On Father’s Day I thought of my dad, who died many years before my children were born. I wish he had known my daughters and I think they would have liked him.
In the intervening years, though, I have found other men, older and wiser than me, to fill the gap my dad left, which made me wonder if we can have more than one father in our lives?
I’m not talking about biology — you only get one person’s Y-chromosome and you are stuck with it and the father we each have is not always your genetic donor. I’m also not thinking about the many people who offer guidance through life — teachers, mentors, and role models, many who are men, but neither take the place of a dad nor fill that role exactly.
What would I turn to my father for, if he were around? It is hard to put a finger on. My dad wasn’t the most active guy, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis that attacked his feet and hands relentlessly, so it wouldn’t be babysitting. He was a fine parent but I find my sensibilities more in sync with peers than my parents’ generation when it comes to child-rearing issues, making it hard to imagine turning to him for advice in that way. Continuity perhaps, a connection or reinforcement of family in history, story and traditions? Maybe it is the fulfillment of my relationship with him, producing the next generation for his approval?
I find myself drawn instinctively to men of my father’s generation, with older children and more life experience than me. One friend reminds me of my dad, in his looks, movement and speech, and in his life story. Another has the presence I would want from my dad — calm, assured, thoughtful with great insight into the emotional struggles of life.
I could turn to these men, or others I know, for support. They offer me some vague insight into how my dad might have seen things, evaluated me as a parent or engaged with his grandchildren. They won’t be the same, though, as my father if he were around.
In the end, I think we each get one dad, one person who fills that role for us, and though we may find others to fill our emotional and psychological needs, there’s no replacement. Whatever the relationship I had with my father — adversarial, competitive, tense, or loving — that is the one I’m stuck with, that I’m always carrying with me and responding to in my interactions with older men.
As my father did to me, I’m casting a shadow on my daughters that they are stuck with. Throughout their lives, my girls may find people to guide, encourage, and help them in ways I don’t or can’t, but someday, when I’ve departed their lives, my kids may look for someone to fill the outline of my shadow. In some ways they will be able to accomplish this, but in others, there will always be those spaces left unfilled.
Father’s Day is certainly a celebration, but it also reminds me of the unique responsibility that comes with being a dad.