United By Love—Divided By Experience

The father walked in carrying his young son, who was perhaps three years old, approached the counter, ordered, carried his son to get a highchair, and having arranged the highchair and his son so they faced the front windows, sat down at a table in the corner. There was nothing special about his routine. He helped his son eat his breakfast, tossing small bits of his own food into his mouth as time allowed. He talked quietly to his son, pointed out cars as they drove by, gently rubbed his shoulders and tried to soothe him when he cried out, which he did at seemingly random times. For more than an hour father and son sat at that table in the corner, off by themselves, enjoying their time together, which time was punctuated by the son’s occasional cries.

Seated more centrally was a man dividing his time between his computer and the father-son duo who had come for his college-admissions coaching. There was no pretense of breakfast at this table. It was all business. The father leaned in and carefully noted the college-admissions coach’s every word. The father asked questions on behalf of his son, who was like most 18-year-olds at 9:00 AM on any Sunday morning, groggy, unkempt, and only vaguely engaged in anything academic. In response to comments and advice from the college-admissions coach, the father would turn and ask the son for clarification or confirmation. The passed papers back and forth. The college-admissions coach shared what he labeled “privileged and private information” about a variety of colleges and their practices (most of this information he read from a browser window on his laptop, so I don’t know how privileged or private it really was). The coaching lasted nearly an hour. When it ended, the father and son stood, shook the coach’s hand and thanked him for his expertise, and expressed how much better they felt about the son’s chances to get into a good school.

Both fathers shared a deep commitment to and love for their sons. They have taken an active interest in raising their sons. They had carved out part of a Sunday morning to spend with their sons. Whatever feelings of love and nurturing unite them, however, will never bridge the chasm of experience that separates them.

The father in the corner is the father of special needs son. While there may be many reasons for having chosen the table off by themselves in the corner, their spatial marginalization seems to reflect the social marginalization that we as a society impose on people with special needs. That father and his son will probably never have the chance to meet with a college-admissions coach, they will never have the opportunities most of us take for granted. The other father-son pair’s central location seems to make physical our society’s norms and expectations, in this case about attending college. Part of the mainstream, they will never understand life at the margins. Their vague looks of annoyance when the boy in the corner would cry out and interrupt their conversation are perhaps understandable, certainly telling, but unfortunately not compassionate.

Our experiences of fatherhood are so very different. How we love one child is not how we love another. That lesson came home this morning watching two fathers love their sons in different and incommensurable ways.