Father’s Day. A day for celebrating our fathers, and a day for fatherly reflection. I am in the later category today. I was not a particularly good father when my children were small – and that gives one pause for reflection.
Young and foolish, temperamental and energetic, smart and dumb-as-nails, motivated and selfish, educated yet ignorant – all attributes of my young days as a father. My society, my culture, dictated certain aspects of being a good father. I did the cursory stuff pretty well. I worked. I brought home a paycheck. I provided food and shelter. And that was pretty much the sum total of my practice as a young father.
Most of what I did was a front designed to show the world that everything was Hunky-Dorey. Each day called for a suit and tie, showing up for work on time, volunteering for worthy community causes, and holding court in the local tavern. The tavern was the place for fathers such as myself to compare notes about how much we were doing to better our community. There were days when President Jimmy Carter should have stopped in – we had all the answers to the world problems.
My peers and I volunteered at the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, and the United Way. We served in mid-level management positions with each of these organizations. We participated in our respective churches. We taught Sunday School and sponsored youth programs. We took our children to church – another public example of our excellent parenting responsibilities.
We participated in local politics. We worked on city council and mayor campaigns. We joined the committees promoting capital improvement taxes. Sometimes we would have to stay late into the night at the tavern to discuss our successes and failures. Success was attributed to our great organizational skills, failure was attributed to the really dumb people around us who just did not understand how smart our ideas really were. One of the men was having trouble at home so he solved the problem by inviting his wife and children to join us at the tavern. After all – what is a good parent to do?
My dusty file cabinets hold a number of community awards. Proclamations, certificates, plaques, and some plastic trophy’s speak to the wonders of community accomplishments. Each award spoke to the hard earned respect of the community. How much better can a father be?
Today, with a life in the rear view mirror, I look forward. Everything – absolutely everything that is important exists in the realm of my children and grandchildren. The people who love me the most are the people who I gave the least time to. I see personalities developing in my grandchildren and I wonder how I missed those same joys when my own children were young. I expected my children to behave in a manner that would bring honor to me – but I did not invest myself wholeheartedly in teaching them how to behave. I was quick to praise them – and equally quick to chastise. Moderation was seldom my style. I was all-in on every roll of the dice.
My causes were worthy. The worthiness of the cause justified the time and effort. As I reflect back I cannot think of any cause that was more worthy than that of being a good father. But that was then and this is now – I cannot turn back the clock, I cannot change the past.
When I die my children will be tasked with sorting through my personal belongings. They will see the array of awards earned – sometimes they will be surprised. They will look at each other and say, “I did not know he did that.” “That,” seems so terribly unimportant today. My children are a forgiving bunch. They have proven to be resilient. They bounced off my sub-par father role and have become responsible parents themselves. I think they are much better parents than I was. Occasionally I hear one of my children chastise their child in the same manner that I taught them – and I winch with regret. I can see my inferior self in them.
Perhaps all parents have similar regrets. Certainly there are no perfect parents. Our nature as humans commands us to push the envelope. Some of my failures as a parent could not have been foreseen by someone with my education and family history – sometimes we have to wait for outcomes to determine effectiveness. Each child is different. Each child responds to a parent in their own way. I know people who proudly take credit for their children’s successes – and blame the child for the failures. This is not a conscious act of evil – many of us were taught to use shame as an appropriate mold for child development. Shame and blame are the tools of the insecure parent. I have first hand experience with the wrong tools of parenting.
I cannot say that I did the best I knew how to do. There were times when my schedule was conflicted. Sometimes my children’s activities conflicted with other activities on my calendar. I remember being aware of those conflicts at the time. I remember making conscious choices. The funny thing is that I remember clearly the activity of my child that I chose to miss – but I cannot remember what it was that was so important.
I realize today that it is not too late to be a good father. Like most grandparents I actively look for opportunities to be a good grandfather. Some of this is for the benefit of the grandchildren, but my motivation is often directed at helping my children with their busy lives. I keep my calendar as clear as possible. Several years ago I made a commitment to myself that there would never again be a cause that is more important than my family.
As I write and reflect it occurs to me that the most important lesson I might ever teach my children is that humans can change. In fact, I think we have a duty to seek personal growth. Personal growth is an overused term – it probably means different things to different people. To me personal growth means to stop making excuses for our past behaviors, own bad decisions, and commit ourselves to making better choices in the future.
My children know who I was as a young father. Perhaps the best thing I can do for them is to demonstrate that it is never too late to be a better person. To all young parents I would say simply, “If you make a mistake, learn from it. Never be too proud to admit error. Trust your instincts – always make the decision that favors the child.”