Father’s Day reminds us what’s at stake in parenting

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If you have young kids, Father’s Day preparations in your house probably look a lot like they do in ours: shopping for a present and getting him a nice mens grooming kits, lecturing the kids to let Daddy sleep in,  and surreptitiously assembling various Dad-themed school projects (I am never more grateful to my kids’ teachers than when I realize they’ve spared me the nightmare of nagging the kids to make a gift.)

I look at Father’s Day as the one day when I am pretty much guaranteed to stop and give one Rob Cottingham the celebration and credit he is due for being, truly, the world’s most fantastic father. I know there are lots of you out there who would contest that assertion, but as anyone who has seen Rob with his kids can attest, he’s pretty extraordinary. Yes, he does the cool fun dad stunts like cartooning pictures of the kids or switching into some crazy character for hours on end, but he is also the parent who makes sure that they actually get fed and go to sleep. Wow.

Father’s Day is so completely defined for me by Rob that it is only once I see people updating Facebook with joyful memories and wishes of their own fathers that I remember, hey, I had a dad too. I was raised almost entirely by my mom, which is why Father’s Day didn’t seem like it had a whole lot to do with me until Rob and I started our own family.

But I did in fact have a father, although one I never lived with, and only saw intermittently while I was growing up. He was an unusual man: a brilliant academic who published many books and taught himself Chinese as a retirement project, but who also loved to spend his days on a tractor, tending to the farm that was his great passion. Even more unusual was his family life: he was married four times, with a total of nine different kids, and had very different relationships to each of us.

For most of my life, his relationship with me was a great disappointment, which is why Father’s Day always catches me by surprise in a slightly painful way. Thanks to about a decade of therapy and a lovely novel by Stephen McCauley, I had more or less accepted that disappointment, and didn’t expect much to change.

But about ten years ago, my dad began the process of building the relationship we had never had. (A large part of the credit for this goes to his fourth wife, who is now a very dear friend.) He started calling me regularly, and actually remembering my birthday, and even came out to Vancouver for a visit. He started talking to me about how his life and our relationship had unfolded, and about the life choices that had shaped that path.

And most painfully, but also most helpfully, he talked about his regrets, and the choices he wished he had made differently. Particularly once he was diagnosed with the cancer that ultimately killed him, he worked hard to be candid with both me and (much harder) with himself. It was extraordinary to witness someone look back at his life, and realize that he had truly hurt people who mattered to him.

Seeing his regret didn’t make the disappointments of my childhood go away, or magically heal the various parts of my personality that will always reflect his absence. But it helped me realize how profoundly I would feel my strengths and shortcomings as a parent. We have a relatively short window in which to do right by our kids, and a relatively long period in which we live with the knowledge of our success or failure.

While failures can’t be erased, they can be redeemed. The fact that my father actually tried to be a father to me, however late, was one of the happiest surprises of my life. I’ll still never be one of those people who thinks of Father’s Day as being about my dad — it is, and will always be, about my kids’ dad — but I’m grateful to have happy memories of my father, and to feel some sense of peace around our complicated relationship.

What I really want to say is this: if you’re not the parent you want to be, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to be a better father, or a better mother, even if you don’t think you’ll ever be the parent your kids deserve. Even if your kids are grown. You may still fall short, but better is better.

In fact, you’re guaranteed to fall short: I don’t know one parent who would tell you that yeah, they’re doing it perfectly. What matters is to actually try. Because if there’s one thing I learned from my Dad, it’s that you don’t want to live with the knowledge that you didn’t.

4 Comments on this site

  1. Sandy Heierbacher

    You’re amazing, Alexandra! What a great article.

  2. Sandy Heierbacher

    Here’s something that might hit home for you, Alex. I read this passage this morning in the book “Wild” (by Cheryl Strayed) that I’m devouring now… An astrologist says this to our protagonist: “The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse and ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.” No doubt you’ve taught yourself, and done it well.

  3. Alexandra Samuel

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Sandy. It’s lovely.

  4. Anonymous

    My teenager said to me (me, who has only ever wanted to parent (generalizing a bit here but it’s been a priority) “it’s as if when I turned 7 you and dad let me go to figure it all out for myself.” I don’t know if that makes sense out of context but it breaks my heart to hear echoed back to me the perception that she was “hung out to dry.” There’s an intricate balance between smothering (which I have done PLENTY OF) and letting them dangle completely unsupported (which I’ve totally tried not to do). Maybe my perception that I was overprotected (by two individuals who had all the right reasons at heart) held more sway than I really understood. But thank you for sharing this. I am really glad you had that time with your father ……

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