In a recent gaelic football match, my teenage son was among the better players on his team. Perhaps the best player. My assessment might be coloured by the glow of parental pride, but, according to comments from the coaches and other parents on the night, it seems to have simply been the case.
He was in defence and when he got the ball, he’d shove his way through the opposition and thrust up along the wings, often running half the length of the pitch before hoofing the ball up into the box or over to a team mate. Goals happened because of him. The game came alive when he had the ball. He seemed unstoppable.
After so many years of watching him play and very very slowly improve, in this match each time he burst out of the crowd of opposition players I wasn’t seeing my little boy anymore. Here was a young man. Which, of course, he is. We already wear the same size clothes and he’s only a couple of inches off my height and will soon overtake me. But, still, it was like truly seeing him afresh.
One of the first things I knew was that he wasn’t me. That should be obvious, but when he was younger, he was a mini-me. He resembled how I looked as a child so much that I saw him instead of myself in my childhood photos. It’s not just that. I was never much of an athlete, never stood out in a match like he did. Out there in the evening sun, he was doing things I’ve never done. If I ever needed further proof that he wasn’t me, there was it.
Yet, as my lad pushed up the pitch with a commanding control of the ball, l I also felt like I was watching a stranger. I’m been trying to work out why. I think everything I’ve said so far explains it, but there’s something else that has only just come to me while I write this.
I think my son seemed like a stranger because he didn’t need me out there. Up till now being needed has largely been what my experience of fatherhood and not always something I’ve found easy. Indeed, I used to joke that most terrifying words in the English language were, ‘Daddy, I need you.’
I’ve always tried to instill independence and confidence in my children and at the match that change seemed to come abruptly. And there was a surprising pang of loss in it for me. My little boy was gone. And with loss there came an awareness that my relationship with him is going to have to change. I’ll have to have to get to know this stranger who I admired from the edge of the pitch.
The match ended and we cycled home together and he was back to being my little boy again. Chatty and excited about the match, looking for my praise. Still needing me. And that was just fine with me too.