Every other day, LinkedIn prompts me to congratulate someone on their new position. A promotion to Associate Director, Partnership Outreach & Engagement is certainly worthy of a thumbs-up emoji. But that title is unlikely to appear (or fit) on a tombstone. As human beings, we want to be remembered for our most important and defining roles, which don’t typically include a three-year stint associate-directing partnership outreach and engagement. As the saying goes, “No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’”
I live within a short walk of my town’s Old Burying Ground, which contains graves dating back to 1736. Among the inscriptions are references to parents, children, spouses, siblings, and, in the case of a memorial obelisk, martyrdom in the American Revolution. Throughout the centuries, the dead have been memorialized for their positions in a family, for their relationships with other people, and, occasionally, for their participation in history. That is how they wanted to be remembered, or how their loved ones thought they should be remembered. So it was long before 1736, and so it still is today.
In late 2021, I became a father, which is one of those defining, tombstone-worthy roles. I also have a job position, of which I am proud. However, unlike my LinkedIn title, my role as father cannot be eliminated as part of a restructuring, vacated for a more lucrative opportunity, leveraged for a promotion, or replaced by artificial intelligence. It is that rarest of opportunities: a job for life. It is even, as tombstones indicate, a job that goes beyond life. I’m now a permanent part of a new family, which is a permanent part of who I am and how I’ll be remembered.
Of course, the biological fact of fatherhood (or motherhood) isn’t the same as the social, physical, emotional, financial, psychological, and even spiritual role of being a parent. There are many parents who, by choice or circumstance, aren’t a part of their children’s lives. My own father was raised from infancy by a widowed mother. He would sometimes question how he was doing as a dad, since he didn’t have an example from his own childhood to draw upon. He inherited his father’s surname and DNA, but had no paternal memories, life lessons, or traditions to carry forward.
Now, as a father myself, I sometimes think not just of my dad’s loss of a parent, but of my grandfather’s loss of the opportunity to be a parent. Less than six months after having a son, he died in a car accident. My dad gave me a few of his possessions—some business cards, a keychain—but they are mementos of a person neither of us knew. Holding them, I feel grateful that I’m here for my daughter, able to make the kind of memories I’m sure my grandfather would have wished he could have made with his son.
I’m less than two years into being a father, so I won’t claim any great insight or expertise. But I can express how nice it feels to be reading my daughter a book and to know that there’s nothing more important I could be doing at that moment. And how the weeks and months are imbued with meaning when they bring on new milestones, from smiling back to taking first steps. And how priorities shift, and old worries seem remote, when someone’s whole being is dependent on your actions. By looking beyond yourself, you end up changing for the better.
Both personally and professionally, there are few permanent positions anymore. Our memories and our news feeds are filled with former friends and colleagues, those we’ve moved on from and those who’ve moved on from us. Social media sells the illusion of lasting connection, but really just reminds us of all the people we’re out of touch with. One of the joys of having a child is that you’re forced to put away your phone and focus on who really matters. Despite all the swiping and ghosting, automation and outsourcing, some permanent positions still remain. Being a good parent and spouse, a member of a family and a community, is what will endure when the latest status update is forgotten.
Ben Shragge is the HJN’s digital editor. He lives in Boston with his wife and daughter.