Fathers’ Day Thoughts

I always thought that the basis of my authority over my children was that I had their welfare in mind and they did not have my welfare in mind. On the occasions when they argued with me, they found that asymmetry frustrating. They were inclined to want to win the argument. I didn’t mind losing the argument, but I wanted them to argue well.

That wasn’t the only thing I wanted, of course, but I said OK to some things on the grounds that a very respectable argument had been made that I would not have approved otherwise. I don’t think that made me easy to like as a father, but it helped me feel that I was doing them some good. When I needed to be liked, I did other things, likable things.

When my wife died and I had to go back into the dating market in my late 60s, I thought long and hard about what I was looking for. By that time, I had been married most of my life and I knew I wanted to live with a woman I could look in the eye and tell the truth and also one I could work with side by side, each of us valuing the contribution of the other. I came to call those two faces of the relationship “intimacy” and “collegiality” [1] and I knew by then that a relationship that had only one of those two virtues was in trouble.

When I got the two concepts all worked out it my head, I was stunned to discover that that is what I had been hoping for in my relationship with my children. I wanted to work with them as a valued partner does—valued not for who he is but for what he contributes to the common project. And I wanted the kind of acceptance and trust that would allow me to look them in the eye and say what I really thought. To me, that felt like saying who I really am.

The parallel between fatherhood and husbandhood isn’t perfect, of course, but I wasn’t looking for any similarity at all, so when I found it, it smacked in the face. Did I really want my children to grow into partners I could love and also work with? Yup. I wanted that long before I had the words to say it even to myself.

I celebrate Fathers’ Day, not because I achieved all the goals I had as the father of children, but on the grounds that I had those goals and I worked at them because I was their father. It is what that relationship was for. That is the way I saw it then and it is the way I see it now.

I made a lot of mistakes as a father. It was my first time around, after all. But I think that, all in all, the relationships I have with my children are considerably better than I deserve. [2] I still argue with my children when the occasion arises and I take great pleasure in the fact that they argue well. I take special pleasure on those occasions when they argue better than I do. I’ve never been very competitive.

I know they love me and, of course, I appreciate that. But they make allowances for me as well and to do that they have to know who I am—they do—and to be willing to pass over some things out of sheer consideration. I have heard them pass off a mistake of the kind I make frequently by saying to a spouse or a friend, “It’s OK. He always does that.”

As Fathers’ Day gifts go, that is the top of the line and I am very grateful for it.

[1] I didn’t call them that to the woman I was courting until I knew her well enough that I thought I could get away with it, but it mattered to me that “intimacy” came from intimus, “most within.” Colleagues are people who are “sent or chosen to work with each other.”
[2] A father who gets what he deserves from his children is likely to be an unhappy man.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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