Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Dad App

My eighteen-year-old son Nicholas was walking through the house with a smart phone that was saying “Droid…Droid…Droid…” in an synthesized electronic voice that would have made George Lucas smile (“Roger Roger”). What’s that? I said. He looked up and grinned and said he’d found an app that reminded him of me.

With Nick in Prague
It was a deadline reminder program he was testing. It was telling him the project or test or term paper was due that day, and adding little text encouragements like “You’ll feel happier if you do this right away.” Took the words right out of my mouth.

As we stood talking, Nick tapped on his touch screen with perplexed determination while the electronic voice continued its reminders. He looked up and said the thing was exactly like me: even though he had already told it thanks for the reminder and please go away, it was still pestering him. Can’t you get it to stop? I asked. Only if I tell it I have completed the task, he said.

What a truly brilliant invention: one that not only takes over parental nagging but fosters life-like interaction--a little deception to get it off your back--between user and surrogate.

Nick has just left for the University of Michigan to study computer science. It’s his passion, and he’s good at it, so I know he’ll do well and be happy. Still I worry a little, like any parent. Will he eat well? Will he get enough rest? Will he remember his deadlines? Will he be careful when he’s having fun? All the usual stuff.

I wish I could be there to make him breakfast every morning, although I’m sure that would be his worst nightmare. He’s the last one out of the nest, and after having gone through this with his brothers and sister, I am a little surprised at how much I am already longing to find a way to stay close to him.

So, what’s up with that? Why do so many of us have such a hard time letting go of our children? It may be as simple as loss of comforting routine. It may be something of an identity crisis: If I’m not an active father, who am I? Or perhaps it is something more, something even more unsettling.

I remember once, late in my grandfather’s long life, visiting him in the small house to which he had retired after a distinguished career in academia. His two children, my mother and her brother, were themselves old by then. They had turned out well, and he had been, by all accounts, a doting father. That morning he was resting in bed in a quiet, dim room with a fan whispering on the dresser. He was looking a little wistful, and I asked him what he had been thinking about. As if ashamed of his thoughts, he didn’t look over at me when he answered. He said he had been lying there regretting every mean thing he had ever said to his children.

Children are hope. Hope for the future. And for a father who tried hard but could have done better, hope for redemption. When they leave home, gone with them is the daily absolution they offer so freely, so ungrudgingly, so unconditionally. There will be no more mad rushing to your arms when you come home, even (or especially) if you’ve been away too often. No more spontaneous ping-pong matches, with the easy joy that comes from playing a game you both want them to win. No more serving homemade sausage rolls for breakfast along with your apology for yelling at them the night before. 

Raising children is like gambling. You keep putting coins in the slot, knowing (or at least hoping) the next pull of the lever will bring a jackpot. Or maybe that’s not right. Maybe it’s not that chancy and random (and you certainly don’t think the odds favor the house). Maybe it’s more like investing in a generally rising market. There are some ups and downs, but the trend (barring really bad luck) is almost always up, even if you don’t do everything perfectly at each step, even if you screw up pretty badly once in a while. There’s always another day, another chance.

Until there’s not.

So why is it so hard to let go? For me, it is the fear that Nick’s leaving marks the end of the unique form of personal optimism that comes with being a parent. As my grandfather must have before me, I mourn the waning of second chances, the draining of that wellspring of optimism that I can be a better father, indeed a better person, that bubbles up every day in a house with children.

McCord Clayton
Palo Alto, CA


  1. I love this piece. And this blogger. :-)

  2. Mac- you capture so well all the emotions around raising (and letting go of) children. I for one take comfort in knowing that what I am experiencing is shared and understood by other parents like you! Thanks for writing this piece.

  3. I like it! Now you and the NY Times need to figure out how to be paid for this!

  4. great post, Mac.. can't wait to read more.

  5. Mac, as you know, this is fresh in my mind from taking Sophie off to college this weekend. You very nicely expressed the emotions! I guess it is just another stage in the whole process, but it sure seems more extreme than many of the other stages for us parents. I am really going to miss the chats sitting at the table in the kitchen. I take comfort in knowing how much I enjoyed my college years and expect that she will have the same great experience. Yet, I do find that have my iPhone glued to my side, just in case I get a text message! Thanks for the great piece!

  6. Wonderful post. I look forward to reading more.....

    I will add, though, that you and Meg should truly enjoy the "empty nest." It can be an equally rewarding and wonderful time in your life.


  7. It's so nice to hear from you all. Thanks.

  8. This touched me. Makes me understand a comment my father made recently, about something he did and still regrets.

    As a non-parent it's important for me to get this perspective. Thanks so much, Mac!

  9. Lovely, touching, wise and a bit wistful. It captures one's identity as a father, and the hopes and doubts of the next generation.