The Hallmarks of Fatherhood

Rose can pick a Father’s Day card in seconds. She can’t read yet, so a picture of Elmo or a Disney princess is a sure sell. My shopping experience is not so simple. Now that I’ve got to pick out two Father’s Day cards – one for my father and one for my husband – we spend a good 45 minutes in the card aisle. Rose clutches her card, but I have to find just the right message – for both of them.

My dad’s card is tricky. I pore over available sentiments, looking for one that’s not too sweet, not too personal — just a nice thought — because that’s where our relationship stands right now. When I was a little girl, our relationship was playful and harmonious. During my pubescent years, it turned uncomfortable. From teenhood through my twenties, it grew mutually hostile. In my thirties, our interactions evolved to guarded but necessary; and now we’re a friendly kind of civil.

So the cards I pick out don’t say “You’re My Hero” or “World’s Greatest Dad.” They say “Happy Father’s Day” and I write in “Thank you,” because despite our relationship’s complicated path, there are things my father’s done for which I am very grateful. Most of his contributions were monetary, and for my father, writing a check is like cutting off a limb with a plastic spoon. It’s not that he doesn’t have money. He just doesn’t like to give it up. Money’s always been his main love. Nothing takes precedence. So the fact that my father financed my education and supplemented my income each time I struggled with money really means a lot. I know how difficult it was for him to give that money up, and I know that he wished he’d given it to someone who hadn’t disappointed him so early and often.

The card I pick for my husband is different, though gratitude is still the prevailing sentiment. Matt loves Rose so much, and he’s a great daddy. He works a lot, so I tease him by humming “Cat’s in the Cradle” from time to time, but when he’s with Rose, he’s her hero, and that’s exactly what a little girl’s daddy should be. He crawls on the floor and plays blocks and horsie with her. He reads to her. He’s charged himself with nightly diaper and jammies duty. And he took her to visit Grandma for four whole days.

He helps me too. He takes Rose to the gym so I have writing time. He agreed to take over swim lesson duty when I told him how much it stresses me. And if I need to lie down, he tries to keep her out of the bedroom until I get up. And sometimes he succeeds.

Matt is the reason we had Rose in the first place. He wanted me to bear children. I never wanted to get pregnant or give birth. My plan was to adopt a potty-trained two-year-old. But about two years into our relationship, I changed my mind. I remember the moment. We were sitting on the couch in our Shady Side, Md. house, and I realized that I wanted a child with this man. And if I had to get pregnant to do it, I could. With this man, I would always be ok.

So my heart, and the card that serves as its ambassador, is full of gratitude. Sure, he’s my husband, so he still does things to annoy me, but when I’m in the card aisle, I put that aside and focus on how much I love him and how lucky I am to have him in my life. And I try to find a card that reflects that.

I just hope that Rose keeps buying the same “Best Dad Ever” cards. Elmo and Ariel can go, but I hope the sentiment remains the same. At Rose’s age, my dad was my hero. I said I would marry him (How textbook Oedipal is that?) and in some ways, I have.

Matt’s personality is nothing like my father’s. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and he’s got the typical engineer persona. He’s comfortable with problems and constructs, but he never looks anyone in the eye, and isn’t interested in people enough to understand social mores and customs. We traveled six hours to see him once, and he left us sitting on his living room couch while he retired without a word to the dining room to read the paper.

Matt’s a social savant. I envy his ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, for any length of time, for any reason. He’s entertaining and funny, smart and perceptive, speaks his mind, and everyone likes him.

But my father and Matt have two things in common: worry and anger. Neither one of them knows how curb worry. My father worries about money. Matt worries about everything. Since money is everything to my father, their worry quotient is about equal. With Matt, worry leads to stress, which leads to anger. It may work the same for my father. I just remember he was angry all the time.

Last night, Rose wanted to jump off the easy chair in the living room. It’s about 18 inches off the ground, the floor is carpeted – no great danger for a two-year-old. She said, “Can I jump?” I was fine with the jump, but before I said so, Matt yelled “NO! I don’t want to go to the hospital when you break your leg! Bad enough Daddy broke his arm when he was five. And that hurt!” Clearly, she was not in danger of fracturing a femur, but Matt’s knee-jerk worry pumped up his volume. I know he really believed that she could break her leg, but I also know that worry is so powerful that it distorts reality.

At other times, Rose’s defiance stresses him out, as only a two-year-old’s can. He loses patience and he yells at her. If it were up to me, he wouldn’t yell at her at all, but I understand that he hasn’t logged the hours with her that I have, and has not yet learned all of the alternate methods of disciplining a trying toddler. I also understand that he did not spend half of his life in therapy, as I did, and he doesn’t realize how damaging yelling at a child can be. And I know that sometimes, kids can make you so crazy you just can’t help but lose it. But yelling sends the message that yelling is ok, and Rose has already started to yell at him. Additionally, since everything he does will shape her relationships with men, if he keeps yelling at her, she’ll think this behavior is perfectly ok if her boyfriend does it years from now.

We’ve discussed the yelling and I’m happy to say Matt’s improved. His outbursts are much fewer and farther between. And I’ve noticed Rose has laid off the yelling as well. She’s replaced it with other undesirable behaviors, but none so clearly attributable to our mistakes.

My father would never have been as amenable to improvement. I can attest because I used to write long, heartfelt messages in the cards I would give him, detailing how I would like our relationship to improve and he’d say something like, “Ohhh. I didn’t know you felt this way.” He’d look serious for a few minutes, leading me to believe he’d work on our relationship, but nothing ever happened. As far as I could tell, he never made an effort. Ultimately, our relationship evolved according to circumstance, not because of any effort on either part.

I think Matt and Rose’s relationship will be different. He’s always wanted to be a dad, and it’s obvious that he adores his little girl. He’s committed to dadhood, because his own father failed him so miserably – even before he left. And Matt knows that relationships must be built from the ground up. So far, I think he’s laid a good foundation. The rest of the relationship depends on time and materials. Hmm, Matt the Builder. Can he build it? As Rose would say, “Yes, he can!”*

*Adapted from “Bob the Builder