The morning that my son Evan was born was both a great joy and a tremendous relief. My wife had gone through fifteen hours of labor contractions every three minutes. He came into this world around 7:00 a.m. on October 30, 1986.
The thrill of having your first child is complemented by the arrival of the second. Our daughter Emily arrived around 9:00 p.m. on a warm April 26, 1990. That delivery rushed along so fast that we needed to call friends and family to watch our son when we rushed off to the hospital on the heels of a spicy Mexican meal a few hours earlier.
The pain and humor of fatherhood is never-ending. Your children grow up so fast that it is the small moments you accumulate in your mind that constitute being a father or mother.
I remember one late afternoon when the sun was falling through the front window of our tiny Geneva home. My daughter was crawling around on the bare floor chewing on a flexible teething ring. The sun was bouncing off the floor and struck her blue eyes. I raced for my film camera and snapped off a few photos before the sun went down. Later when I showed those photos to a friend she quietly murmured. “Her eyes look like cracked glass.”
I also recall the first word of my son. He was sitting on the back porch with my wife who often held him in her lap and pointed to flowers and other natural items around the yard. A small sparrow landed beneath their feet and my wife said to Evan, “Bird.” And he repeated the word, “Bird.” He was six months old.
In fact word games became a big part of all our lives. On our way home from grandma’s house one December, we drove through Geneva where the Christmas lights were blazing and Evan had a question for us both. “What’s the word, ‘wreath?”
He was always asking questions about language. We laughed years later when he admitted that he never knew what we were talking about when referring to Forced Preserves. That would be ‘forest preserves.” As Emily Latella might say, “Never mind.”
With Emily it was always the purpose of language and song that mattered. We have a wonderful video of her in a pink ballerina dress practicing a Disney song. If the words did not come out just right she would stop and huff in frustration. Then she’d begin again. But you dared not interrupt her either. This was her challenge to complete and she did not want help recalling or repeating the words. That was her job, and hers alone.
It is true that the character of your children emerges early and lives in their core their whole lives. Through creative means we learn how they think and believe and play. But it is through their character that we really know them.
Sometimes as a father of adult children I want desperately to know what they are really thinking. It is of course easy to dwell on our personal failings as a parent. When a child calls and the phone call ends, you wonder to yourself, “Did I give them what they need? Was I enthusiastic to their purpose? Am I being a good father to them?”
Those questions surface more frequently in absence of the mother that raised them. I know they miss their mother because she was superb at saying the right things when they called. I listened to hundreds of conversations over the years. Her attention to their needs was superb.
But these questions exist whether someone is alive or gone to another place. All it takes is a missed phone call in this life to get behind in our relationships. While modern technology is great, and we see each other on Facebook and catch up by phone when we can, there is a strange back-pressure that comes from so much attenuation to communication. If you’re not careful, the pressures of communication can become an undertow. That’s true for all of us, and with everyone.
It’s important as a father to remember that your family needs their own space as well. So much of my own children’s upbringing was done by other adults and friends in life that I cannot claim all the facets of their character as my own. Those summers that my son spent over at a friend’s house building forts and beating each other up with floats in a tiny pool were critical in the formation of his personality. A father simply cannot provide all that input. That friendship. That love. It has to come from other sources too. The same goes for my daughter and those concert trips with her friends. It’s not the same if your father’s standing around at a concert. That has to be experienced on your own, and with your own community.
I do know that many parents struggle to know their full roles. When I encouraged my daughter as a teenager to invite the bands she’d met at concerts to crash at our house overnight during a tour, it was not always with permission of my wife.
Yet I knew the importance and resonance of that connection because where else in the world would you encounter such amazing people in a close circumstance?
The morning she woke up to find a fantastic group of musicians sitting around her bedroom singing and playing guitar could never be replicated again. Later she leveraged her musical connections to recruit the group Goldhouse to play at her graduation party. The band was about to embark on a concert series called Warped Tour. Their set was polished and when the first notes of the first song rocked through our oversized basement with 60+ people crammed into that space, people shrieked in amazement. My son turned to me in wonder and joy, shouting, “Ohhhh Myyyy Godddddd!” It was fantastic. And it was ours to share with our friends and the world.
It is our job as parents and especially fathers to support our families any way we can. Yet it was the morning after a long drive down to Illinois State University that made me realize the ultimate role of a father. We had left late the night before because my son was involved in a school play. Leaving at 10 p.m., we made it to the Interstate just as a deep fog settled over central Illinois. As the fog thickened, my son nodded off in the seat beside me. I focused on the tail light ahead of me for a couple hours until we pulled into the hotel parking lot. I turned to him and asked, “Were you at all nervous about the fog?”
“I decided to go to sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “I figured if I woke up dead it didn’t matter.”
We chuckled about that and piled into the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. He was excited to rise early and join his friends for the student state government convention he’d been invited to attend. We exchanged quick greetings and a partial hug. Then he walked confidently down the hall without turning back. I watched him go and realized that I’d helped raise a reasonably confident son. That made me proud. Yet is also made me feel alone. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell.
It hasn’t been easy for our family in a number of ways over the years. Yet my children have told me that they appreciated the stability and love found in our home. As parents perhaps we were sometimes a little too lenient in making them do chores. Yet our children were involved in positive things that occupied their time. There was plenty of time in life to learn chores it seemed. Many times they’d come home to tell of us some onerous task they’d just done for someone else’s parents. We’d laugh and confess, “Well, at least they’re learning responsibility somewhere.”
In the wake of my wife’s death I elected to begin dating and have been in a relationship now for two years with a woman named Sue that appreciates the legacy of my wife and respects my children. I try to do the same for her. Now her daughter is an intern with the magazine where my daughter is managing editor. We are an evolving family. Our lives have converged and convened in positive ways. We spend time together with my mother-in-law and other relatives. My wife’s best friend confided to me last year that my wife said she knew that I would date after she was gone. I thanked that friend for sharing that insight. This is not about forgetting my late wife. It is about companionship and love and supporting each other and our families.
It troubles me sometimes that so many people fail to grasp the value of loving relationships wherever they occur. This obsessive absorption with the idea of a “traditional family” is so lame and disaffecting it should be trampled underfoot by the crowd of people truly seeking love in this world. Aren’t we all sick and tired of the loss of love in this world? Can’t we dispense with the angry ideology that emanates from this selective reading of the Bible and its ugly byproducts.
After all, it was the literalistic approach to scripture that was used to justify slavery for years, and racial discrimination for the century after that. Long ago it generated crusades over faith and then helped lead to the death of millions of Jews through anti-Semitism. The rigid practice of patriarchal faith still foments a disturbingly immature view of women as property. Biblical literalism fuels an ignorant brand of politics that denies science and the educational process that goes with it. In the face of so much ignorant history why do we still even listen to people whining about “traditional marriage” based on a religious view that is clearly anachronistic and damaging to society?
Parenting skills and simple tools
Into this social void we wade… while wondering what the next generation will bring. Some people seem to worry that this generation of children is irresponsible and somehow lacking in important social skills. As a father that has met dozens of my children’s Millennial friends, I do not share that worry. I know their character because they helped raise my own children. I see great hope in a generation that cares not what race a person is. I see love in the fact that they don’t care if someone is gay or not. I (somewhat radically it appears) think this generation of so-called Millennials has an etiquette and a respect for self and others that older generations are simply failing to grasp.
For example, I know now to occasionally text my son or daughter if I’m going to call them. Why? Because it’s not always appropriate to answer you cell phone, but you can handle a quiet text to call later. If they’re occupied I don’t get voice mail. And quite often they’re occupied with other tasks and cannot take a call. There’s no imposition there.
That might seem like an affront to some. But as a father I look at it from a completely different perspective. I respect my children as well as love them. It simply makes sense to try to understand their social constructs and not impose mine on them. As a society we seem to have migrated toward this world where holding people at a disadvantage is considered something of a power chip and a point of pride. But it’s the wrong kind of pride. Barking about how millennials are poorly trained and communicate differently is not a sign of maturity. It is a sign of emotional immaturity and selfishness.
The right kind of pride is taking the time to examine why people react the way they do to the demands of social pressure, communications and opportunity. I think Millennials have evolved a patent way to accord each other respect. It’s the blunderbuss of a generation that complains about entitlement and then acts like they’re entitled to have everyone do things their way or the Old-Fashioned Way that is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s no surprise in a society where Winner-Take-All is now the social style of both politicians and the religious. It’s no wonder Millennials are running from politics and the church. Would you stick around to listen if people were sending their message in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME?
Father’s Day lessons
It seems the real lesson we need to learn on something so familiar as Father’s Day is this: parenting is not a one-way street. It’s a partnership and a revelation as well as a responsibility.
The ultimate vision of a Father is that of God. And if we’re wise we also recognize that God doesn’t just want obedience and contrition from the human race. There’s a relationship there as well. God the Father, if that’s how you prefer to visualize the ultimate form of love, is basically wondering how we’re doing. He wants to know. Sometimes it’s the smallest moments and the smallest things that matter. If you cease paying attention and miss those, then life is not so abundant as you might like.
And that’s the real message of Father’s Day.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community, which chronicles the journey of his family through cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com.