Cat’s (and baby) in the Cradle

By Johan Verster – Pastor, husband and father

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

I have always been grabbed by Harry Chapin’s big hit – “Cat’s in the Cradle”. Apart from the fact that the song has a catchy interlude and a memorable chorus, I think the reason why this song has always stuck with me (and with countless others), is because of the story it tells. It is a story about a man whose son was born, but because of the demands of life and the responsibilities of his job, he was never around to enjoy and engage his son. In the early years, his son still worshipped the ground that he walked on, but as the son grew up into adulthood, it quickly became apparent that the shoe was now on the other foot. By the time the father got to retirement, he was now the one longing to spend time with his son, but it was too late. His son was now the one who couldn’t find the time for him. And then it suddenly occurred to him: “My boy was just like me

Even as I’m writing this and thinking about the story of “Cat’s in the cradle”, it still leaves me with a lump in my throat. Not because the song is telling the story of my own upbringing (growing up, my dad spent a lot of time with me), but rather because – now that I am a father of four – I’m acutely aware of how easily this song can become the story of one’s life.

How the song becomes one’s story:

The reality is that no ‘first time dad’ worth his salt starts out saying to himself: “I’m going to be an uninvolved, distant and preoccupied father!” The reality is that all of us start out with the best of intentions. Just like the father in Chapin’s song, it is always our intention to spend time with our kids, but just “not today”. Today there are “planes to catch and bills to pay”. The problem is however – tomorrow will be exactly the same! There will just be other planes to catch and new bills to pay, and before you know it, 10 years will have passed, and you will have missed countless opportunities of getting to know, and being known by your child.

It all starts with having one’s priorities skewed and out of sync. It can be anything from spending too much time on your hobbies or with your mates, but when it comes to neglect of our children, the major culprit for us men is usually our jobs. We justify the crazy hours that we work and the weeks that we are away by saying “I’m doing it all for the family. I want to make sure I can provide for them and I just want to give my kids the best”. But what is our definition of “the best”? In my line of work (Pastor), I’ve had numerous conversations with twenty-something’s that have told me that they grew up with all the toys in the world, they’ve been at all the best restaurants and they have been on the fanciest of vacations, yet they would have happily exchanged all of it for a dad that was more present (both physically and mentally) as they were growing up. The thing is – I have never met a person that has said to me: “I wish my dad spent more time at work and made more money”. I have met many who have said: “I wish I had a better relationship with my father”.

Why the song becomes one’s story:

Before one is able to guard against becoming a distant and preoccupied father, it is important to understand why this is our default tendency. It might seem on the surface that our neglect is simply a matter of skewed priorities, but the reality is that there are deeper reasons why we choose to spend more quality time at work, or with friends, or on our hobbies, than with our children. The honest truth is simply this – it is easier.

Parenting is difficult. Parenting demands laying down one’s selfish desires and interests and giving the best of your time and energy to the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of your child. Parenting requires discipline and patience. It asks of you to look intently at your child – and see him or her mirror your own shortcomings and failings as a parent – and then to resolve to nurture and mold them into a better version of yourself. And although parenting is one of the most strategic ways of ensuring not only your child’s, but also your own future happiness, the reality is that it does not offer us the recognition and affirmation that we get at work and so desperately long for.

How to prevent the song from becoming one’s story:

The striking thing for me as I read through the words of “Cat’s in the cradle” is the total absence of community. There is no-one in the story that is keeping the father accountable to his actions. No-one who reminds him of the responsibilities of fatherhood. No-one to grab him by the scruff of the neck and tell him to ‘man-up’ and be there for his son. And so, the best thing that you can do for your nuclear family is to make sure that you immerse yourself into a bigger ‘family’ – whether that is your extended family, or some other community of people that will encourage you along the way.

However, for them to encourage you, you will need the humility to listen to them. You will need to listen to your wife or partner, as she pleads with you to be more involved and supportive as a father. You will need to listen to mature friends, who view parenting as a sacred and significant duty. You will need to listen to older men, as they disciple you in the art of fatherhood. And you will need to listen to your child, as he (in the words of the song) pleads with you and says: “come on let’s play”.

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