It doesn't feel all that long ago when my generation saw the life ahead of us like the start of a wide-open book that could proceed any way we imagined, far from the predictable lives of our parents. Now, I skim through social media profiles of people I haven't seen in decades, a lot paunchier, a lot greyer or balder, and I realize we've become our parents!
I find it eerie to calculate the year my own father was my present age and then think about how I viewed him at that time. One thing is for certain: I didn't classify him as an a-hole.
My dad was a practicing surgeon in those days, and he wasn't around a whole lot. That's what I remember. You have to be around and come up with a lot of strict rules your kids despise to be considered a professional a-hole. Compared to my friends' parents, my own were quite lenient. When my father was almost exactly the same age I am now, to the month, he and my mother traveled to France and Israel on a two-week holiday. They gave me and my brother credit cards, ample cash, and the use of the cars. We had more cars between us than people.
How can you condemn parents like that to the classification of true blue a-holes?
I guess my parents were the exceptions. Movies of that time, especially the vastly overrated oeuvre of John Hughes that has aged quite poorly, depicted kids with parents who didn't try to understand them, the a-holes of that era. I remember seeing Ferris Bueller's Day Off the year it came out and thinking Alan Ruck's character, when destroying his father's prized 1961 Ferrari, was actually the certified a-hole.
The 1980's are now long over. We Generation X'ers are in the parental driver's seat and, with that responsibility, we also inherit the derogatory title from our own parents. To the Generation Z millennials who are our kids, we're the contemporary a-holes.
For most, becoming an a-hole is a gradual thing, like aging, though it sometimes feels like it has happened all of the sudden. When one in his twenties, he's attuned to the latest and greatest in pop culture. This interest gradually wanes as the twenties progress and takes a deep plunge in the thirties. By the time one gets to his forties, he's out of touch with what's presently hip and (hopefully) doesn't care. It's about this time the formerly cute little kids, now in puberty, pronounce ma and pa the a-holes of the household.
The only thing worse than going through puberty yourself is watching your kid go through it while incessantly calling you an a-hole. You and I know the real secret: that it's the kids who are the bona fide a-holes, but the kids don't have enough life experience and wisdom to look in the mirror and comprehend that.
I am a stepfather. I met my stepson when he was 6. He's now 15. He hails from a different culture and continent and didn't speak English when I first made his acquaintanceship. The status of step-parent combined with a cultural divide introduces a plethora of additional opportunities to be smeared as an a-hole well before the kid hits puberty.
I should know. But I won't kid myself. If my stepson were instead my biological son, I'd still be an a-hole about now. The title would have come later and the
"honors" divvied up differently. If the two parents taken together are 100% a-holes in the eyes of the average 15-year old, right now I am 80% a-hole and my wife is 20%, and I've held the title for years. If my stepson were my biological son, I'd rate more like a 65% a-hole, my wife 35%, and I'd only have been inducted into the honorary a-hole club a couple of years ago.
I won't lie and say I'm guiltless in my forcible induction into the International Society of Paternal A-Holes. I personally paid up several years of membership dues in advance.
My life underwent a drastic pivot I could never have foreseen, and my future stepson was part of it. One December I was finishing up a whirlwind year of driving around the entire continent of Australia as a footloose and fancy free bachelor.
Nine months later, I had become a de facto husband and father - without getting anyone pregnant or signing a piece of paper! Officially, I wouldn't be a husband and stepfather for four more years. Unofficially, the job began the day I moved in.
And it wasn't easy. I'd never lived with little kids before. As a Korean kid, my stepson came off as needier than a kid of similar age in the West. This may just be wishful thinking on my part. I haven't had a wealth of experience with 6-year old Western kids in my adult life.
What I should have done - and that's so easy to say in hindsight - is be more patient with him and embrace him while he was still very young and malleable. As a 6 year old, he looked up to me and admired me. I was too critical of him. He rarely gave me and my girlfriend privacy. I'd been to Korea before and noticed a fair share of the men my age had evolved into mama's boys. In my assessment back then, I calculated that he was frolicking down the same road to Mama's Boyville. That was one thing I couldn't tolerate if my relationship with his mom was to survive. I needed him to be more independent and, because I was feeling the pressure of adjustment to Mr. Family Man, I overcompensated by pushing independence initiatives too hard.
One practice which didn't help our relationship was my wife's adherence to co-sleeping. She'd been raised that way. Kids grow up sleeping in the same bed with the parents. In extreme cases, sharing the bed can stretch into the teen years.
Co-sleeping is still quite common in Asia. It was also common in Western nations up until the nineteenth century. Those who experienced co-sleeping and remember it fondly may, in retrospect, ascribe deep seated traditions to the practice. Its real origins probably lie in a lack of space. Families generations ago couldn't afford homes with a private master bedroom suite, so the entire family slept together, and this just became the way things were.
Asia has always been the most densely populated continent on the planet. To put this into perspective, Ohio, where I come from, ranks 34th in size of all the fifty American states but 7th in population. This makes Ohio one of the more densely populated American states and yet its population density is only a fifth that of South Korea's. South Korea didn't join the ranks of the world's developed economies until sometime in the 1990's. Lack of wealth and a lack of space bred ample co-sleeping opportunities among South Korean families.
It didn't matter that in Thailand, we lived in a three-story three-bedroom townhouse with 285 square meters of space. Co-sleeping was embedded into the core of my future wife's being and she viewed it as abandonment of her son if she put him into his own bedroom at age 6. For more than a year, she put him to sleep in the second story bedroom, then crept upstairs to sleep with me, awakening just before her son so she could be back in bed with him to facilitate the illusion she was there all night.
This didn't always work out so well. If he awoke in the middle of the night without his mother present, he'd start bawling. These shrieks reverberated throughout the household. I remember it, painfully, as if it were yesterday.
Eventually, we were able to persuade him with the promise of a new bedroom set to move into his own bedroom, but he would still regularly wake up in the middle of the night and cry for his mother or make his way into our room and sleep with us, which I didn't like. I didn't mind him sleeping with us. I minded the fact he had to sleep with us.
My wife employed a gradualist approach I abhorred because it didn't work. She proposed he'd sleep by himself one day a week, then two, then three. The whole concept of sleeping independently was alien to him and this gradual approach never took.
All said, it took more than 5 years before he was truly comfortable sleeping on his own. And because it was clearly I who was pushing for it, I got full credit very early on for being Monsieur A-hole.
My wife warned me that he would naturally grow more independent over time and want to spend less time with us. She was right, as it turns out, but it was difficult to imagine that day ever happening when he was six or seven in light of the co-sleeping spectacle I was experiencing. His lack of independence in sleeping solo seeped into other things. He was too scared to walk up and down the three flights of stairs on his own, particularly at night. I remember making him cry as I forced him to do it. I couldn't see any other alternatives. You can't gradually get used to some things. I had read about a grown man scared to ride in elevators and fly planes. The way he eradicated his fear was to just force himself to do it over and over again.
This was just the beginning of my induction into a-holehood. His generation was born after the internet. They don't know any other life. They grew up with Ninetendo and Sony Playstations in their hands. YouTube was birthed when my stepson was four and became a 24/7 non-stop TV terminal for his generation. My own parents had tried to limit our TV viewing to under 2 hours a day back in an age when VCR's could only record a couple of hours and you didn't have the equivalent of an unlimited catalog of viewing options at your fingertips.
I could see early on where this was going and when he was eight, I began assigning him books to read and additional learning exercises so his brain wouldn't completely atrophy. His mother was totally on board but it all fell on me to enforce it. The result? Honors degrees, conferred by the stepson, in Advanced
For his eleventh birthday, he was given an iPod Touch. I remember thinking how this would open up a can of worms - and it did. Now he had access to YouTube and chat apps from the comfort of his own bed. Shortly thereafter, during his summer back to Korea, his uncle gifted him a laptop. We would have eventually bought him a computer of his own, for school, but probably one or two years later. Now he became immersed in first person shooter games online, devoting all his spare time to them. Most of the YouTube videos he consumed were fellow gaming videos.
When his grandfather foolishly gave him access to a credit card to buy a few games - and the stepson just kept buying and buying and buying - we, which translates more into I, began severely limiting his computer usage. We tried various carrot and stick incentives, all of which failed. This academic year, running out of options, I finally installed parental controls on his computer. He can only visit web sites I whitelist. Without such controls, his computer logs show him pissing away all his time on porn, Facebook, YouTube, and gaming.
My rewards? I've earned honorary doctoral degrees, from him, in a-holemetrics.
I've been an a-hole so long in his eyes that, morbidly, I actually don't feel so bad about it. Millions of fellow Generation X'ers with their biological teenaged kids are now in this not-so-elite club with me. I had the questionable honor of being a precocious inductee, going on almost ten years now. There was just a very limited window where I wasn't an a-hole. And though I wish I could go back in time and expand that window, make other choices to defer my admission into a-holehood, at this stage in his life facing addictions to nonstop entertainment, gaming, pop culture, status symbols, he'd still put me in the club today.
In fact, about a month ago, I had a talk with him about it. I got upset with him because during his spring break, he spent all of his time outside the house flaunting our ban on his gaming activities. He'd sit 11-12 hours a day in gaming cafe. He didn't tell me this. He said he was meeting friends, but it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to piece it all together.
Our chat was long. "Yes, I'm an a-hole," I admitted. "And I don't care anymore, because the only way I won't be an a-hole is to give you whatever you want whenever you want it. The second I stop doing that, I'm back in the club again." Did he really want me not caring about his studies, his diet, his habits? Didn't he know I loved him?
I think, for a brief second, he got my point - after reissuing me a renwed
A-hole Platinum Membership Card, valid, he thinks, forever, but which actually expires in about three more years.
Every generation has its turn in the a-hole seat. My stepson will get his turn. 25-30 years from now, he will be a certified a-hole, and my generation will get the opportunity to lie back in grandparental supervision and laugh.