On sharing the most important parts of your life with your kids

When I was 15 I had an experience with my dad that I didn’t begin to understand until last week I went home to Maine with Jay and Wally.

In 1996 my dad was five years divorced from my mom and my brother, sister and I spent alternating two-week periods going back and forth between his house and hers.  For about a year my dad had been watching the television show ER which was only in its third season but which had become already one of the most popular shows on television.  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I imagine that on Thursday nights, maybe even more than most nights, my dad looked forward to getting the three of us off to bed so that he could have some time to himself.

That year I received a television for Christmas, which I installed in my room.  My dad had a de facto policy that all the kids had to be in their rooms by 9pm but by the time I was a teenager what I did after that was up to me.  I started to watch ER by myself up in my room while downstairs in the living room my dad did the same.  It wasn’t long before I was hooked; I’d spend all day at school anticipating the show.  My heart would beat faster as 10 o’clock approached, and the first notes ER’s theme song would hit me in a wave of pleasure that I can recall viscerally still today.

The next morning at breakfast I always wanted to talk with my dad about what had happened on the show the night before: Why does Carter let Benton be such a jerk to him? How could they let Carla lose her job because she has HIV? Please oh please let Doug and Carol kiss already!  (I’d actually forgotten the specific plotlines until I read a recap of ER Season Three on Wikipedia; sitting here this morning writing this post, I’m feeling as worked up about them as I was as they were happening.)

Despite my enthusiasm (or maybe even because of it) my dad, didn’t want to talk about the show with me.  When I’d start asking him questions he’d barely look up from the newspaper, or he’d mumble an answer through a mouthful of cereal.  I wasn’t very good at reading his body language, or maybe in my enthusiasm I chose to ignore it, so every week I went on trying to talk with him about ER and every week he made it more and more plain that he really didn’t want to be having this conversation with me.

At the time and for years afterward I couldn’t understand why.   Isn’t it fun to share a television show with someone? Isn’t it even more fun when that someone is your son?  Then last week I went home to Freeport with Jay and Wally and I began to think about what it’s like as a parent to share the most important things in your life with your kids.

When Jay was born I remember being a little bit stunned when I realized that this little person suddenly had a claim on all of the most important things in my life.  I realized that my home wasn’t strictly my (and Caroline’s) home anymore.  It was now Jay’s, too, and he had as much a claim to our living room, and our family experience, and our lives together as I did.

Of course, that’s one of the main reasons why people have children in the first place—to make and share life together—but still, I was a little taken aback when it occurred to me that there would never be a day for the rest of my life when Jay wasn’t welcome (even entitled) to walk through my front door and plop himself down on my couch.

I glimpsed this same feeling again on my first day home in Freeport last week.   After breakfast that morning Jay and I took a walk down the quiet street where I grew up.  It leads down to the town harbor and during the summer it’s shaded by a canopy of broad green oak leaves.  Jay skipped on ahead of me down the street, cutting in and out of our neighbors’ lawns and picking up small rocks and dropping them down storm drains, stopping only when the sound of a barking dog caused him to retreat fearfully to my side.

As I watched Jay explore my thoughts ran on two tracks: I thought about how important my old neighborhood is to me, even if I don’t get back there as much as I’d like, and I thought about how maybe over time, with enough visits, it might become just as important to Jay too.  It made me happy to think that I could share such a wonderful place with my son, and to think about how our experiences there will layer upon each other’s in the coming years.  But at the same time I thought about how Maine was no longer quite mine in the same singular, private way it had been before I became a dad.

And that made me think of my own dad, and the television show that fifteen years earlier he hadn’t really wanted to share with me.

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