I grew up with the kind of no-nonsense tough love parenting that both traumatized and strengthened me. We had no money, and my dad was good at making the best of challenging situations by leveraging the cheap labor of his four sons. We were all in it together, amid the drinking, the fighting and the shouting. Irish immigrants in England. Us lads against the world.
Fast forward 25 years and suburban, middle-class American parenting is a strange world for me. I can afford Adidas soccer cleats, so it just seems mean to buy my 11-year-old son the bootleg ones with the four stripes on, like I had. But where is the happy balance between raising children full of their own sense of personal power and usefulness, which my hardscrabble upbringing gave me, and offering support along that road?
It turns out that low-budget transatlantic travel is also a great way to embrace the micro-struggles that teach resilience: Jet lag; long train, ferry and bus rides; dead cell-phone batteries; no WIFI; no PlayStation; food with hidden vegetables inside; and hours spent listening to relatives that you barely know were all excellent invitations to try new things.
I designed a two-week trip last summer to catch up with family and friends, whom I hadn’t seen for way too long. Our journey took me and my son Brendan from Baltimore to Iceland to Bristol to Wolverhampton to Birmingham to Leeds to Wetherby to London to Holyhead to Dublin to Athlone to Westport. Brendan played endless card games, tried to perfect Dublin, Yorkshire, Culchie and London accents, ate fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, read maps, learned history on the fly, played and fought with cousins, walked foreign dogs, converted currency and watched English TV quiz shows with the glory of knowing all the answers to questions about America.
Amid all that, one experience stands out: When we went to Croagh Patrick, the rocky mountain in County Maigh Eo, where St. Patrick used to pray. Twelve years previously I’d knelt in the little chapel at the top of Ireland’s holiest mountain, and pleaded with God that the battle with infertility would be won and that we’d have a child. My grandparents had dutifully climbed this mountain barefoot as an act of penitence and pilgrimage countless times. I’d dragged my wife up there, in the unspoken hope that some mystical intervention and appeal to my ancestors might be worth a try.
Fast forward just over a decade and I have Brendan, a son who came to us through adoption in Guatemala, and who had spent the previous day happily eating pizza, drinking Irish soda and playing on the swings with his new favorite Irish cousin.
On the day we went, it was drizzling, windy and a raw 56 degrees (not bad for July in Ireland). We’d been climbing for two and a half hours and as we turned the shoulder of the mountain, veiled in mist, the final 500 feet of the rocky vertical ascent came into view, at which point Brendan hurled his stick at me and cried out in anguish, “I can’t! I want to go home!”
I was tired, too. We were miserable. It felt like my childhood all over again, and sure enough, instead of sympathy or empathy, my inner Irish dad came out and I gruffly urged him on.
As we crawled up the rocky summit, literally on our hands and knees at times, the mutual animosity was palpable. When we reached the top we were both close to grudge-filled tears. I went into the little chapel as much to escape the awkward, hateful silence as anything.
I knelt down in the same spot as my famished ancestors, where I had knelt 12 years before, and my little boy silently stole in, knelt beside me and said, almost as miraculously as the sun which had finally melted through the clouds, “Gracias Papí. Thanks for making me do this, Papá. It’s pretty cool up here. We did it!”
They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Many of the ones in the photos we have from that day were curse words, but the rest were the story of an Irish exile with his Guatemalan son, finding out how doing new and difficult things together, with great love, makes them belong together.