As a father, I am often relieved when a corner is turned in the development of my children. When the baby finally sleeps through the night, my son becomes potty trained, or the kitchen no longer requires baby-proofing, these are milestones that call for minor celebration. Each event represents progress, and an easing (albeit slight) of the demands and anxiety that parenthood brings.
My wife holds the opposite view. She resists every such hint of her babies growing older. If she could, she would freeze our children in their current stages of development so that we always have a five-year old princess, a three-year old daredevil, and a six-month old giggle machine.
We turn corners throughout life. For me, finishing college is a particularly salient example, because graduation meant that I would no longer have to toil over research papers and midterm exams. I very much enjoyed my college experience, but I was anxious to start my naval career and go to flight school. Surely life at 20,000 feet while making $3,000 a month would be far preferable to nights spent in the library while struggling to get by on $300 a month. And it many ways, it was. (Living in a beach-front condo on Perdido Key didn’t hurt either…)
Yet I spent flight school waiting to turn another corner: earning my wings and joining the operational fleet. Learning navigation and basic airmanship was all well and good, but the whole point of flight school was training to be a combat aviator, and I couldn’t wait to take the fight to the enemy. (Didn’t matter who that enemy was. In the late 90’s most likely it would be Serbia or Iraq, although Iran and North Korea were possibilities as well.) More prosaically, I couldn’t wait until I could fly without being graded, judged, and critiqued. Yet once I completed flight school, another corner waited to be turned: I had to complete initial training in my fleet aircraft, the EA-6B Prowler, which meant another year of graded flights before I would be assigned to an operational squadron and go on deployment.
Predictably, once I finally made it to my fleet squadron, the Zappers of Electronic Attack Squadron 130, I had many more corners to turn: first flight from the carrier, first combat mission over Iraq, mission commander qualification and tactics instructor training. In many ways, my progress made life easier. Each corner turned brought more trust and freedom of action. Every flight still had its debrief, but the critiques became more collegial and less pedantic. Soon I was the one providing the instruction and my responsibilities grew commensurate with my qualifications. It was not long before I was wistfully remembering those halcyon days in Pensacola when all I had to do was navigate from point A to point B, or those four years in Durham when all I had to do was read books and write what I thought about them.
And so it is with fatherhood. The infant that becomes a toddler no longer needs to be held all day, but instead has to be chased on foot as he follows his natural curiosity. The daughter that learns to speak and tell me what she needs is now very vocal and persistent in telling me what she wants. Each milestone brings more complexity and more responsibility to my roles as a father.
The one immutable fact of life is the passage of time. As Heraclitus said, you cannot put your feet in the same river twice. In the same way, each day and each year, you raise a different child, the ongoing product of your genes, your guidance, and your love. You can no more stop the progress of their aging than you can put it in fast forward until the day of their own college graduation.
Somewhere in between my relish and my wife’s dread of each corner turned lies the answer: taking each day and each child on their own terms, and working to savor each moment, both the joyous and the frustrating, as they occur.