In our yearlong process of discerning whether children were in our future, John and I asked a handful of people some variation of “why did you decide to have children?” or “why do you want to have children?” It was spectacular conversation fodder, and resulted in many memorable discussions with people we love.
One conversation in particular has stuck with me for years. It was with one of the people I’m closest to, and it surprised me.
John and I were tucked into a booth next to each other while out to dinner, sitting across from my Dad. This was in his season of being dislocated from my Mom for his job – he was living in Northern Virginia, and made the trip down to see us once a month. The three of us had many adventures on those weekends – swimming in the Eno, poking around at the farmer’s market, taking long drives to our favorite hiking trails.
On that evening, I remember trying to work The Question into the conversation casually, so as not to betray the turmoil lurking just beneath the surface. If there was one person I trusted to weigh in on this decision, it would be him, and I was more than curious to hear what he’d say.
My Dad is someone who has always delighted in his children. Next to his pun-filled humor, his diplomacy skills, his excellent grammar, his love for reading and history and golf — he is known for his love for his daughters. It is his calling card. “No one loves his daughters as much as Rob Ayer,” a friend’s Mom commented to me once when I was telling her about one of our weekend visits. (What a glow, as a daughter, to be loved so well and so visibly! To be delighted in!)
So what would he say? His answer was simple and, to me, unexpected: “I wanted to raise people I’d like to be around.” Not just people he would love – that was easy – but people he would like.
Though this wasn’t the answer I was expecting, it immediately made sense to me. My Dad is one of six kids who grew up on a dairy farm in a small town. My understanding of his family in childhood is that it was largely an insular unit, a self-contained ecosystem of playmates and chore helpers and book swappers and make believe compadres. If you didn’t like being around your family, life would be pretty awful — because you were going to spend a LOT of time with your family.
Even those of us raised in less-remote settings can appreciate how many hundreds of thousands of hours we log with our immediate family, and therefore, how important it becomes to our overall happiness whether we enjoy that time or not. I can see now that raising his kids to be people he enjoyed being around, of building a family unit of likable people who liked each other, was a guiding principle behind many of his decisions.
Good grades? Not the goal. Intellectual curiosity, a love of reading, and the ability to discuss ideas? That’s a person he would like to spend time with.
Starting varsity player? Not the goal. An appreciation for healthy bodies, sportsmanlike conduct, and a day spent outside? That’s a person he would like to spend time with.
Also the goal: all the things any of us find likable in people, our kids or not – kindness, attentive listening, respect for others, graciousness, a willingness to be a helper.
As a parent, what a release of pressure this must have been! He didn’t want kids to burnish his own self-image. He didn’t want to raise kids to change the world or get great grades or to play a sport he loved. He wanted to raise kids he liked spending time with – when they were young, and now, when they are older. It worked: in my whole life, there has never been a season when I didn’t love spending time with my Dad.
Though this whole parenting paradigm feels selfish in a way – after all, you’re using your standard and preferences as the navigational guide – a kid you like will inevitably be a kid (and adult) other people like, too. And to be clear, this was not about making carbon copies of himself – we can enjoy being around people who are quite different from us! The world will give us a lot of messages about what kinds of kids we should strive to raise, and I’ve found most of them to be pretty empty. But raising kids I enjoy spending time with? I can aim for that.
As an introvert, the idea of a close-knit, built-in community that genuinely loves spending together was immediately appealing to me. In the years since, I’ve found it to be a helpful decision filter, just as I imagine my Dad has. It’s not the only one, of course, but it is helpful – even on a micro level. If there’s something our kids do that really annoys us (like, uh, shrieking for no reason…), we’re going to try to work with them to change it (unless there’s a strong reason not to!). After all, I’m allowed to enjoy this parenting thing, too :)
And enjoy it I do. There are few things I love more than spending a day with June, doing anything or nothing at all. She is the best little buddy – one of my most favorite companions – and a delight to be around. I love her, I like her, and I’m anticipating with joy what our time together might be like as she grows older.
John feels the same way. He is well on his way to being known for his love for his kids (and wife, I hope!!) – just one of the things that makes him an amazing dad. Happy Father’s Day to him, to my Dad and father-in-law, and to all the great dads out there. xo
P.S. I’d never heard this idea ruminated on until last year. I could have written this essay, and loved reading it!
P.P.S. Shep is a great little buddy, too, and I can’t wait for our future adventures as he grows – it’s just a little easier to develop a friendship with someone who can talk :)