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Father’s Day has always seemed like something of a secondary event, a bit like an equal-opportunity counterpart to Mother’s Day that never really caught on. Sure, it is fully embraced as a marketing event, with flyers featuring gifts for dad presented by impossibly young, fresh-faced guys. Once kids are beyond the annual enforced school ritual of making Father’s Day cards and crafts, they might remember, or need a prompt from Mom.
While the jury is still out on my own tenure as a father, I am pretty sure that I did not qualify in the eyes of my two children as the “fun dad” or the “cool dad.” Today, the ideal is to be the “involved dad.” These terms are all rather subjective, but an “involved” dad is intensively engaged in all aspects of his children’s care, especially during infancy. Immersed in the moment – whether changing a diaper or rocking the child back to sleep at 2 a.m. – they experience perpetual wonder at all the daily developments they behold, basking in the oxytocin hit that intense early child care gives fathers. Instead, I confess that too often the immediate goal was to keep the child relatively content while those seemingly urgent and practical concerns – such as car repairs, home renovations, garden maintenance and the need to make a living – lurked in the back of my mind. That’s not to say that there weren’t many moments of pure joy: reading bedtime stories, cuddling, and those walks to the mailbox, sharing their wonder anew at the details of a world, slowed down again. Perhaps selfishly, I was also looking forward to the day when they would become interactive participants in the things that I like to do. I was one of those dads that felt that kids perhaps become more interesting as they get older.
With each passing generation, the bar seems to be raised on fatherhood. It is not necessarily that today’s fathers are better dads than their fathers or their grandfathers, although I expect that in many aspects that is true. Where once the gold standard was to provide for and protect the family, today’s society is much more embracing of the nurturing dad. There is something about a doting young dad with a baby that universally melts women’s hearts. The involved dad feeds, changes and bathes the babes, regaling his colleagues with reports on the offspring’s latest sleeping and eating habits. We became grandparents two years ago, and as my wife frequently exclaims, our son is an absolutely amazing father. His devotion to co-parenting his young son is total.
When my own father died nearly 25 years ago, I gave the eulogy on behalf of our family. A few days before the service, a close friend of the family suggested that if I was having trouble thinking of things to say in the tribute, to just say that he was a good provider. I was taken aback that, despite the fact that my father presented as a bit authoritarian, she couldn’t see that he gave me and my brothers so much beyond food and a roof over our heads.
Raised by a single mother and with three siblings, my father was forced into a parenting role at a young age, long before he had children of his own – a recipe for quick maturity. Seemingly fearless, status and conformity meant nothing to him, much to our embarrassment at times. Encountering a long lineup at the grocery store with most checkouts closed, he would hail the manager and announce that unless they staffed some more tills, he would abandon his loaded cart and make his purchases somewhere else. We cringed, while I am sure all those in the queue let out silent cheers as more checkouts were hastily opened.
We vacationed every summer on a small island up the coast that over time has evolved from a collection of modest, mainly self-built cottages toward a playground for the wealthy. One day by the public dock, my father spotted a young boy weaving his shiny new outboard skiff in and out between the swimmers. Waving the kid down and with a stern tone and booming voice, my father said that his reckless behaviour was going to hurt someone, and it better stop now! Later, the boy’s father, a wealthy businessman, came to our cabin and scolded my father for threatening his son, adding that he could buy and sell my father many times over. Without hesitation, my father calmly countered by saying that this was not possible, as he was not for sale. After his death, I learned about never-mentioned aspects of my father’s life: talking to elementary-school students on Remembrance Day about the war, volunteer planning and environmental work, and mentoring young men to pass on valuable practical skills.
The American novelist and playwright James Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” As aging brothers, we still tease each other about our “just-like-Dad” moments. Some fathers express satisfaction as their maturing children settle down and become more like them – generational self-replication, as it were. I greatly admire that my now-grown daughter and son have had the courage to strike out in their own unique directions: her roller-coaster ride of an international modelling and fashion career, and his beginning a legal career at a firm in downtown Manhattan; both were scary prospects, yanking them out of their comfort zones. This has made them confident, worldly and interesting people. Would I have had the courage at that age to take on the world?
What constitutes success in being a father? There is really no clear point at which you stand back, evaluate your work and award yourself a pass or a failing grade. You want the kids to achieve success at something that matters to them, to be happy, kind and generous, and to not be held back by fear.
Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking 2014 film Boyhood (shot over 12 years using the same actors), highlighted that raising children is part of one big cycle that brings us back to where we started. While we search for deep meaning and profound conclusions, perhaps there are none, and we just need to relax and enjoy the ride – a ride that has been made immeasurably richer by being a father.
David Sheffield lives in West Vancouver.