My friend Evelyn Eddy said years ago about the birth of her first child, “It was like that picture from Roots where the hands hold the baby up to the stars. In that moment, I felt connected in time to my mother and her mother and her mother and so on to the beginning of time”. As I think about being a father in 2014, all I can picture is cross-hairs, which I hope is some sort of two-dimensional graph where the lines go up and down, right and left, where sharp turns, at almost 90 degree angles are called for.
In thinking about having my father, as a man, and being a father to girls, the trajectory of fatherhood is very different these days. First, while Evelyn has that biological thing going with her children that men will never understand, my father is my step-father, making my relationship with dad more distant in a couple of ways. To be totally honest, I really disliked my father growing up. He was never home. Why? Because, as my mother used to explain, because he was out being a dad. My father’s job, as he understood it, was to bring in the money, to put a roof over my head, and make sure I had what I needed. If he did that, he was doing his job as a father. The mushy-gushy stuff of emotions and raising children was a job left to the wife, while he was out being the Man. Men and women had two different domains. In the outside world, men ruled. The minute he entered the house, though, he was entering Women’s World where all that emotional relating had to be done. The job of emotionally connecting with his children was not a job he was trained for, nor expected by his culture to do.
Somewhere in his life time and mine, the job requirements changed and he was required to “be in touch with his feminine side” as we used to call it. As a teenager, I expected that other guy, New Age Sensitive Guy, the man I was supposed to be, to be my father. His own father being somewhere between downright mean growing up and following the clearly defined Male/Female Domain Rules simply wasn’t equipped for the job. Both as a factory worker and a house painter, he did the job he knew how to do, and he did it well. When I left the house just after graduating high school and just before my 18th birthday, dad and I didn’t have a relationship but I knew he was proud of me, somehow. He had done his job well enough that I was able to do more than he had. I was going to college. By definition then, he was a good father.
Being me, though, I took six months off to “be free ” before I started college — and to save some money for this new world I was expected to enter. At this point, I began to have respect for my father through my own failures. I had neither the physical strength nor the focus (or interest, really) in keeping a factory job. Try as I might, I lost three or four factory jobs because I was thinking about the meaning of life. At this point, I determined that I would never be able to keep a job like his and — in order to stay alive, I would have to find a job that was less hours and more pay per hour, which is what I have now. Somehow, my father managed to work full-time at Spaldings making baseballs, basketballs, and golf balls then paint houses until dark and he managed to do it for more than twenty years, while I couldn’t keep one of those jobs for more than a month. I have since always respected his ability to simply work hard.
While I was gone to college, the world changed for both of us, each on our own element. He bought and built a business cleaning houses and moved to California. I thrived emotionally in Maryland at school. When the money ran out, I came “home” to the new place and learned how to get up with him at 5:30am and be done by noon, then go to community college and live the wild twenty-something life that California promised.
Sometime after I left, my parents adopted a baby girl, my sister. At this point, dad really took on the new-style Dad role. I’m not sure what it is about raising girls, but he spent more time in the emotional world than ever before.
Now we could talk, we just didn’t have any practice. I remember going to a coffee shop in Florida (where he now lives) years ago and the big conversation being what he took in his coffee. I honestly didn’t know. I enjoyed being around him, but I didn’t feel exactly connected.
Then I got married and — expecting to have boys I knew how to raise — play baseball in the yard, teach them to mow the lawn, share superhero comics, and so on — I had two girls.
Since I never had boys, I don’t know if it’s just kids that brought out the father in me, or the girls part, but in raising the girls, I found my father in me. When you first have kids, you notice all the quirky little genetic things — they hold their hands like gramma when they do this or they act like uncle so-and-so when they smile or whatever. But parenting is such a subtle process that behaviors and interests get missed or become humorous. I remember when my parent got married and people would say, “You look so much like your father. I would just giggle to myself. In the same way, I would swear that my sister, the now-famous ska/soul/rock star got her musical talent from our mom.
In any case, I find myself being funny and goofy like my father when I’m with my girls in nearly identical ways to my father’s. I like being “silly daddy” in the same ways that he is “silly grandpa” to the girls. The manly arts of burping and such often get displayed in our house. And I care about my daughters in the same warm, if unintentionally awkward, ways that dad is with my sister.
While my mother would have made my sister practice her piano, dad would have listened and supported her dreams because not because he understood, but because they were hers and that’s all he needed to know. While mom might have taught her how to act, dad would respect who she was now.
At one time, I dated a woman who was a vegetarian and mom was all about just what kinds of proteins she could mix and how not to make fun if this strange diet. Dad just cooked her vegetarian food after asking her what she liked. No fuss, no muss– he just did it.
He is that way with anyone and — more often than not — so am I. And I like being that way. I don’t get riled. I don’t think it helps. My mother had three speeds, morally: Good, in trouble and talking to you, and so in trouble she didn’t talk and you better run. Dad had good and no need to fuss and bad with the need to be serious. Again, I like being that guy and I got it from Dad.
As I raise my own kids, I am aware of how everyone is supposed to be everything. Men are supposed to be emotional as well as strong. They should change diapers and do the dishes as well as take out the trash. They are supposed to make dinner and change the oil on the car. In short, men are supposed to “be in touch with their feminine side” while still being men and women are supposed to stretch into supposedly masculine roles and being strong while still being women. My dad has always been the cook of the family — not just the Grill Man on Memorial and Labor Day, but the bulk of the cooking since I left home in our family has been via my dad. Dad, of course, changed diapers — something his father, I’m sure, never even considered. I can cook — especially spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles. You get the picture here. For my part, though, I probably know more about feminine products, menstrual cycles and moods, and girls’ approaching boys than he ever wanted to know. My wife knows more about the financial world, the educational world, and politics than I ever will — plus she does the dishes and the driving and the laundry… It is no wonder that gender issues are such a big deal today. It is harder than ever to be a parent in some ways, especially with girls. As they grow to be whatever it is they want to be –and it’s a whole lot more open today than it used to be — we, as fathers, have to learn about those things, figure out where we stand on them, learn how to be supportive… and then be supportive.
Sex? My girls live in a world where they could be exposed to more sexual diversity and activity than I have ever heard of. I know of a father who heard his daughter say after her first bus ride in Middle School, “I met a boy on the bus today. He said, “You’re cute. Wanna do it?”. Are you kidding me?!!! He told his wife, “Get me a baseball bat! Nobody talks like that to my daughter!”. Upon hearing the story, my wife reminded me that I’m a pacifist, and I calmed down but years later I still remember the incident. There are sexual innuendos in grammar school, for goodness sake, about sex acts that I never considered. My wife hears, at the college level, about “hook up culture” and I still haven’t adjusted to it. How does one keep their children safe in this culture? I don’t know, but we try. I have to say, though, it’s a weird world out there today — and not in a good way. When my daughters ask me about boys, what do I say about how they think or act or are? I don’t know anymore.
Violence? Columbine happened around the time of my older daughter’s birth. They have never known a world without school shootings. Newtown is in my state and when it happened, I was depressed for a month thinking about my own children in such a scenario. Being a father today is full of all sorts of challenges that my dad never had to even consider.
Luckily, my father and I have a good enough relationship today that I can ask him all kinds of things — and in that asking, I learn more and more about how to be helpful to my own kids. We now exchange phone calls regularly, and he explains how he’s worried about the town I work in and the violence that goes on there. OK, I can do that with my kids. He asks about my business and — since he had his own for years — he knows what to expect there. I can help them, as well, should that ever be their idea. He deals with my sister’s touring (Does she have groupies? I have to ask him about that…) and all the chaos that goes on with that — moving, pets, bills, seeing them perform. I can deal with my daughters’ challenges just as well.
We both grow and change and we both know we’ll never get it all right, because things change so quickly, there is simply no way to keep up with it. My world is so different than his as a father, and yet we cope with it in similar ways, as best we can. We progress because we love our kids and because we have to. Knowing that it’s impossible, in some ways, takes the pressure off to be perfect, and that’s a good thing. It makes it a lot easier to be goofy and caring, among other things. That’s just who we are. What can I say?
Happy Father’s Day to all the men out there doing their best. Get on the stick if you’re not. Make it easier for my daughters to deal with life by making your children good people. Thanks.
Bibeau, you did all right…