Looking Ahead, Looking Back: A Tale Of Three Dads

Jun 15, 2018 - 7:42 AM

We talk a lot about college these days. For Ada, application season is mere months away. For Audrey, the questions especially concern how to use her remaining years to best position herself to ride in college.

In a sense it’s just more of the same. We’re looking ahead, thinking about what comes next, and what we hope will come after that, and how we might get from here to there.

But of course it’s also very different. The changes on the horizon are changes of kind rather than degree. The role of “dad” will become an ever-more-minor character in the production.

Already I am less necessary than I used to be. No doubt I’m still a good source of transportation. And I can hold a horse and help bring in a paddock mate and even, at least if you ask nicely, clean a bridle so we can get on our way more quickly.

“The role of ‘dad’ will become an ever-more-minor character in the production.” Photo by Patty Van Housen.

But I don’t need to be there every minute. Sometimes, now, I don’t even get out of the car. That mostly has to do with a change in the nature of my job and the need to stay on top of a fairly constant flow of emails. I’d usually rather be sitting ringside. But the point is that it’s not a big deal that I’m not there. I’ve become more of an accessory than a necessity.

I get it, and it’s a good thing. They’ve got to leave the nest, after all.

Still, I won’t deny that I’m also a little bit bummed. My eyes remain on the road, focused on what comes next. Yet I catch myself glancing in the rearview mirror a lot more often.

I’m not alone in this. Friends with kids in college tell me how difficult the transition was. One of my closest friends, a person you’d never imagine this to be true of, reportedly cried himself to sleep the night before he dropped his daughter off at college. And the next night, too. I expect none of this to be easy.

I’m probably also not alone in having been a kid who was oblivious to the parental side of this dynamic. I couldn’t wait to get to college and to find out what life held in store for me. The idea that anyone from home might miss me especially much didn’t really register. I can still picture my mom crying when I turned for one last look before boarding the plane that would take me to Boston, but I figured it was just one of those things, and she’d be fine by the time they got home.

I’m quite certain now that I was wrong about that. Sorry, Mom.

A Tale Of Two Dads

Let me tell you about two dads I remember from my days as a clueless teen. Both stories involve high school wrestling, which was one of my sports.

The first dad had a son who was really into wrestling. Problem was, the school in the small town they lived in didn’t have a wrestling team. So every day during the season that dad would drive his son over to the small town that I lived in, where we had a team. And then he would sit and watch practice. Our wrestling room was in the old gym at our school, which also served as the cafeteria. There was a small section of bleachers still there, and that’s where he’d be, day after day, in a room smelling of sweat, cleaning fluid, and the lingering odors of that day’s lunch.

It makes perfect sense to me now, but you really didn’t see parents doing that sort of thing in that time and place. And he was in no way over the top about it. I recall him as pleasant and soft-spoken, always there, never drawing much attention to himself. If he did any of what we’d now call helicopter parenting I missed it. His kid wanted to wrestle, and he made it happen. I was, to be honest, a little mystified by it all.

The second dad I saw only once, at a postseason tournament. It was one of those “win and advance, or lose and your season’s over” kind of affairs. His son was wrestling against a clearly superior opponent and losing by a substantial amount. The match was winding down, and it was clear the son had given up and was simply looking to run out the clock.

I did not know the kid, and I did not know his dad, and I can tell you nothing of the history leading up to the moment. But in the moment the dad was pacing back and forth alongside the mat like a caged animal. He was shouting in a voice that could easily have been the model for Chris Farley’s “van down by the river” character on “Saturday Night Live.” “You wrestle to win!” he commanded. Over and over again. “You wrestle to win!”

Oblivious as I might have been, even I recognized that an entire gymnasium full of people felt very uncomfortable. And more than a little bit sorry for the kid. I detected no sympathy for the dad.

Over the years I’ve come to understand completely where Dad No. 1 was coming from. His son had a passion, and he did what he could to allow his son to pursue it. I get that.

The funny thing is, I’ve softened a little on Dad No. 2. A little. I’d never behave like that or condone that sort of thing from anyone else. It’d still be an awfully uncomfortable moment to watch. And yet.

Who knows what the background was? Sure, the story might have been a thoroughly unhappy one. Perhaps the dad still carried his own unfulfilled dreams, and the son wrestled only because it seemed like his old man really wanted him to. It might have been the dad’s dreams that were dying—again—as the seconds ticked off the clock.

But maybe there’s a better version of the story. Maybe Dad No. 2 had found himself in the same boat as Dad No. 1. His kid loved wrestling. Nobody could really say why. The boy just had a taste for it and some talent to match. And so the dad took his son to practices and clinics. He cleared out the basement and put in a wrestling mat and a weight set. He went to all the meets and paced around during his son’s matches because who can bear to sit for something like that? He got wrapped up in it because that’s his kid out there, and that’s just how those things go sometimes.

That version of Dad No. 2 was watching it all come to an end. And the hurt he felt for his kid was like nothing he’d ever felt before. All he could do was try to coax a miracle out of the situation. And for that to happen the son was going to have to do something, and there was only one way to let him know that he had to do something. He had to yell. It was the only way he might possibly keep his son’s dreams alive. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Maybe. People are complicated, you know?

I’ve thought a lot about both of these dads over the last 15 years. I’ve tried my best to be Dad No. 1. The passion, it seems to me, has to come from the kid. But I have to admit there have been moments where I’ve felt a bit of Dad No. 2—the second version, anyway—sneaking out. It’s hard to invest your time and your money without investing your heart. That’s your kid out there. If it means a lot to her it means a lot to you. You want to help. You really want to help.

Making The Right Choice

So how do you know which one to be? It’s hard to chart the right course, and impossible to have every step be the perfect one. How do you know when the best thing is just to be there, when all you should offer is your presence or a hug? Or when it’s time to give a gentle, and occasionally not-so-gentle, nudge? How do you pick the right words to say? When should you let that little piece of Dad No. 2, sympathetic version, slip out? What do you do with the fact that watching your kid experience disappointment sometimes stings more than any of your own disappointments ever did?

There’s no way to know for sure, no way to avoid sometimes ending up thinking that you shouldn’t have said that thing that you said, or at least not in the specific way you said it. Or that you misread what was really a time for a hug as a time for a nudge.

You just hope to get it wrong as little as possible. And you hope that the times you got it wrong aren’t the times that your kids carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Because you’re pretty sure you got it right a lot of the time. And because there have been so many good times along the way. Big moments and little ones and pauses in between. Those early trips to tack stores, where it was a thrill just to figure out what everything was and how it might be used, and to imagine that one, far-off day there would be a real horse to ride and groom. The times when it was enough just to stand and watch horses for 20 or 30 minutes. The quest for more Breyer horses. The lessons and the trail rides and those early shows that were by far the biggest days of the year. You’d do it all again, a thousand times.

I’ll close by introducing a third dad. I don’t watch a lot of riding videos, but for whatever reason I watched Liza Boyd’s winning ride on Brunello in the 2015 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship right after it happened. My eye is nowhere near trained enough to see what distinguishes that horse or that ride as being especially good. What I did notice the first time through, and what gives me joy each time I rewatch it, is what happens right after the conclusion of their round, at 1:37 in the video. There’s a switch to a camera focused on a man who is, literally, jumping around, obviously thrilled. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not immediately reach the obvious conclusion. It’s her dad. Of course.

I’m not much of one for jumping around, but I try to find room to be that dad, too. Looking back, there have been plenty of moments when I experienced that sort of joy. And as I look ahead, I plan to be ringside—literally or metaphorically—hoping to have a reason to jump around, but happy most of all just to be there, for as many years as I’ve got.

Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders, and he’s taking readers along on his horse show parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him. 

Read all of Chad’s COTH Horse Show Dad blogs for the Chronicle.


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