My father raised my brother and me through our teenage years as a single dad. It was not a course we chose, but one we maplessly navigated. Our relationship was hardly traditional, swinging between a pizza-for-breakfast kind of bromance and a deep loving co-dependency. As I stumbled into manhood and he, sometimes adolescently, rebuilt his life, we leaned into each other. We relished each other’s company and shared a passion for the cocktail of music, politics and parties. Oh … the parties.
Eventually, somewhat against our will, adulthood beckoned. Time has a father as well. I sailed off into the wide berth of life as if I was the first one to attempt to distill it into meaning. When we’re young, we don’t know that God, that celestial Father, is right where we are.
Last year, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. In the aftermath of his surgery, he lost 35 pounds and became very weak. He remained astonishingly sanguine through the ordeal but his voice, normally round, plump with eloquence, was serrated and fragile. I would often steer the daily conversations I had with him toward the empirical; the test results, the probabilities of metastasis, alternatives to chemotherapy. In the prosaic and scientific, it was easier to keep a stiff upper lip. All the tropes of traditional masculinity applied: My family needed me to remain strong, confident, armed with facts. Clad in emotional armor, I fought to maintain order and stability. The truth was, I thought I might lose him.
My middle daughter, Lolli, is an empath. She disappears for long periods of time by herself. One day, in the nadir of my dad’s travails, I slumped into her room, lay on the bed next to her where she was reading and I began to cry. Not a whimper. A full-bellied, snotty-nosed, pillow-drenching sob. She held me tightly for a long time, nursing me out of convulsions. Generously breaking the silence, she said finally, “I guess big boys do cry.”
Before I had kids, I had three theories on fatherhood. Now I have three kids and no theories. When you walk down the aisle of a bookstore, there are hundreds of tomes on fatherhood, which indicates there’s no one right way to do it, no playbook. We’re still finding it.
But what I know, for me, is that to be a good father, I need a wholesale re-examination of the typical male archetype.
It’s not that the norms of manhood; courage, discipline and pride are, in and of themselves, bad. It is the stereotypical depiction of these qualities that are obsolete and misguided.
We have lucidly witnessed, both individually and as a nation, how the penchant to be a “real” man, with its chest-thumping hubris and social dominance, leads outwardly to bullying, misogyny and homophobia and inwardly to stress and depression. As men, and particularly as fathers, we have a choice to eschew this toxicity that is passed along down generational lines.
Can we redirect pride from an obsession with one’s own excellence to a sense of contentment derived from another’s fulfillment of their own potential?
Can we consider courage as synonymous with vulnerability, for seldom do they exist without each other? I know Lolli finds me brave, not because I can suppress a tear but because I can shed one.
Can we comprehend discipline as not solely the doling of punishment, but as a disciple-ship to our highest principles? Can we practice a familial form of restorative justice that focuses less on the punitive and more on addressing the harm caused?
If fathers and families can instantiate these practices in the home then will this not be reflected in the greater world? Would humanity not be more empathetic and compassionate?
When our family first relocated to Los Angeles, my daughters felt uprooted. This was particularly difficult for my eldest, Phoebe, who had cultivated meaningful friendships in Brooklyn. Right as she started sixth grade at her new school, there was an overnight science trip to the desert. The first afternoon, I got a call from the teacher. Phoebe was miserable and wanted to come home. I told her to give it some time. An hour later, the teacher called again and put Phoebe on the line. She was sobbing inconsolably. Of course, I felt for her. The notion of driving three hours there and back was daunting. I let her bawl until she was tired and then said, “If you want me to, I will come and get you right now. And I won’t make you feel guilty about it. Take twenty minutes and call back if you want me to come.” Needless to say, the phone never rang. I learned something about fatherhood; provide support and give choice.
My girls are light years from perfect. They can be petty, spoiled and irreverent, mouthing their rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father, who art in the carport, hollowed be his wallet. Please give us our daily bread, preferably in tens, and forgive us our debts. Lead us not into your woo-woo meditations, but deliver us from soccer.”
Baldwin was right. They rarely listen to me, but they also rarely fail to imitate me. I have never once asked them to do their homework, yet they are exemplary students, perhaps because they witness me working diligently on this computer and in the yard and have internalized diligence as a virtue.
What else are our sons and daughters modeling from our examples – good and bad?
I am not confident that most fathers truly realize the extent of their influence and the degree to which our children crave our admiration. Nor, I suspect, does society truly comprehend the devastating impact of tearing fathers from their families, an issue we must immediately confront.
If we have any hope of advancing as a species – of ending war and eradicating racism - fathers must commit to an evolved paternity that shuns domineering patriarchy. We can hone our ability to share, cooperate, learn, follow and, very occasionally, ask for directions.
I send my father my weekly missive regularly for edits. Of course, what I really seek is his approval which he freely and proudly gives. He is doing well now. Just a bit embarrassed that thousands of people are reading about his colon. I suppose, it’s good for him. Fathers must be humble, too.