2012-06-17

Happy Father's Day

What makes fathering a distinct form of parenting, what distinguishes fathering from mothering, is a constantly shifting cultural construct. One of the things about Dads, is that they are defined by a spot in family life, yet we – and when I say “we” I mean the general expectations of culture – cut Dads a fair amount of slack when it comes to household competence. This is changing – more and more Dads are expected to know how to cook, and shop, and do child care.

Yet there’s also the case of the Dad who had never done the shopping. Then one time, he had to, and his wife sent him to the store with a list, carefully numbered with the seven items to buy so he wouldn’t skip any. Dad returned shortly, proud of himself, and proceeded to unpack the grocery bags. He had one bag of sugar, two boxes of raisins, three cans of beans, four boxes of detergent, five boxes of crackers, six eggplants, and seven green peppers.

And, for a Dad, that might even be kind of endearing.

You know what the most curious thing about father’s day is – about the way it manifests in popular culture? I think the most curious thing is all the emphasis on best and greatest. It’s surprising to me how high the percentage of all father day cards seems to be that say something along the lines of “World’s Best Dad,” “Number 1 Dad” “Greatest Father Ever.” Little plastic trophies that say World’s Best Dad are all over town.

Mother’s Day is a little different, isn’t it? Yes, you can find a card or a mug that says “Best Mom” on it, but you have to look just a little longer to find it. It’s just a little bit weird to think of your mom as in a competition with other moms to out mother them. I know that if you are a mother, then there are those moments when some other mother makes you feel like it is a competition. But from the kids’ perspective, it’s a little funny to think of mom as doing what she does as part of a mothering tournament. Somehow, the competition theme feels a little more natural with Dad.

So, on Father’s Day cards it’s a little more common to see language like “No better Dad could be found," “Gold-medal winning Dad,” and “World’s Greatest Dad.” We’re saying: Go, Dad! Trounce those other Dads. Somehow, it’s a little more natural to think of Dad in a comparative context: “Number 1 Dad,” which, if you think about it, means: “Congratulations, every other Dad is worse than you.”

Actually, though, in 21st century Western culture, Dad’s themselves probably less often feel competitive with other dads than moms do with other moms. Not that there aren’t exceptions, not that there aren’t moments when fathering, too, can get to feeling a bit competitive. But still, overall, and on average: Dads get proclaimed the winner by not entering the game.

Isn't there something fundamentally off about thinking of parenting in terms of "best" and "greatest"? I know that our culture stresses that sort of thinking. We want to be the best at our jobs. We want to have the best products. We need to know that there is more to life than wanting more and better. There are appropriate spheres of values, and when a value begins to take over outside its sphere, it becomes demonic. Pursuit of excellence is an essential value – within its sphere. It belongs in the sphere of our work, our vocations, and in selecting products. Excelling is a comparison concept – it depends upon comparing.

And there are other spheres in life where comparison needs to be beside the point. Family life needs to be one of those areas. Does your love for your children, or your parents, really have anything to do with how they compare to other children, or other parents? Our families are our spheres of refuge from the needs of comparison.

The values of work and the marketplace, of producing and consuming, don’t belong there.
When the family sphere is colonized by values of better and best, rather than values of love, of acceptance for you exactly as you are, something crucial is lost. In the body, when processes that are absolutely essential in their place, start spilling over beyond their place, that’s called cancer.

Stephen Spender's poem, “I think continually of those who were truly great” (see here), gives a different perspective on "great." I love how Spender’s sense of what constitutes greatness seems to have nothing to do with what we usually think of as accomplishments and achievements. The ambition is not for worldly success and victory, but to
"tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.”
Their names aren’t engraved onto buildings or onto plaques or awards – rather their names are
“feted by the waving grass and by the streamers of white could and whispers of wind in the listening sky.”
We know that the striving after better and best is a never-ending proposition, that healing and wholeness begins in loving what is. And yet, how does any new parent not think about how to be a good parent? In a previous generation, parents read Dr. Spock. His Baby and Child Care was huge. A lot of parents lately have been reading Dr. William Sears, who recommends an approach called attachment parenting. Of course we are interested in being skillful parents. It’s just that: in work whatever you’re good at, it usually makes sense to get even better at it. In parenting, everything is about balance.

You want to provide guidance – but not too much or you’re controlling.

You want to provide nurturance – but not too much or you’re smothering.

You want to offer your kids space – but not to much or you’re distant and unengaged.

And how much is too much varies widely from child to child, and from day to day for the same child.

The family sphere is the area where we can just relax a bit. There is so much about our children that just isn’t up to us. As Kahlil Gibran reminds us:
They are with you yet they belong not to you.
Give them your love but not your thoughts for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies, but their souls dewll in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
So give up on this “Best Dad” idea. The ideal here is a nonideal: not even to “Be a good Dad” but just to be a “good enough” Dad.

My daughter, Morgen, is 31 now, my son is 29. I was not a great Dad. I was around. I was often preoccupied, but was sometimes attentive. In my attention, I was sometimes oppressive.

At the family gaming table, I have never thrown a game. I know that a lot of parents do that – make a bad move on purpose to let the kids win or at least have a chance. From the time they were 5 and could play Parcheesi, I played to win. It’s just a game, it’s not important, winning at “go fish” doesn’t really matter, but if you aren’t playing to win, you aren’t really playing it – you’re only pretending to play the game while actually pursuing some hidden parental agenda about your child’s self-esteem or something. What kid isn’t going to figure that out?

Still, I wonder whether it was really necessary for me to develop my own extensive note-taking system for deducing whodunit when the family played “Clue.” Probably that was a little over the top. Oh, well.

It seems to me that Morgen and John grew into their beings – the beings they knew how to become. I didn’t have to make them into anything. So it kind of amazes me to notice how ended up similar to me – while also very different.

I had a second go ‘round at fathering with Yency and Osman – two Honduran young men. Yency came into our household in 2004, when he was 17. Osman joined us 15 months later, when he was 17. Yency adapted and took advantage of what we were able to offer. He worked at learning English, he took the GED over and over until he passed it, he followed through on the citizenship process, became a citizen. Last May, he finished his Associate’s degree at Santa Fe, and next Fall will start the University of Central Florida in Orlando, pursuing a Bachelor’s in criminal justice.

Osman: not so much. His spirit called him in different directions. He loved hanging out with his friends – who looked to a middle-class, middle-aged anglo like me to be a not-so-wholesome crowd. He wanted to work right away, get a little money, and enjoy it. Books and classrooms were not his idea of enjoyment. He was with us a few years, then moved out. There was some trouble with the law: driving unlicensed vehicles, drug possession. He was in and out of jail, and finally was deported back to Honduras. We had seen him through a process to attain legal permanent resident status – and now he will never again have any shot at getting that status back.

I remind myself to resist the temptation to think I succeeded with Yency and failed Osman. Maybe there were some things I could have done differently. Certainly, I have been learning, and would bring a more experienced perspective if LoraKim and I were to take in a 17-year-old again. But I was there – I offered what I could – and the rest wasn’t up to me. If I’d “tried harder” to be “good” at fathering, I’d probably have done worse. The paradox is that the “best” is to just be “good enough.” Just be there. You know, the usual: set boundaries, stay engaged, and let go of outcomes. Don’t overdo it.

There’s no hard and fast distinction between what fathering is and what mothering is. There are some rough tendencies. Whatever our gender may be, call it “fathering” when we’re bringing more of our male energy to the parenting. Call it “mothering” when we’re bringing more of the female energy. For example, Ricky Van Shelton's song, "Keep It Between the Lines" suggests a sense of rules and guidelines, yet also expresses a tender and gentle presence and assurance.


Whether we are male or female, whether our children are all grown, or we never had children, we are still engaged in fathering – for we father ourselves. We bring some fathering energy to managing all of our own inner children. And again, the need isn’t to be your own world’s greatest Dad. Just: a good enough self-Dad.

That said, there is such a thing as fathering that isn’t good enough.

Dr. Margaret Paul (see here) asks:

What was your father like? Was he warm, caring and accepting?
Did he stand up for you and protect you when that is what you needed?
Was he an adequate provider?
Did you feel valued, respected and cherished by him?
Did he treat your mother with love, caring and respect?
Did he play with you and spend special time with you?
Was he interested in the things that interested you and the things you did?
Did he take care of himself physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, and in his relationships?
Could you feel his love for you?
Was he firm and consistent and his parenting without being harsh or indulgent?

Or:
Was he emotionally gone most of the time?
Was he physically gone most of the time?
Was he an alcoholic?
Was he physically, verbally, or sexually abusive to you, to other siblings, and/or to your mother?
Was he a gambler who lost the money that was necessary to feed you and take care of the bills? Did your parents divorce and he was completely uninvolved with you?
Did he abandon the family?
Did you grow up without a father?
Did your father die when you were young?
Was he there for others but completely abandoned himself - giving himself up to your mother or others?
Did he take poor care of his physical wellbeing?
Was he a person you could not count on to keep his word?
Did he get angry or sulk when things didn't go his way?

Now, take a moment to think about how you treat yourself.
Are you a good enough father to yourself?
Do you stand up for yourself with other people?
Do you provide well for yourself?
Do you value, respect and cherish yourself?
Do you take loving action in your own behalf?
Do you take care of your health and physical wellbeing?

Or:
Do you ignore or discount yourself – maybe, kinda like they way your father ignored or discounted you?
Do you judge yourself like father judged you – maybe kinda like the way your father judged you?
If your father succumbed to addictions, do you, too, struggle with that?
If your father provided no financial security, do you fail to provide for yourself financially?

Whether you are a man or a woman, you will always be both mother and father with yourself. The difference between those two roles is somewhat artificial, but let’s call it mothering when you’re paying attention to your feelings and attending to them, acknowledging them. Let’s call it fathering yourself when you’re taking loving action.

Do you spend much energy trying to get someone else to take the loving action for you - to financially support you, to stand up for you and make you important, to take time with you and make you feel special? Even if someone were to do all of this for you, there will still be an empty place inside, a place that needs you to consistently be both the good mother and the good father for yourself - to consistently take loving action in your own behalf.

Loving action.

Loving action that provides for your needs, without harsh self-judgment – that warmly accepts yourself, while also nudging you to “go get ‘em.” That’s how to be the father to yourself that you always wanted. It will probably come easier to you if your actual father was pretty much like that. Whether he was or not – whether your childhood had a good-enough father – your inner child now and always will need one, and you can be that for yourself.

Being responsive to my needs and being there for myself is a pre-requisite for being there for others. I think you know how to do this. Let me bring whatever encouragement I can for you to remember and really do act on what I think you already know. Ray Arata (see here) sums up the four most basic needs:

One, physical exercise. Regular exercise creates energy — energy to handle all of the responsibilities required of a responsible self-father. This is non-negotiable.

Two, quality time with quality people. For men, getting and giving support from (and to) like-minded men on their path flies in the face of an inclination to “go it alone.” So fly in that face. Hang out, and be real with each other. This is another exercise that creates energy.

Three, have fun. If you don’t know what this means, then you’re way overdue! Remembering what you used to do for fun — and doing it — will recharge you in more ways than one. If you are father – particularly of young boys -- you’ll also be able to show them what “fun” is so they don’t repeat the unhealthy pattern.

Four, ask for help. Just because I am my own father, the “man” of my inner house, the leader of my company of me, it doesn’t mean I have to do everything myself. Asking for help is actually a demonstration in humility. These things helps us, as Ricky Van Shelton says, "keep it between the lines."

Amen