clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jeff Benedict: Being a good parent seems like impossible mission

Maggie Benedict saw "Wicked" on her trip to New York.
Maggie Benedict saw "Wicked" on her trip to New York.
Jeff Benedict,

I have a confession to make. A couple of weeks ago, my 15-year-old son, Tennyson, published his first piece of writing online, a wonderfully written essay on global warming. Well researched. Compelling. Hard to refute.

I was so proud I emailed it to colleagues and posted it to my Facebook page. Instantly, people started congratulating me for doing such a terrific job teaching my son to write. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, one friend said.

I hear that a lot. Here's the problem. As a professional writer, I'm usually too busy to teach my son to write.

There. I said it.

The one who deserves the credit is my wife. I'm not being modest. Just honest. I'll explain.

By fifth grade, our son was far behind and fading fast when it came to reading and writing. At the same time, his overall enthusiasm for learning had all but died. Drastic measures were in order. We removed him from public school and Lydia made it her mission to help him become proficient with the written word. She graduated at the top of her class at Northeastern University with a degree in English and a 3.97 GPA. She put that to use as our son's personal tutor.

It was a grind, especially at first. There were hand-wringing, tears, second-guessing and disagreements. It was brutal. Then came the writing assignments. Over time, Lydia and Tennyson went through a small tree farm in the editing and rewriting process.

Fast-forward five years. Lydia is still his teacher. Yep. He never returned to public school. Since coming home he has read more than 140 books — from biographies on Charles Lindbergh, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Andre Agassi and Dick Van Dyke to novels like "Gulliver's Travels," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Hunt for Red October." And he writes as well as my college students. Seriously. Last week he took the ACT and he's applying for early admission to college.

That just shows what a devoted teacher can do, especially one with a vested interest in the future of the child. Me? I'm the cheerleader. Yet, when my son's essay went viral two weeks ago, my wife's friends — even ones who know that she home-schools him — were telling her how lucky she is to have a husband who's a professional writer, as if I did all the work.

It was enough to make a grown woman cry and a grown man guilty. Literally.

I don't know about everybody else. But for me, being a good parent often feels like mission impossible. Motherhood is thankless. And for the breadwinner, there is the constant realization that you are absent. In my case, over the past few weeks I've been in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Pullman, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Atlanta and Detroit working on stories. My last feature for Sports Illustrated was written in hotel rooms in Los Angeles and New York. The bellmen there know me by first name.

Needless to say, I'm not around enough to teach my children writing. Of course, I give them tips and help them with editing. But teaching the mechanics of sound writing is a little more complicated — and a lot more time-consuming — than teaching a child to ride a bike. And like most of the people I've interviewed in the past three weeks — college football coaches, professional athletes, lawyers, CEOs — I devote most of my energy to my profession.

Of course, I view my role as a father as far more important than my career as a writer. Most guys I know do. But a big part of being a good father requires me to be a pretty dedicated writer. My students often ask how I balance the two. Truth is I don't. I spend way more time on my profession than I do at home. I mean way more.

That's why I'm so protective of my limited discretionary time. It's reserved for my kids. And when possible, I take one of them with me on the road. In fact, many of my best memories with my children are when we combine work and play. A few weeks ago I took my 9-year-old daughter, Maggie, to New York, where I had two days of business meetings.

She met with my literary agent and saw how he gives me guidance and helps select my future story ideas. His office is wall-to-wall books, most of them best-sellers.

She accompanied me to lunch with the editor-in-chief of Doubleday Books. I just joined Doubleday and this was my introductory meeting with my new publisher and editor. We spent two hours getting acquainted and mapping out the upcoming book I've agreed to write.

From there we went to a hotel room and I spent two more hours with my new co-writer, Armen Keteyian, from CBS News. It took us that long to divide up the reporting responsibilities for our new book project.

Later, I had a meeting with my editor, B.J. Schecter, at Sports Illustrated. We are working on a feature story that requires a lot of brainstorming.

Then there was a big meeting with Terry McDonell, who runs Sports Illustrated. I was there with a number of people to pitch a story and discuss future projects.

Was it awkward to bring my daughter to all of these professional meetings? Not to me. And not to the people I work with. McDonell made Maggie feel like the most important person in the room. He even gave her his personal iPad and delayed the meeting 10 minutes while showing her how to play games on it.

In between all this, I took Maggie to The American Girl store in midtown. We went to see "Wicked" on Broadway. We even went to our favorite bakery on Sixth Avenue.

One thing she noticed about all the people we met with is that they all have corner offices at the top of very high buildings. This observation gave me the opportunity to teach her something. To get to the top of the writing profession, you must read lots of books and master the fundamentals of writing.

Good thing she has Lydia as her teacher.

Jeff Benedict is the author of "POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."