Tomorrow is Fathers’ Day, and I know we are all expected to celebrate it. Fathers are special and should be honored on their special day. It is supposed to be a day of wholesomeness, warm feelings, sentimentality, and unbounded familial love. That’s what all the Fathers’ Day cards say, anyway.
But, there’s a lot of mixed emotions, and turmoil under the surface of having the barbeque, giving a card, and a nice present. Or, to be on the receiving end, and be thanked as a father in someone’s life.
There are so many strings attached, so many thoughts and memories that come to the surface, so many conflicting and unsettling experiences to sort through and try to make sense of. All the sentimentality and idealism can be a trap for the emotionally wounded, those of us who have other emotions and memories about fathers, the ones you can’t find in a Hallmark card.
And if Dad has passed away, or is otherwise absent in one’s life, there’s grief and the psychological jungle of things left unsaid, words that we regret, or words that we are desperate to hear or speak. Those children have no place and no role to play in a day of a sentimental card, a barbeque, or a gift of golf balls.
We don’t talk about that emptiness, that pain, but we should.
What is a good father? Even our cultural heroes and role models aren’t really what we had imagined, or thought of as solid, stable figures in our lives. When my wife and I were raising my stepson, we watched Bill Cosby’s show, and I thought he was the good dad — sensitive, kind, compassionate, the kind of dad I wanted my son to emulate in his life. Yet, that image of wholesomeness and stability has been dashed on the rocks of reality, and a conviction for predatory abuse and exploitation.
In my own life, I have seen stories and accepted history and experiences being altered by unsettling revelations, confessions, and recovered memories. The charming and comfortable portrayals of healthy and good parents have shifted, from the fall of Dr. Huxtable as the all wise and kind father figure to the realization that real life isn’t always the story of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best.
One thing that is absent in our society’s Fathers’ Day celebrations is a conversation about what is good fathering, and how we can strive to be better fathers, and better sons and daughters. We need to look at new gifts to give on dad’s special day, other than a new tie, tools for the barbeque, or golf balls.
Good parenting is a skill, and we need a day to ponder that, and have a real conversation about being the great dad, and how we can build healthier families.
In reality, living in the world of truth really is better for me than fiction, the fantasized and idealized “perfect world” created by Hollywood and our society’s desire to sugarcoat our historical reality.
Though, part of me longs for the dream world of the idealized childhood, and the warm and fuzzy images of the ideal Fathers’ Day experience. Part of me wants the nice sweetness of Dr. Huxtable, Ward Cleaver, and Sheriff Andy Griffith to be part of my Fathers’ Day party. But, those icons of healthy fathering aren’t in my reality, and I’ve hopefully learned how to separate the television fantasies from truth.
If fatherhood had a god, it would probably be Janus, looking both forward and back, showing us how those two perspectives can often be contradictory. Life is messy.
My experiences as a father always involves looking back as my experience as the son, and realizing that much of my fathering work is shaped by how I saw my father parented me. I’ve had other men who parented me, too, sometimes in momentary blips of insight, compassion, and correction. And, I’ve become increasingly grateful for those fathers who took it upon themselves to get my attention and offer some kindly, and often needed, direction and counsel.
Like Janus, I’ve looked back on that work and hopefully used that wisdom in my own work as a father.
I’ve mentored a number of young men who have needed some fathering and attention to the tough business of growing up in this world. I’ve drawn upon my own experiences as a son, and as a father, and helped guide them through their own storms and battles.
The reward in that is to hopefully give them a better experience that I’ve had as a son, giving direction and guidance, without a lot of the harsh judgment and anger that can easily derail a young man in his journey.
I’m not the perfect father. And, I certainly wasn’t the perfect son. I’m content with that, but I also know that this work of fathering is really never completed, that there are always going to be opportunities to be fatherly, and to give to others what I have needed in my past.
If we are mindful of that work, and those challenges, perhaps that is what we should be thinking about on Fathers’ Day.