By Matthew Tully
A few years ago, something about Thanksgiving changed for me. After decades of appreciating the holiday but having it mean little more than watching parades and football while eating as much as possible, I found myself thinking deeper about the holiday's most enduring question: What are you thankful for?
The change was the result of the same thing that makes the answer to the question so easy: Fatherhood.
What am I thankful for? A whole lot. I'm a lucky guy. An extremely, ridiculously lucky guy with a wife and a job that I still don't understand how I was able to get, and a life that's a world removed from the smokestacks and gritty streets of Gary, Indiana, where my first 10 years took place.
So, yes, I have a lot of reasons to be thankful.
But at 45 and with a nearly 4-year-old son, what I'm most thankful for again this Thanksgiving is that fatherhood came along and hit me in the heart and soul and mind like nothing else could. I've been telling my little boy exactly that day after day as Thanksgiving approaches, and even though he seems to have heard enough of my sappiness, he's going to keep hearing it.
Not to bore you with too much background, but I spent most of my adult life actively planning not to become a parent, a decision tied more than anything else to a complex and strained relationship with a young father I barely knew and hardly ever saw growing up. It was a relationship I didn't think about much back then and that I rarely think about now. And while I don't consider him a bad guy, at all, the lack of a relationship did occasionally pain the much younger version of me, and it led me for a long time to think that fatherhood was something best left for others.
God, was I wrong.
Thank goodness I figured that out before it was too late. Because here I am, nearly four years after my wife and I brought our son home, finding myself thinking every day — every hour, really — how grateful I am for that little guy, and how impossible it is to imagine living my old life, or not having him dominate this one. I sometimes feel like a guy who hit the jackpot after reversing his longstanding opposition to the lottery — except that a $10 million check has nothing on a son. (Or, my brother would tell you, a daughter.)
I've undoubtedly thought about the issue of fatherhood more in the past four years than in all of the previous 41. I've thought about it most of all, of course, because it is now my most important title. A title that they rightly say puts everything in life in perfect perspective. Or at least better perspective.
That perspective is why I now find myself impressed by nobody more than the guys on my block I see outside playing with, walking with and talking to their kids every day. It's why I don't worry much about how people will judge my career when it's over; the only judgment I really care about is whether my son will think I was a good pop.
Of course, being a good father means showing a child that you're a hard worker and, I believe, a good husband. I learned that second bit from Fred Glass, now the Indiana University athletic director, who a few years ago shared a bit of wisdom that stuck with me. One of the most important things a man can do, he said, is show his children, through his actions, how much he respects his wife. That's easy for me, of course; my wife is easier to respect than anyone I've ever known.
But back to fatherhood, and why I've been thinking so much about it. In addition to being a member of the brotherhood of dads, I've spent a tremendous amount of time these past few years in schools filled with children who don't have the fathers in their lives that they deserve. I've seen what that does, what pain that causes, and I've wondered how any father could not want more than anything to be a good one. I've also seen the stunning data — an estimated 85 percent of juvenile prison inmates and 71 percent of recent high school dropouts, for instance, grew up without involved dads — and it's clear the problem is a crushing one.
I understand the challenges so many fathers face. I understand there's a difference between becoming a dad while essentially a child yourself, and becoming one at a time in life when you are emotionally, financially and otherwise prepared for it. I understand the damage that was done to a lot of adults by the cruel and unfair childhoods they endured. I understand that all sorts of things can stop someone from being involved in their child's life, and that plenty can get in the way of someone's attempt to be the parent they truly want to be.
I get it.
Except, I don't.
Because I've met those kids who tell me their dads don't come around. They're strong when they say it but you have to know it hurts and that the world would be a better place if more kids had dads who built their lives around them. Or at least did as much as they were capable of doing.
One thing I've learned these past four years is that I certainly don't have the playbook to good fatherhood. I can't imagine how many mistakes I've already made, and how many more I'll make in the years to come. Ultimately, I know only two things: First, being there and loving that kid counts for a lot. And, second, it's fun.
Yes, it can be challenging and nerve-wracking and it can leave you more tired than anything else. But it's also a flat-out blast. You get a child, indeed, but you also get a friend who just wants to have a good time and who reminds you hour after hour of the wonders of the world we too often take for granted. You get goodness in a little package and the chance to have a positive impact on that young life.
So happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for letting me go on (and on and on) about what has become my favorite topic. And while you can rest assured that I'll enjoy the turkey, football and parades this Thursday, thanks to fatherhood I'll be a lot more thankful for all of it.
You Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/matthewltully.