Dad used to say to me, “You’re just like your mother.” It was not meant as a compliment. Mom and Dad didn’t get along very well. He saw her as weak and indecisive while at the same time claiming she was scheming and manipulative. In reality, my mother is none of these things. After his death, I gained access to Dad’s medical records which included a diagnosis of “narcissistic personality with a histrionic flair.” This meant that he had a tendency to view himself as persecuted. Dad was gay, and he did have deeply wounding experiences of homophobia. But it was as if he had persecution goggles welded to his face. No matter how much Mom or any of us tried to love him, he had a very difficult time accepting it. The point is, Dad’s accusations weren’t personal. It was the mental illness talking.
It’s also possible that Dad heard the words “you’re just like your mother” said to him when he was a boy. He shared with me that in his mind he was “special” and his mother’s “favorite.” In Dad’s time as in ours, the accusation of being a “momma’s boy” often meant bullying was on the way. Clearly, Dad enjoyed the attention he got from his mother. And he was very close to her. But the relationship between mothers and sons can be complicated. This is due in no small part to sexism and discomfort in the wider culture with males who display “female” qualities (the premise of which I reject all together, by the way. There are no essentially “male” or “female” qualities, only human ones.)
Dad’s accusations often had no basis in reality, but I hope he was right that I am just like my mother. She is strong. She is good. She is an adventurer. And she has never stopped growing and changing in all of the time I’ve known her. She is a happily retired minister and chaplain who has traveled the world and blessed countless lives–not least, mine.
The origins of Father’s Day are complicated. As our fathers tend to be. If you thought Father’s Day was a response to Mother’s Day, you’d be right. Though it doesn’t seem like a simple reassertion of patriarchy. In fact, a significant number of men resisted it for years. They had seen how Mother’s Day, originally conceived as an opportunity for women’s empowerment in response to the horrors of the Civil War, became commercialized and sentimentalized, and they didn’t want any part of it. Because of this resistance, Father’s Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1972.
62 years earlier, in 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd organized one of the first Father’s Days in honor of her father, a Civil War veteran and widower who had raised his children as a single dad. William Jackson Smart took on parenting roles that were not conventional for men at the time. One of the origins of Father’s Day was a celebration of men who were willing to step out of conventional gender roles to care for their families.
At about the same time, a Father’s Day celebration was organized in West Virginia to honor the 362 men who had died in a coal mining explosion the previous year. This origin of Father’s Day reminds us of others experiences of fatherhood: grief over the fathers who are absent for whatever reason, and the expendability of men’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor and workingclass men.
My dad was a gay man. He grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Michigan. Though the family wasn’t poor, they didn’t have much. He was the first in his family to receive a college education. He married a woman because that’s what his conservative Christian upbringing told him to do. He raised four children and was grandfather to 11 grandchildren by the time he died of AIDS in 2012. He was a successful businessman with a genius level IQ. He was also an adulterous alcoholic bully with a criminal record who repeatedly put his family in danger. He did provide for us children. He did choose recovery eventually. He did come out and live the most honest version of his life that he could. He did love us with his version of love. Perhaps every human love leave wounds. As I said at the outset, fathers can be complicated.
I am father to two amazing young women. It is the greatest blessing of my life. And if I’m honest, day to day I have no idea what I’m doing. I realize that might make me sound incompetent or irresponsible to some. I do indeed make it my business to learn what I can about best parenting practices. My wife and I spend significant time, energy, and financial resources making the best decisions we can for our children. But I am acutely aware that the models of fatherhood that I have inherited, for better or for worse, too often seem inadequate for the times. Especially as they grow older, my children simply know a lot of things about the world that I don’t. Their experiences are different from mine. Their contexts are different. And in significant ways their futures will be different, once again, for better or for worse, than mine.
What do I fall back on? The things I do know: that deepest love is bare attention, unconditional availability, unwavering presence. Wherever life takes my children, my heart is with them, and I am ready to leap to their aid, if aid is what’s called for. My deepest practice is the practice of letting go. When first Fiona–21 years ago–and then Olivia–17 years ago– were born it was as if my soul or some piece of it separated from me and became enfleshed in another, fragile being over whom I knew my protection would always in some sense be limited and who one day likely would leave my protective care entirely. How can I entrust my precious one’s to this dangerous and difficult world where they will continue to meet both unimagined joy and devastating disappointment?
These days fatherhood for me is calmly sitting in the passenger seat while Olivia learns to drive. Dropping Fiona off at the airport for her summer job in Chicago. Preparing for Olivia’s move to Los Angeles where she will begin her college education. And savoring every moment they are home.