It turns out that I was a pretty good father

My daughter is 32 now but at least she now remembers Father’s Day. She remembers Mother’s Day now too, perhaps because it’s on her Google Calendar by default. For years she ignored these Hallmark holidays (as my wife calls them). I didn’t give her a hard time about it. It’s nice though that after all these years she’s picked up the habit.

She usually sends me a note on Discord on Father’s Day because that’s what her generation does. They don’t enrich Hallmark. They just send a chat message asynchronously. Discord is convenient. For me, its main purpose is to let me know she’s alive. I look for the little green dot next to her name in the app. Discord goes with her everywhere so it’s the easiest way to get a hold of her. Use the telephone? So 20th century!

And that’s fine by me. When she first went to college, there was no Discord and she didn’t even have a phone so there was no way to really know if she was alive. It drove me crazy, even though she was 20 at the time. (She went to two years of community college.) After a week of not hearing from her I called her roommate. That’s how I found out she hadn’t been mugged in some back alley in Richmond, Virginia, where she went to school. She seemed a little miffed, like I didn’t trust her. Okay, I confess to having some boundary issues. It’s always hard to let go. I had been steering her life for two decades.

Now she’s hardly ever offline. I’d have to look up her cellphone number because we never call it. And I’ve stopped worrying if she’s dead or alive. We chat formally once a month on Discord in a video call, and informally during the month. She may be 32, but she still relies on me for ad hoc advice. She’s thinking of a big career move, basically taking a job similar to what she does now in Portland, Maine. (She’s lives in the DC suburbs.) She got dueling job offers from two counties. I helpfully examined the proposals and placed my analysis in a spreadsheet. It made sense to me. A spreadsheet made it easy to compare offers. She appreciated my help but found my using a spreadsheet humorous. Apparently, it’s a very Dad thing to do.

We won’t have to worry about babysitting any grandchild. She eventually figured out that she is asexual. This means she is not drawn to either sex. The idea of having a baby appalls her. She does have a cat, which is not surprising as she grew up with cats. That’s as close as she is likely to be to having a child. We call her cat Mimi our grand kitty. The two kitties we have are sort of like aunts to our grand kitty. It’s unlikely they will ever meet.

While she is unlikely to call us out for special kudos on these holidays, at least she remembers them. It’s also nice to know that we didn’t suck as parents. She does see a therapist and maybe that’s due to being an only child. Or perhaps it’s related to being a 911 operator. It can be a very stressful job at times and the counseling is a free perk.

But occasionally ad-hoc complements arrive. A couple of years back I got one when she remembered I got her vaccinated for the Human Papilloma virus. The vaccine was new at the time and she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, but when I took her for her physical I asked her pediatrician to give her the shot. Actually it was two shots. The virus is generally transmitted sexually, so that’s unlikely to happen to her, but you never know. She could be raped, which happens to many women. While it would definitely be a traumatic episode, she probably wouldn’t have to worry about getting the virus from her rapist. Anyhow, when she remembered talking with her physician, it triggered the thought, “Gosh, Dad was certainly thinking ahead. He really loves me!”

It wasn’t a hard decision for me. She was likely to be sexually active during her life. The shot was a way of preventing her from ever getting the virus, which is a small but hardly minute risk for women, as it can cause cervical cancer among other things. I also remember getting her a Hepatitis B vaccine, also delivered in a couple of doses, something not required but it seemed like a good thing to do. She’d likely have to do some foreign travel to get it, but it can be acquired within the United States.

One of the most important things I did as her parent was to get her a real sex education. No, not the stuff you might get in school, which is superficial and required parental consent even for that. That wasn’t good enough. I remember the laughable one-day sex education “course” I got from a priest at our parochial school. My parents tried to talk about it once and utterly failed. What I learned about sex academically came mainly from reading books at the public library. The information was definitely useful, but not enough. Equally important is the emotional aspects of having sex. There I got zero help and like most Americans had to stumble through it.

Her mother didn’t believe in church, but I wanted her to experience it, so we started attending a local Unitarian Universalist church. There she went to Sunday school while I attended services. After a couple of years, I learned about their Our Whole Lives course. I enrolled her in it. (You can too. You don’t have to be a UU to enroll your kid in the class. Just call your local UU church’s director of religious education. It’s likely free too. Also, it’s not just for kids. How we are as sexual creatures changes with age. So at any age, it’s useful.) It’s the kind of sex education I never got. I didn’t want her to be ignorant and I wanted it to be realistic and grounded. The UU church’s OWL course is likely one of just a handful of courses you can get in the United States that teaches actually useful and comprehensive sex education, including contraception, and sex’s invariable emotional aspects. She is grateful that I enrolled her. She met a friend there that remains perhaps her best friend to this day.

In truth, I didn’t mind being her father. I quite enjoyed it, overall. Certainly there were great highs and great lows too, but not many of them. My childhood was rife with physical and emotional violence meted out by my mom. I made sure none of that happened in her life.

Maybe it would have been helpful for her to have a sibling. One child though was plenty for my wife and me. But overall she was an interesting child from the start. Both of us parents were grounded and pretty intellectual. We did our best to expose her to the complexity of the real world and to fill her life with an appreciation for reading, culture and the arts. We took her to many a Broadway show. We tried not to sugar coat life, while also not making it look too bleak. I think we succeeded.

Parenting is an awesome responsibility, but it needn’t be taken too seriously. You can try to enjoy it. We were plentiful with the hugs and complements. We were protective but not smothering. A few times where she veered too off course we intervened and moved her toward the center. At 32, she remains interesting, grounded and a fun person to know not just our daughter.

So thanks dear for your Father’s Day best wishes. But really, I enjoyed being your father. It was perhaps the greatest privilege in my life. I’m glad to know I didn’t suck and it sounds like I did a pretty good job.

Happy Fathers Day to me

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.