John Proctor, writer, teacher and our Dad For All Seasons, continues his series What Is a Father? and reminds us to continue the momentum of love and appreciation that father’s day inspired.
Among the many narratives of the late 20th Century, one I find especially relevant here is that of fragmentation: of global culture, of the family, of the individual. This isn’t something I lament, nor is it something I celebrate. It just is, and its most relevant result here is that we are collectively, as responsible and cognizant parents, in a position to pick and choose through the fragments of our culture, finding the most useful and fitting ones and discarding or storing away the rest. My friend Matt spent much of the past weekend tracing this progression through three generations of fathers in his family. It’s a long, epic story, and I’ve attempted to whittle it down to a still-longish form that captures the transition of fatherhood I spoke of earlier through his own family history:
Grandpa was the classic WWII-era father, a career Navy man who saw his role as the provider. As is often the case with career men, the career is sort of like a trust fund from a mean parent who’s still alive and kicking. Everybody in the family loves the stability of the regular check, but taking care of the crusty old codger is a spiritual drain on the entire family. Grandpa’s stories all revolve around his Navy adventures. I never heard him talk much about his kids, much less tell any stories about what it meant to be a father.
Dad was determined to be the antithesis of Grandpa. The big bear wrestled with his cubs, played every game we played, and did all manner of ridiculous things to lighten our mood. He held a lot of Grandpa’s old school beliefs close, but fancied himself a Renaissance Man. He loved to philosophize about life, history, and society, and he dabbled in the creative arts—writing, drawing, and making things.
We were devastated when Mom and Dad got divorced. I was four and my brother was six. The grounds for divorce were a clash of perspective about what it meant to be mother and father. Dad wanted to be the head and provider of a traditional American family. Mom felt the pull of women’s liberation, civil rights and the social revolution that swept America by storm. Men in our society divorce their kids, not just their wife. Dad was deeply depressed by the lonely reality of divorce. Dad married a traditional housewife of a woman, kind and caring, who had two boys our age. He was faithful and devoted to her.
When it was my brother’s turn to be a Dad, I was floored. My Army Rangering, MMA fighting, weight lifting, computer nerd of a big brother became a teddy bear. He was as gentle with his twin boys as our mom was with us. In a lot of ways, he has sought to build the traditional nuclear family that we never had growing up, although the sexual division of labor plays no part. He also defined it in new terms, reflecting the influence of being raised by a single mom.
As my wife and I wait to adopt a child, my turn at fatherhood awaits. Being like my mom will make me a good Dad in a lot of ways too. I have some good guides and training for my trip into the wilderness. All of their hard work has given me tools that Grandpa never had when he was a Dad. He must have been terrified. One thing is for certain—I will have an even greater appreciation and admiration for the fathers before me who did the best they could, undid the damage, repaired the role, and redefined the meaning of Dad.
And then there’s this parallel from my friend Ian, about how the generations of men in his family drove his decision thus far not to be a father:
To understand my relationship with my father you have to see my grandfather as a father first. From the stories my dad tells me, in his most nostalgic moments, my grandfather was a great dad. My dad tells me how my grandfather still holds records for the Massillon Tigers football team. He would run foot races with the neighborhood kids and win every one until my Dad was sixteen. I have pictures of my grandfather in rolled blue jeans and white t-shirts stretched over a well-muscled chest. I read Kerouac a lot and picture his Neal Cassidy as my grandfather.
My own father divorced my Mom and left when I was single digits. I have one memory of cops coming to the house when they were fighting, but other than that, no memory of my parents being married. For a while he had a string of girlfriends that my sister and I hated. I don’t remember him being a Dad. Just someone that would distract us from monotony every other weekend until he moved further away and it became once a month.
As far as planning a family goes, I’ve decided it would be irresponsible for me to have my own kids. I’m one of those folks who would adopt, but I think that’s a ways off. I can barely keep myself together. I cry too much and get angry too quickly. Thinking about leaving my cat for four days makes me sick with apprehension. The idea that I might raise a child who could hate or love me is too much right now. So, until I get some work done on myself, there are no immediate plans.
Many fathers and potential fathers are not quite so circumspect or introspective as Ian or Matt, but we all make adjustments as we go.