This article first appeared on the PBS affiliated website This Emotional Life.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.” –Oscar Wilde, Irish writer and poet
When it comes to understanding what it means to be a man, little boys typically look toward one specific individual, Dear Old Dad. What is not so consistent, however, is the manner in which a father chooses to undertake his role. Nowhere else is the drive to impart all that he has learned so strong and the possibility of instilling hard-won wisdom so pronounced as when a father looks at his eager young son. And yet, for this very reason the school of fatherhood boasts a subjective curriculum at best, as the competency of the teacher pales in comparison to the ways in which the student will go on to apply these lifelong lessons, many of which have been handed down through generations, whether knowingly or not.
Several thousand years of fiction tell us all we need to know about how tenuous the influence of a mature man upon his children can be. From King Laios of Thebes (the biological father of Oedipus) to Wilbur Meecham (the tyrannical father of Ben) to Carlisle Cullen (the eternal father who adopted Edward), the most valuable lessons often emanate from the reactions of the son rather than the actions of the father. In truth, a man’s best intentions may fall upon deaf ears or be misinterpreted by a youth struggling to carve the foundations of his own identity, and sometimes the best we can hope for is that a little luck and our unspoken influence through way of example will provide the necessary navigational instincts for our children as they pass through whatever storms may confront them.
The relationship between father and son is always complicated and in each case unique, with every example of success or failure providing a new interpretation on what it means to be a father. If that was not enough, there is never a guarantee that an idyllic father will raise a comparable son, or that the child of an atrocious man will ultimately follow in his ancestor’s malevolent footsteps. This cumulative nature of fatherhood is in many ways for the best, as nearly every boy at one point or another finds himself determined to be anything but his father. Today, however, as I read that rhyming masterpiece of Dr. Seuss, Hop on Pop, to my 10-month old son on what would be my own father’s 75th birthday, I realize that not only am I deep into uncharted territory, but there is no way of knowing what aspects of history might repeat themselves. Without any guidance or source of direction, how will I ever know if I am a good father?
In looking for answers, I find it hard to gather much from my siblings on what it means to be a father, as both my brother and sister learned from the same role model I did. While fiction and history provide a number of cautionary tales, they are blueprints at best, to be relied upon loosely. But even as I try to learn from the experiences of friends whose opinions I respect on this subject, there remains the ever-present fact that every case is different, from the point of view of both father and son. Though one friend is in my opinion an exemplary role model for his children, I cannot help but wonder how much of his inspiration stems from his contentious relationship with his own father, the secrets of which are lost on me and my very different experiences growing up. An example in stark contrast does little more than cast an even brighter light on the many different facets that can shape the paternal instinct.
But back to me, my son, and my conundrum. Amid the rhymes and colorful pictures of children hopping on their Pop, I find myself wondering which of my own father’s lessons I should replicate, and which I should reject? Though I know too well that these questions will keep me busy for a lifetime, on this Saturday morning I would like some small assurance that I am proficient in my role, or at least a touch of affirmation that I am not heading in the wrong direction altogether.
And sure, even though the kinship between father and son exists independently, I am always mindful that I have a close ally with whom I can collaborate. While I am certain on some level that my wife will never understand the relationship I once had with my father, and in many respects has little understanding of the ways in which I want to be a father myself, she is nevertheless the person most suited to measure my success. Make no mistake, she will voice disapproval when she deems it necessary, but her tacit approach to affirmation resonates much louder. Whether it is her loving stare in those moments where she recognizes the bond developing between her husband and son, or her decision to participate in a moment previously shared by only two, thereby casting approval and enhancing the relationship between us three, her influence stands as a beacon to me as I make my way blindly through use of simple instinct.
I may never completely understand the reasons behind the way I select certain lessons to be passed down to the next generation, while deciding that others need go no further. I do realize, however, that while these nuggets of past experience may be important, they serve only as guidelines, to be tailored to both the situation at hand and the personality of this new individual in need of mentoring. So today, as I toast what would have been my father’s 75th, my instinct tells me that perhaps a nice walk on the beach with my wife and son is in order, rather than an overabundance of reflection and contemplation. After all, very few things can be mastered in ten short months, and though I must admit that this new role often brings its share of confusion and fear, I very much enjoy the company it affords.