Diminishing Returns

Yesterday I promised to devote today’s essay to my reflections on fatherhood. Today it seems laborious and also too reminiscent of Bill Cosby’s 1980s-era huckerism about what a great dad and therefore person he was. Maybe he was a great real life dad, I have no idea. But he still drugged and raped women, so the balance sheet of his life is far from balanced.

Laura Dern had that great quote in “Marriage Story” that went “Let’s face it, the whole idea of a good father was only invented like 30 years ago.” And she was pretty much on point. And even that “good father” gets way too much praise for pretty easy stuff. I remember when the twins were born and I’d take them out for walks in the double stroller, people (mostly women) would shower me with ridiculous appreciation for doing something that I did mostly to get out of the apartment with them, where they seemed to be the home team and had me at their mercy.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that ever since I fully pulled Montaigne out of these essays, they’ve become more personal and that’s starting to make me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. So I’m tossing him back in today and will probably try to work him in at least once every essay, at least as a way of creating some distance from the topic. Montaigne wrote quite a bit about fatherhood, but I’m not going to focus on those essays and will comment on this passage instead:

I would similarly regret any new inward attainment. It is almost better never to become a good man at all that to do so tardily, understanding how to live when you have no life ahead. I am on the way out: I would readily lead to one who comes later whatever wisdom I am learning about dealing with the world. I do not want even a good thing when it is too late to use. Mustard after dinner! What use is knowledge to a man with no brain left? It is an insult and disfavor of Fortune to offer us presents which fill us with just indignation because they were lacking to us in due season. Take me no farther; I can go on no more. Of all the qualities which sufficiency possesses, endurance alone suffices.

Being a parent is very much an upside down activity. The things that matter most are those that happen right at the beginning, when your children are 100% dependent on you and your influence is absolute. It takes time to understand the demands of the activity and you pick up how to do it better as you go, but the things you do as you pick up the knowledge become increasingly less important. Other influences come into play and then children become closer and closer to fully formed people with their own ideas and expectations.

What keeps you going as a parent as the years go on and children pull away is this somewhat terrifying thought — no matter how well you’ve done so far, you can destroy it all in surprisingly little time. The good news is that Woody Allen’s quote about life is also true of being a parent — 80% of it is just showing up. The greatest harm is in that 20%, when you are not there, either physically or mentally. That’s when the damage can occur, where disappointments can pile up fast.

Anyway, that’s really all I have to say on the subject. I’m not going to take a bow for my work as a parent. If my kids turn out ok, it’s mostly due to the choices they made and perhaps the foundation their mother and father created for them that made those good choices easier. They have all of the big choices in life still ahead of them, and I hope I’ve helped put them in a good enough place to make the most of their opportunities.

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