A therapist friend once shared with me her one-liner on parenting: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
As someone who has never had – and never wanted – kids, I’ve watched my friends weather this odyssey. I’ve seen how their gods and monsters – perfectionism, addiction, accomplishment, anger, vanity, insecurity, greed, attention deficits – come flying back at them in the words and actions of their spawn. The most self-aware try to see these challenges as an opportunity for growth, at least when they’re not screaming their heads off or sobbing.
I can’t imagine any daughter not having the kind of close relationship with her mom that I did. And, at the same time, I know our bond was special and that I pretty much won the maternal lottery.
In the father department, things were more complicated.
I know great fathers because my friends are good men.
These men know how to be soft and supportive; their gentleness trumps a need for authority. They are interested in the inner lives and not just the tangible achievements of their kids. They listen more than they talk; their corrections, when they come, never feel like a whip.
Adolescent-scented mistakes don’t stink up their love. A failed calculus test or unsanctioned use of the car, teen sass or rolling of heavily-Kohled eyes – these are tolerated with patience that remembers it takes the human frontal cortex a long time to fully bake. Good fathers make playful companions, provide a moral compass and do more than just cook Sunday breakfast.
Like much bad behavior, parental failings are often learned, and father-damaged men are everywhere. Sometimes they manage to succeed in material ways and go on to lead companies and countries. The hurts inflicted on them can get passed along to their subordinates and, well, the electorate. The voice they heard as boys has lodged in their heads and keeps repeating, You are not enough. They are driven by fear and insecurity that expresses itself as aggression and false confidence.
Good men, good fathers, know that even if that can’t silence that ugly inner voice, they can choose not to parrot it. They love their children with generosity and forgiveness though the sharp edges of their boyhood may manifest in ways that catch them unaware. Their rage at a government leader, for example, even if justified, takes on a special cast: it burns in ways that have less to do with national political tragedy and more with insufficient paternal support.
But others will lack the insight to see how they are patterning themselves on a familiar and faulty model of child-rearing. They discharge their duty. They provide for the physical requirements of their offspring, and when they give beyond mere need, they puff up and believe themselves magnanimous.
They attend only events that interest them and dismiss passions they don’t share. They encourage their kids to play sports, yet are unable to mask disappointment when balls are dropped or lines crossed too slowly, though they might also brag to others about race results, trumpet good report cards and bore friends with action shots. To those who matter the most, however, they insist that father always knows best.
Some of these men can’t bring themselves to utter the things they longed to hear as kids. Some good men and even good fathers are not strong enough to say to their children “I’m proud of you” or even, “I love you.”
They might claim that actions matter more than words, that they should be judged by their behavior, not their language. They might argue that those simple phrases are so overused they’ve become meaningless. Or that it should go without saying. This always saddens me.
Often, though, I am humbled and awed when I witness good fathering. I listen to my friends worry and appreciate how these men – most of whom have long been good at everything – struggle when their kids falter. I can only imagine how challenging it is to raise a human, and how much internal reckoning it takes to maintain the distance necessary to allow kids to make their own mistakes while also keeping them safe, to let them be their unique selves without feeling rejected when they turn out to have different lives and interests. What a hard, hard job it must be. And, how very rewarding.
Holidays like Father’s Day make me twitchy. They tell us to set aside one date to do what we should be doing all year long. In truth, I also don’t like where the apostrophe falls: shouldn’t we be celebrating the heroic condition of fatherhood, not just one’s own?
My hope is that the good fathers among us will take this Hallmark holiday to appreciate their children, to list the specific things that have made them proud, and to use their words to tell their kids how much they love them.
It’s up to the adults to set the tone. That is, after all, the nature of parenthood.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.
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