I always approach Fathers’ Day with mixed feelings. There are great fathers and there are those who were present at the moment of conception but that was about it. My father fit somewhere in-between. He was there, at least physically, but not much of a father. No, he wasn’t physically abusive but he didn’t have a clue how to be a parent, or even a husband, for that matter. In his defense, his father died when he was two years old and his mother, my grandmother, never remarried so he really didn’t have any sort of example to follow.
When I was little he found me amusing but as I got older he nicknamed me “Nuisance” and by the time I was a teenager he ignored me completely. Ironically, he and my mother stayed married because of me. The three little words I remember him saying to her on a regular basis were “You’re never satisfied.” As a result I grew up with little respect for either of them whose relationship was somewhere between the Bundys and Bunkers or maybe Ralph and Alice Cramden, a.k.a. “The Honeymooners” of sitcom fame. This, of course, fueled his resentment toward the “stupid kid.” In retrospect, I can see that the sour marriage ruined us all. If my parents had been happily divorced we all would have been better off, especially me, since I felt I was to blame for the sorry situation.
A book I read years ago entitled “Getting the Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix did an excellent job of explaining why men and women marry the people they do. It’s quite simple. Each is attempting to complete a role that was lacking in some way regarding the parent of the opposite gender. I grew up feeling useless at best and a burden at worst, so when I got married I was out to prove that I could support myself and everyone else. That’s what happens when your nickname is “Nuisance.”
I probably sound bitter, but I’m not, just retrospective as once again Fathers’ Day approaches. It was a few weeks before Fathers’ Day when my father died. He was in his 70s and had suffered a major stroke with little to no hope of recovery. He was a Navy veteran so was going to be transported from the local hospital to the Veterans’ Hospital roughly a hundred miles away, so I knew I probably would never see him again. Thus, I went to the hospital that morning to say goodbye. He was unconscious as I took a chair at the foot of his bed, but shortly after I arrived he started to stir, opened his eyes, sat up far enough to make eye contact, then convulsed and was gone. As he left this life I had a strong impression that he’d apologized in passing for being such a lousy father. It didn’t change anything but for some strange reason made me feel at peace, recognize he did the best that he could and forgive him entirely for his deficiencies. The sense of loss I felt then and still is never so much that he’d passed on, but rather for the relationship we never had.
As time went by, my own children grew up, had children of their own, and their children likewise grew up. During that time I witnessed a wide variety of fathering or lack thereof. The older I got, the more I realized how many voids I had in my life because of my father’s inability to function in that role. I never felt as if I mattered one way or the other and that I had to prove my worth, to myself as well as everyone else. I never had anyone I felt comfortable going to for advice, mostly because of being told “you’re only a stupid kid” on a regular basis. Ironically, he had a 10th grade education and couldn’t answer some of the simplest questions I asked when I was a youngster. I don’t doubt now, as I look back, that he was simply echoing what he’d been told as a child himself.
When I got married and he “gave me away” it was an empty part of the ceremony since we’d never bonded. I’ve seen some beautiful interactions between brides and their fathers and sometimes grandfathers, both at the altar and then later when they danced together. Seeing them always brought tears to my eyes because it was an experience I’d never have. I never knew either of my grandfathers, either, but having a loving grandpa can definitely help fill this void.
Fortunately, in my life I’ve known some wonderful older men whom I adopted emotionally as a surrogate father. These were kind, educated and successful men who treated me like an intelligent and perhaps even interesting human being. I wept profusely when these worthy father substitutes passed away while never shedding a tear for my own.
The more children raised without a father’s positive influence, the more dysfunctional families will result. Boys need a loving and responsible male role model and girls need a positive relationship with their father to assure better self-esteem and higher expectations of the men in their future. If that sounds sexist, I don’t care. I wonder if my relationship with my father would have been better if I had been a boy, which he wanted as many men do. Maybe I got a physics degree and went into a career field predominated by men to try to make up for being a girl. My father was a mechanic and I remember when he’d work on our family car that I was curious and wanted to watch but was shooed away since that’s not what girls were supposed to be interested in. And sadly, now that I’m retired and single, I have this huge mental block about fixing things or performing even minor maintenance like changing the air filter on my lawnmower, probably because I was told as a child that girls don’t do such things.
If any fathers out there have stuck with me this long, please recognize how important you are to your children. If a child feels unloved by his or her father it’s highly likely a feeling of not being good enough will have a pervasive detrimental effect on his or her life. Every rejection will reinforce this negative self-perception and deter love, success and joy from every fact of their life. They may turn out to be a workaholic people-pleaser, forever trying to find the praise and acceptance they never got. A more negative spin includes gang membership or promiscuity. Note that well-intentioned but over-critical parents can have the same effect if a child feels unloved or unaccepted.
Fathers, your children possess half of your genetic material and have a natural affection for you, whether you deserve it or not. Why do you think adopted children will go to so much trouble to find their birth parents? Any failure on your part to fulfill your role will leave an empty place in their heart. And you adopted fathers are incredibly important. You don’t have the benefit of a genetic link yet have every bit as much influence and responsibility to fill that role. In some cases you’ll do far better than the natural parent ever could, especially if the natural father was in the “sperm donor” category. Unfortunately, my “surrogate” fathers entered my life too late to fill that void.
While numerous male parents in the animal kingdom are remiss in taking part in raising their offspring, humans are supposed to be better than that. Fathers, be the best person you possibly can and man up to your responsibilities. Be there for your sons and daughters. By doing so you can make an important contribution one child at a time to a better world. A world that needs all the help it can get.