Monday, June 18, 2007

Fatherhood Revisited

I was a lousy father.

I don't mean now. Now I try to be there for them when my four kids need me, and stay out of their way when they are doing whatever they need to do to grow on their own.

My guilt, my apology, is for what was, for the formative years when I was somewhere else. When my two oldest boys were young, I was caught up in the excitement and glamor of the music business in Hollywood, and I was on the road with rock stars when they were learning to read or ride a bike. With my younger daughter and son, I was away at school myself, exploring the nuances of philosophy and environmental history, or holed up in my study doing research and homework, while they were at home with their mother, learning to cook or play baseball.

My daughter-in-law believes that only a focus on family and close friends gives life meaning, and that if I were more accessible and attentive, even now, then I would not need to fly off to Thailand or India to find out the secrets of life. Possible.

I patterned my methods of fathering after the lessons I learned when I was a boy, waiting for my father to come home from work, waiting to learn from him the secrets of woodworking when he escaped into his workshop in the garage. He did teach me how to swim, by throwing me screaming into a pool at a hotel in Augusta, Georgia, when I was eight (the Sink-or-Swim technique), but he never invited me into his sanctuary of tools. And when he arrived home from work smelling of a visit to a bar, he usually fell asleep in his easy chair in front of the TV which was sitting inside of an unfinished and unpainted cabinet he had created in the garage.

That's unfair. I select memories to justify my own faults, when the picture is more murky and multi-sided. My parents moved across the country when I was in my early twenties and I saw them infrequently over the years. Our main connection was the phone, a device I've always found to be somewhat intrusive. I noticed that they rarely called me, but were grateful when I phoned them to see how they were. I decided that this was my father's way to let me go, to encourage me to be independent and self-sufficient, the prime value for Western parenting, and I accepted his reticence as a form of love. When he died, however, my mother continued the practice of not calling me, even though she clearly liked to talk to me when I phoned.

But today, a generation later, it is usually me that must pick up the phone, or send off an email, if I want to find out how my children are doing. If I waited for them to contact me, I fear that I'd wait forever (I anticipate an argument about this, but it's the way I see it now).

With my first three children I was the Disciplinarian. That's what I learned a father did. My father could be stern and unforgiving when his anger came to a boil. When I was a kid he would cut a switch from a tree and whoop my bottom until it was suitably red. Entering puberty, I decided to peroxide my hair, as all my friends were doing one summer, against his wishes. He no longer hit me, but when he cut off all my hair without saying a word, I felt the sting of his displeasure. So, when my kids were growing up, I was very good at setting rules and dishing out punishment when they were broken. When spanking grew out of favor, I retired my hand and devised new consequences for disobedience (like the denial of privileges, a kind of passive-aggressive punishment). But my daughter, third in line, resisted my disciplinary methods, and we struggled mightily to understand one another. She remembers that I was always angry. Her mother, whose method of parenting was "love them and let them do what they will," ridiculed the techniques I'd learned from my father and, overwhelmed, I gave up. My last son benefited from this capitulation, but now blames us for not teaching him to be disciplined and ambitious. He thinks he's a slacker, but I see him to be as responsible and as driven as my successful oldest son (qualities I'd like to think of as genetic, but I doubt it).

I remember a card I once received from my daughter which mentioned in passing that we did not have a "daddy's little girl" relationship. She was trying to compliment me, to say that I treated her with respect and encouragement, but it hurt to hear that. We were very close until we began butting heads over my disciplinary ways. When she was a baby I used to swing with her in a hammock and sing her songs, delighting in having a daughter after two sons. But children do not remember much about their infancy. My older sons when they were small were my dance partners, and I whirled them around the dinning room of the little house in Pasadena to the music of Biff Rose and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. My eldest son could not see the record player but he always knew when the side ended and would shout "over" to continue the music. He remembers little of the time before I left his mother, the years when I tried to be a responsible father, when I tried to exhibit the qualities I thought children should learn from their fathers. But today what he remembers is that I never took him camping (I did, once, but it was a disaster).

My father was a real man's man. He had been a lifeguard in his youth and he looks strong and handsome in in photos I've seen. His twin brother was gay at a time when it was less accepted than it is now, and the gender dichotomy was extreme. My dad got the XY genes and his brother the XX ones. Growing up, there was a lot of pressure on me to be athletic, but I developed asthma at an early age and was unable to compete in sports. Thus began my slide into forced rebellion, and by the time I was a teenager we were poles apart. He wanted a clean-cut (with a crew cut) son and I became a Juvenile Delinquent, a well-defined role in the 1950s. By the time I was 15 there was nothing I wanted to learn from him, even if he had been willing to teach it.

What he couldn't tell me, and I didn't learn from him, was how to be a man. The traditional masculine role was crumbling, and the women's liberation movement was on its way as the 1950s ended. Because my body wouldn't help out, I learned to escape into my head, and my pose as rebel intellectual enabled me to resist the role of macho patriarch. Until I became a father myself. And then every example my father had given me, however flawed, became my model. He was the strong silent male I tried to emulate. I excelled at discipline and punishment, because what were fathers for, except to be teacher and policeman rolled into one? I didn't know how to be their friend, like my friend Peter who hung out with his three kids more easily (perhaps of the dope he constantly smoked).

During the 1970s, when the short-lived self-examination movement of men's liberation was at its peak, I read books and had discussions about what it meant to be a man and a father. I wrote articles and attended a fathering workshop led by a man who today is a well-known spokesperson for artistic pornography. And I thought of myself as a liberated male, and looked down my nose at the macho brutes caught up in a vicious cycle of sports and beer drinking.

Parenting fashions seem to run in cycles. During the traditional 1950s, everyone had specific roles to perform and growing up meant living according to form. In the 1960s, these forms became restrictive and the great flowering of the hippie movement, fueled by drugs, led to the breaking of all forms and the transgressing of boundaries. We would never be like our parents. Self-absorption became the rule of the "Me Generation." But what of their children? Raised to do their own thing, they now exercise total control over their own children, enrolling them in exclusive day care facilities at birth and demanding that they studying ballet and soccer before ordinary school begins. "Helicopter parenting," my eldest son calls it, hovering over every aspect of a child's life. The product of this form of obsessive, perfectionist parenting will no doubt be a child longing to cast off parental controls and search for perfect freedom. And so it goes.

Nick, Molly, Me, Chris and Sandy

My children are aware of my failings as a father and as a parent, and for the most part they have forgiven me, these "reasonably self-sufficient" (as I once called them here) carriers of my DNA. I wish my father were still here so I could tell him how much I loved to see him mellow late in life when the patriarch became a pussy cat, feeding ice cream to my daughter and cuddling in his easy chair before the TV with my youngest son. Grandfathers, I think, can give up the need to be the disciplinarian, the teacher-cop, and can revel in the joys of watching themselves live on. We never fully die because we live on in our children, grandchildren, and unto the sixth generation.

Perhaps this is what my daughter-in-law means when she calls me on my endless search for the meaning of life, a search that has taken me from books to foreign lands. T.S. Eliot wrote in his "Four Quartets" that
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I think in that place I will be surrounded by my family, and I will know that despite numerous character flaws, poor choices, and dumb decisions, I am still loved by my children.

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