This week, my daughter Marissa graduated from Palo Alto High School. While parenting doesn’t end with high school graduation–my parents still help me all the time (including in emergencies)–it is an important milestone, and in Marissa’s case, happened just two weeks after she turned 18. Sitting on the Paly lawn, waiting for the graduation ceremony to start, I had a lot of time to think about the occasion.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I wanted to be a father. While I can’t be sure of the reasons for this feeling, I suspect it comes from my relationship with my own father, who was an incredibly loving and important person in my life. I have a reputation for knowing almost everything; for everything scientific and engineering-related, I can trace that back to my father. On weekend mornings, I would bounce into my parents room to wake them up, and then lie there asking my dad questions so that he could explain to me how the world worked. He would also devise homemade science experiments for my sister and I, and build various mechanical marvels from scratch, like a cardboard locomotive.
I suspect that these happy memories led me to want children of my own. I never questioned the fact that I would someday get married and become a father (preferably to a boy and a girl).
Long before Alisha and I got married, we discussed having children. There were three key things we knew we had to agree on before getting married: Where we would live, how many children we’d have, and how we’d handle their religious education.
(The answers were: Silicon Valley, Boston, or Seattle; at least two, with Alisha initially pushing for three or more before the reality of actually having children sunk in; and that Alisha could expose them to Catholicism/Christianity, but that the kids would not be forced to attend services or follow any religion unless it was their desire to do so.)
But there was a secondary consideration that we considered nearly as deeply: When to have children.
We got married at the start of my time at Harvard Business School, so we ruled out having kids until after I graduated. While some of my classmates either had children before or during business school, I wanted to have enough time to get as much out of the HBS experience as I could.
(I did end up starting my first company during business school, and that did consume a lot of my time that second year, but not as much as having a child, and it didn’t consumer Alisha’s time.)
After my graduation, however, we had to make a decision. I was now an entrepreneur during the Dot Com bust. We were far from financially secure. And most of our friends weren’t even married yet, let alone considering having kids.
But despite all the reasons to wait, we decided to go ahead and start our family. Our two main reasons were practical: First, from a biological perspective, we thought having children young would reduce the chances of fertility issues. Based on the fact that we conceived our son Jason the first weekend we began trying, and the extremely large number of our friends who had to go through painful, expensive, and emotionally draining fertility treatments to have their kids, I think the decision was accurate and correct. Second, we wanted to be young parents so that we would have the physical stamina to withstand the rigors of parenting, and so that when our second child graduated high school, we would still be young enough to enjoy being “empty nesters”. As another benefit, it meant our parents could enjoy being grandparents at an earlier age (and for years, my mom was the envy of all her friends).
For the first, but not the last time during our parenting journey, I argued for “short term pain, long term gain.”
Alisha gave birth to Jason at 28, and to Marissa at 30; I was 27 and 29. In my mental calendar, I marked June 2022 as the date Marissa would graduate. I would be 47 when that far-off date arrived; I hoped I would still be vigorous enough to enjoy travel and exercise at that advanced age!
For years, I would think about that far off date, and it seemed like it was forever in the future. Yet here we are today, in June 2022.
I won’t reflect at length on the 20 years of parenting; that would be a book, not an essay! We experienced many highs and lows along the way. It lived up to the research findings of short-term challenges and long-term meaning. Instead, I’ll focus on a snapshot of the now.
Sitting on the Paly Lawn, waiting for the graduation ceremony to start, I was filled with numerous, sometimes contradictory feelings.
- Even though I had looked forward to this day for over two decades, when it arrived, rather than contemplating this profound moment, I was more focused on texting with the contractors working on our new house. Life doesn’t just stop so that you can appreciate the moment; that’s something you have to do for yourself. (For example, you could decide to write a reflective essay on the topic!)
- The passage of time shows up the most in the youngest and oldest. Graduation is focused on the young growing up, but it also brings together the generations in a way that emphasizes the signs of aging in grandparents as well. My mom’s mobility isn’t what it used to be, and we (my dad, sister, and me) all spent time helping her get around. Alisha’s parents didn’t come to the ceremony because they probably couldn’t manage sitting (potentially in the sun) for multiple hours, and because of their mobility challenges. For me, it was an uncomfortable reminder of mortality. I prefer to pretend that everyone I know will live indefinitely, but it’s getting harder to sustain that illusion; it may be time to shift into acknowledging mortality and making the most of the remaining time I have with aging loved ones. That’s another way in which the timing our our children’s births work well; they are becoming more independent just at the point when we might want to spend more time with our parents.
- For this, and all the other reasons I mentioned before, I’m glad we had our kids young, even if it meant I had to explain to people that no, we didn’t have our kids for religious reasons. We may not be as young as we were. We may be over the hill and on the downslope of our lives. But we’re still young enough to feel young and largely unconstrained by physical limitations, despite the aches and pains of age.
I’m not really sure what comes next, though perhaps we should take some inspiration from my friend Julie Lythcott-Haims‘ experiences. I think it’s tempting to throw ourselves into parenting college kids, kind of like a sequel, but I’m wary of pulling a Peter Jackson and trying to stretch out those years just to please studio executives. Or we could turn our attention to helping our parents on the next steps on their journeys. Or perhaps, just perhaps, after successfully completing our life’s longest-term project (or at least its first phase), it’s time we think about our own adventures for the second half of our lives.