This should really be entitled, "An Ode to Daddy," because my mother died when I was five and a half years old. Daddy raised me, not remarrying until I myself was married. It was only when I was too tired to play games with my own daughter, or was too busy to sit and have an intense talk with her about what happened to her that day in school, that I suddenly realized, one day, that perhaps Daddy hadn't really wanted to go with me to the amusement park every Sunday and ride the Whip and the Turtle again and again and again. And maybe, just maybe, he really hadn't been so excited to play a game of ball with me outside after coming home from a long day at work. And, hard as it seems to imagine, maybe he really would have preferred going to the grocery store alone so he could quickly get what we needed, without making it into a major outing with me.
But I never knew these things, or even guessed it, while I was growing up.
Finding out all the details of my life, and hearing a play-by-play description of my day at school, playing games both inside and outside, and talking and reading together…well, this was just what a parent did. This was what a parent wanted to do. This was, in fact, what being a parent was all about.
It wasn't until I was living away from home in college that I found out that not every father called his child each day at lunchtime to ask how the morning had gone.
It wasn't until I was living away from home, in college, that I found out, by a chance response from a friend, that not every father called his child each day at lunchtime to ask how the morning had gone. My reaction when my friend mentioned that her father had never called her at lunchtime: "But how did he know how your morning was going?"
Hard to believe, but I asked it in all seriousness. This was my first inkling that not all fathers were as interested as mine in what was going on in their children's lives.
And I never thought to ask if her mother was.
Only rarely did I realize that I was missing a mother. Daddy made me wonderful birthday parties and was always there for me if whenever I needed or wanted anything. The fact that we had no other family living in the vicinity wasn't unusual. None of my friends had large or extended families. Yet it's only now, with my own children, that I realize how good a parent he was, and how hard, and lonely, it might have been for him.
I wish I could be as good a parent. For it truly is not the number of parents in a family that counts, but the quality of their parenting. What matters is teaching a child to be filled with joy and contentment with his or her lot, which almost automatically leads to gratitude. It's inculcating the feeling of not needing what other people have, and not wishing to be anyone else. It's fostering a sense of completeness in oneself, no matter how much better you are trying to be.
That's what a parent can instill, and should instill, in every child. And two parents should be able to instill twice as much. But it will never happen if the parent won't hang up the phone when the child enters the room, if s/he won't realize that an adult conversation can be finished later, but that showing a child you want to spend time with him/her now, is forever. And it won't happen if the parent answers that cell phone while walking down the street with the child - even if s/he thinks that it will only be a two-minute conversation. Watching the bird fly by will be missed, as well as will the funny whatever that you two could have shared. And it will be missed forever. As will those many Shabbos afternoons when the child is "keeping busy" while we take a Shabbos nap.
Mother or father or both - the point is to realize that we only have the first few years of a child's life in which to create our relationship with him, and to form the person that child will end up being. Those business meetings and social charity functions, those conversations with friends and associates, the cleaning and laundry and even the food shopping, all need to be restructured as parenting opportunities. And if it cannot be redesigned, it should be postponed.
Because being a parent cannot be postponed. If it is, the child usually no longer has the time for you, or the interest.
This article is from "The Mother in Our Lives," (Targum/Feldheim) a new anthology of Jewish women's writing edited by Sarah Shapiro