Father (verb) First

I’ve been reflecting on an intriguing comment about parenthood in general, and fatherhood in particular, which I heard during a recent Fresh Air interview with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette about the making of the movie ‘Boyhood.’

It isn’t in the linked transcript summary here, but Hawke reflected on the realities of being a divorced father of two (in the movie and in his life) and remarked that for dads ‘…without meeting your responsibilities, there is no happiness.’

He was speaking about fathers who had abandoned their duties, who had left the raising of the children to the mothers. He reflected on how men can often position at diametrically conflicted angles their familial obligations against their lifestyle pursuits (women abandon their families too, of course, but he was speaking in relation to his male character).

As Hawke puts it, ‘family is the dream.’

It’s just that men often realize—or more likely, admit to themselves—too late that they share this dream.

Or perhaps I’m projecting. 

My wife and I both have fathers who—in one way or another—followed their own paths away from their children, away from their familial obligations. We were both kids during the late 1970s and early 1980s when divorcing parents were, anecdotally speaking, more the norm than the exception, and many of these Baby Boomer men left the children to be raised by our mothers and whatever men happened to be around.

But then, at a juncture years later, these same men have returned from wherever they’ve been—usually, it seems, raising other families—making claims on our time, our attention, our loyalty even. The pain in these men—our fathers—is palpable, a tangible weight of missed opportunity that presses hard upon shoulder, head and chest.

They ask us to lift that weight, to appease them, to forgive them, and even when or if we do, nothing changes for them.

The men in the lives of my wife and me would never—could never—acknowledge or admit this, but what we can’t do for them is give them back the satisfaction of fulfilling the responsibilities that they shirked off. They missed their (many) chances to fulfill a fundamental obligation within themselves, and no amount of effort on the part of the children alleviates the consequences born from the choices made by the fathers.

If this sounds harsh, it’s not exactly intended to. My wife and I have both worked to improve our relationships with our respective fathers, even if the results of those efforts are mixed at best (we children shoulder our own burdens of missed opportunity).

But I have to acknowledge reality, too, and the reality is this: when you have children, the time to put in the work and to be present and to establish a foundation of trust is brutally short.

However undeveloped they may be, kids know from betrayal. They know when someone is hanging in, doing his or her best, making themselves available. And they know when someone has left, physically or emotionally or both.

I'm, of course, reminded of my own behavior and my own habits as, now, a parent myself. I have to work at my own instinctive, selfish impulses and remember to father (verb) first.  Even when it's sloppy and poorly executed (which--come on--it usually is). I've seen the consequences of not doing this, and I want more for myself, not just for my own happiness, but for the happiness of my kids. 

That Whole Father and Son Thing

The 'This American Life' episode where the young boy sends his absent father half-filled cassette tapes with the hope that his dad will listen to the tapes and respond by filling the blank side with a message, just for his son.

Yeah, it's a devastating episode (listen here, if you dare: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/289/go-ask-your-father) and the adult son gets to confront his dad--on air--about why his dad never bothered to respond. The dad founders and makes some excuse about how the tapes--the naked earnest need of his own child--wrecked him and somehow made him unable to respond. 

Ira Glass asks the son if there is any sense of closure now that he got his father's answer, and the son says something to the effect of: not really. The man to whom the son was sending the tapes is gone and has been replaced by this much older, much different man.  

I had the opportunity to spend time with my own father this past weekend at my sister's wedding. The TAL episode kept coming back to me. Like so many of my closest friends, like my wife, and like so many of my peers (we Generation X-ers), my dad split when I was young.

I was six.

My dad wasn't completely removed; my sister and I saw him three or four times a year. But he certainly wasn't present in my day-to-day life. He was a persistent, chafing absence. I so envied the other kids whose fathers were simply there. There's no secret that kids believe that the departure of their fathers from their lives is their own doing, and there's no mystery that we carry that rejection (someone can one day just decide to leave) with us the rest of our days. This knowledge infects every relationship we have, and while as a plus it can make us more self-reliant and accepting of the fact that life is change, on the downside it can torpedo our confidence and make us feel abandoned. Unworthy. 

Like the son in the TAL story, the man who left, the man whom I missed, is not just absent, he's been replaced by someone else. No matter how much relationship triage we perform now, the two people who most need the fix--the shredded child, the fleeing and guilt-ridden father--can never reach anything like resolution or peace because those two people are in some other time and some other space.

The one calling, the other running.