Calling a Father a Father: Why Good Dads Must Share

fathersdayI become a voyeur on Father’s Day: I glimpse photos of friends with their arms slung over the shoulders of aging men, the edges slightly bent and tattered. Many of them, my friends, are small and giggling and looking up at young men with once-popular haircuts in the photos. I analyze the faces of the daughters: a contentment, a confidence provided by the surety of the man’s ongoing presence, the sturdiness of their father’s protection and adoration. I do not know this relationship; it is as distant and foreign to me as London or Tokyo, two places to which I’ve never been.

For the last three or four Fathers Days I’ve attempted to articulate this feeling, to write about my dad in some meaningful way that does not render me bitter and small. And for the last three or four Fathers’ Days I have come up empty. I have typed a sentence or two and I have gotten almost immediately overwhelmed by the prospect of sifting through so many emotions, by the thought of getting to the very bottom of what it is that I want to say. Truthfully, I don’t always know what I feel about the man whose absence has defined my life for so long. I wish I could say this year is different, could say that, magically, it’s no longer such a daunting task, that a fog has lifted, or that I’ve had one of those ah-ha moments Oprah is always talking about. But it is still tough, still unclear, still so complex a jumble of emotion that it still needs untangling. Today, I am attempting to shake out some of the knots, and here is what I have wound up with: the knowledge that I love my dad, despite everything, but that I do not know him as a father.

My relationship with my dad is complex and dark and painful to think of and always will be. Which is why I try not to relive it. I answer the phone when he calls. Yes. Sometimes I can even muster the strength to call him. But I am one who lives in reality, and while I try not to focus on the negative (I can control that) I cannot create out of thin air a relationship that has never existed: father and daughter is not what we are.

I have been reading, in these last three to four years, so many Facebook status updates and tweets about Father’s Day not being another day to honor one’s mother, but a day to either embrace male fathers, “real fathers,” or to be silent. The sentiment, which always comes across thoughtless and resentful (resentful of what I can only assume is disgust with the notion that people are publicly speaking up about the culture of absentee fathers that reached epidemic proportions some time ago and has left them (us) with the impression, because it is their (our) experience, that  fathers are not only male), has always left a salty taste in my mouth. Could one truly comprehend what it means to grow up fatherless, or know what it means to be a mother who fills both spaces—mother and father: roles that have been long defined according to certain stereotypical acts and duties, definitions some want to redefine when we start to bestow upon a woman the title of father—these hurtful messages, messages so akin to victim shaming, would not be so prevalent.

The father that I knew was not a male. Period. It was unequivocally my mother. I can tell you a million reasons why it wasn’t my dad’s fault that he was not around—he was young, he was ill-prepared, he didn’t like my mom—none of that changes the fact that he did not raise me. Although I’m far more likely, now, to put on my impartiality glasses and see why it is he could not be there, it still does not change the fact that there are countless milestones in my life that he simply chose not to be part of, the countless times and ways he forfeited his role as father, and subsequently the title. I can tell you that my mother unflinchingly took on the role of provider, protector, self-esteem booster, the role of father.

As a thirty-one year old adult woman who’s concerned with the state of her soul and mental health, I have forgiven my father for what can only be called a multitude of sins. I have forgiven him so completely that I’m able to see him beyond his faults and shortcomings and to work on building a safe and healthy relationship. Despite this decision, this ability to look forward and not backward, my dad has not magically become a father. He is someone I am getting to know. He is someone I am learning to trust. He is someone who is present. I’m grateful for where we are, but for all intents and purposes, there is still no one of the male gender that has occupied the space of father in my life. No male took the training wheels off my tricycle when I was four; my mother did that. No male interrogated and intimidated the boys I liked; that was mom. My mother is the only father I know. Despite how disheartening it might be for some to hear, especially those fathers who are present in their children’s lives, it is my truth and it cannot be censored. Admitting this truth in no way takes away that there are some great male fathers out there doing an excellent job. Fortunately for those of us who don’t know anything about that, there are female fathers who deserve praise today.

Muh and daddyI’ve been thinking about my Great Grandparents, TJ “Coot” and Gertrude “Muh” Shelley, today. I think about them often. They had 12 children (or close to it) and they instilled in us (their children, their grands and us great-grands) the importance of the family sticking together. They loved each other, not because it was easy, but because it was necessary. They understood what was at stake when families ceased to care about one another. It is a slippery slope, because if you do not care about your own, then the likelihood of you caring about anyone else’s is slim to none. Unfortunately, that is where we are today. People outwardly ask, “What is the world coming to?” To my mind, it is coming to a lost generation, or generations of people with no regard for legacy. Either their legacies are so painful and atrocious that they would rather forget them, or they simply have no clue who they are culturally or familially. Lost generations–generations left to fend for themselves and find their own way–are dangerous. I have heard stories, from my Grandmother, Great Aunts and older cousins, of my Great Grandmother feeding people in her community (and with so many children they, of course, were not rich people, but they gave what they had). This is how communities were upheld back then, and this mode of community outreach cannot be outdated because we so desperately need it today. Often, when I think of Coot and Gertrude, I pray to be a little more like them: less absorbed in my own sufferings, a little better at keeping up with relatives and friends, more gentle in spirit, stronger in character, in possession of a servant’s heart. That is my family legacy, and as I have said before, changing the world does not begin with legislation or politicians, it begins with us.

On Legacies: Much is Required