Harry Chapin's famous song Cats In The Cradle hits me emotionally every time I hear it. Whether it's his original, Cat Steven's even more well-known version, or more recent covers like the one by Ugly Kid Joe, it never fails to strike an emotional chord with me. I've spent the last 3 weeks learning to play it on my guitar, and when I play it myself it's even stronger.
Knowing what I know now, I'd say that my father lacks confidence and that's why he is so reluctant to share his feelings, and hard for other people to connect to. He was my natural role model and for a long time I emulated this too. As a result, I lacked confidence and we both had very little emotional connection.
The song connects me with the pain I still feel in my relationship with my emotionally distant father. Ironically, my father and I have a lot of time for each other and get together on a regular basis; we have even more time together now that he's retired and I'm working for myself. But there's a distance between us that I find painful.
My Dad was always there for me physically as I kid, and I don't ever recall brushing him off because I just wanted to borrow the car keys once he'd taught me how to drive. But emotionally, I have found my father a very difficult man to connect to. He was an Engineer, his father was an Engineer, and I became an Engineer. We were more interested in analytical problem solving than having an emotional connection with people; yet it's the emotional connection that I crave now. Someone else can do the analysis and solve the world's engineering problems... I just want to connect with real human beings.
The line “I'm gonna be like him, yeah. You know I'm gonna be like him” is particularly moving for me. I am my father's only son, and of course I want him to be proud of me. I probably couldn't help but want to be like him when I was a kid, simply because he was my Dad. I was vary aware that he had his flaws, which was most obvious in the painfully caustic relationship between my two parents.
My mother used to regularly shame my father calling him a “male chauvinist pig” any time he exerted any kind of masculine power, or expressed a viewpoint that wasn't radically feminist in its outlook. Ironically my Dad strikes me as quite a powerless man who lacks confidence; but any time he did exert his authority, my mother was always there to shout him down and put him back in his place. And then whenever I expressed an independent viewpoint with a masculine bias, I would be shamed with “You're just like your father”. Ouch. That always hurt. I was fooled by my mother's shaming into feeling that being like my father was a terrible thing, yet I couldn't help but want to make him proud all at the same time.
The father in the song gets the insight that he's been his son's role model all along, but it comes too late for him to do anything about it. The son's new job's a hassle, and his kids have the flu; he doesn't have time for the father because the father taught him by his actions that these relationships weren't important. Yet clearly they are. Then tables are turned in the final chorus when it's the father wondering when his son is coming home so they can get together; but there's a sense that it's all too little too late by then.
If I were to sum up the point of this song for me, I'd say it's that we only really have the present moment to be there for each other. There's no point putting it off for some other day and waiting to establish a meaningful connection with other people, and doing that invariably involves spending time with them and sacrificing other possibly more urgent things that are ultimately of lesser importance.
And so I take my Dad out to dinner regularly, and we talk on the phone reasonably often. He always relishes hearing from me, and I know he loves me; even if I long to actually hear him say so. It means a lot to me. I feel frustrated when he talks on and on about things I don't care about. I get tired of trying to break through his emotional defenses all the time, partly because I'm too scared myself, and partly because I get lazy.
There's a place for superficial small talk; just not quite so much though thanks Dad. Sometimes we get there, and I think I'll value those times even more once he's not around. At least we haven't fallen into the trap Harry describes of putting off getting together indefinitely, knowing (just hoping, really, because in the song it never actually happens) we'll have a good time then.
So what is/was your relationship with your father like? Did he have the confidence you wanted, and was he able to pass it on to you? Or perhaps you have some work to do to build your confidence so that you can have the life you really want. Think about him as you listen to the song: