In the Image of a Father… Redux

Two years ago I wrote this piece about fathers and fatherhood, moved by the holiday to express some thoughts on the topic. As I sit here in 2018, thinking about my own father—gone now for almost 18 years—while blessedly, lovingly, still able to admire the parenting skills of the very alive man I married, I am once again moved by the role men play in the process of life’s continuation. The piece below makes reference to Mad Men, a series that, while not current, remains an interesting treatise on “fatherhood” from its anachronistic point of view… so it still holds; thought I’d “redux” it… Enjoy the read/re-read!   

  Noble fathers have noble children. ~ Euripides

I was not initially hitched to the Mad Men bandwagon as it hurled its way to phenomenon status; I missed the kick-off and never jumped on. But once the media analyses and water-cooler accolades became so hyperbolic as to raise the show to “Breathlessly Zeitgeisty Must-See TV,” I knew I had to get with the program; it’s bad enough I never watched an episode of Survivor!

So I’ve been Netflixing the series and, I have to say, it is a fascinating snapshot of a historical time teetering on the brink of explosion. It well depicts the era’s style and panache (now called “mid century”), and paints a clever and sometimes unsettling anthropological thumbnail of human nature at a point when society was remarkably different. While it focuses mainly on only one or two class sub-sets, it does a good job of breathing life into the anachronistic “swells” and “dolls” of the jargon, the girdles and slicked back hair, and the propensity for unrestrained smoking and drinking (after watching several episodes I felt both asthmatic and buzzed!). But what it illustrates most pointedly is the distance we’ve come in our gender politics.

my-boys

I was a child during those years and though aware of the more superficial elements, was clueless to the nuances and expectations of the roles of men and women in how they related to each other and certainly as parents. It’s one of the truer clichés of the time that “women’s work” was mostly defined as homemaker, house cleaner (unless affluent enough to afford “help”), and primary parent. Despite the Madison Avenue secretaries and the exceptional women who worked their way up toward the glass ceiling (ala Mad Men’s Peggy Olson), most women carried the weight of child raising, and Dads would show up after cocktails to give big hugs, have dinner, then go off to do “man” things while Mom put the kids to bed. Fathers were loving and involved in their way, but the extent to which they were hands-on was minimal. And while certainly there are still fathers operating from the antiquated paradigm of Don Draper, they’re a different breed these days, the product of an evolving and equalizing culture.

Our views of motherhood have remained fairly constant; it’s the role of “father” that has fluctuated and changed with the times. Men’s life expectancy is still up to six years shorter than women’s so, to put it bluntly, Daddies die sooner. While more women work outside the home than ever before, men still rely on them to take the larger role in parenting, meaning Dad’s intimacy and influence with his children is commensurately less. Some family compositions simply transcend without a traditional father: post-divorce custodial mothers, families with deceased fathers, single mothers who never married, same-sex mothers, etc. Statistics show that these families can thrive and be remarkably “whole” and functioning without a male figure, so the question remains: How essential is a father these days?

tom-benIn families that have them? Very essential. It’s not whether families can survive without a father – they can, that is well documented. It’s whether a family that has a father has one that is fully present, involved, and contributing in the most effective ways possible for a child’s best shot at success.

Scores of books and studies have dissected, analyzed, and deconstructed the role and there is likely no man on this earth who doesn’t have at least some notion of the task based on his own experience as a child. Typically a man either admires the parenting he received and mimics it, or abhors his own father’s choices and becomes determined to make better ones. Which gets right to the point.

Modeling. A father is the first male role model a child has. In most families the father is the BIGGEST, most influential authority figure to first set boundaries, examples, and expectations. Through him a boy conjures his first idea of a man, picking up the nuances, proclivities and emotional expressions he will emulate in his own version of the role. In a father, a girl sees All Men – at least in the early years. She learns what to expect from other men by virtue of how her father treats her (and her mother). Through him, she sets her bar for the level of respect she’ll require, the honor she’ll demand, the self-confidence she’ll exude, and the aspirations she’ll pursue.

It’s a big responsibility, no doubt about it. We have come a long way from the Mad Men who saw their children as so many props, but new eras bring new problems and in a world where too many young men advance into adulthood needing anger management skills, a better understanding of how to be strong without being a bully, and a clearer sense of the purpose of honor and integrity, a father’s work is cut out for him. When a daughter sublimates herself in her relationships with men, loses her sense of confidence in the face of career adversity, or can’t determine how strong a woman to be without losing appeal, she clearly needs wise fathering to help reconstruct her perspective.

There are as many ways to be a good father as there are fathers and this is not to say a mother is any less important to the outcome of a child. I used to find it difficult to find father-themed gift but thanks to the internet and sites like gearhungry.com, father’s day is no sweat! But a father’s role is unique, specific, and very powerful. As we celebrate Father’s Day, it merits mention, as Euripides stated, that “noble fathers have noble children.” So wear that well, Dad, celebrate your nobility. Embrace your role and never forget you hold center stage – and always will – in the eyes of the children celebrating this day with you.

A very Happy Father’s Day to all the “noble fathers” in my life.

fatherdaughter

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Empty Nest Pt. 4: He’s Leaving Home AGAIN… Bye Bye

Dillon In Motion

I know I said Pt. 3 was the final installment but apparently he’s leaving home again. With this continuing thing called “college,” Pt. 4 became inevitable.

There seems to be a pattern here: he grows up in a fly-by blink, goes off to achieve higher education; comes home for long summer breaks, but is then compelled to return to that other place he lives that is not here… not home. Though he tends to refer to it in such terms, I’d like to think that’s because no one’s there harping about laundry and keeping the bathroom clean.

It’s interesting how many times and ways you say good-bye to a child throughout their life. It seems to go on forever and maybe that’s the point: that the process of parenthood is evolutionary practice for letting go of so many other salient, important things… even life itself. I don’t know; that may have been too heavy! But whatever else you can say about it, parenting is fraught with the demand to find balance between loving and letting go, and it always seems to find newer and ever more complex ways to test you at that.

It starts early, the pulling away; about the time of toddlerhood, when that three-year-old suddenly puts their foot down about a whole host of things (literally and figuratively). This streak of independence leads to the longer days of kindergarten, full-time grade school with after school programs; then middle school with its natural drift from family to friends, high school with more of the same (including, now, the full-time passion of puberty), all leading up to what one friend’s child called “really big boy school,” college, where all of life twists into the practice version of their truly leaving home. Brutal. Freeing. Confusing. Exhilarating.

In looking through my series on Empty Nest Syndrome (links below), I realize we, here, really are well past that initial rite of passage. He’s into his fourth year of a five-year program and if we hadn’t figured out by now how to gracefully transition from those long summer breaks to the exodus back to school, we’d be in trouble, because the next phase is fast approaching. The Actual Adult phase. When they move out, get a job, get their own place, maybe relocate to another city, fall in love, start building a life… on their own… no strings attached… no “breaks” to assuage the pang of missing them at the dinner table or seeing their bedroom messy, lights on and… occupied.

Me n' Dill 1998-9

Yes, we’re good at this latest transition. We barely blink. He packs up his car for the umpteenth time and heads north with nary a look back and before he can even make the turn onto the freeway, I’m into my day, to my work, to my own life; focused, driven… and with a big, fat, breath-choking lump in my throat. Goddamnit. Why does this still hurt??

Because, at least for me, lucky me, this person, beyond being my son, is one of the best friends I could possibly have. That person who walks into a room and lights up the place. Who sits on the couch and shares idiotic videos he’s sure you’ll find hilarious (which you do). The guy who listens and converses like an interested adult when you take long drives or get caught in traffic. Who introduces you to a new hiking path, turns you onto songs he claims “you’re gonna love,” brings home Pinkberry unexpectedly, or checks in on nights he knows you’re alone and a little blue. That kid. You like having that kid around. And yet, he has to keep leaving…

I don’t cry anymore when he does. Sure, I tear up if I think about it for too long, but I’m busy enough and good enough at self-soothing to just get on with it. And, besides, we’ll be going up for Homecoming, he’ll be home for Thanksgiving, there’ll be that long Christmas break and, well, we still have a few semesters left. That bedroom will continue to be occupied for a bit longer, time we’ll cherish.

Because we know that, too, will end. And when that last grasp of childhood is finally exhausted, and he goes off as the grown man he is, responsible for his own life, I will feel that next layer of peeling away, of letting go; of saying good-bye. Seeing him off to his own house, with his own dinner table and his own bedroom. I can’t picture it yet, I don’t have to… yet… but it’s coming. Just like every other phase of his growing up has come and been embraced, however mixed the emotions. I will deal, as I always do. But, wow. Loving a child is a wild ride.

Drive safely, sweetheart. Stop if you get tired, check in when you can, don’t text and drive, and do good this semester. We love you and will see you soon. Bye, bye….(damnit, I can never find Kleenex when I need it… )

Me n' Dill 13

Younger Duo photo by Dean Fortunato
Older Duo photo by Ben Chandler
Skateboard photo by LDW

To read the entire series, click links below:

Empty Nest Pt 1: My Very Cool Roommate Is Moving Out…
• Empty Nest Pt 2: Empty ‘Next’ Syndrome…Coming Home
• Empty Nest Pt. 3: See You In November!
 •Empty Nest Pt. 4: He’s Leaving Home AGAIN… Bye Bye
• Empty Nest Pt. 5: It’s a Wrap… Well, Almost
Empty Nest Pt. 6, the Final Chapter: With Keys In Hand, He Flies…
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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.