It's potentially dangerous ground.
Some people at my stage of life would choose to leave this topic alone. And some adult children would dodge it or respond diplomatically if their mother or father asked, basically, “What did I do wrong in raising you?"
Could it do more harm than good to have that conversation, to pick at scabs best left untouched? Will it bring up bad memories for my son? Or will it offer us an avenue for healing, for a deeper connection?
I certainly made mistakes with my three boys (now ages 30, 28 and 26), but we all have strong, loving relationships. This, despite the breakup of my marriage when the youngest was 10. I think there’s enough trust there that each of my boys would answer truthfully. I also have to trust myself to take that risk, to face any unpleasantness I’ve buried.
As my partner said when I posed this idea to her recently, my oldest is well equipped to handle this question and do so honestly. I agree. He is mature, analytical, smart and kind.
I'm not sure how he would break things down into Column A (good) and Column B (bad), but I have an idea of what might top each list. Let's start with B.
Anger. I can pick one prominent example (there are probably more, but one is painful enough) for each of my sons of a time where anger got the better of me. Nothing physical, but harsh words — “You ruined it!” — can sting more than a slap across the face. And the pain lingers far longer. Way too late in life, I learned that yelling is not effective, and can be damaging.
I've advised my son that while every day of parenthood is long and full, the nights can be longer. I well remember the dreaded sound of crying coming through the baby monitor at 2 a.m., rather than those precious, reassuring breaths and grunts, the comforting rustle of turning over in the crib.
Anger has many causes. Exhaustion, stress and frustration with a job or spouse can take hold for months, even years, with one baby in diapers and another one or two little ones toddling around the house. Add a couple of big dogs to a small space, and that was my life for many years. I was not always calm.
In Column A, I would put perseverance, or something along those lines. While there are pursuits I didn’t stick with (teaching, fiction writing, postgraduate work), there are others I have clung to despite considerable physical and emotional pain. My son once told me he respected that kind of perseverance, and he has certainly embraced the same in many aspects of his life.
Something he wrote and gave to me for Christmas in 2015 showed me how much he valued my example on this. That October, he and I ran the Columbus Marathon. He had pneumonia that summer, yet gutted out the long training runs and the marathon. We ran side by side the entire 26.2 miles. It was a top-five moment in my life, without question.
That Christmas Eve, he handed me a 500-word essay, “Five Things I Learned Running a Marathon with My Dad.” In the happy chaos of the holiday, I put the essay aside until the next morning, when I was alone.
"Before I took on the marathon, I considered myself to be 'in shape' and my dad to be 'skinny.' Running alongside my dad on training runs (and on the day of the race), I realized pretty quickly that I had it backward. My dad is pushing 60, and several decades of nonstop running have hammered his lungs and legs into a finely tuned machine that transforms oxygen into miles at an alarming pace.
“When I was a boy, I remember being impressed by my dad’s biceps and the heavy whiskers on his chin — that’s what a man looks like, and someday I’d be one. Then I grew into one, with muscles and facial hair of my own, and he didn’t seem all that physically imposing anymore. So this is a message to my fellow 20-somethings who have long-since ceased to be impressed by their fathers — Old Man Strength is real, and you should take it lightly at your own risk.”
Much of his essay made me laugh, but there were parts that brought tears as well. My son’s openness and vulnerability surprised me, and they helped break down the traditional “masculine” barriers that separate so many fathers and sons. I was touched that he had been influenced by my perseverance.
My son is ready and qualified to be a dad, and I can’t wait to hold my granddaughter. We need to have this conversation soon.
Jim McKeever is a writer and former journalist living in Fayetteville, N.Y.