Last year I was invited to submit regular articles to Bridge magazine. Since December is the month Thai people celebrate Father’s Day, this article was on fatherhood. The publisher called to let me know there was a lot more feedback than usual, so I thought I’d take it to the presses here. Most articles I’ve read on parenting usually leave me feeling full of guilt and regret. I’m hoping this gives hope to all us imperfect dads. Enjoy!
I’m not a big movie watcher. My wife and kids love to sit together and are always inviting me, “Come watch with us. It’s a good movie.” Once in a while I will sit down, put my feet up and try to stay awake till the credits roll; but not often. Here’s the thing: I cry in movies. My girls watch me out of the corner of their eye, just waiting for my tell-tale sniff, because they know me and they know what parts will make me cry. It’s not always at the predictable parts, but certain parts of certain movies touch my heart and it makes me tear up. What is it that touches my heart every single time? It’s the part where the dad, who for some reason has lost his relationship with his kids – usually long work hours, or divorce or broken promises or stubborn pride – puts in some awkward-but-desperate efforts to get back into their lives, and finally, in a very unexpected or bumbling way, manages to regain a place of love and respect in the hearts of his children. And it’s the part where the child is finally ready to be responsive to the dad that makes me cry, when the kid realizes that it’s exactly what he needs and deep down he knows it even though it’s awkward and stiff. That’s what gets me every time.
I shouldn’t be surprised at so many movies with that same plot… Imperfect Dad loses relationship with kid, and then dad wins the heart of his child. The sad reality is that it’s not just in the movies. Lots of dads – too many dads- find themselves in that plot for real. I’ve been there. That’s probably why those movies have the ability to make me cry. I know how it feels.
Now I know Father’s day is usually a time for kids to reflect and be grateful for their dads, but that’s never what fatherhood is about. Ever. Fatherhood is all about our children. They are the one constant in all our “fathering lives.” From the day I held my new born sons and daughters to the day I applaud their graduation to the day I see them married and even beyond. No matter how old they get I will always be their Dad and I will always play an important role in their lives.
Why are there so many movies with that Bad Dad plot? It’s because so many can relate. There were days when my kids were little and they laughed at all my jokes. My hugs always made them feel better and they would ask for them, beg for them, regularly. My words of affirmation could change their whole day around, give them confidence for a long time. Some fathers do not understand that their words and example can significantly impact their children’s confidence, contentment and spiritual walk, or future. One of the things my young daughters love so much is an outing with dad. “Just me and my dad together on a date!” They still see me as almost perfect and everything will be okay as long as I am there. After all Dad is so strong and handsome and rich!
I also have three older sons who are no longer living at home. They too went through a phase believing that I was almost perfect, but that was a long time ago. Kids get older and become very smart teenagers; Dads get older and become imperfect. I found that my older kids would start to roll their eyes at my jokes, grimace embarrassingly when I hugged them, and my affirming words were sometimes met with skepticism. I fought like a pro boxer to keep the Perfect Dad myth alive a little longer, but they saw through that too and met me punch for punch. Despite my fight to be the perfect dad, they started to figure me out. They saw me in my imperfections. They caught me being confused. They caught me being afraid to be weak. I think there were times that I went from a Hercules to Homer Simpson in their eyes.
I am sharing this with you fathers to help stay connected with your children at all the stages in their lives. Older kids need dads, but they realize and are glad that they don’t have to live with Perfect Dad. Older kids would rather have a dad who can say sorry than the dad who refuses to admit his obvious flaws, and who perpetuates the pretense of a perfect persona. But just because your child is older and has out-grown ‘Perfect Dad’, it doesn’t mean you have to stop being Dad. It means you have to re-learn being Dad. When I am a dad who is real and who listens I find my older kids are much more ready to enjoy our relationship. I have had to learn to apologize to my sons for mistakes I’ve made, like being too busy and not active in their lives. And I have been blessed to hear them say, “It’s okay dad, I love you!” And I think to myself, “Wow, I have wonderful offspring who don’t wish that I was mistake-free.” Cus when I can admit and live with my mistakes, they get the message that their own mistakes are safe too.
I spent too much energy trying to get my oldest son to fit my image of a good son. And I failed miserably. In the end he no longer needed me nor wanted me that much. But there was a turnaround. I became proactive in our relationship. In the process I discovered that he was an awesome son. Now there is no better moment than when he phones me and asks to go hang out and maybe even play snooker for the evening. This son has taught me how to order Japanese food and how to re-think modern culture. He has helped me challenge old stubborn paradigms, and he has taught me that we stand in an unwavering commitment that we will still love each other even after the words are spoken.
I am blessed to still have two daughters at home who have not yet learned that I am not perfect. It’s coming, but I’m not a novice at this. I’ve had the best teachers. My boys have taught me that while Dads might be imperfect, Fatherhood is a perfect and beautiful and a necessary constant. They have taught me that imperfection isn’t fatal. Our parenting mistakes might leave scars but as long as they don’t kill us we will go on. So on this Father’s day, whether you are a Hercules or a Homer Simpson, never lose hope in Fatherhood. I think I am going to go buy that movie my girls have been talking about, make a bowl of popcorn and though I may still cry at those parts in the movie, I am glad to know that the end of my story will have sons who love me and daughters who think I’m still pretty darned perfect in their eyes.