The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard. – Sloan Wilson
When my oldest daughter Jennifer was seven years old, I taught her how to ride a bicycle. With a large, round, bright red helmet securely placed on her small head and training wheels affixed to the rear tire, I stood behind her as she peddled up and down the driveway, and then along the sidewalk. Slowly but surely, she learned to balance, brake, and steer her bicycle. This went on for two months or so, until one day, it was time to remove the training wheels. On a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon, I stood next to her, then behind her, as she gradually gained the confidence to ride on her own. She soon developed the hang of it and peddled with authority, her small bicycle rolling along the sidewalk as she turned the corner. I ran as fast as I could to keep up with her, yelling instructions and encouragement along the way. I could sense her excitement as she experienced a taste of independence, the freedom to ride on her own, no longer in need of training wheels and a father’s protective glare.
As she proceeded further around the bend, the block commenced a slight downward tilt. Suddenly, her bike picked up speed and I soon realized she was moving too fast. “Slow down!” I shouted. “Use your brakes.” She didn’t hear me and seemed oblivious to the dangers lurking around the next corner, where a telephone pole and stop sign awaited her. I continued to run after her, but she moved further ahead, and I watched with increasing anxiety as she tried to maneuver the next street corner. Unable to gauge her need to slow down before making a turn, she braked too late and lost control. Her bike abruptly slammed into the telephone pole. Jenny flew from her bike and fell to the ground, hitting her head and badly scraping her knees on the concrete surface. I caught up to her, hugged her, and helped her to her feet, as tears streamed down her cheeks. Thankfully, she was alright, if a little beat up and emotionally scarred. It was a scary moment for both of us, one of life’s momentary setbacks, a lesson in the harsh realities of taking chances and moving to the next level.
Naturally, it was a while before young Jenny regained the courage to get back on her bike. But eventually we tried it again, this time with the benefit of experience. Jen now mastered the use of her brakes and better understood the laws of physics and centrifugal forces. She would develop into a very good, if more cautious, bike rider, and would later ride horses as well. Despite the occasional fall, she mustered the courage to jump and even compete in a few horse shows. When it was time to give younger sister Hannah bike lessons, I knew to start her on a flat surface with no inclines. When her training wheels came off, we bypassed the hilly sidewalk and took her bike to the school parking lot, thus dodging past mistakes. Such is the education of life.
“The guys who fear becoming fathers,” wrote Frank Pittman, “don't understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man.” I understood this sentiment only when I had children of my own. When my daughters were born in the early 1990’s, I became more aware of my surroundings, more sensitive to the risks and dangers lurking around each corner. My life became a little less about me and more about the little people who so much depended on me, who needed my presence, guidance, and protection.
When my kids were little, the quickest way for me to gain their attention was to sit down and look comfortable. Raising children is difficult, a grinding, time consuming process that requires sacrifices and compromises. It was not always easy trying to balance my desire to be a good father while also pursuing a career as a federal prosecutor. Trial prep sometimes took a back seat to an Indian Princess gathering or a weekend soccer tournament; whenever I accompanied one of the girls to Camp Canadensis, where sleep was at a premium and sweat and bug spray a constant companion, I dreaded the pile of work awaiting me on Monday morning. Between Saturday morning horse lessons, the commitments of travel soccer, helping with homework and papers, and providing rides to birthday parties and bat mitzvahs, raising kids and remaining involved in their lives while also pursuing a highly-charged career, with a lawyer spouse – and later as a divorced Dad – was at times difficult. And yet, there is no more important task of a parent than to raise their children to be kind, compassionate, responsible people and to prepare them for the world they will eventually confront on their own.
Among the happiest and most content moments of my life have been the days spent with my kids, taking them to ballgames, spending a week together at Disney, traveling 12 hours in the car to visit their grandparents, or just hanging out. Now that they are older and more independent, I would not change a day in the time spent with my children these past 22 years. I only wish now I could have some of those moments back.
* * * *
These past four weeks have been an emotional and exhilarating time, of milestones and awards, life accomplishments and dreams of a bright future. Now that Jen has grown up and graduated college, and Hannah high school, they are no longer in need of training wheels, less dependent upon my protective embrace. It is time to turn the page.
All the young and beautiful faces among their graduating classes reminded me of a more innocent and hopeful time, when life was full of promise and adventure, the opportunities limited only by one’s imagination and effort. “You are the best of what we were,” declared Michael Pladus, a wonderfully talented and compassionate school superintendent, at Hannah’s high school ceremony this past week. Eyeing the wide expanse of the football field, I could sense that these young men and women in their caps and gowns and smiles represent everything we once were and everything we hoped our children would become. They are younger versions of us, a reminder of our more idealistic, creative, and hopeful selves.
“It is indeed ironic,” wrote Isabel Waxman, “that we spend our school days yearning to graduate and our remaining days waxing nostalgic about our school days.” I long, as we all do, to remain forever young. But as time passes by, as my body ages, as life’s demands accumulate, the wonder years of my school days recede ever so distantly into the past. It is the memories, if not the experiences, that stay with me forever. So too, I hope, for my children. This is the gift of youth.
Graduations are important, for they allow a moment of reflection on the journeys traveled and the roads yet taken. And though I am filled with pride, I understand it is sheer luck that I was blessed with such responsible, self-assured daughters, grounded and down to earth, who possess a balanced sense of work and play, of obligations, responsibilities, and the fragility of life. They know who they are. But I sense now the realization that, for my daughters and for me, it is time to begin new chapters in the ever rapid expedition of our lives.
As I glance towards the horizon and look to the future, I pray that my girls will find their place in life. I take comfort in knowing that Jen is ready to pursue a career in graphic design; that she has developed a sense of self-confidence and knows she can compete with the best and the brightest. Before Jen went off for college, I feared she would live on macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. Now she regularly buys organic produce and experiments with exotic vegetarian and ethnic cuisines. She works hard, has really nice friends, and has matured into a wonderful young woman.
Hannah, too, is ready to find her way, to discover her passions and pursue her dreams. It seems like only yesterday when we worried if she would ever outgrow pigtails. And although her diet is still too dependent on chicken tenders, she has become an accomplished writer, a lover of animals, and an academic superstar. Through the years, I have watched Hannah and Jen develop into mature, responsible adults, independent young women ready to take on the world. I rejoice and worry at the same time.
Our children experience change and turbulence in ways never before seen in human history. When Hannah first entered high school four years ago, there was no iPad, Facebook was in its infancy, and Twitter was something only hummingbirds and nervous Chihuahuas did. Since Jen finished middle school nearly a decade ago, Google has become a verb and the internet has revolutionized the universe. The last four years have seen even more rapid advances in technology. We live now in a Digital Age. Change and anxiety are ever present.
Young people today are free to create their own future, to invent new technologies and transform the global economy. A lucky few can turn dreams into reality. But life is messy, a mixture of chaos and exuberance, misery and opportunity. Unemployment among recent college graduates is uncomfortably high. The gap between rich and poor is wider than ever, and the burdens on working families and those who do not have the benefit of inherited wealth must struggle more than in years past to survive in today’s economy.
Jen and Hannah have each completed this chapter in their lives and are turning the page to begin new ones. As their father, I want them to be financially independent, to pursue their dreams, to find a life partner who will love and respect them for who they are, and to experience a life of fulfillment and purpose. But I know they will confront a cold, competitive world with many obstacles along the way. I want always to be there for them, to protect them from harm and the pain of life. I now realize, however, that it is no longer my role. “It is one thing to show your child the way,” said Robert Brault, “and a harder thing to then stand out of it.” Whatever paths they choose, whatever rivers they cross, the only certainty is that life will have its ups and downs, excitements and disappointments. Through the successes and the stumbles, I can offer them only unconditional love, the knowledge that I will always be pulling for them, and the wise counsel of Susan B. Anthony:
Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.
May my girls lead lives filled with passion and compassion, respect and integrity, love and laughter.