Family Matters

Sweet Surrender

Ice Cream, Fatherhood, and the Meaning of Life

Family Matters September/October 2010

From the September/October 2010 issue

We pulled out of a Dairy Queen on our way home from biking the Red Cedar Trail near Menomonee, Wisconsin. The sun roof was open. Santana was cranked. My daughters, 3 and 6, were licking ice cream and bobbing their heads to the Latin fusion. When we reached home, their sticky faces looked solemn in the gravity of slumber.

I carried their limp bodies from the truck and breathed in the sweetness of their sleep. I held them close and kissed each cheek, smiling as I remembered the scratchiness of my father’s beard when he’d carried me to bed after long trips. Reason enough to live for another day, I mused. Reason enough to have been dragged kicking and pouting into fatherhood.

Before children, weekends were luxuriously self-indulgent. I did what I pleased, and felt smug in my freedom to play tennis, bike, hike, fish, go to concerts and movies, and enjoy the thrill of a new restaurant anytime and anywhere I pleased. Meals were a source of unhurried pleasures—jazz on the stereo and candlelight and conversation that lingered long after the last coffee was served. I conducted a private practice out of my home at all hours of the day or night—even on weekends, if I wished. I flaunted my freedom and was bored by descriptions of my friends’ and family’s children.

Then eight years ago, upon returning from a fishing trip to Colorado, my Sicilian mate, Madonna, informed me that things needed to change. I was 45. Did I really want to continue on this path of empty hedonism? She warned of the loneliness of old age, of sitting on the porch stoop in boxers watching neighbors visited by their grandchildren and regretting my miserable life. The only remedy was children. In short, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Two years later, our daughter Isabelle was born. AhnaCole came three years after her.

For several years following the birth of my daughters, regularly afflicted by daycare viruses, I became a walking Petri dish. Clients asked whether I was okay as they handed me the tissue box. Sleep became a fleeting state, sporadically interrupted by distressed infants seeking comfort or a feeding. Chronically exhausted, I rushed from work to make daycare by the 5:00 p.m. deadline, and then spent evenings tending to my daughters’ needs. Despite often being so detached and stressed, I gradually began to absorb my wife’s parenting style, which she calls surrender—mindfulness, to us in the business.

Recently, I spent a glorious summer day with my daughters. We made potato salad and lemonade from hand-squeezed lemons and sugar. We took turns cranking maple-vanilla ice cream after I’d packed ice and salt, just as my father had done. We flew kites, threw some bocce, and hiked in a nearby forest, collecting flowers. We lay in the meadow, watching clouds and making up stories. That night, we sat around the fire pit behind our house listening to owls, and watched the light-show of the fireflies against the forest backdrop.

Part of the bliss of a day like this is that it provides a chance not only to be with my children, but also to feel the presence of my own father, now dead 15 years. When I’m with my kids, I feel like both a child and a father.

I don’t remember whether my father ever said “I love you” to me, but I felt his love in the everyday flow of life—throwing the football with him, camping, going to baseball games, making ice cream (or getting it the easy way, from Dairy Queen), watching the news together, or just sitting by the fireplace during the holidays.

Shortly after my first daughter’s birth, after losing to a friend in tennis, I comically tried to exaggerate my dismal performance by confessing failure in all aspects of my life. But my friend immediately pulled me up short, saying, “You’re not a failure: you’re a good dad.”

My daughters will always carry the burden that their father is the age of many grandparents. They’ve accepted that I’m more introspective and solitary than other fathers, preferring to read Food and Wine magazine at school basketball games than huddle with the other fathers and discuss the coach’s misguided game strategy. But years from now, I’m determined that they’ll never say of me, “I’m sure he loved me, but he didn’t always know how to show it.”

During a walk with my father shortly before his death, I asked what he’d do differently if he had his life to live over. He replied by telling me about a theologian who, when asked the same question, replied, “I’d eat more ice cream with my children.”

The last hours of my father’s life were difficult. Restless and agitated, he lay in bed with his arms outstretched, searching for something to steady and comfort him. This once strong, articulate man was caught in a storm of fear and loneliness. He could find no harbor, and we felt helpless to ease his suffering.

But then my brother returned from the kitchen and began feeding him ice cream. My sister put a stuffed toy in his arms. Embraced in the great circle of care, receiving what he’d once given so freely, he suddenly grew calm, seeming to discover for himself the peacefulness he’d bestowed upon us so many times.


Photo © iStock.Oleh Veres

Jere Chapman

Jere Chapman is a psychologist associated with MidWest Center for Personal & Family Development in Burnsville, Minnesota, and is in private practice.