(In writing this Blog Post, I fully realize that the Marriage Equality movement in the United States has radicalized, and will continue to radicalize our traditional notions of fatherhood and motherhood. And I believe this is a good thing. This Blog Post deals exclusively with the heterosexual model of fatherhood I grew up with, even though the Roman Catholic male clergy did affect many of my notions of masculinity and my own role as a father. I would hope that my gay readers will understand that this post is not meant to exclude them from the conversation; it is only meant to express the fatherhood roles I experienced in my youth)
Growing Up in the 1950s
In my neighborhood, fathers went to work and brought home a paycheck. They loved to carry thick wads of singles. They liked to play cards, smoke cigars, and drink beer. They knew about carburetors, fuel pumps, mufflers, and battery cables. They sometimes hunted. They seldom explained anything.
They often had girlfriends. And they followed their wives to the communion rail but avoided confession (I grew up Catholic and never remember any adult males standing in the Confessional line).
Fathers talked politics. They loved hardware stores. They complained about sales taxes. They read the headlines. They frequented pawn shops. They swore a lot. They loved misogynist, racist, off-color jokes. They often liked a good brawl.
Unhatched fathers, those in training to be fathers, were either the strong silent Garry Cooper/John Wayne types, the Jimmy Cagney/Al Capone outlaws, or the introverted/artistic/haunted Montgomery Clift types.
These pre-paternity introverts would be boojied up a notch for me with the tragic figures of Hamlet and Werther, neither of whom, by the way, ever evolved into father roles. In fact, the sensitive, introverted, artistic fictional male figures seldom, if ever, made it to the paternity stage.(I suspect there wouldn’t be enough breathing room in a house for more than one male adolescent narcissist—Hamlet would still be competing for attention with a sixteen year old son if he had married Ophelia and they had had a male child. And Werther, had he birthed a son, would probably still be in a male support group trying to figure out why he was experiencing writer’s block.)
As an adolescent, I was tacitly and sometimes, not so tacitly taught that fathers are always rational, unless, of course, they had to defend, protect, or claim victory. Then they were allowed to beat the shit out of an opponent, wipe themselves off, take a shower, and return to the debating table filing through every sane argument, principle, fact, concept, inference, empirical data, and presupposition.
I initially learned about the kind and understanding father from the Ozzie Nelson character in the “Ozzie and Harriet” television show of the 1950s. He was the exact opposite of so many of the tough and brash fathers of the projects where I lived out my pre-adolescent and early adolescent life. But over time, his never-go-beyond-an-elevator-music voice became for me the embodiment of the passive suburban wimp-father I reacted so angrily against during my deteriorating marriage days.
Ozzie Nelson, Atticus Finch, and Male Clergy
The father character of Ozzie Nelson never took any interest in social-justice issues. He was never seen reading a book. He never went into a rage. His self-deprecating humor and his soda-shop folksiness began to grate on me over time, even though I’m sure he was a folk hero for me when I was growing up in the midst of all the hard-core testosterone men in my family and neighborhood.
A stronger father role model for me was the fictional character, Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird fame.” He never lost his cool. He was loyal to a fault. He listened. He weighed the evidence. He could argue a point without rancor. He could live inside the storm of racial prejudice and still defend a black man in court. He was a father, a lawyer, a homespun hero, a friend to blacks, and he looked dignified in a white suit and frameless glasses.
My other father role models were, ironically, many of the priests who were part of my life all the way up to my college and university days. They taught me that intelligence was important, that knowledge was a necessity for survival, that education was one of the keys to success. They also taught me, in their own way, how important it was to give back to the community, to be of service. After all, most of the priests I knew when I was growing up took their service profession seriously (I was one of the lucky ones who was spared the sexual predatory activities of priests in my elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education).
I definitely can say, then, that Ozzie Nelson, Atticus Finch, and the Roman Catholic male clergy, in one way or another, shaped my notion of what an ideal father is. My own father, of course, also taught me lots of lessons about fatherhood. Some negative lessons, to be sure.
My Father: Roots, Loyalty, and the Fear of Loneliness
My Dad was a very complex man. On the other hand, I can say, without hesitation that, at his core, he was a man who could not live without a woman or some kind of family. Although my brothers told me he was not involved in their lives as children and adolescents, my dad did rely on his family to give him a place to come home to. And it was that “place” that became a harbor, a mooring, if you will, that gave him some kind of stability, or at least the illusion of it.
When my mother left, my dad wandered around looking for a partner. He eventually found the woman, my stepmother, and they lived out their lives together for close to twenty five years. She gave my dad the stability and grounding he needed.
I saw that need for roots when my dad and my stepmother had to sell their home and move to an apartment. My father, literally, had a short-lived breakdown. I vividly remember my step-mother calling me in a panic that my dad was confused, that he placed some of his tools in their bedroom chest of drawers, or that he was forgetting things.
His soul seemed to have been rooted in that old house. He was always puttering, putting up wall board, replacing the electrical system, painting, cutting the lawn, planting a garden, putting up the awning on the back porch, replacing the winter windows with screens. That house was his grounding. Once he lost that, he continued to feel unmoored.
Throughout their marriage, my dad never knew how much he feared being alone. He had placed his self-defined mandate of always being with a partner on my stepmother. When she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I could feel my father’s profound insecurity begin to surface. The night before her surgery, he had a panic attack and had to be rushed to the same hospital where she was going to have her surgery.
My brother made the decision to tell my stepmother; it was evident to me that she was enraged because my father wasn’t strong enough to allow her her own tragedy, that he needed more attention because he couldn’t face up to the reality of her inevitable death. Or his fear that he would be rudderless without a partner for the rest of his life.
My father had a lot of rage after my stepmother’s death. On one of my many vacations with him, he lashed out at my family for abandoning him. I could see, again, that a family existed for my father to support him, to stand behind him, to remain loyal. As my dad saw it, families had an “obligation” to be faithful to him as a father in spite of all his indifference to my siblings when they were growing up. Fathering them was supposed to have been the completed part of his side of the family bargain.
After all, it was definitely his sperm that he contributed to the family bank. After my stepmother’s death, he believed the family owed him something for that contribution.
I sometimes wonder whether the men of my generation (the 1950s) became fathers because they could not bear the thought of living out their lives by themselves. They may have complained all the way to the altar that the “noose” of marriage was being tightened around their necks, but they would never admit to themselves that real, existential freedom was something that scared the hell out of them. They would all buckle, in my judgment, to the social pressures of being married and having a family.
I also believe that being married and becoming fathers for the 1950s male was a way of continuing all the myths of their masculinity and male normalcy. If a man could father a child, that meant that his testicles were still working and that, of course, he could not resist the seductions of a Jezebel.
Nature may very well know something we don’t know about how men, in general, seem to die off before women. It may be nature’s way of saying that men, deep down, are the weaker of the two sexes and can’t bear to live alone. One could argue from the Christian narrative that Adam’s strength may have been weakened by being rib-clipped in order to create Eve. But the real story may very well be that Adam could never adapt to an empty home. He, definitely, had to die first.
The Male Need For Legacy
Legacies, I have found, seem to be more important to men. One famous psychologist rationalized this need for a legacy by calling it the stage of generativity, a fancy term for explaining how parents want their values to live on in their children. I would maintain that this legacy drive is stronger in men. After all, it’s the male children in Western culture who carry on the father’s family name.
Legacies also have a way of memorializing a male family’s name, putting it out there for future generations to see and to admire. It may also be the Western male’s way of saying to the world: “See, I am immortal. I do have something to say. I am important. I will not be forgotten.”
The Choice to be Alone and the Golden Years, The Final Affirmation of Independence
In another blog post, I have written about my own journey out of marriage and my break with all of the traditional notions of fatherhood. I chose, early in my life, not to be swallowed up into the American dream of suburban fatherhood and to delve more deeply into the core of who I am. And I chose to be on that journey, for the most part, by myself, but with a strong network of friends in my local community.
In my golden years, I realize that the pursuit of my own “individual” journey can still be a tough one. It can be very lonely. And it can often give the appearance of being selfish, even though I make a conscious effort to give back to my community many of the blessings I have accrued over the years. Service is very much a part of my life.
However, I still cannot part with the occasional feeling in the pit of my stomach that my kids might, in the end, resent the fact that I pursued my life so independently. I keep in contact with them weekly. But I still maintain my independence from them.
Maybe, in the end, my adult children will realize that a father’s love does not depend on the fulfillment of a socially constructed role. Maybe, down the road, they will understand this father can love them without having to live out some social norm. And maybe, just maybe, they will appreciate my independence because, on some very real level, it lightens the burdens of their own self-defined obligations.
I dedicate this blog post to my two adult children, John and Amy, whom I will continue to love until my last breath.