I’ve always been a dude that’s in touch with his emotions, but becoming a father has really liberated my inner sap. Being the father of a 2-year-old boy has made me the kind of maudlin, sentimental crybaby who gets teary-eyed over just about everything, and not just the milestones we’re expected to shed tears over. Part of this is attributable to my own tortured upbringing. I never really had a childhood, so I’m vicariously experiencing what it’s like to have a happy, stable, loving childhood through my son, and I’m reluctant for that period to end, even though I know it must.
My wife and I were overcome with emotion when our son Declan recently turned 2. We did not weep, but I teared up with emotion every time I looked at my little dude and realized with a heavy heart that his days of being a baby were rapidly coming to an end. If something so relatively minor could overwhelm us, I can say with certainty that we will not, on any level, be able to handle the following five milestones in our son’s life with anything approaching dignity, grace or maturity.
1. First day of elementary school
I’m barely able to handle the fact that Declan goes away to preschool every morning and plays with kids his own age instead of staying home in a state of perpetual babyhood. I remember visiting his preschool for parents day and feeling more than a little melancholy that he has a whole world that he goes to every day that does not involve me, although since my wife is a teacher in his school, she has her own separation anxiety since she sees him at school but is not his teacher, which is challenging for both of them.
So when preschool and kindergarten give way to first grade and my wife and I give our son his lunch and gaze into his perfect face as he prepares to go off to the first day of class, I know that my wife and I will be crying deep, whole-body sobs that will be a profound source of embarrassment to our son. That mixture of pride and sadness, hope and a longing to hold onto the present as long as possible will be absolutely shattering, but my wife and I will try, and fail, to hold it all together.
2. First heartbreak
I’m so protective, my son already makes a regular point of shooing me away so that he can handle things on his own terms, like when I shadow him on the playground to ensure that he doesn’t fall down and he pushes me away with an outstretched arm and sternly tells me, “No, Daddy!” I will be psychologically protective as well, and the mere idea that our son will experience the awful milestone of having his heart broken for the first time breaks my own heart and makes me want to alter the very nature of life to spare him from this pain, which I know is also crucial to growing up. Sadness, disappointment and rejection are fundamental parts of life and can build character, but that won’t keep us from feeling our son’s heartbreak almost as intensely as he does.
3. Leaving for college
I suspect this will be even more intense and soul-shattering for us since we’re not very good at cutting the proverbial apron strings. I think part of my difficulty letting go of Dex can be attributed to my own traumatic childhood, thanks to my mother’s abandonment and my father’s inability to take care of me due to illness. I know how cruel the outside world can be and how kind and loving it is to Declan now, so there’s a Quixotic part of me that wants to keep Declan at an age that the cruelty and loss of the adult world cannot get to him for as long as possible.
After dropping Declan off at his dorm and kissing him goodbye, after clearing away those last few boxes from the trunk so that he can begin his new life away from us, I predict that my wife and I will be so sad, in a happy sort of way, that we’ll commit ourselves to a mental hospital on the drive back to help us deal with the loss. This might seem a little extreme, but we’re a pair of extremely emotional human beings, especially when it comes to our Dex.
OK, I very much doubt that my wife and I will be able to handle our son getting married at all. To see him up there, gazing into the eyes of his beloved, his whole being animated with joy and enthusiasm over the decades to come, will be incredibly overwhelming.
I’m already so melancholy and overwhelmed with emotion about Declan growing bigger and more mature and adult every day. Part of me wants to freeze time and keep Declan at the age he is now forever, but I realize how deeply unhealthy that is, for me and for him. And a wedding is very concrete evidence that Declan doesn’t belong to his mom and dad anymore, but to his partner, should he choose to get married. We’ll be overjoyed that our son has found love, but our overwhelming emotion will be profound sadness that our boy is grown and will soon have a family of his own to be way too emotionally invested in. That is the nature of life, as is my wife and me losing our shit over our son.
I am ending the list here because I am pretty much certain that merely gazing at our first grandchild for the first time will be such an intense and revelatory experience that I can’t imagine anything beyond it. Being a dad has been such a profoundly overwhelming and life-changing experience for me that I can’t wait to share it with my son. And while there’s part of me that eagerly looks forward to being grandparents, even the joyous events are a reminder of the fragility of life and our own mortality. When this happens, I will weep like a baby with overwhelming joy, but also a distinct undercurrent of sadness.