explorations of mindful fatherhood


Let’s Build a Treehouse, Goddammit!

This past spring, we moved from a small East Coast city to the burbs. That move in and of itself could launch a thousand posts, which I’m sure will follow. We moved from a 2-family house with a tiny grub-infested backyard to a little colonial with a sprawling lawn and lots of enormous, beautiful trees.

“We’re gonna build you a treehouse!” I promised my son. In the months building up to the closing and move, we’d talk about it, and I’d buy books on amazon about treehouse construction. My son even drew his abstract, Daliesque picture of his ideal treehouse. Although I couldn’t build him his full dream house, complete with three levels and Jedi training facility, we compromised on a quaint little design.

It wasn’t until after the move that I noticed, tucked away in the trees of the neighbor kid’s house, there stood a colossal treehouse complete with swings, pulleys, and ropes. I suspected his dad had help–like professional help–to get that thing built, but didn’t share the thought with my son. At first, I was deflated. It didn’t make sense to build a treehouse if the kid next door had an awesome one. Maybe my wife was right; maybe we just need to buy one of those damn wooden playsets.

But no, I had planned on a treehouse dammit, and seeing those pre-fabbed cedar structures in a catalog only got my creative juices flowing. I have to admit, there was also a competitive spark that flared up when seeing the neighbors behemoth. So, my son and I went to Lowes and bought lag screws and some supports. I cut the base, and had him help me level it.

“Where’s the bubble, bud?” I asked my son, who was manning the level. No response. He was gone. I found him around the corner of the house swinging a stick. Well, of course. That was the most boring part. When we got to the walls, he would really be excited.

We went out and bought the framing wood. I asked him to help me help measure the pieces.

“Hold this here bud. Buddy? Where’d you go?” Okay, the allure of the retractable measuring tape couldn’t keep him there forever, so I marked and cut myself.

I’ll set him up to hammer nails, I thought. Brilliant! What kid doesn’t love to hammer? I pieced together the frame and even drilled tiny pilot holes in every section that needed a nail. I even started each nail for him.

“Kid, you’re awesome at that! Look at you go!” Tap tap tap…..tap tap…tap….

“I’m tired.”

I told him I’d finish up. In the coming builds, I asked him if he’d like to help, but he’d either opt out or stick around for a while but eventually fizzle out and disappear. After a while, I’d inevitably mutter to myself, “I’m building this for you, you know.”

Then I had to ask myself who I was really building the treehouse for. It seemed to be my treehouse. I mean, my son had some interest in it, but I realized that I was the one who was so excited about the thought of a treehouse. I had always wanted a kick-ass tree house growing up, and it looked like soon I would have one. The problem was that I was now in my mid-30s. It was a really my dream. Maybe the house wasn’t the dream, but it was a dream of carving out a special experience for me and my son. I wanted him to remember that summer when he and dad spent every weekend working on a treehouse together. By, it wasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped.

After many, many weekends, the treehouse got built. I continued giving my son lots of little jobs, some of which were successful and some weren’t. We did have some good times in those moments, but I really had to readjust my expectations of him, my desire for him to sustain interest in something that wasn’t his own making, and my real motivations. I realized I couldn’t force any special moments. I could create the space for them, but couldn’t make them happen.

When the treehouse was nearly complete, we both sat on the mini-deck, looking out over the trees.

“This is kinda boring,” he muttered.

“Go inside.”