Author’s note: It’s now 2020. My son is 27. I was an at-home Dad, mostly, from 1992–95. You remember 1995; I was an at-home Dad before it was cool. I wrote this piece in 2013.
The summer of 1995 was hot in Michigan. We had several days in mid-July where the noon time temperature was in the upper nineties. Aaron, my three year old son, was unfazed. He was mastering a new skill; smacking the beejezus out of a tennis ball with a racquet.
His skill arrived in the late spring. We went into the basement and I put a racquetball racquet in Aaron’s hand. We faced the cinderblock wall five or six feet away. I knelt beside him and held his hand and racquet in mine. I gently bounced a ball off the wall and we swung. We made contact. Hugs all around. We did it again. More hugs. And again and again and again. Kneeling on a work-out mat, my knees were getting sore.
I stood up and stepped to his side. I bounced the ball against the wall. He swung. He drilled the ball into the wall and I caught it on the rebound. High fives for everyone. This became our ritual. Each afternoon after his nap, we’d play basement tennis. When the weather warmed, we moved outside.
We would play cross-wise on one half of the court, using the center service line as our net. Aaron quickly found out that the game was more fun if he didn’t hit it past me on every shot. He learned to hit from corner to corner, giggling as he moved me from side to side like a wriggling worm. We started playing mini-games; doing a bounce-hit serve and then playing out points, scoring table-tennis style.
He won some games. I won some games. Joyfully, he learned to reach the ball in plenty of time to smack the crap out of it. He learned to enjoy an amazing feat: making contact with a moving object and re-directing it at one’s own behest. He was thrilled to control a tennis ball like a yo-yo master.
It was about 94 degrees that day in July at the tennis club. It was noon. Aaron, quite literally, dragged me by the hand onto the court.
“C’mon, Dad. Let’s hit!!”
“Aaron, it’s pretty hot out there.”
“Nope. Need to play tennis. Let’s go hit!”
“Okay. Put on your hat.”
We hit. I fed him some balls. We played some points. It was really hot. I overheard two moms lounging in the shade of the gazebo.
“Look at that little guy hit that ball.”
“They’re having a great time”
“He’s pretty good”
A small gaggle of moms had now gathered. Did you know that there are women who don’t realize that Dads can parent? When did being a parent become a competitive activity?
The murmurs changed tone — Mommy-er than thou.
“Can you believe that?”
“Dragging that little boy out there, how old is that child?”
“Where is that little boy’s mother?”
I turned to the collected moms.
“He’s three-and-a-half. He’s my son and he’s fine, thanks for asking. He’s been playing for a few months now. He’s wearing a hat, he’s got on sunscreen, that’s our water bottle by the net.
“Oh, and for the record? Hitting at noon was his idea and I’m fine with it. And if any of you want to keep tabs on us, in a few minutes we’ll be going for swim. But thanks for your concern. I do know how to care for my son.”
UPDATE: With much joy and awe, I watched Aaron play a lot of tennis over the years. 15 years later, Aaron earned a scholarship to play college tennis. Today, my no-longer-quite-so-young son and I gather in front of the TV to watch all the pro tennis we can. It all worked out.
That said, 25 years later, I still hear similar stories from my Dadblogger friends. In the main, Dads have upped their game and Moms have, too, yet there are still far too many disapproving stares and cell phone photos being taken when a Dad shows up at the playscape. And still too many fathers who don’t get that being a Dad is not the same as fathering a child.
We all have work to do.