I’m writing this on Father’s Day.  I just spent a week with my two young adult children, ages 29 and 22, who live in Illinois. I am now visiting my 85 year-old father. I am experiencing multigenerational paternal whiplash. I think my father was able to semi-retire from fatherhood within a few months of his last son leaving home for college. He’s come out of retirement a few times as needed, but for many years he has been a father-emeritus, enjoying the benefits of his sons’ successes without being pulled into the struggles.

I’m not yet there with my paternal duties. While I did not expect my job as a father to be done by now, I did not anticipate being called out of the bullpen quite as often and with so much riding on each pitch.

My daughter has just emerged from two years of total self-doubt. She borrowed a wad of money to earn a master’s degree that promised to pay off with a good job almost immediately. On approximately the same day she graduated, the economy collapsed. Jobs in her field dried up. The promise was rescinded. There was weeping, wailing, and rending of vestments during those two years of marginal employment, resume revising, online searching, and fruitless interviewing.

My job during that time was that of emotional propper-upper. I did my best to remind her that patience and persistence were not just virtues but life skills, like treading water. I avoided statements about darkness and dawn. Clichés infuriate me when I’m feeling desperate. I reminded her that something would come, eventually.

Something did come. For the past four months, she almost giggles when she talks about her new job, even the steep learning curve, responsibilities, deadlines and long hours. All I do is nod, smile, and nearly bust open.

My son has needed a different kind of propping up over the past couple of years. From my perspective, he’s needed far more emotional support than he’s been willing to receive and far less financial support than we’ve provided. Early in the visit this week I got a clearer picture of his living situation, his finances, and the way he spends his time and makes his decisions.

As people mature, they should become more effective at managing these basic aspects of life. While you can’t control what life throws at you, you can learn to better manage those things that are within your control while life is busy throwing.

He’s been too willing to take easy paths in hopes of avoiding tough lessons. I was shoveling coal into a locomotive that was already out of control. I had to stop shoveling.

We had some tough talks. There was anger, tears (mine), lots of silence, and frequent acknowledgment of our deep affection for each other despite everything. My job was to be compassionate toward the 17 year-old that still lives inside him, and to be firm with the 22 year-old who was spiraling out of control. I felt mean when I got harsh with the scared and confused 17 year-old. I felt cowardly when I was soft on the insolent 22 year-old. As long as I kept those two separate in my mind and in the conversation, I was clear of my role.

Sometimes I think the role of the father is like the role of the sparring partner in boxing.

A sparring partner is not the same as an opponent. The sparring partner is not there to defeat the other fighter but to match and challenge the skills of the other fighter. Blows are exchanged, but the purpose is not to knock out, injure, or demoralize.

The purpose is to make the aspiring boxer a better fighter. The sparring partner must know the fighter’s strengths and weaknesses so they can focus on what needs work.

As a father, I have to be willing to stand toe to toe with my son, take his best punches, and not flinch. I also have to throw some punches, not to injure but to awaken. He’s not yet as ready as he thinks he is for the big fights ahead.

Printed in the Abilene Reporter News, July 2, 2011 http://www.reporternews.com/news/2011/jul/02/the-father-as-sparring-partner/