Thursday, September 17, 2009
Sins of the father
I have a theory when it comes to being a dad. Most fathers subscribe to one of two main types of parenting. One is the “it was good enough for me it is good enough for my kid” theory. The other is the “there is no way in hell I’m going to do to my kid what my dad did to me,” theory.
You can’t really say one is more “enlightened” than the other. You may have had a terrific father, in which case, you see no need to do anything differently. However, you father might also have subscribed to the “I’ll beat you within an inch of your life if you ever talk back to me again” school of parenting, in which case you are not making the world a better place or your child a better person by carrying so much anger forward to another generation.
Recognizing your dad’s faults and refusing to repeat them is a great way to break some negative cycle, but simply taking a contrarian approach to parenting isn’t necessarily any better either.
For example, with a father who was both emotionally and geographically distant, I was determined not to be that way with my son. I remember the first time I had to leave him and my wife for a few nights. He mustn’t have been more than a month or two old. As I was saying goodbye, I began to sob uncontrollably. I was blabbering to him about how much I loved him, how going away didn’t mean I wasn’t coming back, and most importantly, how my absence didn’t mean I didn’t love him.
Afterward, I reflected on my behaviour. I concluded that the tears and sobbing were the little boy who felt emotionally abandoned by his father. Although I know my father loves me to no end, he was always unemotional whenever we parted —- often when we wouldn’t be seeing each other for months at a time. Years later he told me he was breaking up inside, but he felt the best thing was to be strong. He, like most fathers, was doing the best he knew how at the time.
I was aware that his stoic behaviour had, despite his best intentions, caused me scars. The message I was left with as a child was that he was indifferent to our parting. With my own son, I was determined that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Although my blubbering and bawling caught me off guard, I had no regrets. My son was going to grow up and see a father who was emotional. My son would see that tears were a sign of strength, not of weakness. And my son would know that his father loved him so desperately, that it tore him up inside to be away from him.
This parting behaviour on my part continued, unabashedly, for just over a year. The following summer, my wife’s cousin and her three kids were visiting from Germany. My wife was going to take the Germans and my son for a few days of sight seeing. Once again, as I strapped my boy into the car seat, I began to cry and blubber. My wife’s cousin pulled me aside and said, “what the hell are you doing, can’t you see how upset you are making him?” I looked to see my always happy one year old, straining against his car seat restraints, tears streaming down his face, arms outstretched and reaching for me. He was wailing. He wanted his daddy.
“My son will see my emotions” I said defiantly. “My father would leave me without so much as a hint of sadness. My little boy will know how much it pains me to be away from him.”
“You mean you want to create separation anxiety in you son?" she asked. "You want to teach him that each and every time he leaves you, he is hurting you? Is that what you want?”
She was right.
I had never thought of it that way. I was just so determined to do the opposite of what my own father had done, just because it had been so painful for me. If my dad’s way of doing it caused me pain, certainly, the opposite of what my dad did would be better. Not so. I realized that what I was really doing when I left my son was reliving all those painful partings with my father.
The point here is not that you need to go through therapy to fully understand your relationship with your own father (though I wouldn’t dissuade you from it, either), you just have to be aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Neither the “it was good enough for me” or the “no way in hell” schools of parenting would have served my son in this instance. If I had carried on, I would have created a dynamic where my child would grow up guilt ridden or resentful that his father was reduced to a weeping heap every time he left the house.
What I do now when I leave my son for a prolonged period of time, is I give him a huge hug and a kiss, I tell him that I love him and that I will miss him. Then I tell him it’s kind of nice to miss people because it reminds us of how much we love them. It’s also great when we get together again because we can share great stories of all the things that happened to both of us while we were apart.
What do you do differently from you father when it comes to parenting? What do you do that is the same? Why?