I used to hate Father’s day. As a feminist male, I bought into the “fact” that every Sunday was Father’s Day. Certainly my family of origin and my first wife’s family of origin celebrated this event every week. I never really understood exactly what Father’s day was supposed to be about.
What was a Father’s day celebration anyway? This way of thinking was akin to my thinking small mind, my “I am my story” mind or, more appropriately, my “I am my sad story mind. This small mind, “woe is me” thinking was triggered by feelings of guilt common to all men since the industrial revolution took us out of partnership on the farm with our wives. This step made us absentee parents, toiling first in factories, then offices and shops, to support families we were never with because we were always working.
At the health club the other day, I heard a typical Father’s day type story. You know the kind, just an empty, meaningless small story with details like how many problems someone had while fixing a gutter. First this went wrong, then that went wrong, and finally something else went wrong. As I listened, I applied this concept to my own way of fathering; first I missed the soccer game because I had to work, then I got drunk, then I burned the hamburgers. In short, simply one problem after another.
So, I was very happy to read about what fathers are doing today. It is a whole new world these days for young men raising families. Fathers are becoming stay at home dads, they are home schooling, they are assuming the role of caregiver, and yet, they are still men (read more about it here.) I believe it was our “boomer” generation that laid much of the groundwork for these activities that are now becoming more common.
Later that day, I spoke at length with both of my son’s, enjoying conversations which were meaningful and deep. My sons actually cared about what I was talking about, and when, because I was in a bad mood, I tried to go to my “small story”, they kept probing and asking me empowering questions. They helped me to get back in touch with my “big story”, all the while encouraging and believing in me.
My current “small story” is about how hard it is to launch a new business. How much work it is, how much I hate marketing, how much time referral marketing takes. The unknowns….. Yet both wanted to hear the bigger story. They helped me move into thinking about how much fun I am having coaching my clients, how meaningful it is to me, how it helps others. They forced me to shift my perspective by not accepting my desire to “play small.” Both listened and helped me understand why it is so hard for men to open up to other men about needing help to figure out what they want to do. They both reminded me that men will share anything with one other trusted male, in a one on one setting, but they will not open up when there are witnesses.
After the shift, men are drawn to their families and many times become afraid their families are beginning to find them irrelevant. They might also think they have dishonored their families either by something they did or failed to do. Having functional and loving relationships with all of my adult children and their life partners is one of the pleasures of my “big story”, because it is something that I now take very seriously, every day, not just on a few choice “Hallmark” holidays scattered throughout the year.
When I was the age my sons are now, I would have conversations with my father of a very different kind. They were entirely superficial. The ability to now having meaningful, honest and open conversations with my sons on Father’s day (or any day), facilitated by our mutual knowledge, appreciation and interest for who each of us are and what we are doing in our lives, makes all the difference in the world. We do not live in an enmeshed relationship; they do not call me every day, or even every week, but we talk often enough and honestly enough that we have a sense for who we, each of us, are as men. Of course, I talk to my two daughters and they are both delightful, but fathers and daughters are a different dynamic than fathers and sons. My father and I did not ever get along, and likewise, he did not get along with his father before him. This is a lonely and detrimental pattern that I have successfully broken.
So, I am grateful this year for the growth in our family that allows us to enjoy honest and open conversations between generations of men. That my sons live in the same town in Ohio and are close as adults, even though they spent very little time together as children because of their age difference, is a joy to behold.
Even more of a joy is the fact that they are both actively searching for what it means to live an on-core life now. Many of us do not come to this path before we enter our fifties, and often in reaction to major life changes. I realized talking to them that being a parent to adult children is not about intruding in their lives, it is about continuing to live our own lives, and sometimes seeing ourselves through the mirror of their perspective. It’s about setting an example as we age and become “wiser”. We must live that wisdom and not burden them by trying to impose it unduly upon them. As Gandhi said, we become the change we wish to see in the world. We must now trust that our children are smart enough to figure out how to apply these lessons for themselves when they are ready.