Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers: Invaluable

When Victor and I were married, he became a father. A step-father to my son Benjamin from my first marriage. He embraced his role seriously, enthusiastically and thoughtfully. Victor has been more diligent about going to Benjamin's parent-teacher conferences than he has Ripley's (granted, Ripley is only in preschool). He has in his mind, and knows that one day he will get the push-back from Benjamin in a heated moment, probably in his teens: "But you are not my real dad . . . " He thoughtfully and energetically invests time and demonstrates his love and commitment, assuming that that day will come. I will be forever grateful that Victor has been a reliable, committed, loving father figure who has integrity. 

At the same time Victor and I are positive and supportive of Benjamin's visits with his biological father. Benjamin visits with him on Wednesday nights and every other weekend. It is hard to share your child. But a child psychologist we consulted when my ex-husband was going through his second divorce said that unless a father is dangerous in some way, any short comings are far outweighed by the importance of having a bond with your father -- flaws and all -- knowing that he wants to spend time with you and loves you in the best way he knows how. Fatherhood is powerful, isn't it?

When Ripley was born, Victor was in awe. I don't think he could believe he'd been given such a miraculous blessing. At first, we had both wanted a girl. But when Victor saw this perfect little bundle arrive through the miraculous process called birth, looking so much like himself with his Portuguese skin tone, his long thin legs, his long slender hands, his dark brown eyes and eyelashes, and much to his relief and my disappointment -- my reasonable nose, he was speechless. 

He wouldn't let that baby out of his sight. Victor followed Ripley wherever the nurses or doctors dragged him. Shots. Baths. You name it, Victor followed that bassinet cart and stood outside the door and waited until they brought him his baby back. It was the most precious thing I'd ever seen. 
To me, fathers are teachers and doers, and it is their presence and investment in their children that demonstrates their love. I know my perception is stereotypical, but this has been my experience. While moms are throwing dinner together in the kitchen, it is your father who shows you how to mow the lawn. While Mom is bringing wood in for the stove, Dad is teaching you how to split it and stack it. While I am stressed out thinking of the laundry that needs to be folded, or the floor that needs vacuuming, Victor is at peace spending two hours with the boys outside practicing baseball. Maybe it's that sixth-sense that women have about all that needs to be done, and the absence of that sense that many men have that make them good fathers. While I'm throwing the frisbee to the boys, I may pick up the broom and start sweeping the garage. Not exactly what you'd call "present in the moment". 
Growing up with a house full of boys and a mother who could managed them all, kill a chicken and be a star at the golf club, my father taught me to be a strong self-assured daring woman for my generation. Even though I was a girly-girl and insisted on wearing dresses and skirts that twirled, my father didn't treat me any differently than my younger brother. He taught me to give a firm handshake and look that person right in the eye. I helped mow the lawn and stack wood. He had no interest in a house full of whiners and insisted that we were 'tough'. We painted and schlepped,  sanded and hammered, assisted and cleaned up after him. He taught me to mow without 'holidays', to garden and weed, to churn ice cream and row a boat, roll a sleeping bag and cook bacon, to ski, skate, swim, dive, ride my bike and be brave. While my mother was expressing grave concern on the sidelines during any of our adventures, Dad would say "Ahhhhh, they'll be fine, let them go . . . " He taught me to lick my wound slap a bandaide on it and move on. He taught me the importance of working hard and playing hard. He taught me that you can still be a serious, smart person and occasionally wear a costume. 

Whatever your political views, I think it's hard to disagree with President Obama's thoughts on fatherhood and I applaud him for addressing this important issue. Here is an excerpt from an article he wrote for Parade Magazine this week:

"In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence—both in my life and in the lives of others. I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference.  

That is why we need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one. 

As fathers, we need to be involved in our children’s lives not just when it’s convenient or easy, and not just when
they’re doing well—but when it’s difficult and thankless, and they’re struggling. That is when they need us most. 

And it’s not enough to just be physically present. Too often, especially during tough economic times like these, we are emotionally absent: distracted, consumed by what’s happening in our own lives, worried about keeping our jobs and paying our bills, unsure if we’ll be able to give our kids the same opportunities we had. 

Our children can tell. They know when we’re not fully there. And that disengagement sends a clear message—whether we mean it or not—about where among our priorities they fall.  

So we need to step out of our own heads and tune in. We need to turn off the television and start talking with our kids, and listening to them, and understanding what’s going on in their lives. 

We need to set limits and expectations. We need to replace that video game with a book and make sure that homework gets done. We need to say to our daughters, Don’t ever let images on TV tell you what you are worth, because I expect you to dream without limit and reach for your goals. We need to tell our sons, Those songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in our house, we find glory in achievement, self-respect, and hard work. 

We need to realize that we are our children’s first and best teachers. When we are selfish or inconsiderate, when we mistreat our wives or girlfriends, when we cut corners or fail to control our tempers, our children learn from that—and it’s no surprise when we see those behaviors in our schools or on our streets."

As a mother of two boys, I appreciate the knowledge and understanding that my father has about what it means to be a boy. As a grandfather, although he has high expectations for his grandchildren, he also has a lot of understanding and encouragement to offer a mother beside herself wondering how to manage a bright, intense son. He can see through the challenges of youth through to the gifts that will grow into something fabulous. He, like Victor, can't believe that he's been blessed with five beautiful, healthy, bright Grandchildren to teach and "do" life with. And sometimes I think he's speechless when he thinks about the blessing of having raised two children that through thick and through thin, came out wonderfully. I know he's proud. Now, sometimes, we teach him a thing or two. We are thankful for the privilege of having Dads and a "Gramp" who've taken the time to invest in us, love us, support us and actively be there with us as we "do" life. We love you.