A Short Discourse on Fatherhood

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about how lucky I have been and am.  In that there are many things that I just don’t understand.  In this particular instance, I’m referring to fatherhood/parenthood.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but I grew up quite a bit differently than the average kid in the US in my day did – and even more differently than kids nowadays do, I suppose.  (I just didn’t notice how different it was because where I came from it really wasn’t all that unusual.)  I lived with both of my parents; we even lived in the same house from the time I was 9 months old until I graduated and moved out – they didn’t leave that house until after I was married and about four months before Boy was born.

I’ve described my neighborhood as “clannish” because that’s the most accurate description I’ve found.  My neighbors were my family.  Not only was my father a daily part of my life, but my grandfather and my great-grandfather were always right there as well, living right next door.  My other grandfather lived 20 minutes away.

While we may not have interacted daily, they were all regular fixtures, right along with my handful of uncles, great-uncles, cousins, and assorted extended family members.  My great-grandfather gave me my first fishing pole.  My great-uncle Cortez gave me my first tackle box, and invited my dad to bring me over to his pond to fish whenever we wanted.  My grandfather gave me my first bicycle.  My uncle took me shopping for my first guitar.  None of them were perfect; each had his flaws, some more or larger than others, but they were all fundamentally decent men.  Paid their bills, raised their kids, respected their wives.

At no time in my formative years did I lack an appropriate male role model.  How’s that for weird?

My parents visited this weekend.  It was a quiet visit in which we went  out and did lots of things that we’d wanted to do – visit a distillery, hit the big-ass Bass Pro Shops, rearrange Boy’s room, take Boy to a movie – but really just wanted to spend some time together.  So that’s what we did.  It was a very comfortable visit, and we all enjoyed being together.

We talked about my surviving grandfather’s poor health and old-age crankiness (so strange for the jolly old fellow he’d always been), and a bit about how my late grandfather’s health had failed a decade ago, and I thought about how much I’d missed them both, and how important it had been for me to have them around to learn from.  My dad talked about getting D’s in his basic high school classes, and I was reminded how poorly educated my grandfathers were, how they knew nothing more than putting their heads down and plowing ahead as sole wage earners, keeping the family together and afloat by the toil of their backs and sweat of their brow.  How they taught me what they knew when they could, but taught me more by example.  That the measure of a man is not his stature or his wealth but the health of his family and the respect of his friends.

Generally speaking, I don’t have what you’d call strategies when it comes to fatherhood.  Sure, there are times when Dys and I see something significant and confer to decide how best to encourage or discourage accordingly, but generally we’re not that structured, and we parent on instinct.  In my case, my instincts are created by nothing more than the models of fatherhood I’ve been exposed to all my life.  I look at Boy, I see what’s going on, and I address it however it comes naturally.  Sometimes, like last night, the little booger keeps jabbering away at me with his various look-see’s when I’d really rather be watching Star Trek (C, in my defense, it was “Cause and Effect” and then “I, Borg”) but I remind myself that one day very soon – and indeed in flashes in the present – it’s me that will be begging him for attention rather than the other way around.  I think I only have that luxury of being an instinctive father because I have an innate certainty that my own models of fatherhood were pretty damned sound.

That’s where I know I’m lucky because of the things I don’t understand.  I can’t count on both hands the number of friends (though one story in particular is admittedly helping drive this thought process) that I have who didn’t have that model of fatherhood (or motherhood, as the case may be), for any number of reasons.  Absences due to divorce, death, separation, long periods of work travel.  Parents who were present but mentally ill and/or abusive.  Parents who were present and nominally sane but so self-absorbed that the well-being of the family unit took a back seat, if it wasn’t actually left on the roadside.

I don’t know how those friends of mine – particularly those who grew up with abusive or neglecting parents – do it, if they always have to search for the nurturing relationships that I took for granted.  I sure as hell don’t know how they do it (or will do it, as the case may be) when it comes to parenthood, when every interaction that I take for granted must be second-guessed in the face of “never wanting to be like MY mother/father/etc.”  It must be so incredibly draining to counter-program yourself at every turn that I have trouble even contemplating it.

And I certainly can’t look at my family, even in their most maddening moments, and understand the choices that those abusive and self-absorbed parents made in the first place.  I bitched about my family as much as any typical adolescent did, but the truth is, I had it easy.  The older I get, and the longer I go in this whole fatherhood gig, the easier it is to see just how lucky I’ve been.

For those who feel like sharing:  What did you learn from your parents?  How do you take the positive and negative lessons learned and apply them to how you choose to live your own life?  If you’re a parent yourself, how does your own parenting reflect your childhood?  Color me curious.

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10 Responses

  1. K, I’m only about to read this, but before I do, I say with love: When your title came up with “A SHORT Discourse,” you do know that everyone looking at their feed reader giggled, right? 😉

    Compared to the discourse I had in my mind, this one IS short. But yes, I figured that would get some laughs. I worked hard for my windbag rep, damn it!

  2. You already know the answer to this for me, but for the sake of discussion:

    Based on my own childhood, rife with the struggle between 2 people who would yearly forget and forget some more that they ever liked each other in the first place, my goal has always been to provide a safe place: a place free of constant strife, angst, bickering, yelling, and saga. A haven, a foundation, a place to run TO instead of to run FROM. I think he does feel safe in his home, though I don’t think we’ve ended up (at this point) nearly as much of a family “unit” as I had hoped for…. and that’s another post.

    I’d be interested to read that one.

    I also wanted a place where you knew the people with you had your back. I think I’ve succeeded in this; Boy knows that sometimes, now, he has to deal with things himself, and (thank God for good teachers who helped!) I think he has a fairly good grasp on doing that and speaking up without terror. On the other hand, he also knows that if it is bad enough, I will not hesitate to get in the ring on his behalf and fight to the death. I never had that – or shall I say that I remember the precise moments that I learned that I did not have that, and I don’t think anything ever hurt me more.

    One of the things that very much informed the parent I wanted to be was the fact that I was an only child and that I did not want that for my own child–so much for that one. Though I think I’m a natural “play-er” anyway, I do think I’ve tried to interact more on a buddy level than I might have if there had been two of them. Having a child who doesn’t learn by osmosis anyway puts a cramp in it inherently, but I do think sometimes that there sure are a lot of things he is missing out on/would have benefited from if he’d had a sibling.

    Though I have chosen, mostly quite happily, to live away from our families, I also really miss that he does not have that extended family interaction in his daily life, and I do think that it assuredly would have made him a much different kid than he is right now if he had. Some of those influences might now have been so great, but some definitely would have. Having had the close/reasonably close relationship that we both did with our grandparents and even great-grandparents, that is one thing that I very much miss for him and, again, though happy here, will always second guess as well because I know what he’s missing.

    I meant to get into that, and I sort of lost that track of thought as I was writing. Many of the choices I’ve (and we’ve) made in the best interest of our family have run precisely counter to creating that nested, extended-family world for him that you and I grew up taking for granted. And the rural, woods-kid stuff too – I admit that I fairly frequently chide myself for not letting the boy grow up someplace where he could have the sort of low-key freedom that I enjoyed as a kid, but honestly I’m not sure whether or not he would have chosen it for himself.

    Because we are away from family and on our own, I also think that has actually hurt us some in terms of our family ‘unity.” Sounds backward, but when you never get a break from each other, you never get to experience the fun of getting back together too, which means there is a whole lot of “not yet” and “not now” and “just a minute” going on that you can’t really help. And when the only other person you, as a parent, can lean on is the other parent, it also separates the parents a lot more – which separates man and woman/husband and wife a lot more too.

    Absolutely true, and also extremely difficult to correct given the circumstances. All we can do is the best we can do…

    Thanks for the insightful comment, babe!

  3. I honestly don’t put much thought into the whole father figure thing. When you have a mom that was as supportive and awesome as mine was…I never really felt like I was missing much. I grew up pretty quickly and taught to forgive my dad and to love him regardless of his shortcomings. She never once bad mouthed him to me because she wanted me to realize that his absence was probably the best thing. I would have grown up with fighting parents, a drunk and irresponsible but terribly likeable dad and I would have probably been a miserable kid that grew up with a host of issues in addition to the ones I acquired on my own. Ha!

    What did I learn? That I don’t need to have a man around to be a whole person and that the person I choose to be with will be there because I want him, not because I need him. Which is far more difficult that some folks think it would be. I appreciate the good guys in my life and admire the good fathers even more. I’m not angry and I hold no resentment. I have pity for my dad because he missed out on ME and, you know, I wasn’t such a bad kid.

    I thought of you and Tiff (among many others) when I was writing of those who had no fathers for various reasons and through no fault of their own. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you (at least not in that sense 😉 ) or the way you grew up; it’s just something I completely took for granted. I also respectfully submit that it is also different for boys who grow up without male role models than it is for girls…and vice versa, I imagine.

    But whenever I hear you talk about your childhood with your mom, I am utterly impressed with how even-handed she must have been about everything – and I can easily see why you miss her so much. She sounds like one awesome lady.

    • There are those that would say a girl growing up without a father figure will always be searching for a guy that will take care of her or will always have the dire need for some male to love her and, of course, the ones that say “Aww. Daddy didn’t hug her enough, that’s why she’s hanging upside down, naked from the stripper pole.”

      I’m one of those that says “They have to put up with a lot of leering old drunks, but they CAN make a shitload of money…”

  4. What a great entry, and how lovely that you were and are surrounded by so much familial love and support. Parenthood is a tough subject for me to talk about, just because I don’t have all that much experience with HAVING parents, and being a step-mom gives me a different-than-traditional aspect about BEING a parent. I will say that, lacking both a mother AND a father, that lack bothers me more now than it did when I was young. I had Grandma back then, so didn’t feel the lack of traditional parents unless someone said something stupid like, “You’re so lucky you live with your Grandma.” At which point I would have to remind them that that “luck” came at the cost of my father’s interest in anything having to do with me, and my mother’s life. And then reminded them that their grandparents treated them differently (aka spoiled them) than my Grandmother did (who most certainly did NOT spoil me) because they only saw them on weekends or holidays.

    I’m digressing. I probably would have turned out much differently had I been actually raised by parents, and that difference may not have been for the better. Given what I’ve heard about both parents, perhaps I am indeed “lucky” to be raised by my Grandmother.

    The only exposure to fatherhood that I’ve ever had is how Bill treats and parents Robert and Amanda. I am grateful for his example, because he is an excellent father, and helped me to learn how to be a good mother. In the end, though, I think the more people around you who love and care for you, the better. Whether they’re directly responsible for you coming into this world or not. I envy the amount of love you grew up among.

    Yep, I thought of you growing up with your grandmother, and coming to parenthood as a step-parent, as well. While you and I have always seemed to share a lot in regard to our rural growing-up, I think that difference in our lives is fascinating in a way.

    I completely agree with your point that whoever parents you everyday is your “parent” – the ones that can’t pass you back to someone else when they’re tired of your shit, heheh. That can be a natural, adoptive, or stepparent, grandparent, aunt, older sibling, you name it.

    As Dys said, I sometimes wonder if in the long term we’ve made the correct decision in removing our son from the nestled extended families that we each have (just 1000 miles apart from each other). I know that I often chafed under the obligations and the ever-present eye of the extended family in such a small community…no matter what you were doing, where you were doing it, or who you were doing it with, you could guarantee that SOMEbody in the family would know about it within a week…but I think I took it for granted, as well. And as Dys says, sometimes it’s hard when the two of us are more or less trying to give him all the attention and affection that, for us as children, was parceled out by half a dozen or more people.

    There are times that I miss my extended family today, and I wish I could see them more than once or twice a year, but the idea of seeing them weekly still makes my eyes twitch. Maybe Boy will grow up with the longing for connection rather than the desire to escape being smothered. We’ll just have to wait and find out.

  5. I’m sorry that I don’t have volumes of specific stuff to say about this one, especially since you so generously tagged me. I’ve written thousands of words on this general topic in my own blog, in various posts, and repeating myself would be silly. But I do have a few things that this post made me think of, so I’ll be selfish and just digress into what I have to say instead of responding to you like a good commenter would.

    I think the cool kids call that “pulling a TB.” 😉 Please proceed!

    Part of what I think I learned from my parents is that, good or bad, I don’t want to be a parent myself. Saying that I grew up miserable would mostly be a lie, but it definitely showed me that parenting is not any fun if you want to live your life, and a child who grows up with parents whose own lives matter more than the child is going to have a lot, a LOT, of baggage. I think that would be unfair to pass on, because I am self-aware enough to know that I want my own life more than I want a child.

    This is something that I thought about and didn’t get into for various reasons, but wtf, I will now – one thing I learned from my father is that it is possible to be TOO family-oriented. My dad, while a fantastic role model in just about every respect, is also the portrait of self-denial. There are a couple of small but significant ambitions that he’s had that have never been realized – owning a boat, for example. There was always something more practical, or something his wife or kids wanted, and that’s where his focus was, so his own wants went by the wayside.

    I decided long ago that, though Dad’s example is a fantastic one, that level of self-denial just isn’t healthy – not for a person, and not as something to teach your kids, either. That’s why I do (or how I rationalize) things like motorcycles and GP race vacations and guitars and earrings and stuff like that. Because there should be some level of self-involvement as a parent.

    And now I have your parents as a counter-example, of course. Argh.

    I think it’s important as a parent to try to find a way to live your life while existing as a parent. But that is more of a perpetual balancing act than a plan, and while I would never trade away being a parent, I would never try to persuade someone who evinces no interest in parenthood that it’s something they really, really must try.

    I also learned a lot about how not to behave, in general, from my mother, and a lot of interesting lessons about authenticity and emotional IQ. That has been valuable. In the recent past I have learned a lot about what perfectly ethical humans are capable of from my father, which has been less valuable and more painful.

    Responding a little to what Dys said, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen both sets of my grandparents. Until this past Thanksgiving, I hadn’t seen any of them in, oh, seven years. There are cards and things exchanged, but there isn’t any closeness. Unusually, I don’t feel that I’ve missed out on anything. If I’d had the chance to get close to them, I might have learned that they were terrific people after all and formed valuable relationships, but from this distance they seem to be 1) crazy 2) dangerous 3) totally disconnected from me and everything I love. (That’s per person; I have three remaining grandparents.) Because of this I have a hard time being wistful. Perhaps this was a failing of my own parents, because it was clear to me from an early age that family wasn’t particularly important in the grand scheme of things. I find the whole grandparents thing an unresolved question in my life, because I worry that I’m being cold by sincerely not giving a damn that they were never involved with me.

    I think if you were being cold, you’d know – because they’d be reaching out in whatever way they thought they could. If not, I would try not to invest too much emotional energy in worrying about it. My mom used to say “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.” True – but you CAN choose how much time and energy to invest in them, and you know how I subscribe to Margo’s theory that you’re never required to maintain a place in your life for emotionally draining people.

    Being a part of BF’s family is an entirely different thing, and I think the experience has really altered the way I look at the world. I have a different grasp on what’s important, and what love and forgiveness mean, and how you behave around the people to whom you’re connected by blood. I also have the model of these two incredibly good parents, so I can look back and see where my own have failed me, and how my perspective about what was normal parenting was twisted around year by year until I had no idea whether I was being treated well or correctly.

    I’m glad you have this sort of a family around you – not just as a model, but as people who really care about you. You certainly deserve better than your own family of origin gave ya.

    • Oh, also? “The Inner Light” was on after “I, Borg”, and you better believe I turned that off in a hurry so as not to turn into a blubbering mess.

      I turned it off so as not to get interested before “The Big Bang Theory” came on at 9:30.

      Do you believe I’ve never seen that episode all the way through? I’ve seen the end several times, though, and yep, that’ll get ya every time.

    • “I think it’s important as a parent to try to find a way to live your life while existing as a parent. But that is more of a perpetual balancing act than a plan…”

      Of course that is how to live as a parent. But I don’t want to engage in that – in part because I think I’d find I’m selfish and disinterested in my own child, which would make me feel SO AWESOME, and in part because I know full well that I like my life better than I like the idea of having a child (an idea I don’t much like at all, in fact). Why would I bring someone into the world just to hurt them like that?

      If only everyone gave it so much thought and brutally honest self-appraisal before jumping into the sack.

      If you use my parents as a cautionary tale about self-involvement, you will be a totally fine parent. My parents, for instance, were so involved in their divorce that they did not notice their (only) daughter’s eating disorder…even when she weighed 98 pounds.

      I must say, I think your parents should be smacked on general principle. But I’ll be on my best behavior at the wedding, honest. My jaw may ache when I’m introduced, but other than that, I’ll be cool.

  6. I’ve found that it’s really the little things I miss. Sure, they could have been annoying at the time but, now that they don’t exist, it’s an odd vacuum.

    I’ve been with my girlfriend for ten years. Her kid was eight when we started going out (although they knew me for a couple of years). Her father was a minimal weekend dad (even though there were no restrictions and he lived in the same city), he’d take her out for 4-6 hours on a Sunday. We got along great from the beginning. She was my little partner in crime.

    The thing that would happen every day the moment I stepped in the door was she’d meet me there and start chattering. Didn’t matter what, she just had to tell me about it. That only lasted a few years as she changed and other demands became more pressing and, at first, I barely noticed the change. But now that she’s away at school it’s very quiet to actually walk in the door and take my boots off alone.

    I’m sure that’ll be incredibly weird for me, too. Boy will be gone for a week over his spring break week after this coming, and it’ll be oddly quiet without his jumping around or Oblivion being on the Xbox every day when I come home.

    As far as my parents, my Mother did the best she could. My father died when I was 2-3 (blew up. No joke. It’s why I laugh every time during the movie Stripes when Bill Murray answers the question about the whereabouts of their sergeant with, ‘Blown up, sir!’) and she was distracted by other kids (I went pretty much my own way and was less trouble). Growing up in the city I learned less from example of the adults I saw as I did from their mistakes.

    Sometimes those are valuable lessons, too. (I had one ex-uncle for that one, at least.)

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