Fathers’ Day — A Mixed Bag of Emotions


–by Neal Lemery




Fathers’ Day is a challenging holiday, and I’m relieved it has come and gone. The event is idealized in our culture, presented as a day of barbeques, family time, and lots of smiles about idyllic childhoods and loving, kindly fathers who have inspired us, who have taught us all about love, family, and healthy parenting. It comes across as cuddly and warm, yet for many, the message is one of conflict and contradiction.


On Sunday, I had good communications with many of the men I am proud to call “son”, and good friends, guys I can talk with, heart to heart. I’m relieved that they are doing well in their emotional lives, and able to freely express their feelings with me about fathering and growing up.  We’re at a stage, finally, where “I love you” is more easily spoken or written.


Yet, I have others I’ve mentored and parented who choke on saying the word “love”. I know they are struggling, challenged by how to find themselves and make sense of the confusion and chaos in their lives. Depression, addiction, broken relationships, and even jail time challenge them, as they keep searching for the tools and the paths to heal themselves and be able to move on in their lives. Guys don’t easily pick up the phone or text that they’re suicidal, high, or behind bars.  There aren’t any texting emojis that say that they aren’t good enough, that they’re failures and can’t get their lives together.


I love them anyway, and try to communicate that, but often it is a one way street. Some of my letters addressed to a prison don’t get a reply, but I write anyway. I’m a gardener and planting seeds and adding water and fertilizer on what appears to be infertile ground is part of that work of faith.


Like other holidays, what we are supposed to be honoring and acknowledging conflicts with our own reality and our emotional journeys through life. None of us have lived the idyllic life, being parented with the ideal, perfect father, and living our own life free from emotional baggage left over from our childhood. We experience our own roles as men, fathers, and the complex task of helping to raise kids and navigate our own turbulent emotional waters of adulthood. The road is often bumpy.


It is a day of conflicting emotions and fake messages, including this Instagram posted on this Fathers’ Day from Bill Cosby, once television’s ideal dad, and now an imprisoned, convicted sexual predator:


“Hey, Hey, Hey…It’s America’s Dad… I know it’s late, but to all of the Dads… It’s an honor to be called a Father, so let’s make today a renewed oath to fulfilling our purpose – strengthening our families and communities.”


Emotional predators, especially those who have projected a wholesome image through the media, and hold themselves out as a role model of virtue and integrity, have no credibility coming across as the ideal dad. No, Mr. Cosby, you are not “America’s Dad” anymore, and I reject what you are trying to project upon us.  Your social media posting is a mockery of what Fathers’ Day needs to be.


I’m not alone in thinking about the challenges of being both the child and the father, and dealing with sons and daughters who are conflicted about dealing with the idealization of parenting, how to emerge whole, or at least not emotionally ravaged from childhood.


I Googled “father anger” and saw there were 185 million hits. It is a rich topic for writers, and all of us who are trying to make sense of masculine anger.


“It’s not being a man that makes men prone to anger, but being socialized to be “masculine,” which studies suggest is hard to separate from a propensity for angry emotions. Societal expectations about how to be a boy are evolving, but many men are still taught that anger is one of few acceptable emotions for them to express. When toughness and independence are highly valued in men, this inevitably leads to outbursts.”

–Virginia Pelley



The greeting card section at the grocery store doesn’t have Fathers’ Day cards about anger, about emotional abuse, and the challenges of having a real deep conversation with dad about growing up, and how to navigate those troubled waters.


Talking about emotions and childhood trauma are still taboo topics for many men at social gatherings, as well as one on one.  I’ve also seen adult children who are called at a funeral to eulogize their parent struggle to put into words stories about their parents’ lives, trying to balance truth telling with unresolved emotions about the tough times with mom or dad.  A funeral isn’t expected to be very healing for anger and rage.


However, the subtleties in the stories that have been edited to be spoken at a funeral can convey a willingness to be real, to connect with family on what has often been stuffed away in the family closet of secrets. There remains the deep need to tell the truth, and to heal.


Being open and honest about such experiences has been seeing the light of day in recent years.  Popular figures have been telling their stories, and numerous books dig into the challenges of familial rage and dysfunction.  The “Me Too” movement and other acts of cultural courage over the past few decades have modeled the benefits of being open and having the courage to start to heal.


In the last few years, work on addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACEs) has been a breath of fresh air and provided opportunities for understanding and healing, much to the benefit of our society. Educators are now becoming informed and are implementing innovative approaches to helping kids.


Many of the men I’ve mentored have had the benefit of good counselors and therapists, friends, and lovers who have helped in removing the thorns of abuse, self-debasement, and emotional sabotage.  For many people, the vicious cycle of generational emotional paralysis and impotent rage has been exposed to the light of understanding, and been broken, or at least interrupted.  For all that work, I am heartened, and I can see society moving and changing, Bill Cosby’s recent comment notwithstanding.


I try to convey to my sons and the other men in my life that we are all entitled to our anger and our rage, that the wounds we have experienced should be acknowledged, and that healing is possible.  Dealing with the mixed emotions of Fathers’ Day is part of that work. It is a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we need to go in our journeys.



Defining Family

“What IS family, then?” The young man asked.
He’s getting out in less than a year, and we were talking about his plans for when he is “out” and life no longer has the physical limits of being “locked up”.
Going home is not the most attractive of his choices. There, old ways, old relationships, and old expectations for how he is to live and move ahead in life are all in play. He’s no longer a young teen, struggling with addictions and bad choices, and the labels that comes with the mistake he made at a tender age, the mistake that cost him his freedom. He’s earned a fresh start, and be able to move ahead without the baggage of prejudgment and assumptions. He’s not who he was, and he’s rightfully proud of that accomplishment.
Yes, being “inside” has given him many opportunities, and he had taken advantage of them, growing into a smart, sensitive, and thoughtful young man. A young man I’d be proud to call a son and live with me, become part of my family.
He’s looking ahead, and looking for options, possibilities for a new life, moving ahead with his life and seeking his dreams. At the core of that is being part of family.
So what IS family? Yes, the first, quick answer is the biological answer: the family I was born into. Yet, family can be and probably should be so much more.
Being a part of a family is a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice. We can do that in many ways.
When we marry, we intentionally create a new family, blended or mixed from both spouses biological families, or the families each partner is currently a part. We mix it up, sometimes adding kids and also adding in-laws, and close friends from both sides of the marriage. New rules and new expectations emerge, along with new dynamics.
New territory and new challenges await us as we navigate these fresh and often turbulent waters.
What is it that this young man needs, what I need, in a family?
We made a list: love, respect, a place in which to belong, be accepted, nurtured, cherished. A place to grow as well as a place that you come home to after a day out in the world, being challenged and jostled. A place that takes you for who you are. A place where there’s a chair and a table setting just for you at dinner.
“We each need to make our own family,” I said. “And the definition needs to fit what we need, creating a place where we grow to our full potential.”
My young friend has figured it out. He knows what a family is, the family he needs and wants, a place where he will flourish. Like all of us, he just needs permission to seek that out, and be good to himself, to find his very own family, creating his own happiness.
And, yes, its OK to want that, and its OK to make sure that having that good family is part of our lives, helping every one of us at achieve our dreams and live a productive, love filled life.

— Neal Lemery 9/30/2016


“How’s your family?” someone asked the other day.

“Oh, fine,” I replied. The standard response.

“No, really. How are they?” they asked, again, wanting me to be honest, to engage with them.

I shared some successes, a few challenges, feeling myself break into a smile as I talked about the people I loved, people I shared my life with, people who really mattered to me.

The conversation got into how I was really doing, at this point in my life. I’m really close to retirement, and busy with my music, my mentoring, and the usual busy schedule of late summer.

It felt good to connect with that person, and have someone really care about me, and where I was in life, and how things were really going. It was one of those times I was glad I lived in a small town, where you could run into people who really cared about you, who were good friends. I felt that warm, deep feeling inside of me, that feeling that people really cared about me, that I mattered, that what I do in my life really mattered.

As I walked down the street, I wondered, “Well, what do I mean when I mention my family?”

My lawyer brain first thinks of the dictionary definition of family. I look back at those in my life I’m related to biologically. Except for a few, they aren’t family now. We don’t have anything in common, except some DNA and some quirky personalities and mannerisms. Some of them share a last name with me. But, all that doesn’t add up to family for me. Not anymore.

I ran down the list of names, the names of my family, their faces popping into my head, more warm feelings filling my chest, my gut, being part of the smile across my face.

It struck me, hard, that who I feel are family to me aren’t related to me by blood. We don’t share the DNA, or any of the quirky family traits of personality, or habit, or behavior. We don’t share last names, or common ancestors.

No, my family doesn’t fit the Webster’s definition. But, they are my family.

They’ve come into my life through my marriage, my work, my life in this community. Some of them have lived in my house, and sat with me at the dinner table, as I’ve watched them grow up and move on, making something out of themselves.

And, some of them are people I just see a lot, sharing some laughs, telling stories, having fun spending some good times. They are the people you don’t need to worry about when you see them, worrying about what you will talk about, or what you will do. Like your favorite pair of worn jeans, they fit right and they’re comfortable, without any effort, without any work about being formal, or proper, or even polite.

They know who they are with me — family. And, when I try to explain to someone else how they are related to me, how they are family, the usual words of relationship and kinship just don’t work.

“Step son” or “former foster son” or “mentee” or “former co worker” or “wife’s former step daughter” or whatever I might use to “define” our relationship all are just words. And, they don’t work very well. They don’t describe who we are or how we are related. And, all those words aren’t what we are to each other, anyway.

And, some of the phrases just become nonsense to me, anyway. How can one be a “former” son? Once one, always one. English needs to develop some new words for who’s who in my family.

We’ve had a lot of shared experiences, a lot of fun, a lot of struggle sometimes, a lot of water under the bridge. More wrinkles, maybe less hair, bigger stomachs, all marks of aging. We all have a bit more gray in our hair (some, including me, a lot more than others!)

If we all got together for a big family portrait, you wouldn’t be able to tell that we’re related by looking at our faces, or how we dress, or how we smile, or sing. But, you would know us by our stories, by our affection for each other, for our shared experiences, and love for what we really are to each other. You would know us by that love that is deep in our hearts, that love we have for each other, that no one can define.

And, in all that, we are family.