The Golden Rule of Parenting: Just Show Up

When I met the big boys’ father in the early 1990s, he was a young architect. He worked at a drafting table with draftsmen’s pencils shaved into fine points with specialized sharpeners. I can still hear the whir of his leads spinning to precision, the mechanical sharpener held in one hand, the pencil in the other, white shirt sleeves rolled up just past elbows.

His blueprints were produced little differently than those of Howard Roark, as played by Gary Cooper, in the 1949 movie “The Fountainhead.”

Not long after our first child, Claude, was born, his father learned to draft in CAD, or computer-aided design. The pencils, sharpeners, drafting table and true blueprints became instantly obsolete.

Boston, 1995. I carried baby Claude, either in a backpack or a sling, throughout a city in which I knew nobody and where few locals were receptive to people whose ancestors hadn’t fought in the Revolutionary War. Three days a week, Claude’s father left extra early for work to receive CAD lessons from an officemate.

We moved back to Ohio soon after Claude began walking. In his home office, I watched my then-husband slide his mouse across a pad to open boxes on his computer screen, click and drag images around until buildings took shape.

Contemporaneously, hand-painted animated movies, many stunning works of art (see the opening scene of Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”), gave way to the precision of computer-generated imagery. With every step forward, something must be left behind. Are today’s architecture students even required to draw by hand?

The boys’ father wanted to be an artist, like his mother. His father wanted him to be an engineer. The dilemma was solved when he decided to become an architect.

Like me, the boys can hardly imagine their father sitting down without him drawing with whatever was available, be it ink and sketchbooks or crayons and newsprint.

The boys went to schools in Akron that emphasize the visual arts, from the Waldorf School, which is why we moved to Akron, to Miller South School for the Arts and, finally, Firestone High School’s School of the Arts.

My sons draw both intricately and with the looseness of people comfortable doing so. Claude’s first major at the University of Michigan was art and design. The month before his first semester, I spent all my savings, about $5,000, buying the computer and software suite his program required.

Claude switched his major to English literature before I ever saw him working on computer design. Instead, Jules was the first of my sons who reminded me of watching my ex-husband design on the computer.

Working in the biology department at the University of Akron last winter, Jules developed, with much trial and error, a tool to extract pollen from the anthers of a specific plant. Once collected, the pollen grains were counted. After hand-drawing his ideas, Jules drafted them on the computer, using free software.

“Would you ever want to contact your father and ask him about computer drafting?” I asked Jules.

“No,” he responded promptly. “He’d just make it all about him.”

My ex-husband lives two states away. He never contacts the boys, even when he’s in Ohio. It’s been nearly four years since they’ve seen him.

Once there was a boy who could draw. His talent was innate but also influenced by spending time with his mother, a trained artist. Somewhere on his path to adulthood he lost his way, becoming less like his mother and more like his father.

Recently, Claude had the opportunity to pitch a brochure design for an Akron governmental office. He worked on it using the now-outdated version of Adobe Illustrator that was part of the software package purchased seven years ago for college.

Wanting feedback on his brochure from Max and me, Claude brought over his laptop the night before it was due. As I heated up a plate of leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans for him, Claude’s program crashed, and he lost most of his work. Two weeks’ worth.

It’s happened to anyone who works on a computer. Re-creating lost work takes less time than generating it from scratch, but it still sucks. All I could do was make him a cup of coffee and sit beside him, starting this column.

There are many things I wish I’d done differently with my children. After our divorce, it became achingly clear that in choosing my ex-husband, I’d given my sons a parent who was little different than my own. With a few more years of therapy under my belt, I would have chosen differently, as I later did.

Years of trying to make a happy marriage without the essential ingredients left us empty-handed. But I’d do it again — all 15 years of futility — to have Claude, Hugo and Jules in my life.

The skills of my first three sons are an amalgam of their parents’. They draw as easily as their father, and work as hard as I do to write well. (Good writing is born more from determined tenacity than natural talent.)

The pre-verbal baby I carried around Boston turned 25 last week, on the 12th day of Christmas. I’ve always thought of him as my gift from the Magi. While I wrote on my laptop, Claude re-created his brochure with relative ease, occasionally asking me to look at his progress. He finished shortly before 1 a.m.

All parents have regrets. There is no perfect parent, and what child wants one? The first and last rule of successful parenting isn’t so much what a parent brings to the table, only that they come to the table. Not helicoptering, but simply showing up. Be present when your children need you, while also teaching them to become self-reliant.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 13, 2019.

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