The Song That Haunts My Fatherhood
As a kid, I identified with the boy in the song who wanted more of his Dad’s attention. 30 years later, I was the dad leaving my son wanting more.
My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you dad
You know I’m gonna be like you.”
I was 7 years old in 1974 when Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” began playing incessantly on radio airwaves. I’d listen to it from the backseat of our station wagon, memorizing more and more words each time it came on.
Catchy from beginning to end with a great hook, it stuck in my mind easier than most songs. I identified with the boy in the song who just wanted his Dad’s attention. Who wanted to be just like the main male in his life. I understood the Dad was busy and gone a lot, which made sense to me because my own Dad was busy and gone a lot.
Obviously striking a chord in the American soul, the song went to No. 1 on the charts.
And I sang it for years without coming close to understanding it.
Swearing I’d be different
I passed through my 20s single and childless. Adult contemporary radio, suddenly an option in my postgrad years, reacquainted me with Chapin’s iconic song.
Now I listened and felt deep sadness—and anger. Sad for the boy in the song who was gifted a ball but not the presence of his Dad. Sad for my own unmet longing to spend more time with my Dad, a successful high school football coach who loved me but found it easier to relate to other people’s kids. Angry that I couldn’t get back time that had been given to others. Angry that dads would choose to be away from their own kids for work. Who would do that?
And I blindly committed in my heart that if I ever had kids, they would come first, no matter what.
My first son, Erik, arrived just before my 33rd birthday. Three more children showed up during my 30s, right at the start of my vocational prime.
With career vision, came more opportunity. Opportunity led to leadership, and leadership brought even more responsibility.
Travel. Late meetings. Working at night and on weekends. Missing more and more activity in my own home, justified by a calling to help aide problems in other’s homes.
Not as different as I thought
During my first few parenting years, my work at home felt increasingly obligatory, necessary, and dutiful. Meanwhile, work outside the home felt validating, significant, and needed. Realities I’d heard others talk about for years—but now I was actually feeling them.
I stood in front of a vocational pile I hadn’t known in my 20s. Every day the driven first-born in me tenaciously sought the bottom of it. As my house filled up with kids, my heart filled up with a desire to conquer the pile.
The pile. It stared me down everyday—hovering, beckoning, growing. Demanding resolution.
Funny thing about that pile. In spite of my greatest efforts, it never got smaller. In spite of my devotion to make it the centerpiece of my scheduled life, it never relented, never quieted, never ceased in its quest to dominate my life.
I found myself saying, “As soon as I get past this, then I’ll be home more”—to myself, to my wife, and to my kids.
And there was Chapin’s song, whispering in the background of my memory, convicting me, haunting me, challenging me to see the clock ticking. His lyrics anxiously reminding, “You’ll never get to the bottom of your pile! It only gets bigger. Anyone can dig in your pile just as fruitlessly as you, but no one else can be a father to your kids.”
I wasn’t seeking insight. It happened almost by accident.
Now I get it, Dad
I suddenly understood my Dad (who long ago apologized and more than made up for his own early parenting choices). I understood the fathers of my friends who were never around. I understood how work could feel more controllable and satisfying and worthy of my time than kids who were different and uncontrollable and didn’t give words of gratitude for my attention.
I got it. And I understood the choice that every working man and woman faces as kids become part of their scheduled life. Conflict in my own heart replaced judgment toward others.
Andy Stanley argues in Choosing to Cheat that it’s impossible to give equal amounts of time to everything clamoring for our attention. Every day we must choose to “cheat” something or someone. The choices usually involve deciding between the demands of our family vs. the demands of others outside the home.
Some days our family will lose and some days work or church or community will. But, he says, be sure that, on the whole, you’ve chosen your family to get the best. They shouldn’t feel they’re living with leftovers all the time.
What do you want to gain?
In Mark 8:36, Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Before kids, I took that question seriously and adjusted my life accordingly, committing myself to ministry in the lives of others.
But after kids, Harry Chapin’s parallel question became just as significant to me as a Dad: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole pile but lose his son?”
The scary and humbling truth
In 1981, Harry Chapin died at age 38 in a car wreck while driving on the Long Island Expressway. At the height of his popularity in the late 70s, Chapin stayed on the road 290 nights a year. Stories circulated afterward that his wife Sandy chided him for being gone so much. His kids Jennifer (9) and Josh (8) needed him home, and he’d recently promised to cut back on travel.
When would he start heeding the words of his own song, Sandy asked, a song which he frequently admitted “scares me to death”?
Forty-five years after first hearing the song, I’m sitting in the front seat, driving my now 18-year-old son when “Cradle” comes on the radio. He’s a music buff and familiar with the words.
It crosses my mind to ask him about it, but now I’m scared to death. “What do you think about this song? Do you feel this way about our relationship? Did you feel like I was always choosing something else over you?”
Those are vulnerable questions to pose to our kids, but I need to know the truth. His answer—“Dad, our relationship couldn’t be more opposite from this song”—blessed me beyond measure. While certainly not perfect, I’d chosen well enough with him to avoid the parenting regret I feared most.
“Cat’s in the Cradle” haunts us because it’s primarily about regret. Regret for time we can’t get back. Regret for expressing too much love toward the wrong thing. Regret for the unintended consequences of a life more caught than taught. Regret for having scaled a ladder only to realize what we really wanted lay at the top of a different wall.
Get it done today, dads
But in God’s economy, regret can be both avoided (through wisdom) and redeemed (through repentance). Through the Cross, it’s never too late to start doing the right thing.
Are you a dad today? Then regardless of your age or theirs, you can still choose to cheat the pile and not your kids.
Indeed, if you’re still alive to read these words, you’re still in position to heed Chapin’s. And that’s a grace from God worth acting on.
When you comin’ home son?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then.
Copyright © 2019 Ed Uszynski. All rights reserved.