Any man can have a kid as they say, but it’s another matter altogether to be a father. I had to learn as I went, to cobble together what it meant to father and how to do it. I had to do so over time and under the consequences and impact my childhood was having on me in real time and in hindsight. Yes, as a kid we had food on our table, I had a roof over my head and clothes to wear. We lived under a dark cloud though, a constant storm on the horizon, never knowing when it was going to thunder or when lighting might strike, and it did strike.
I can have compassion on my own father, knowing that he also had no father (my grandfather was an honorable man as far as I knew. He was away in the Navy, a survivor of Pearl Harbor and those were very different times) and was abandoned by his mother to be raised by her mother, a non-English-speaking Austrian who did her best. I understand he also did the best he could in a different parenting epoch. I know many of you had fantastic fathers, imperfect perhaps but you never felt unloved, unsupported, and were dearly valued. I know many of you didn’t. Maybe most of you are somewhere in the middle.
What makes the difference? For me it was two things, no three. First, when it became unavoidably clear that my relationships in general were suffering and that the results of my life were not what I wanted or had expected, I begin going to therapy. I was skeptical of it, it was frowned up by those in the Church (unless it was “biblical counseling,” the biggest load o’ shit this side of the rapture), but I did it. First for 6 months, then for a year, then straight for 14 or 15 years, sometimes twice a week.
“Close your eyes and imagine that terrified seven-year-old boy. Imagine being there with him, in that situation. Go to him. What can you say to him? What can you do? How would you console and comfort him and get him through this?”
I am in therapy again now since last summer. I hope it’s a life-practice for me as I continue to try to unravel the mystery of myself till my last breath.
Second was my education, which was more like therapy 2.0 than anything else. I’ve talked about all this before, and I beg your indulgences. I didn’t need a degree although I wanted one. I knew I needed to invest in myself and my brain. I thirsted for it. I used to pour through the school catalogs exploring majors and minors, things that looked fascinating and wondrous and there were so many. There was one class that jumped out at me though, and that was Sociology of Marital Dissolution. I enrolled right away and it was so fascinating I kept taking sociology classes related to the family and ended up with my degree. Often I was the only male in my classes. This is tragic. It’s a topic for another day, but consider again the thought at the top – it’s another matter altogether to be a father. There’s a crisis of masculinity in our country and it shows up right here. It’s a learned skill set, but you have to want the skill set and commit to it. Otherwise it’s just sperm, and as Jethro Tull said, “Your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink.”
The third big difference was the three gentlemen you see in these photos. Fatherhood doesn’t end when the kids turn 18 or leave home. They start their own families, yet we parent forever. I’ve watched them closer than they realize and see how they have done better than I, as I have hopefully done better than my ancestors. It’s strange how when we are young we look up, and when we are older we look down, and if we’ve done it right, look inward all along the way. I’ve learned from them, even if the window of opportunity to practice what I’ve learned has long since closed. I’m not as essential to them now as I was when they were small. That’s just a fact, even though I do know I am important to them. It’s just different now. But there are other things to practice, now and still. It would be a lie to say I have no regrets, and I do wish I could have some do-overs. The job now is to live in such a way that I don’t add anymore to that list.
I am not looking for consolation, reassurance or validation. It gives me a sense of humility to see how well they have done with their kids, to see how they love them so, how they dawdle over them and keep them, how their kids lean into them for love, security and safety. As their kids – my grandkids – get older, they will have their own challenges and m y sons are already rising to the occasion in sometimes long-term difficult circumstances. There’s a role for me here too, but they have this station now.
It’s not just watching them father that I learn from either. I also learn about my own fathering in the practice of our ongoing relationships. We are not estranged. There is lots of love. We have fun together and simply enjoy each other. I see where my weak spots are as I pay attention and work through those (therapy, remember). I try to be as available as I can be and to give of myself, to listen, to accept each wherever they are, different as they are. Well, I learn all kinds of stuff – about responsibility, courage and the truth, about myself, about them, about being a dad, but mostly about what it means to be a man, the kind that can be a father. Only a man can father.
I am happy for those who had great childhoods with real fathers. I admit I am somewhat envious but glad to hear it exists. Some of us have fathered ourselves or had other father-images or role models. Some just got through it, lucky to survive. Like many other holidays, this is a tough one for many people. To all, wherever you fall on this continuum and especially to these three young fathers, I hope you can find the best thing about what today could mean to you – whether it’s celebrating, mourning, reflecting, recommitting, whatever it might be, and somewhere at least, find a portion of love, from wherever that might come, even if you have to close your eyes and give it to that child you knew years ago who needs you still.