Chapin's song is a testament to the intricacies of parenthood. The song operates as an example of how daily life's routine can preclude the elements of life that make being worthwhile. The birth of the child and the man's entry into fatherhood is punctuated by his commitment to his work and his life as an earner. "But there were planes to catch and bills to pay" is the first indication of how the father has chosen to embrace one element of his being over another. The child " learned to walk while I was away." Interestingly enough, the child does not resent the father. Rather, he asserts as he learns to talk that "I'm gonna be like you dad/ You know I'm gonna be like you." This operates as much of a haunting foreshadowing as it does a statement of pure innocence regarding a child's love for their father. It is almost a statement of how today's choices will impact tomorrow's future.
The intricacies of parenthood are further explored as the song progresses. Through adolescence and "Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let's play/ Can you teach me to throw," the father states that he has "a lot to do." The child still clings to the idea that he will emulate his father. The pivot happens later on in the song as the father has gotten older and the son has aged, there is a marked shift in their relationship and a fulfillment of the son's promises from earlier in the song:
Son, I'm proud of you, can you sit for a while?
He shook his head and said with a smile
"What I'd really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please?
It is at this point in which the song notes how parenthood changes as time passes. Once decisions have been made and followed through early on in the parenting narrative, it becomes very difficult to change course and reverse them because of the impact they have on the children. The words of how the son will become like the father have a chilling effect in this context.
The ending of the song shows this process having come full circle. The father has retired from his job, and the son has moved away, settling in with his own life. It is at this moment that the father has recognized the terror that lies within his heart about parenting through misapplied choices:
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind"
He said, "I'd love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job's a hassle and kids have the flu
But it's sure nice talking to you, Dad
It's been sure nice talking to you
At this point, the father realizes that "my boy is just like me." There is an emptiness that is evident here which has operated throughout the chorus. The repeating lines of the relationship between father and son underscores nursery rhymes and staples of childhood:
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then
In the end, the parent/ child relationship cannot be one in which people wait until "soon" to have "a good time then." The most critically impressive element about Chapin's song is how it brings out the complexity in being a parent. The decisions made today impact where things progress in the future.