Those are the words of Mary Schmich, published in the Chicago Tribune in June 1997 and made famous when the “Sunscreen” speech was read to music by Baz Luhrmann around the same time. Maybe you’ve heard it, but if not, I highly recommend listening to it.
Anyway, I think about that particular line more and more as I get older.
I still remember the first time I heard the “Sunscreen” speech, when I was about 20 years old. I was driving to my parents’ house. The line most people who’ve heard it probably remember is, “Trust me on the sunscreen,” because that was the theme of the title. At the time, it was just a fun recital with a catchy beat that held very little meaning – at least, for me.
But of all the words of wisdom I’ve ever been subjected to, this is the truest statement I have ever heard another person make. When I was 20 years old, I couldn’t imagine my life at 37. I was just trying to get through college. The worst problem I had at the time was worrying about some final exam or making sure I got 18 copies of an 20-page color print with 10 illustrations printed off in time for a class presentation, and using a bubble ink jet printer to get it done. If you’ve ever tried to use a bubble ink jet printer to make color copies, then you know what I’m talking about. I was up all night on that.
If you had told me then that I wouldn’t become a father until the age of 35 – nearly 10 years after I had accepted the idea that I would never be a dad – I would have laughed in your face. If you had told me that I would live in Owensboro, a city I had no connection with at the time and no reason to ever move to beyond my own stubborn desire and conviction of my heart, I would have looked at you like you were crazy.
Yet, here I am – a father for the first time in my life - living in a community where I felt called to be for reasons I have yet to determine.
I’m not ashamed to admit I spent a lot of time in my late 20s and early 30s coming to terms with the fact that parenthood wasn’t in the cards. The “troubles” that “blindsided” me during those years really were things I really hadn’t imagined, things I couldn’t even believe could happen to any person. I won’t spend time dwelling on them, but suffice to say I reached a point around the age of 30 when I just accepted the place I was in at that point of my life, prayed for peace about the situations and challenges I had, and learned to roll with the punches as best I could. I stopped – or at least, reduced – letting personal slights and difficulties get to me. I focused on the parts of life that I enjoyed. I felt the most relaxed during those couple of years, despite the fact that the same problems still existed. I just let it all go.
But things have a way of changing, and it wasn’t long before life hit the reset button. Changes in my personal life led me to the opportunity to move to somewhere I wanted to live (yes, that’s Owensboro), to rebuild my career away from the comfort zone I had created for myself, and even the possibility of being a parent was before me. Of course, I was cautiously optimistic about the idea of being a dad. I don’t know a lot of people who start - or want to start, for that matter – down the road of parenthood in their mid-30s. Most people I know from high school and college have children who are about to graduate themselves, or have children who are at least in elementary school. If they do currently have a baby, it’s not their first child.
I found out I was destined for parenthood when I was 35, and my son was born a few months after I turned 36. That’s when the lyric about “the real troubles in your life” really began to ring in my head. You see, when you don’t have children, when you have a full decade or more of adult life accepting the notion that children will never be a part of your perception of “family,” well you don’t spend much time planning for them. I’d gotten used to the idea that the only one I would ever need to have money for was me, so it wasn’t like there was a plethora of college fund money or grand savings in a trust fund for little Denny Jr. who was never expected (in my mind, at least) to make an appearance. Figuring out how to pay for everything from baby food to diapers to clothes immediately came into focus.
My lifestyle changed as well, and so did my wife’s. Time out with friends or enjoying hobbies dwindled from once a week to once every month to once every other month. We even developed a work schedule arrangement that allows one of us to be with our son all the time. Financially, a decade of hard effort to maintain comfortable living expectations all came unraveled virtually overnight. We had to rebuild an ideal budget without having any idea what to expect. Two years later, it’s something we’re still revising.
What’s more, our career aspirations began to simmer on a very cool back burner. Everything is just about making sure my son’s basic needs are met, as it should be. I’ve never had a more important responsibility, and I am overjoyed to have that duty despite the age in life at which it happened. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I wouldn’t go back to what seemed like an easier life but was really just a lazier one for anything, either.
More than just the trivial financial and social issues of parenthood, I’ve discovered a new side of myself I didn’t know existed. I’m so protective of my son in ways I never imagined. I cringe when I pass a smoker on the street while carrying him because I’ve done interviews on and read medical articles about the affect of second-hand and third-hand smoke on infants. I study food labels on everything I come across because of all the information out there about harmful ingredients food producers have been accused of using to save money in production costs. And I survey a crowded area like a trained government agent, making a mental note of every person and their physical appearance, while keeping a close eye on my son at all times. Nothing matters now that doesn’t directly regard my child or my family. All the concerns I’ve developed from the information I’ve gathered is now so incredibly amplified by my newly-discovered protective nature of my son, and of my family. But I’m working on it. I know I can’t protect him from everything and that it’s probably not as bad in most cases as it’s made out to be, but knowledge isn’t bliss.
Looking back, the real troubles in my life weren’t anything close to what I imagined in my youth. Back then I worried I wouldn’t graduate college or find the right job. I worried about paying off student loans and I was angry that insurance rules for males under 25 made it impossible for me to buy a dependable car. In my 20s I worried about the house needing fixing or what might happen if a utility bill was more than I expected. Now I don’t care about any of that, or at least not as much. None of it really mattered. The only real troubles in life are the things you can’t believe will happen, the things you haven’t even thought about happening. I didn’t sit around worrying whether I would be the best dad I could be when I was in my 20s. I didn’t worry whether I would be secure in my career choice at a place in life that set an example for him as he grew up. Maybe I should have focused more on those things, or maybe pondering about it won’t even matter at all. All any of us can do is press on from the starting point we have to work with, trust things will work out as God allows them to, and do our part to make those expectations a reality.
So, I agree with Ms. Schmich.
Don’t waste time worrying about the things you think will matter when you’re older. Trust me, they won’t. The only things that will matter, the issues certain to devastate you on that lazy Tuesday afternoon will be things you haven’t even imagined happening. The only thing you can do is plan (and budget, as your means allow) for any contingency you may face, and have faith that you will be made stronger and smarter because of the outcome.
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