Having grown up in the kind of household where my failings were punished and my successes essentially ignored, I have tried - from the very start of my life as a father - to be as supportive of my children as I can be. It's been my life's work for the last nineteen and a half years, and I've taken pride and pleasure in doing something to the best of my ability. It's not as if I had a choice: it's been an instinctive and compelling drive. It's not, therefore, as if I can take any credit for doing what I have done - it's just been the purest manifestation of who I really am.
I know that I've made mistakes - if I'm honest with myself, too many to count - and there have been times when I feel as if I somehow let the kids down or failed them. There have been times when I have had to say some very difficult things to them - such as explaining that their mum and I were separating. Watching the horror of that news hit home on their little faces is the saddest, most painful memory that I will ever have. Doing the hard stuff is sometimes the most real part about being a parent, and I have, no matter what the cost, always tried my very best to be real. Being a good father is probably the one thing that I have most consistently strived for, and I'm happy to be able to say that. What's now clear upon reflection, is that trying to be a good father has been the most important thing to my subconscious personality.
I didn't begin writing this post with a view to saying this; I instead began with the thought that my kids are all growing up, and life is changing for us all. My thoughts have taken me now to what it feels like to have reached a point when reflection upon a job done well (or otherwise) seems appropriate, if a little self-indulgent.
Father's day, strangely enough, always seems to catch me by surprise. In the run up to it, I forget about it multiple times, despite all the reminders in the media. I forgot all about it yesterday, until the children presented me with cards and gifts. Their words moved me, and that, of course, was their greatest gift. Their words can't be unsaid, and I'll forever treasure the love within them. How, for example, can I ever forget that, in my son's words: "...I hope that my children will look at me the same way that I look at you."
What's also thrown into a bleak kind of clarity now is that I have been striving to be a father unlike my own. I loved my dad; he was a gentle and good man and I looked up to him. I miss him. He would not, however, be able to understand my guilt about my mistakes and failings. He definitely would not understand about the times I have said "I'm sorry." to my children, since he did not believe in apologising to his kids (we had that specific conversation a long time ago), no matter what the circumstances. He would not have understood my deliberate habit of telling the kids that I love them several times each day when they were younger, and of these days reminding them of that fact at the least embarrassing moments. He would want to know why I've put myself to such great inconvenience - and so many times - to help them. He would have been bewildered about me giving up a good job because the kids needed me around following the divorce, and he would wonder why I have always given out hugs at every opportunity. In short, I've tried to give my kids the things that I either missed or wanted for myself.
This fresh clarity is a shock, as is the jumble of truth which accompanies it. The polite and socially acceptable thing would be to say that none of this diminishes my feelings about my own dad. However...coupled with some other things of which I have learned since my father's death, I can't honestly say such a thing. In fact, I'm in a quandary of sorts - whether to react instinctively (which is usually the right way), or to carefully rationalize and organize my thoughts and feelings in order to protect the cozy feelings that I have about my dear old, departed dad.
And there it is: the big one. I have been protecting my thoughts and memories about my dad. If I pull away the heavy velvet curtains which I've draped about my childhood recollections, the truth is difficult to look upon. By the standards that I've set for myself as a father - and this is so tough to say (and hear myself say) for the first time - he just didn't do a great job. I know that I'm judging him after his death and I'm judging a man from another era, but those are both excuses for facing the truth. This feeling is new to me because I've protected myself against it for so long now, but in it's most raw form, it is one of profound loss. By accepting a difficult - even a hurtful - truth, I am letting go of an illusion which has sustained me for most of my adult life, and in particular since he died.
I was my parents' fifth and final child, with a five year space between me and my closest sibling. I don't know what that meant for them; I can only guess how they felt about having a fifth, unplanned (that much I do know for certain) child. What I do know is that my dad was - again, by the standards that I have set for myself as a parent and based entirely upon my personal experiences - emotionally distant and mostly silent around me. I do not have any memories of him telling me that he loved me, or of him hugging me. I can only judge his effectiveness as a father based upon how he behaved towards me. My role has been to behave in ways which achieve the opposite to my own experiences, and it's about time that I acknowledged this under the spotlight of truthful reflection.
In the past, I've said that I loved my dad, and that I aspired to be like him in many ways. Yes, I loved him, that's true. More and more, though, I'm starting to accept that the truth is that I wish he had been more like the father that I have been, and shall continue to be.
Another truth is: that hurts like hell.