This year for the first time in my life there is no father to call. No father to send a card to. No father to give an unneeded tie to either. So today has become something of a bummer of a holiday for me. Yet it is a bridge we all must pass in time if we live long enough. I can’t say that I like it.
So far 2016 has been a bad year for deaths within the family. I lost my father on my birthday (February 1). I learned recently that my Uncle Lou passed away a few weeks ago. I had plenty of uncles, but Lou was the closest to being a present one in my life, even though we had to travel to see him: either Michigan where he lived with my Aunt Penny or some state park somewhere where we met with our larger families when we were growing up. Life has been especially cruel to my Aunt Penny this year. She lost two to cancer, not just her husband of fifty plus years, but also her daughter (my cousin) Beth this week. Beth was an adventurous free spirit. She had two stints in the Peace Corps and wasn’t intimidated in the least by the poverty, heat, disease and high mortality of those regions where she worked. She died after a long bout with ovarian cancer.
A fatherless Fathers Day does make me ruminate on the importance of a father in your life. As I wrote in his eulogy my father was exceptional, at least in the role of being a father. I’m quite confident he would be in the top .1% if there were a way to rank fathers. Given my cousin Beth’s adventurous nature, my Uncle Lou was probably a similarly highly ranked father. We were both blessed to have them as nurturing presences in our lives.
Mothers tend to get most of the credit in childrearing, perhaps because they tend to do most of the work. I wasn’t keeping track with a stopwatch, but I can say that I at least pulled my weight with the parenting. While challenging at times, mostly it was deeply satisfying. We had one child, our daughter Rose who I may have recently embarrassed by publishing a video of her at ten months. The research is quite clear: an engaged father can be transformative to his children, as my father certainly was with us. Moreover, a father who lavishes love and support on his daughters is especially important in their ability to make their marks on the world.
I saw this in my own family where arguably all of the women have succeeded at least as well as the men in the family. My father never treated his daughters differently and set high expectations for them. The oldest has a degree in nursing like our mother. The next oldest has a long and successful career in the space industry and a masters degree in biophysics as well. My next sister has an MBA and is a chief buyer for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The youngest has a PhD in audiology and has been teaching it professionally at many universities over her career, most recently in Florida.
Seeing positive fatherhood modeled in my own father meant it was natural for me to do the same with my own daughter. She had the bonus of more attention because she had no siblings. It’s hard for me to know the extent I influenced her, but by virtue of being her parent (and an engaged one) it was clearly a lot. As I noted a few years ago as I watched her transform into a fully functional adult, she’s a lot more like me than I thought. We get along famously and often have more to talk about than she does with her mother, perhaps because she has become political like me. And she writes her congress critter, just like me.
I never tried to overtly make her like me. Math and logic don’t interest her, and I don’t see software engineering in her future. But I do see a woman with an exceptionally agile mind. She was born into a very complicated world, a world much more complex than the one I entered. And somehow she has successfully put it altogether, with help from a lot of teachers over the year as well as a liberal arts education. My contributions in the end were not just to coach her (when she was open to being coached) but to infuse her with the notion that when she put her mind to it she could, like Superman, leap tall buildings with a single bound. A mind after all is a terrible thing to waste.
Today at age 26, she is busy defining her adult life. It looks quite a bit different than how I defined mine. But she has grabbed the reins of her life in a way that pleases her. She has all the potential in the world. I am looking forward in the years ahead to see how she realizes her potential. I recently read her self-published novel (self-published only because two sets of agents had concerns she hadn’t make her fantasy world hetero-normative enough) and was both awed and humbled by the quality of her writing.
Given our often-patriarchal reality, for women to achieve their full potential it seems to require their fathers not just to give them consent but also to mentor them on how it can be achieved. It requires fathers to suspend traditional gender roles, to be unconditionally supportive to their daughters and to fearlessly champion their potential. Or not. It’s entirely okay for any child to pick any path they want. If a father though opens a door it is so much easier for the daughter to look out the door and if they choose make that leap of faith into the unknown.
This was a gift I got from both my parents, but which I perceived that I received more strongly from my father. It was a gift I gave my daughter too. So on this first father-less Fathers Day, it’s a way for me to acknowledge my father’s gift and foresight. I also acknowledge that I played my role quite well and with much love, enthusiasm and aplomb. It makes the loss of my own father easier to bear. In many ways I have replicated his model and am passing it on to her. And doing so feels immensely satisfying.
Happy Fathers Day, Dad wherever you may be. Today especially but always you remain just next to my heart.