The modern tradition of celebrating father’s day in the West goes back to the early 19th century. It started as an initiative led by a young Washington state woman named Sonora Smart Dodd. Her inspiration came from her own father, a civil war veteran who raised six children including a newborn after the death of her mother when she was 16. Sonora felt compelled to advocate for the establishment of a father's day based on her personal admiration and recognition of her father. Her efforts culminated in official recognition of Father's Day. It was celebrated for the first time exactly 106 years ago today, on June 19, 1910.
When I was a little girl in elementary school, each June would find us in our art class making homemade cards and gifts for Father’s day. Our desks that had been the scene in May for the production of macaroni-adorned pink greeting cards and picture frames, both liberally spray painted in gold and silver glitter, gave way to craft-paper necktie greeting cards with brightly colored drawings depicting stick-figure dads with fishing poles next to blue ponds with little brown smiling fish swimming and jumping about, accompanied by misshaped clay pencil cups and ashtrays created by little fingers.
My own father was absent from our lives throughout most of our childhood, despite my mother's encouragement for him to see us. This was by his choice, as we came to learn directly from him later in life. Rob Palkovitz, a professor at the University of Delaware and who contributed a chapter to the book Why Fathers Count: The Importance of Fathers and Their Involvement with Children, noted that men can become fathers in a biological sense and yet not always make the psychological and behavioural adjustments needed to embrace the role of fathering.
We had a stepfather whose own very difficult childhood was often replayed in our home. I don’t recall him ever being playful with any of us; I know that he was not allowed to play himself as a child. I doubt very much if he knew how. Now, as an adult I understand and have more compassion for him because of that. It wasn’t my birth father who received those homemade Father’s day cards and little clay ashtrays. We rarely knew where he was and heard from him very infrequently. It was my childhood stepfather, whose guarded aloofness would come down momentarily as we dog-piled on him on Father’s day in the early years to present him with a cup of lukewarm coffee and his paper necktie card. It is one of the happier memories I have of him accepting his role in our lives. As I look back now, as awkward as he felt about it and as much as he never verbally expressed love to us, I believe he liked our recognition.
Growing up without much constructive fathering had an impact on us. Yet, for all the often pretty shaky examples of fathering we received, those of my brothers who became fathers chose to be exceptionally present, loving, and nurturing to their own children. I have noticed this phenomenon in others as well, while at the same time being well aware that this is not always the case. Over the years I have become friends with many men and women who, for a variety of reasons also experienced a lack of warm or frequent fathering contact during their childhood. I have noticed one commonality among those of us who became parents ourselves, and that is in our desire to embrace the good parenting examples and learn from the bad ones enough to hopefully not repeat them.
Because of, or perhaps in spite of the quality of my own childhood father-daughter experiences, I have always been interested in the experiences of others. In an absolutely non-scientific, non-empirical based, completely anecdotal study, I recently asked several men about their thoughts on being a dad.
I asked three questions: What’s the best part about being a dad? What has surprised you the most? What would you do differently?
Their responses were warm, thoughtful, and touching. Several dads described the best part of their role in terms of their child’s hugs and interaction with them. A couple of them told me, “the best part about being a dad is knowing that someone in this world thinks I am awesome.” Another dad commented, “the best part of being a dad is sharing this world and fun experiences with someone for their first time. All the firsts you do together.” Another dad told me, “the best part is seeing how much I now live my life for my girls compared to how I used to live it just for me.” A dad of grown children said that for him, the best part of being a dad was watching how his kids turned out, the decisions they make and the kind of people they became. One dad, who is stepfather to a young son said, “the best part is the feeling that I am included in my own family. Although (he) isn’t my blood, he makes me feel like he is sometimes.”
These dads reflected on what had surprised them the most in their fathering roles. One new dad, perhaps vocalizing the apprehension that many prospective dads have before becoming fathers, commented that he was surprised at how good he actually was at being a dad. A few dads shared that they were surprised at how quickly their young children have grown. As one dad said, “it surprises me how much a smile or a hug means to me from (him). Just his innocent child happiness is fun to watch and is like nothing else in the world.” One dad commented on how his young son remembers small, seemingly innocuous details of conversations from weeks earlier. Another father shared how his daughter was born a couple years after his brother had died suddenly. He said, “Becoming a father when I did helped me to move forward from that loss. It surprised me at how strongly I felt that I had a renewed sense of purpose.”
These dads were perhaps the most reflective and poignant when commenting on what they would do differently. One dad whose children are now adults said, “I wish I had been home more when they were little.” One dad said he would have started writing in a journal to record his son's moments in order to reread and relive them later. Several dads commented that they wished they had had children years earlier than they had and shared aspects of their long journeys to become a father.
I also asked other women about their favorite memories of their father. One woman recalled how her father took her and her brother to the Northwest Territories for the entire summer vacation period each year for several years. For that nine or ten weeks each year, she and her younger brother lived an incredible life, free of the usual city constraints and expectations. She described how impactful this experience was and how it has nurtured in her a life-long love of the outdoors and of photography.
Another woman described growing up in Alberta with one parent whose family was in Saskatchewan and the other parent whose family was in Prince Edward Island. She described how when she was about five, she and her stay-at-home mother and young siblings would travel by train to visit extended family, alternating one year in Saskatchewan and the following year in P.E.I. She recalled how her father always accompanied them on the trip east, however his job required him to return to work weeks ahead of the rest of the family. She reflected on how it important it was to her father that he spend the time he had with her mother and the children even when it meant traveling home alone early. When this woman became a mother, she wanted her own sons to experience the same excitement and joy she had felt on the train journeys of her childhood. To her dismay, she discovered that the logistics involved as a parent on the same train trips were very different from what she remembered in those carefree adventures as a child. She commented that it was then that she really appreciated her parents' efforts and especially her father, who made those long journeys several times for very brief stays. Perspective is everything!
My husband, Chris, recalled a funny story about his dad. A few months after Chris joined the Canadian Forces, he was granted leave and returned home to visit his parents for the first time since leaving for basic training. The years prior to Chris joining the Canadian Forces had been a frustrating, turbulent time for both parents and son, mostly due to Chris’s previous teenage/young adult shenanigans and an often-displayed unwillingness to follow the house rules. Chris recalled waking up that first morning to the smell of coffee and frying bacon and followed his nose to the kitchen, where his dad was busy making breakfast. Chris’s mom was already out running errands. Two plates were on the counter next to the stove and as bacon and eggs and toast were prepared, Dad placed them on the plates. As Chris said, he was surprised that his dad was making him breakfast but didn’t want to spoil the moment, even when Dad buttered the toast and spread jam over both slices. It seemed clear to Chris that Dad was trying to make this breakfast extra special for Chris’s first morning home. It was when Dad began to cut the toast and eggs into bite-size pieces that Chris felt he had to speak up and he said, “you don’t have to cut it up for me, Dad." Dad responded, “This is for the dog! If you want breakfast, make it yourself!”
Yup. Keeping it real. Dads do it best.
Modern society has recently become more interested in what it is like to be a father. Indeed, a Google search of “the importance of fathers” had 42.5 million hits in .51 seconds. There are a lot of advice-laden articles for new dads. While I hope that we can avoid some of the pitfalls associated with articles for moms that seem to perpetuate anxiety, passive-aggressive comparisons and doubt, I have more confidence that the guys will be able to keep it friendly, concise, and real. I loved a lot of the advice I read. Here are some of the best points with my thoughts added in.
Keep it balanced.
Kids need a balance of structure and support. Don't leave the hard parenting work of setting and enforcing rules to your wife, and make sure she isn't doing the same to you. Find a balance so that your child respects the limits you have set at the same time as seeing you as someone they can come to when they need comforting and support.
Learn from the past.
Take time to reflect on your own father and how he fathered you through your adult filters, not those from your childhood. Sometimes, childhood experiences that seemed really negative at the time can find better context when you are a father yourself. Take the best of what he did and find your own parenting strategies to deal with the issues that you think your father didn't handle very well. If your dad is still around, ask him questions to help you understand more about who he is as a person and what shaped his own opinions and approaches on fatherhood. If your dad has passed, and especially if he wasn’t a very constructive parent, it can be helpful to write a letter with your thoughts about what you needed from him but did not receive, and then write a response from him saying what you wish he had said. While this can be time-consuming and painful, it can help heal old wounds and help you move on to be the kind of father that you want to be.
Teach your son how to do.
And your daughters, too. Equip them to know how to perform not just the basic physical tasks – changing a tire, repairing a dripping faucet, cleaning the garage, whipping up your world-famous six-egg omelet – but also take time to teach them your values, to be respectful, to have manners, to be kind, and to be accountable. Please teach your children the quality of empathy. Every man eventually needs to know how to tie a necktie, so teach your son. Teach your children the value of work and the importance of doing of doing a good job. Be the example to your son on how to be a good man and the example to your daughter of what to look for in a man. The world needs a lot more of that.
Our children’s lives are more structured and prescribed than ever before. Set time aside to to play and interact with your child. Let your child choose the activity or the book to read. Help him tuck in his favorite toy next to him. Please be there for your child. My father made numerous promises to see us and it hurt when he didn't show. So show up.
Our egos can make it hard to say sorry. Let's face it, you are going to make mistakes as a dad. When it happens, apologize and make it right. Doing so provides your children with a powerful lesson in responsibility and humility.
Love his mother.
And if you are not in a relationship with his mother any longer, respect her. Teaching your son to respect his mother is one of the most powerful lessons you will ever provide. Showing your daughter that you respect her mother will teach her how she should expect to be treated when she is a woman. You can make a real difference in how the next generation treats each other by being the example for your kids now.
My own father died very suddenly 13 years ago, after having been self-estranged from each of his adult children for several years. It has been a strange sense of suspended reality for a relationship that simply ran out of time. My sharpest memories of my father are captured within the few grainy mental images I have of when my brothers and I were children and our relationships were comparatively uncomplicated. Over the years when he was alive, my brothers and I each reached out to our father and tried to develop a relationship. Each time, our father's judgmental anger and controlling tendencies drove us away, and over time the chasm grew. He briefly met only four of his ten grandchildren and insisted that they call him Toby, which was not his name, because he did not want to be called Grandpa. He never bounced them on his knee or watched them play sports or saw them win school awards. He missed all of their birthdays, just as he had missed ours. Death closed the door to any hope of reconciliation. All that was left unsaid will always remain unsaid, and the lingering questions about someone we hardly knew but should have, made grieving feel difficult and strange. It took some time to sort through. Eventually I found solace and closure when I began to understand and accept that my father loved us as much as he was capable within his very great limitations to love and be a family. I believe that his spirit was saying to me, "All those years we were apart, were not your fault. Know that I always loved you."
My childhood stepfather is also long gone as well. When I think of him, I am reminded of Maya Angelou's quote, "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” He did the best he knew how. My mom eventually remarried and for the next twenty-one years we were the beneficiaries of principled, loving fathering. It was a gift of immeasurable value.
Today I am surrounded by amazing fathers; the one I am married to, the brothers I grew up with, our friends, and the men with whom I work. One of the unexpected joys of being a grandparent has been watching our son and sons-in-law embrace their role as father, be present for their children, and learn how to be a dad. Their circle of dad-friends are also inspiring in their enthusiasm and dedication to their families. I also know many other fathers who continue to strive, despite the obstacles born of parental alienation, to just be present in their childrens' lives. For many of them, today is "just another day" that they will miss their children and wonder if their children miss them. Please know that your children love you and are thinking of you, and stay strong. All of you, along with my husband this morning, deservedly wear the title of "Awesome".