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Tuesday, December 10, 2019
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Notes from a Mid-Life Father

 

By Kyle Keeney, Ph.D.


 
 


     
 
        I am a 44 year old man, married now 15 years to my college sweetheart.  Yet, my wife and I didn't start the journey of creating a family until 5 years ago.  We are now blessed and challenged with two daughters, who are now 5 and 1.  I am a stay at-home-dad, who works on a contractual basis.  My wife is a full time executive who also provides our family with health insurance.
      Our family is an exception to the norm in many ways.  We are older parents, never divorced, and our parental/work roles are different than many of our peers and certainly foreign to our parents' experiences.  Parenting today is dramatically different than generations past.  We inhabit a technologically connected world where many of the norms, lessons, and insights of the past offer little guidance for the challenges we currently face.
     This was never more evident than during a recent conversation I had with my 72 year old father.  I was relating to him how my 40 year old brother, who has no children of his own, struggled to change our newborn's diaper.  It was my brother's first experience handling a newborn and he struggled, nervous, handling this tiny baby.  My wife and I giggled at his timidness and the fiasco that ultimately resulted in him getting peed on as he too slowly made the necessary moves.  I thought my father would chuckle at the story, that he would relate to my experience as a father. I was wrong.
     "I've never changed a diaper in my life" he said, "Not yours, not your brothers', nor for that matter, any of my grandchildren's". 
     Here I was looking for guidance, for insight as to how he had raised three sons and two step-sons in the late Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.  Yet, my father was clueless on an aspect of fatherhood that is intrinsic to my experience as a 44 yr old stay at home father of two girls.  I really shouldn't have been so shocked. But I stumbled and then realized that...
     Each generation encounters the world in ways unforeseen by their parents.  Each generation defines and experiences the family creation process in their own unique way.  As parents, we look back, seeking the wisdom from our mothers and fathers.  Of course, we forge our own paths, but the need for parental guidance and the reassurance of "this is how my parents did it" bears weight.  In the wee morning hours we comfort our crying child and confront our own mortality no differently than our predecessors.  Yet recently there are some critical aspects of parenting that have fundamentally altered how we define and approach this task.
     Our five year old rises in the morning to the voice of an internet connected alarm clock "friend".  It tells her when it is appropriate to jump on our bed.  Breakfast takes place with her mother and me both already connected to work via text messages, emails and social media feeds.  Our children are surrounded, immersed and (more importantly) fluent in technologies that we, as parents, are still grappling with ourselves.
     The punchline is not only that our children are smarter than we are, but that they are ahead of us and leading us, showing us the way, through the possibilities and pitfalls of the world today.  We should be cognizant of this fact.  It is their world... fresh, new and full of discovery.  We are the past.  We brought the torch to this point.  But the hand-off to tomorrow is much earlier than many of us are able to see.
     The moment we give birth to new life, the countdown to our death begins in earnest.  The priorities of life shift as my goals are no longer about me and MY accomplishments, but are about others, about the lives we have created and now are tasked to nurture and support.  My perspective on life literally moves to the floor, to my experience of the world from my children's eyes.  And while we take seriously our roles as supporters and providers, this wanes with each passing day as our children develop their sense of the world, their priorities, their independence; and we look more and more to them for guidance and perspective.  It is no longer "our" world that matters as much as it is "our children's" world that is to be discovered and explored.  The relevancy and applicability of our perspective as parents diminishes as our children build their navigation and coping mechanisms. Their eyesight and insight takes practical and critical priority over ours.  This displaces us and our experience of the world as secondary to theirs.
     It is a wild transition, one that cannot be explained to us before we arrive there ourselves…which brings me back to my father.  As I look at his life reaching its end, I must now fulfill my role as his child, providing him guidance and perspective that his world lacks.  He struggles with it, in some ways no differently than I struggle to now fill his shoes as a parent, handing the lead off to my children., looking to them to lead forward in this world.

Educated at Georgetown College, Baylor University and with a Ph.D. in complexity modeling from Temple University, Dr. Keeney is an inveterate explorer and educator.  When not at home with his family, he wears the occasional hat of university professor in epistemology, corporate strategy consultant, and artist. 
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