who’s too uptight to get in the game. And at the other extreme, I don’t want to be one of those parents who is so wrapped up in his kids’ lives that he doesn’t have one of his own.
I know I’m far from perfect. I’ve missed games and parent-teacher conferences.
I march forward, making deals with myself to feel better. I tell myself that my first job is making sure that the family is provided for; and a close second is quality time with everyone in it. And then there are times when you just need time for yourself and say to the kids, “Go out and play!” And live with the guilt.
When I was graduating from college, I remember feeling completely bummed out. I told a friend how much I was going to miss the school, the friends and the college experiences. She looked at me and said something I’ve never forgotten: “Everything in life comes in phases. You gotta try to enjoy each one.”
I guess the problem is that I’m in lots of phases all at once right now; I wear many hats: that of husband, breadwinner, father, baseball coach and disciplinarian. I am also hugger, bedtime story reader, tucker-inner and sometimes, at my own peril,
a friend and playmate.
We are set up to fail, we modern dads. But we play the game, ever striving, ever striving.
Greg Abel is founder and president of Abel Communications. He lives with his wife Jennifer Mendelsohn and their two boys in Mount Washington.