Essay

What I want my children to know about building human connection and avoiding loneliness

My children are adults now, beginning to live their separate adult lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own start, and how lonely I was for a while. I had to work hard to make connections with other people. I wanted to give my children some advice from my experience about building and maintaining those connections. I have communicated these thoughts with them.

You know how hard I’ve pursued my career and how much time I’ve spent in my hobbies. They’re important to my life, but they’re not the most important things. Without friends and family, my life wouldn’t be all that great.

My experience tells me that the most important element in your personal happiness is being connected to other people. You will be wise to make a major life focus of creating and maintaining those connections. If you’re as introverted as me, you might not need a lot of connection, but you need some. Without enough human connection you will become lonely, and loneliness is painful and bad for your mental and even physical health. We’re all lonely sometimes, but it’s truly terrible for you to be lonely most or all of the time.

At home on a Sunday morning when I was 22

When I graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute, my first job was in town. Many of my school buddies hadn’t graduated yet, and my girlfriend was from Terre Haute, so I had plenty of people to spend time with.

After about a year, all but one of my school buddies had graduated and moved away and my girlfriend and I broke up. I had no family in town, and my one remaining friend, Michael, was consumed with a troubled marriage. I love being alone, but aloneness soon turned into loneliness. I was unprepared for how acutely painful that would be.

On the air when I was 26

I did some things that really helped. First, I picked up a part-time job as a radio disk jockey. Once in a while I went out for a beer with some of the other DJs, and one of the stations I worked for had popular in-person events that I attended.

Second, I joined the local electronic bulletin-board community. This was how nerds like me connected online before the Internet. After a while we realized we could meet in person sometimes, since we all lived in or near Terre Haute! We started having summer cookouts, which led to us going out for beers once a week. We called that the Tuesday Night Drinking Society, the only rule of which was that we never met on Tuesdays. It was a lot of fun.

Third, I joined a church where a number of singles my age attended. We had lots of fun together. I even invited my good friend after his marriage finally ended. This is also where I met your mom.

You’ve heard me speak fondly of my years in Terre Haute and these people are largely why.

After a few years I moved to Indianapolis and left all of my friends behind. Even though I drove back nearly every weekend to be with your mom, those were some mighty lonely days. I was miserable all alone in my apartment. My life improved greatly when your mom moved to Indianapolis and we got married. But as you know, our marriage didn’t work and then I lived alone again. I had not kept up with my Terre Haute friends, and while I had made a couple new ones here, we were all raising young children and thus very busy. Fortunately your uncle, my brother, had moved here by then, and we saw each other a lot. Having you over on the court-ordered schedule was also a real bright spot in my life.

It wasn’t until your uncle moved to Utah that I realized how much I had relied on him for companionship. Again I faced the pain of loneliness. He moved back after a couple years, but in the meantime I focused on building and rebuilding connection with people I knew. This is also part of the reason I started dating again. I didn’t date when you were young because I wanted you to have my undivided attention. But by this time you were in high school and starting to become independent.

I’m not as good as I want to be at keeping up the friendships I have. I give myself a pass because of the serious challenges Margaret and I have faced since we married; there isn’t enough time for everything I want to do. I don’t even spend as much time with you or your grandmother as I want. But I can’t keep letting this be, as I will always need the connections I’ve made.

I want to encourage you to form friendships, stay connected with your family, consider creating your own family, and cultivate deeper bonds with good people in your lives. Here are some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you.

Friends

Focus first on making and keeping friends, even before you seek romantic relationships.

Making friends involves taking risks. Keeping friends involves investing your time into them.

When you encounter someone in the world and spend enough time with them to realize you enjoy them, to try to make a friend of them requires you ask one simple question: “Hey, I’m really enjoying doing this with you. Would you like to hang out together sometime?”

Most people will say yes, but that’s because some of them don’t know how to say no. Here’s the secret way to find out: exchange contact information and then contact them later to set up an outing with them. If they don’t respond or their response is tepid, take it as a no and move on cheerfully.

If they do respond well, choose something simple like going out for a coffee or a drink. If you know of some activity you can do side by side that allows you to talk, such as going to a car show or a street fair, do that. Especially for men, the stakes feel lower when they do things side by side.

Me and Michael in 2007, friends since 1985

It’s much like asking someone on a date, except you want to build a friendship, not a romantic relationship. But you have to start somewhere, and this is a low-stakes way to do it. You will face some rejection, but the sting is light.

A hidden tactic is to look for people who appear to need a friend even more than you and make a point of doing something alongside them where you can ask them the simple question as well.

You will notice that I’m talking primarily about making friends in the “f2f IRL” world. Online friends are great and I have several. One is an inner-circle friend to whom I would tell anything, and we’ve carried on primarily an email friendship for 18 years. But you need “f2f IRL” friends much more.

This means you have to go out into the world. Put yourself in places where there will be people with similar interests to yours — join groups, volunteer, and find a church. It’s classic and corny, but you can make it work.

You can also make friends at work, but take it easy. Friendship can be messy, and a friendship with a co-worker that goes south can be challenging because you have to work alongside them every day. That happened to me once in my early 20s and it was very unpleasant. Since then, I keep work relationships light. But we all eventually change jobs, and when we do it’s great to reach out to former co-workers we enjoyed and ask them the simple question. I have made a couple good friends that way.

Partners

Your life partner should be your closest friend, confidant, and companion.

I know a few people who had it easy finding a life partner, but I think for most of us it takes time and effort. It sure did for me. You’ll have more than one significant other before you find the one you keep.

When you are seeing someone, you will want to spend a lot of time with them. You might even find yourself inadvertently ignoring your friends in favor of your significant other. It’s counterintuitive, but people you date come and go, while friendships are more likely to last. Make sure you spend some time with your friends so they’re still your friends should you break up with the person you’re seeing.

You are likely to become friends with some of your partner’s friends. Making friends this way is wonderful, but if you and your partner ever break up, you are almost certain to lose those friends. If you have friends already before you enter a romantic relationship, they will likely still be your friends when it’s over. If you don’t have your own friends, after a breakup you lose your whole social circle.

This is why I say to focus first on building a satisfying network of friends, and then on finding a partner.

It is a valid life choice not to date and/or not to choose a life partner. Not having a partner gives you time to pursue so many interesting and fulfilling things. Just understand that you are trading away that deep connection and ready companionship.

The family you grew up in

The family you grew up in is far from perfect, as you well know. But I think you’ll agree that we love and accept you. We have our quirks and shortcomings, but it is basically healthy for you to be around us.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a healthy family that loves and accepts them. Such people may find it necessary to limit or eliminate time with their families. It’s a real loss.

The family I grew up in – I was 5

Anyone who experiences love and acceptance from an overall healthy family is wise to keep investing in those relationships, because family can be an ongoing source of love and support. It also feels good to hang out with your family because of the long-term bonds and the innate feeling of belonging.

You are like your mother and me in many ways. We understand you, and we love you. I want nothing more than to see you do well in your lives, and I feel sure your mom feels the same way. I also really enjoy hanging out with you!

The family I grew up in has been a huge source of support for me. When your mom and I split up, I leaned hard on your grandparents and your uncle. Those were incredibly hard times which would have been much harder without my family. They listened to me as I ranted and cried, and they offered advice (some good, some not, but so it goes with advice). Also, your uncle let me live with him for a while, and your grandparents loaned me money so I could get by.

Even in less challenging times, such as when you’re just having a bad day, your family can commiserate with you, and even lift you up and encourage you.

It’s wise, I think, to live near enough to your family that you can see them when you need or want to. I lived a four-hour drive away from my parents when I was in my 20s, and it proved to be too far for me to see them often enough. On the other hand, I was glad to not live down the street from them so I could more easily establish my independence. It would have been nice to live maybe an hour away.

It’s not like I deliberately chose to live so far away from my parents. I wanted to pursue a career in software development and I couldn’t find work in the field in my hometown. Even now, I am sure I made the right choice. Where you live is your choice, as well. Just understand that the farther away from family that you live, the more you trade away these good things.

Your children

Your children can be a source of deep connection and, when they’re adults, support.

You shouldn’t have children because you’ll receive these things from them. Rather, have children because of the innate drive to do it, because you have the means to provide for them, and because you have love to give them. Simple love and acceptance is the number one thing to give your kids for them so they can be whole and healthy as adults. I wish I had figured that out far earlier in your lives!

Us, when you were about 1 and 3, making a memory

Raising children will challenge you and make you grow in profound ways. Also, it’s truly lovely to make good memories with your children. Family bonds just feel wonderful! There is no substitute.

But if you raise your children well and they feel your love and acceptance, they are very likely to want relationships with you when they are adults. It’s great! These fully formed people who are a lot like you and share so many common memories with you will come around and see you.

This is especially important as you age. I’ve watched my parents and my wife’s parents go through this: your friends and age-peer family start to die, and your circle of connections shrinks. It’s important to keep making friends at every stage of life. But if you have children, they become a much more vital source of human connection. They can also really help you navigate the changes that come when you’re older, both in talking them through with you and physically helping you with things you need. Margaret was of huge support to her parents when they could no longer manage living independently. She found them assisted living and did a huge amount of work to put their house on the market. Your uncle has given your grandmother a great deal of emotional and physical support since your grandfather died. Your older years will be a great deal harder without children who love you and come around to see you.

It is a valid life choice not to have children. You will have greater freedom and money to pursue other things that interest you. Just understand that you are trading away the personal growth that parenthood brings, the potential for good and deep relationships with your adult children, and the support your children can give you in old age.

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It’s surprising how hard your 20s are as you adjust to full-on adult life. You are busy enough working and doing the routine stuff of life that it might be hard to consider adding on seeking and cultivating friendships. But don’t put it off. The more you invest in it now, the happier your life will be in the years and decades to come.

Articles in The Masculinist newsletter and blog have influenced my views here and were a driver behind me writing this essay.

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Stories Told

Everyday life, half a world away

Originally published 1 August 2014. The summer I turned 17, I lived with a very nice family in Krefeld, Germany. I was on an exchange program through Indiana University that aimed to immerse me in the German language so that I could increase my fluency. It worked; by the time I came back to the United States I was dreaming in German, and for several days I kept slipping back into speaking German without realizing it, and nobody could understand me! But here, I want to remember the everyday life I got to live while I was there.

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My home that summer

Ulrich and Irene were my host parents, and Peter and Ulrike my teenaged host brother and sister. They lived what I see now was an upper-middle-class life in Krefeld. Row houses were the rule, and almost everybody shared walls with their neighbors on both sides. It was a sign of status that their house was attached to a neighboring house on only one side, and even then, only via a garage wall.

They were a good family that loved each other. They lived a low-key life centered around each other and their home. The family ate two and sometimes three meals a day together. Freshly baked rolls were delivered every morning for breakfast, and cheeses and hard sausages and Nutella came out every morning to top them. Irene thought for sure that as an American I’d want a bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, and bought box after box for me. I never had the heart to tell her I’d rather have rolls and Nutella! That chocolate-flavored nut spread was such a sugar-laden pleasure! It would be 20 more years before you could buy it in the States.

The main meal of the day was at about 1:30. Ulrich came home from work to eat with his family. Dinners were usually meat, vegetable, and boiled potatoes with a thin brown gravy. I never got tired of those boiled potatoes – they were outstandingly delicious! I don’t know what the Germans do to grow such flavorful potatoes. No American tubers can touch them. Ulrich went back to work after dinner and so missed afternoon coffee and sometimes even the evening meal. There was usually some sort of sweet or pastry at afternoon coffee, and that summer it frequently featured strawberries. Evening meal came at about 7 and usually consisted of an open-faced sandwich of hard sausage. It was nice to have such a light supper; it made it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.

After Ulrich made it home in the evening, it was his habit to offer me a beer. I’d never had beer before, so out of anxiety I declined. Later I did come to enjoy German beer, but by then it had become almost a game between us: he’d offer, I’d decline, and he’d sigh. I hope he knew we were both playing! On my last evening in their home, I did have a beer with Ulrich, and he seemed delighted.

Irene kept a lovely and spotless home. She was home anytime I was, and was always up for a conversation. I think that my German skills improved mostly through conversation with Irene, who wasn’t shy about gently correcting poor pronunciation, untangling my garbled grammar, and feeding me words I didn’t know. I liked to run errands with her around Krefeld in her car, an itty bitty Citroën Visa, easily the smallest car I’ve ever been in.

I spent a fair amount of time with Peter, who was about my age. The family had hosted several other Indiana teenagers in past years, but they all had been girls. That year the family specifically requested a young man and they got me. I think Peter secretly wished I had been more athletic, as he liked to play soccer and I just couldn’t keep up. Instead, I was able to show him a thing or two on the family’s home computer. His sister Ulrike was kind and friendly, but a couple years older and involved in her own world.

Krefeld streetcar
Krefeld streetcar

The family had few rules for me, the most important of which by far was to enter the house quietly late at night so I wouldn’t wake them up. I was free to run around with my friends in the exchange program. Public transportation was outstanding and I could get anywhere I wanted to go in Krefeld on the streetcar. I rode it to school every weekday and also downtown where I would meet friends. We’d walk through the train station or Horten, a department store. We’d stop at an ice-cream stand, or step into a fast-food joint for pommes (french fries). Once we took part in a tournament for the board game Risk. The Germans who played seemed astonished that not only could these kids from Indiana play the game, but we spoke their language well.

A couple times my friends and I met at the Gleumes brewery for beer. Krefeld had two breweries, Gleumes and Rhenania, but I liked Gleumes a little bit better. We all toured the Rhenania brewery, though, and at the end we were invited to sample their brews. That was the first time I drank beer, and because I had no idea what I was doing I got good and bombed. But the streetcar stop was on the corner, so there was no need to drive. The Germans are onto something: you can drink beer in public starting at age 16, but you can’t get your driver’s license until you’re 18. You learn how to handle your beer before you learn to drive! And when you’ve had a little too much, there’s no need to drive anyway, because public transportation is extensive and it will get you home. Anyway, I was so drunk after my brewery tour that I missed my stop and got to tour Krefeld by electric rail while I sobered up.

Another time we walked into a random pub in Düsseldorf where they made their beer on the premises. The brewpub concept is hot in the States now, but the whole idea was a revelation to me in 1984. We sat down and the bartender produced beers for all of us without us asking. They made one kind of beer, so if you were there, that’s what you got! I turned the cardboard beer coaster over just to look at it, and found it covered in penciled tick marks. The bartender quickly chided me (in German): “The last fellow drank that many beers and that’s how I kept track. Unless you want to pay for all that, lay that coaster down with the unmarked side up!” That last fellow could put away an impressive amount of beer!

I wish I had more photographs of simple times with friends and my host family. I didn’t know how to compose a candid shot then and I was simply too anxious to ask people to pose. I have a handful of candid shots but that’s all. I cling to them, especially as during college I lost contact with the other students who made the trip with me, and shortly after college contact with my host family petered out. It’s been 25 years since I last saw or corresponded with any of them.

But my memories remain. Such good memories. Such a remarkable trip that tangibly shaped who I would become.

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Film Photography, Photography

Family Christmas photographs

I shot my family’s 2020 Christmas celebration on film. I decided to do it when I stumbled across a roll of Kodak T-Max P3200 I forgot I had. I shot it in my Nikon N90s with the 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor lens attached. I developed it in LegacyPro L110, Dilution B, but I misread the Massive Dev Chart and developed it for a few minutes less time than specified. The negatives looked plenty dense, but when I scanned them on my flatbed, the grain was pronounced.

I decided to print them. I don’t have a darkroom; I just sent the scans to my nearby CVS pharmacy’s photo department. The paper they use in their machines is thin, nowhere near as sturdy as the stuff they used as recently as 10 years ago. But the prints looked all right. I laid them on the dining table with the Christmas tablecloth still on and photographed a few of them with my Canon PowerShot S95. Even rendered this way, you can see the huge, ugly grain in these photos.

These scans are straight off the scanner. No amount of Photoshopping made them look any better, so I quickly gave up. I did tweak VueScan’s settings to bring out shadow detail, however.

When that roll was done I wanted to keep going, but I was out of P3200. Then it hit me: I develop my own film now and can easily push process it. I had some Ilford Delta 400 in the freezer, so I thawed a roll, loaded it into the N90s, mounted my 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor lens, and set the camera to ISO 1600. I knew this stuff would push well because fellow photoblogger Alyssa Chiarello did it recently and got great results.

Ilford still prints developing instructions inside their film boxes. They listed a developing time in Ilfotec HC (their HC-110 equivalent, also equivalent to the L110 I use) for the film at 1600! I followed their instructions and got gorgeous negatives and the best scans my flatbed can deliver (which still aren’t great). They look better than the P3200 photos — the grain is smaller and much more pleasing. Delta 400 is a darn sight less expensive than T-Max P3200, too. I think I need never buy P3200 again — I’ll push an ISO 400 black-and-white film to 1600 instead. I had CVS print these scans, too.

This was fun, but I don’t see this experience leading me to print my work more often. I get it that a photograph is meant to be printed, a physical object. But I’m an online kind of guy and that’s the way I show 99% of my work. My wife prints family photographs all the time, and I figured she’d like to add these to her collection, so I gave them to her.

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Essay, Photography

The lifespan of a family photograph

It always makes me very sad to find old family photographs for sale in an antique store or at a flea market. I want to rescue them all. Space is tight in our home, so I refrain. I’m not sure what I’d do with them anyway. But it is a shame that those family memories lost their connection with the family that made them.

Me and my brother on Grandpa’s lawn tractor, 1971

When I was a kid, mom made all of our family photographs. She had a big 126 camera with a built-in battery-powered flash (quite unusual in the early 1970s). I think she bought it with green stamps! She used it through the late 1980s.

I’ve never seen most of those photographs, except for an album she made and gave me of my preschool years. She took the pictures, had the film developed and printed, put the prints in boxes, stored the boxes in the closet, and that was that. I asked about them a couple years ago and she said she had been working through them to get rid of duplicates and bad photographs. She also said that she was throwing away the negatives as she went. Ack! I asked her to cut that out, as I want to be able to scan those negatives someday.

My sons on my lawn tractor, 2001

But what of those images after my brother I are gone? Will my children care? They won’t even know most of the people in those photographs — cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents they’ve never met. One day I will show them those photographs, tell them my memories of the days they record, tell them about the family members in them. I hope they will appreciate those stories, and through them gain some feeling of connection to the family.

It’s the same for me with the few photographs my mother has of her family. I sometimes recognize my grandparents in them as young adults. A few other people in those photographs lived into my early childhood, and I’m told I met them, but I don’t remember them. The people in Mom’s family photographs are strangers to me. Mom knew them and loved them, and has sometimes told me her stories of them. I’m glad to know those stories, and I can try to remember those memories to share them with my children. But will they feel any connection to these distant ancestors who lived in another place and time? A tenuous connection at best, I feel certain. So, what of those photographs after my mother is gone?

But then there are moments like this. Not long ago my cousin Barbara shared a photograph of my great grandfather, John Eugene Grey, when he was a young man. I never knew him, my father said little about him, and I’ve seen few photographs of him. But when I saw this one, I was struck by how much my son Damion resembles him. That’s John Eugene on the left, and Damion on the right. Damion was 19 in his photograph, and I’d guess John Eugene was within a year or two of that age in his photograph.

Remarkable, isn’t it? Finding something like this is why it’s valuable to keep family photographs. It reminds us of where we came from, and gives us a full sense of our families through the generations.

But how do you keep generation after generation of family images — hundreds, perhaps thousands of them? In enough generations they’d snowball into a genuine storage problem.

I think they key is editing. Mom and I can sort through our family’s photos and keep a small but carefully chosen subset of them — ones that best show family memories and family members. We should write on each photograph what it depicts, where it was taken, and who’s in it and how they are related to us. This should deliver a manageable number of photographs for following generations to keep, and hopefully appreciate.

It will also be a big project, the kind that many families talk about but never get to. It’s why so many family photographs show up in flea markets and antique stores.

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Stories Told

Memories from before my family came apart

My first wife made the photos I shared earlier today of my sons when they were small. She had been a professional photographer, and she was very good at drawing out her subjects’ personality and then, at the perfect moment, pressing the shutter button. If only I could be half as good at portraits and candid people photos!

I have precious few photos from my sons’ early years. My ex wouldn’t allow me to have copies of our family photos when we divorced, and my attorney and I couldn’t convince the judge to order it. The handful of photos I do have, my ex mailed to my mom when they were new. Mom let me scan them. Garrett was 1 and 2, and Damion was 3 and 4, in these photos.

My first marriage was always challenging, but in these early years with our boys we both tried our best. At least the photos I have show our boys happy, having good times.

Around the time Damion entered Kindergarten, our marriage took a solid turn for the worse and never recovered. My mom has few photos from those years; my ex must have stopped sending them. I have mixed feelings about not having those photos. On the one hand, I have no idea anymore what my sons looked like then, and little memory of family events from those years. Without getting into details I’ll say that the last couple years of our marriage were genuinely traumatic for me, leading to spotty memory. I call those “the lost years.” Seeing photos from those years might put me in contact with bad memories I don’t want to revisit.

Garrett entered Kindergarten in 2004. The photo above is the boys on Garrett’s first day of school. About six weeks later my wife would ask me to move out.

The next few years were the hardest of my life. It took almost two years for the divorce to be final, and it was a fistfight the whole way. I moved three times in three years. I grieved the very serious loss of not seeing my sons every day.

But eventually life settled down. The boys and I began to make new memories, which I photographed like crazy. They were our best years, and there’s no way I can forget them.

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Essay

Hitting the parenting sweet spot

My first wife was not only a good mother to our children when they were very small, but she deeply enjoyed it. I hope I was a good father to our young children. I don’t think I was a poor one. I loved my sons, I was well involved in their care, and we had some lovely moments together. But overall, I did not enjoy their early years.

My sons at Halloween in 2000, aged 3 and 1

These were surprisingly lonely years for me. I worked days and my wife worked nights. Except for dinner we hardly saw each other. We either worked or were alone with our kids. On the weekends we each had house chores to do and it was just easier for both of us to do them alone and leave the other with the kids. I’d feed the kids lunch while she did the shopping. She’d care for them while I mowed the lawn.

I wish we had lived closer to extended family. Our closest relatives were my parents, but they lived 150 miles away. Day to day, we had no help. There was nobody to talk to, or to share the challenges with.

I wonder if my wife was lonely as well. I don’t know; we weren’t talking and connecting well as a couple. We were just pushing through our days as best we could.

Some fathers feel bonded to their babies from the start, but not me. Deep down I knew I’d do anything to protect them, and it was fun to make them smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until their personalities emerged in toddlerhood, when I could see glimpses of myself and their mother in them, that they truly entered my heart and felt like a part of me. Until then, my sons were just work.

Damion was colicky. He’d start crying midafternoon — and my goodness, was he loud. His mom and I used to joke that if the city’s storm sirens ever broke, we could just rent them Damion. When I got home from work and exited my car I could hear him screaming from our driveway, even in the dead of winter when the house was closed up. I’d put him in my arms and walk him from one end of the house to the other for hours. I have a heavy step that jostled him as I moved, which I think was been calming. I’d sing softly to him while we moved, two songs in particular, over and over. As long as I walked and sang those songs, he was calm. If I stopped, he’d scream. His colic usually passed sometime after 8 pm, by which time he’d exhausted himself (and me) and I could put him to bed. This was our routine for the first nine months of his life.

As Garrett grew, he struggled to cope with frustration. He’d try and try to achieve some goal that was just beyond him. I’ll never forget how he fixated on the sofa, which he purposed to climb. Little by little over several weeks’ time he gained the ability to reach the cushions, then the arm, and then the top of the seat back. I stayed close, but let him do it because he seemed so intent. But when he couldn’t reach the next level, he’d grow so frustrated and angry that he’d melt down. He’d cry in dark anger, turning crimson. He frightened the crap out of me a few times when he cried so hard he couldn’t draw in a breath. I had no idea what to do for Garrett.

Those were just the especially challenging aspects of our sons. Overall they were typical boys. I played with them and we watched TV. I gave them their baths and I made them lunch. I read to them a lot; they preferred Dr. Seuss: Wake every person, pig, and pup, until everyone in the world is up!

But for the most part, I was left with a feeling of is this all there is? I wished for greater connection and engagement with my sons, with my wife, and with the outside world.

Making cookies, still ages 1 and 3

It came as my sons grew. The older they became, the more I enjoyed them, the less my wife and I had to divide our time around child care, and the more easily we could all do things outside the house. When the boys developed basic self-sufficiency — they could dress themselves, use the bathroom alone, make a bowl of cereal — I started to experience real joy as their father. The boys and I could finally do things together, rather than me doing everything for them.

In the one-room apartment I rented while I waited for the divorce to be final, ages 6 and 8

I enjoyed fatherhood the most while my sons were in middle and high school. They were turning into their adult selves, and I was excited to watch it. I could share my interests with them, and they could share theirs with me. Damion set up his computer as a Minecraft server and we spent several lovely Saturday afternoons building things together in that virtual world. Garrett and I put together a lot of giant Lego sets. I took them on spring break trips including Washington, DC, and Route 66. Damion shared his interests in anime and in Dungeons and Dragons, and Garrett shared his surprising love of dark comedy.

But more importantly, I was able to speak into their lives and help them figure out how to finish growing up. The challenges they experienced in early childhood all baffled me, but I was primed and ready for their adolescence. I don’t know why, I just was. I still made mistakes, but overall I feel like I was made to be a father of teenagers. I wish I could go back and have just one more year of high school with them!

My first wife, in comparison, seemed happiest to be a mom during the baby and early childhood years. The story I piece together from things my sons told me is that she was far less engaged, perhaps even disengaged, while they were teens. It’s hard to know for sure because the divorce meant I wasn’t there to witness it. But my conclusion isn’t far fetched as that’s exactly what I witnessed with her child from her first marriage, who graduated high school before we divorced.

That doesn’t mean I was a poor father of my young children or my ex was a poor mother of her teens. Damion once told me that he feels like he is very lucky to have drawn us as parents; he called us both “fantastic.” It’s just that my ex was a natural with our small children, and I was a natural with our teenagers.

Damion, me, Garrett, and my mom at Garrett’s high-school graduation – ages 20 and 18

I think most parents, those who work to be engaged with their kids, experience this. There will be some years they don’t enjoy parenting, and other years where they love it and are just crushing it.

If you’re a parent of young children and you’re not enjoying it, hang on. The good years are ahead.

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