Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Father's Fears

In a prior posting, I talked about how it bothered me that I was going to make a potentially painful disclosure to my wife so close to Father's Day. This post digs a bit deeper into what's eating at me. This is a scattered collection of thoughts that somehow appear related in my mind. Bear with me, please.

Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers, be good to your daughters too

-- John Mayer, "Daughters", Heavier Stuff

I am the father of two girls. The older turns four this Wednesday, and the younger turned two this past February.

They did not come into my life easily. For years, I struggled with the question of whether to be a father at all. Then when I decided to make the leap, I had to pass through the ordeal of eventually discovering that I was not fertile enough to make it happen by the usual and customary means. Our older daughter was adopted as a newborn, and the younger was conceived on the third attempt at IVF. Because I worked from home up through November 2005, I had the rare privilege of being very involved with their lives.

That level of attachment makes it very hard for me to reduce my involvement in their lives voluntarily. I can make do the best I can by keeping in regular contact and coming back to visit frequently, but it's still not the same. I don't believe there is a way for me transcend that pain and still remain human.

ABC's Good Morning, America recently ran a segment on the impact that fathers have on their children. If you subscribe to ABC News Now or are a Comcast High Speed Internet subscriber, you can access the clip from here.

The interview includes some sound bites from Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger, who writes about work and family issues. Some of the ideas covered in the clip are discussed in a little more detail in a column that ran a few days ago.

The key idea behind the clip and column is that fathers contribute in different ways to a child's development. Some of the key points:

  • Language Skills: Fathers tend to use bigger words around the kids rather than baby talk, contributing to a wider vocabulary and language skills.

  • Life Lessons: Fathers are more likely to push kids toward independence.

  • Rougher Play: By engaging in rougher play, they help teach kids how to deal with frustration.

The segment wraps up by saying the most important thing a father can do is to "love mom." A father's positive relationship with mother gives the child a sense of security. It was this part that really skewered me in a sore spot, because I have struggled with feeling defective about no longer wanting to work on this relationship.

The inner mature voice tells me that it's not worth wasting energy on a relationship that is so adamantly one-sided. By refusing to live in reality, I condemn myself to stunted growth and bitter resentment. I am already feeling it happen, and sooner or later, I fear that it could taint the interactions with my children. Cutting loose now, and being honest about it, might well be the most loving thing I could do.

There have been a number of blog postings on the topic of fathers that have caught my eye and have resonated with me, and I'd like to comment on them.

The first is a post at Have The T-Shirt, where the author writes about her boyfriend's emotional state after having talked to them on the phone.

It was his daughters on the phone and he chatted with both of them, catching up on all the news. He asked them both if they would like to come to my dinner and their responses were what we expected. They made plans to see him on Father's Day and he found out his youngest is leaving for a week long camp sometime on Sunday as well, which means he won't be able to see her next weekend either.

They exchanged I love yous and he hung up the phone. He excused himself saying he 'needed a minute'.

I could hear him in the bathroom blowing his nose and sniffling and when he came out, his eyes were red.

I went to him and hugged him and he cried, tears rolling down my neck.

"I'm sorry, it's just that hearing their little voices (which is so cute, cause they don't have 'little voices', they're young adults, but to him they are his babies voices) well, it just tears me up. I miss them so much and it hurts to not be a part of their lives anymore."


Most of all, the overwhelming feeling I had was that I wish his daughters could see him now; crying, broken, hurting. I suspect they haven't a clue. I fear their mother has reduced him in their eyes to being an uncaring, unfeeling asshole of some sort. And as Jeremy said, "B is just not an asshole Mom." I'm not foolish enough to think he is totally blameless, I'm sure he's made mistakes, as we all have. But it is very difficult when you have someone broadcasting your mistakes 24/7 (his ex) and not tempering it at all with the things you've done right.

Her account and interpretation of the scene illustrates one of the fears I have about moving far away -- my wife will be the one to shape the image of me in their eyes. No matter how much I try to keep in touch and be a part of their lives, my time with the girls will be framed by my wife's unfiltered opinions.

At some level, I can deal with my wife badmouthing me. It's unrealistic to think that she will emerge from this without some form of lingering anger at me, and if I were to let that shape my actions, it would be emotional fusion.

What does worry me is that her remarks will make the girls feel like they weren't worth loving. I know what that feeling is like, and it can (pardon my language) fuck up one's existential equilibrium.

While the world is asleep
You can look at it and weep
Few things you find are worthwhile
And though I don't ask for much
No material things to touch
Lord, protect my child

-- Bob Dylan, "Lord Protect My Child", The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3

The next posting comes from I Don't Know; I Hope So. In her posting dedicated to her father, she writes:
but most importantly, my dad is someone who i never doubted could beat the crap out of an intruder. that might sound funny, but i think that was the thing i appreciated most about him when i was little! i always felt safe and never worried about anything happening in the night, because i was quite confident in my dad's ability to protect us. and that is ridiculously important to a little girl. i remember sizing up my friend's dads and every time thinking my dad is so much stronger than him.

I don't think her remarks sound funny because I recall reading things elsewhere where grown women express similar expectations of their men. I tried tracking down one of the posts, but Google didn't help me. To paraphrase the remark, the woman wrote that she and her friends looked for a man who was "willing to kill" for the sake of their defense.

My older daughter has the bigger sense of fear right now. Last Halloween, she started to grok the notion of ghosts and their ominousness. Combine that with an interest in old Scooby Doo episodes, and you can picture what bedtime is like these days. I've worked really hard to let her know that I understand her fears, and that I'm there to protect her, regardless of whether she chooses to believe in ghosts.

We also have this little routine just before I turn out the light where I call in Buster, a 60 lb. yellow lab mix of a family dog, and ask him to check for ghosts. He looks around and wags his tail and then looks up at me. Then I tell he, "He says there's no ghosts."

From this ritual has sprung a mythos about the protective powers of Buster. We have a little give-and-take story that goes like this:

me: What happens when Buster sees a ghost?
daughter: He shows sharp teeth.
me: And what does he do with the sharp teeth?
daughter: (giggling) He bits 'em in the booty!
me: What does the ghost say then?
daughter: He says, "Ouch!"

At this point, she's laughing, and her fears are far far away.

The theme of security from father reminded me of another, more disturbing post from a few months back at Have the T-Shirt, where she talks about sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.

That post really hit home with me on the question of whether to leave. Although I don't forsee my wife seeking the company of another man in my absence, she might be the type to do so just to ensure financial security. If I were far away, I would be limited in what I could do to protect my daughter. If something were to happen to either of my girls, I think I would beat myself up with blame.

I wasn't there that morning
When my father passed away
I didn't get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I'm sure I heard his echo
In my baby's new born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

-- Mike & the Mechanics, "Living Years", Living Years

Finally, a posting at For a Different Kind of Girl writes about her father's stroke many years ago, and the circumstances under which it took place.

My own father had a stroke in November 2001. He's still alive, but his physical abilities on the left side of his body are severely impaired to this day. He was left handed, so he was no longer able to enjoy one of the passions of his life, playing guitar.

As the reality of the stroke's severity set in, I grieved. My father and I had been through a long, slow, thaw since his decision to remarry back in 1984, and because we had moved closer to where he lived a year before, I looked forward to strengthening our relationship.

I had hoped part of that would have included attending a performance by the blues band he had been playing with the last few years. I had never been able to see any of the shows. I did get a chance to attend the last show before his stroke, at a street fair one month before. But upon arriving at the stage, I received word that the show had rained out.

I wonder what how my dad views that falling out, almost 23 years ago. We talked briefly about it in the fall of 1994. It was a moment of mutual forgiveness, but he really didn't open up about whether he had worried about the future damage in our relationship or whether they might one day heal as they did.

These days, he's a very loving grandfather, and I am grateful for it. For all of the anger I harbored at him during my teen years, he proved to be the most respectful of boundaries. He never tried to impose a vision on what he thought I should do or be. Yet somehow, I fear that the news of me leaving may hurt him, too.
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