John Proctor, writer, teacher and our Dad For All Seasons, shows us how to root for our favorite team without checking out as a parent.
I’m now going into my seventh year of fatherhood, and every year still feels like a new frontier. I’m sure it feels like this for most parents—despite the egregious amount of reading many of us do, despite the accumulated wisdom of our families before us, we still tend to feel like we’re making it up as we go.
I’m of the suspicion—and it gets stronger every year—that we are at a historical transition where our accepted notions of parenthood are less stable, more fluid than ever. I think a number of factors contribute to this—the decline of the nuclear family as the norm, more questioning of gender-normative patterns of behavior, perhaps even a wide-scale movement away from social groups in the physical space with the rise of digital media. But every year, as my relationships with my children become less about fulfilling basic physical needs and more about forging strong emotional bonds with them and teaching them life lessons that will carry into their own adulthoods, I wonder if I’m doing this right, or if there is even a right way of doing this.
I probably do this the most on my children’s birthdays, and on Father’s Day. Being a self-acknowledged amateur at this thing I’m hesitant to draw universal conclusions from my own specific parenting experience, so I decided to do a little crowdsourcing. Last week I posted a prompt to my friends on social media, asking simply for responses on what fathering, fatherhood, or fathers have meant to them.
The myriad responses I got 1) provided a working blueprint for me in starting to put together the pieces toward a more panoramic understanding of evolving conceptions of fatherhood, and 2) reminded me how eclectic, intuitive, and understanding my extended pixelated family is.
Take, for starters, my friend Christian. I’ve known him since grade school, long before either of us even met or knew much of anything about our biological fathers. Christian’s mom raised him, his twin brother, his sisters, and many of their friends and cousins who drifted in and out of their house, so like me his conception of what makes a father (or a parent even) is fairly wide:
Dads do not necessarily have to be found in the home… they can be a neighbor, a mentor, a male that can teach you the value of the dollar, skills like how to take care of the home or car. So I have picked ideas and wisdom from different men I have met along the way. You just have to find value in everyone you meet.
Christian is an exceptional man. He was an All-American sprinter at the University of Kentucky before fathering numerous children with numerous women, and has managed to gather all of them to him, providing a home and a positive role model for all of them and his stepchildren as well. I visited him last year at his home in Lexington where he is now a track coach, and had such a great time watching him and his boys, who are now in high school and college, eat chicken wings and debate the black man’s place in political activism. Christian takes his position as a positive black role model seriously, but he didn’t lecture his boys, letting them come to their points and argue them out with each other, interjecting when they got facts wrong or needed a bigger-picture perspective.
I have many male friends for whom sports have been a primary medium for their place as fathers. I’ve also noticed a shift, even in my jockiest friends, away from the Hardass Sports Dad model. I remember a recent Facebook thread that started with a friend complaining about his kid’s little league coach risking losing a game by playing everyone on the team but developed into a discussion on changing expectations of developing young athletes. Even my old buddy Shaun, a little league coach who I go round and round with during college basketball season as he complains bitterly about coaching decisions and underperforming players, recently told me:
My son, middle child, taught me to back off and let him do his thing even while I was coaching him. I made your typical mistake and pushed him too hard, to the point he almost quit everything. I backed off and he started having fun again. My daughter learned how unfair life really can be through sports. She had a girl on her summer softball team, that she was starting to get very close with. Several days after one of their tournaments that friend/teammate ended up in the hospital with kidney failure. She never made it out, she died at the age of 16. I think that taught my daughter, and our family, that while sports are fun and you can benefit from playing them, when it comes down to it sports are really just a game and don’t lose sight of the things that really matter.
And then I think of my running partner Barry. He is shooting for 200 miles this month, roughly twice as many as I’ll run. Less than two years ago, he’d never run a step. In fact, he was smoking, in his words, “4 to 5 packs a day. Most of my time spent in the hospital.” His youngest son asked him to quit smoking. “It was the look in his eyes that made me quit that day cold turkey,” Barry told me. “Started running next day and have not stopped running since. And never been in better health. And he has been to every race.”