Echoes of My Father

I hear it more often these days. Usually, in some mannerism, turn of phrase, or comment my father seems to be speaking or acting through me (such as when #2 and I shoveled the drive last winter). #1 and #2 hear it too and are quick to point it out. It’s not surprising, really, that I sometimes say and do things like my father. He was (and in so many ways remains) my role model. I learned from him. More surprising, to me, are the involuntary, physiological echoes of my father.

When I coughed the other morning, I thought: “Wow, I sound just like dad.” As if on cue, #1 called from the living room: “You sounded just like grandad when you coughed.” #1’s comment reminded me that my actions and behavior will recall for him my father. And one day his actions and behaviors will remind his children of me.[1] I am lucky: my dad is a good person—if I could be as good a person as he is, I would be a success.

We seem fated to become our parents, in ways we can and can’t control. And our children will hear the echoes of our parents even when we don’t. To the extent that we can, we have a responsibility to choose which aspects of our parents we want to preserve and pass on to our children. Because our children can’t help but become us.

Or, to put it another way: How do you want to be remembered?

  1. Clearly, the heteronormative assumptions in this last comment should be qualified in all sorts of ways, the most immediate of which is: If he chooses to have (through adoption or direct pro-creation) children in his life.  ↩

How do you want to be remembered?

The other day #1 asked me to tell the story about when Uncle H. ran across the pool without sinking. The core of the story is

Uncle H. was standing near a pool when he lost his balance (why is unclear) and teetered and lurched toward the pool. As he reached the edge of the pool, rather than simply fall in, Uncle H. ran across the pool to the other side. His legs were moving so fast, so the story goes, that he didn’t sink. When he got to the far side of the pool and stepped out, only his feet and ankles were wet.

Uncle H.’s preternatural run happened sometime in the nebulous past but lived on in each retelling at family gatherings throughout my childhood. Whenever it came up, he would chuckle in his chair while we kids would look with renewed admiration at Uncle H.

At first awed by his powers, over time I grew skeptical of the story, a skepticism aided by a couple earnest but wholly unsuccessful attempts to recreate the feat in my neighbor’s pool. My skepticism demanded an explanation, wanted the real story. What really happened that made people say Uncle H. had run across a pool? I have given up trying to imagine the actual scene that metamorphosed into Uncle H. quasi-miraculous dash across the pool. It no longer matters. Uncle H. has become inextricable from that run across the pool all those years ago, and a hundred other stories that defy verification.

So, when #1 asked, I retold the story the best I could. I tried not to embellish—does a story about thwarting basic physical laws need embellishment?—and added the caveat: “I didn’t see it happen but that’s how the story goes.” #1 never knew Uncle H. He has seen only a couple faded pictures—one with a very young me standing next to Uncle H. He has only stories of a kind person. Some of those stories are more amazing than others. For #1, Uncle H. will only ever be the composite of these stories. And so I tell each of them with the same enthusiasm.

The other day I overheard #1 telling one of his friends about something I had done when I was young—a silly, youthful exploit that included gravity, a roof, and a misplaced high jump pit. Although he took some liberties with the story, he got the basic details right. I didn’t bother reining in those liberties. His friend said: “That totally sounds like your dad.” #1 and his friend had and have no interest in verifying the story. For them, the story is real because it “sounds like” me. As I sat there listening to them, I thought: “Is this how Uncle H.’s story began?” I am becoming an alloy of stories and person; one day before long I will be just stories.

As the paragon of story telling Edward Bloom says to Josephine, bad stories get “All the facts and none of the flavor.” We are all fated to become stories. What stories will you become?

Rules for Dating My …

There’s something troubling about the incessant “Rules for Dating My Daughter” memes. The fact that some of them are meant to be jokes doesn’t make them any more palatable to me—and even those intended to be jokes don’t strike me as funny.[1] Likewise, the closely related, earnest and well-intentioned posts, usually by fathers, fretting about when their infant daughters start to date seem problematic. Both cases seem grounded in fear and based on a fundamental double standard. And threats and coercion don’t seem, at least not to me, to be the most productive and mature ways to parent.

Let’s imagine for a moment a different set of rules, a set that a child gives to a father before introducing a Boy- or Girlfriend to him:

Rules a child could give to a parent

Rules a child could give to a parent

  1. I find it hard to see the references to shotguns and violence perpetrated on minors as funny. Just as I find it hard to see denying a daughter (or son) important, formative life experiences.  ↩

What is a father?

A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out: Your flashed message is received and read, your song is recorded by another band and goes straight to No. 1, your son blesses the memory of the day you helped him arrange the empty chairs of his foredoomed dream, your act of last-ditch desperation sends your comic-book company to the top of the industry. Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club.

Michael Chabon, “The Loser’s Club.”

Whatever successes we might enjoy, or rehearse ad naseum to those forced to hear them over and over again, we fail every day, often in ways we don’t recognize for years. But I can accept that. What distinguishes a father from simply a successfully reproductive male is how he uses those failures, what he learns from them, and how they change him.

A lifetime ago, in those pre-parental years when my greatest failures occurred in sporting events, a friend comforted me by saying: “Winners lose more than losers do.” At first I didn’t really understand what she meant, but after countless additional loses, I slowly began to realize the truth in what she had said.

Now, I think something similar could be said about fathers: “Fathers fail more than other people do.” What makes fathers special is what they do with those failures. Welcome to the club.

We Could All Use a Compliment

Yesterday’s post was about compliments. I suggested that we parents should be more generous in giving compliments and that, pace the fathers-offended-by-compliments movement, we fathers should be more gracious in accepting them. Today, I want to reinforce that suggestion, drawing on a couple Pew Research reports, “Modern Parenthood” and “After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers.”

Despite recent increases in stay-at-home dads, moms still make up the majority of stay-at-home parents: 6% of fathers stay-at-home compared to 29% of mothers. And since 1999, the share of stay-at-home moms has been increasing. Mothers still vastly outnumber the fathers as stay-at-home parents.

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Fathers have begun taking on more housework[1] and childcare tasks.[2] Nonetheless, mothers still shoulder the bulk of childcare and housework. And despite the increases in the amount of time fathers spend on childcare, mothers spend more now than they did 50 years ago. Today, mothers still spend nearly twice as much time as fathers do on housework and childcare.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Let’s recognize and praise all the work mothers do. Too much of their labor remains invisible to our society, not because we can’t see it but because we have chosen to dismiss it as unimportant because a woman does it. An honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean regularly—is the least we can do. Let’s also continue to recognize the efforts today’s fathers are making to be more involved parents.[3] Not because their labor is more important or any more praiseworthy, it isn’t, but because an honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean now and then, let’s not get carried away—is the least we can do.

Next time you see a parent being a good parent, smile and say something nice. And the next time somebody compliments your efforts, smile and say thank you.

  1. We might worry about the category “housework.” Pew seems to adopt the categories used by the American Time Use Survey, which seems to exclude certain exterior activities from “housework.” Is mowing the lawn “housework?” Is raking leaves? I’ve wondered about this in my Pew Study on Parental Labor  ↩

  2. The numbers don’t actually show that fathers are taking on more housework and childcare tasks. They simply indicate that fathers are spending more time at these two activities. Perhaps fathers are really slow at cleaning and cooking and bathing the progeny and so are not doing any more, just taking longer to do the same set of tasks.  ↩

  3. We fathers need to be careful here lest we sound like the 1980s’ dad who wanted praise for taking out the garbage or replacing the empty toilet paper roll. We risk sound like little kids jumping up and down wanting praise and affirmation for the least little thing. Oh, look at me, I take care of my kid. Aren’t I special? No, I mean, I am special.  ↩

Why I keep a journal

We are always, slowly and almost imperceptibly, losing our parents. Sometimes we glimpse our loss as it happens, like some ultra-low frequency sound wave that we can just barely sense when the conditions are perfect. Other times and inevitably, our loss is devastating and final. When our parents are around, we can talk to them and learn, perhaps, a bit more about them. At some point, however, we have only the remnants of their lives from which we can try to piece together a fuller picture, if we choose. Olivia Judson’s poignant series of posts on working through her parents home after their death reminds us of the many ways our parents are familiar strangers.

In her recent post, To Read or Not to Read, Judson relates her hesitation and then her decision to read her mother’s journals. Through the snippets and fragments she read there Judson learned something of her mother’s loves and pains, her compromises and sacrifices, and her successes. She learned things that her mother didn’t, wouldn’t, or couldn’t share while she was alive.

Various journals collect the fragments from my life.

Various journals collect the fragments from my life.

For years I have sporadically recorded bits of my life in journals—e.g., there’s one from the late 80s when I was alone in a foreign country, vaguely unhappy but not lonely; there’s one from that euphoric first year of marriage to The Mother; there’s one filled with longing and desire from that first summer The Mother and I had to spend apart; there’s one from last spring when I had to go on an extended research trip. Now and then I stumble across some half-filled journal in a box, lying discarded amid other detritus.[1] When I thumb through them, a single sentence transports me back to a moment I had long forgotten. Immediately, the passions, the anger, the wonder, the sights, the lingering smells and tastes, all come flooding back. The raw emotions often surprise me. The sharpest edges of these experiences have now been dulled by the passage of time and buried by the accretion of life’s sediment. But those experiences remain formative. For better and for worse those experiences have made me the son and husband and father I am today.

I can’t say why I started recording shards of my life. There is no coherence to these journals, no over-arching theme links them, no conscious effort to record particular phases. Instead, they are fragmentary even within the limited scope of a single journal—a week-long trip to Paris fills more than 60 pages, but without apparent rhyme or reason I skipped some pages, notes are out of order, days that I recall vividly now merited no comment then. Whatever the reasons, I now have a growing collection of verbal snapshots, postcards without the pictures written to nobody in particular about a life in which I seemed to have played a central role.

These postcards from my life will one day offer #1 and #2 unguarded and unfiltered glimpses into a person they knew and yet didn’t know. They will, if they choose, learn something about me and come to understand me better. Looking back now, I am glad I have jotted down these moments and saved these journals not for me but for them. I will always be a familiar stranger, but perhaps, if they choose to read these journals, I will become a little less strange and a little more familiar.

  1. I have not bothered to gather them into a single place. Each time I find one, I think: “I should put all these together.” Just last week, when I found two in a box, I dug through some other junk to find a few more. Now, at least, a half dozen or so are in one place.  ↩

Lessons to learn …

As the parent of a son and a daughter, I find What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid disheartening for different reasons.

On the one hand, no father can read this and not worry about the prejudices, discrimination, societal expectations, and cultural norms that define and limit women’s opportunities today. Whether it’s silencing their voices in classrooms or reinforcing stereotypes about their skill sets and possible careers or compelling them to cover their faces with makeup. As a father I am trying to raise #2 so that she deliberately, explicitly, and regularly rejects such limitations.

Teaching daughters to reject societally imposed limits is not enough. Daughters are the victims of those prejudices and that discrimination. How perverse to oppress them further by requiring our daughters to remove the chains that society has shackled to them.

That is why, on the other hand, no father should read this and not worry that his son will be complicit in reinforcing the prejudices, discriminations, societal expectations, and cultural norms that define and limit women’s opportunities today. Whether it’s silencing their voices in classrooms or reinforcing stereotypes about their skill sets and possible careers or compelling them to cover their faces with makeup. As a father I am trying to raise #1 so that he deliberately, explicitly, and regularly rejects such limitations.

If we are going to make this a better world for our children, fathers have some lessons to learn from What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid.