My theory is that as long as there is a solid foundation of love and support, children can survive almost any level of family dysfunction. I say that as I think about my own wonderful but insane dad on this Father’s Day and especially as I struggle with my feelings about myself as a parent.
My father regrets a lot of the choices he made as a young parent in the 1950s and 60s. I’m sorry that these old decisions cause him pain since they made a lot of sense at the time and were completely centered on his desire to provide for his family. We always knew how much he loved us even if he couldn’t hang out with the family very often because he was working so hard. My father came from a childhood of poverty and occasional homelessness, a huge contrast to my mother’s privileged background despite their proximity in Chicago. My dad never knew his own father (or even who his father was) and he struggled with his loving but mentally ill mother who was institutionalized when my father was quite young. My father worked from a very early age, often several jobs at once, from the kid who holds fresh eggs over a flame to see if they’re fertilized to the guy making root beer floats and grilled cheese sandwiches at the Walgreen’s counter on State Street. He had a very strong work ethic and was always looking for ways to make his fortune. When he got married at the age of 20 and started a family, his life mission was to ensure that his children would never have to know the pain he experienced when he was young.
His hard work paid off. We never wanted for anything and we never experienced the terror felt by children who are forced by circumstance to think about their own survival. Perhaps my father’s plan worked too well. Not that I blame my father for any of my natural sloth or my difficulties with delayed gratification, but I think my siblings and I would have benefited from increased responsibilities and a greater awareness of the troubles faced by much of the world.
Not that he hesitated to tell us about the evils lurking just outside our front door. Nothing delights my father more to this day than providing his children with detailed crime statistics for any neighborhood within a 25-mile radius of where we happen to be. Just to give you a tiny taste, this morning I was talking to him on the way to a wonderful Father’s Day brunch Kendall took Leah and me to at a swank Beverly Hills Hotel. My father ended the call with a grave and urgent, “Danny, please drive very carefully today!” “Why today?” I asked. “Don’t you realize how many crazies are out on the streets on Father’s Day?” I could understand such a concern on New Year’s Eve, but Father’s Day? “You know, all those people drinking at breakfast,” he added, looking for ways to bolster his claims and get me to drive extra defensively on this most dangerous of holidays. I continued my way down Wilshire, wary of the armies of drunken Beverly Hills dads swerving recklessly through the streets at 11 am from their Mimosas and Bloody Marys.
I’ve written many posts about my crazy dad and will write more but for now suffice it to say that a more caring, loving father could not be found on the planet. True, a ball never passed from his hand to mine, and most of my early memories of him are of the back of his head chauffeuring us around to various activities he never attended, but through it all I felt the full extent of the love he has for his children. I now talk to him on the phone nearly every day. If I miss a day, or God forbid two, he responds as if I’ve gone missing on the Iraqi border and am facing imminent beheading. Sometimes I avoid telling him things that I know will make him start hocking me unmercifully, even little stuff like my recent minor accident when I got rear-ended on the freeway. My dad is blind now so he can’t read my blog but my brother periodically reads it to him. I knew the exact moment when my dad heard the post that mentioned the car accident because my cell phone started vibrating uncontrollably in my pocket. Sometimes I think I should start dropping fake stories in my blog just to test my dad’s stamina and reaction time. “Good news! I’ve decided to move to the Middle East to work with refugees in one of the camps that has been cited as an Al-Quada stronghold.” When I’m not purposely trying to raise my dad’s blood pressure, I want to tell him how much I love him and am grateful for his role in my life. Even though I still can’t throw a ball.
When Leah was born, my father and others made a big deal at how involved I was with her care. For many folks in my dad’s generation, seeing a man change a single diaper was enough to canonize him as a bona fide SuperDad. My French former in-laws called me a “père/mère,” a kind of “father/mother” which flattered me at the time even while part of me wondered if it was meant as a compliment. Somewhere along the line I'm afraid I started believing my own publicity that I was some kind of perfect dad.
Twelve and a half years later, with my daughter careening into adolescence, I know that this is extremely far from the truth. My parenting is a thousand light years away from any level of perfection, but then again, so is everybody else’s. There is no such thing as perfect parenting, we all carry our baggage into the job whether we like it or not. The trick is learning how to contain the fires of denial and begin to realize what we’re doing. Just this week I’ve seen several painful examples of how my own dysfunction has prevented me from really listening to my child or providing her with appropriate role modeling. My new goal is to permanently lower my expectations. I am a good dad doing the best I can, and that's okay. I need to figure out how to work on my own shit while being the best parent I know how to be. It’s been an extremely difficult week because part of me still wants to cling to the fantasy of being SuperDad. And yet that fantasy does a disservice to the wonderful complexities of the role. The one thing I’m confident about during the more challenging times is that both my daughter and I know how much we love each other. Love has never been the problem, thank God, and that’s a damn good foundation to start with.
So here’s to the dads out there, warts and all. I challenge us to take a good hard look at our imperfections. Let’s figure out which ones are part of our unique cache of adorable eccentricities that will be cited at our funerals and which ones we need to drop-kick to the curb.