Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Fatherless Man's Reflection on Manhood and Not Being a Father on Father's Day


Many women who are not moms (whether they wanted to be moms or not) have written about how it feels to be a "Woman who is not a mom" on Mother's Day. I empathize with them, and want to share a bit about my own feelings of being a man who is not a father, on Father's Day.

Over many years and with help from others I have come to truly appreciate both the fact of my maleness and the fullness of nuanced femininity within me which makes my personal gender expression less stereotypically masculine than most of the men I see around me in the world. I've wrestled through my own feelings and come through on the other side (solely by the grace of God) as a secure and (mainly) well-adjusted man.

I used to have poor boundaries and live an overly-transparent life. These days I rarely wear my heart fully on my sleeve in startlingly-public venues such as blogging and social media. But sometimes it feels more than just OK to share these feelings with a wider audience, sometimes it feels important to do so. Maybe someone else needs to hear this. Maybe someone else is going through a similar experience and needs to know they are not alone. Heck, maybe I need to know I am not alone.

Part of being well-adjusted means telling the truth and sharing from my heart about stuff which is not all rosy and bubbly; acknowledging the pain that is still there so it can be dealt with. Sometimes that is shared only with people very close to me. Today it feels important, if a bit scary, to speak to this pain more publicly.

Brief disclaimer

After you read this, you may find yourself wanting to respond in some way, either in the comments on this blog or on Twitter and Facebook where this will end up being linked. You may perceive me to have some negative emotions (high marks for perceptivity) and therefore find yourself wanting to encourage me in some way. I welcome that, with the following caveat: I'm not writing this looking for sympathy. Empathy, however, is most welcome if you feel so moved. For a very brief, yet brilliant primer on the difference, and why empathy is so important I strongly encourage you to watch this 3 minute video before reading further.

And now, on to the post itself.

Father's Day Blues

Like many men in my generation, I had a father who was wasn't there for me and when he was he didn't know what to do with me. My dad was away a lot in the military until I was 4. After that he was away a lot at work. When he started his own business as a Court Reporter this just got worse. Even when he was physically present at home he was working so much he might as well have not been there. "Don't bug dad, he's working." From the time I was about 8 until I was a teenager, my bedroom was his office and I fell asleep to the sound of his typewriter or his voice doing dictation. It was confusing and maddening:  he was just a few feet away, yet so damn inaccessible. (Got a Harry Chapin song going through your head now? Yeah, me too).

And when he was physically present, dad was mainly emotionally absent much of them time, at least to me. My sisters can tell their own story but it seemed to me he was available more to them than he was to me. My sense was that he knew how to be with them, but not with me. I was somehow different and I picked up on that at an early age. I can remember some good times, sure -- who can't? But the overarching and lasting memory I have is that what emotions I did sense from him were disappointment and anger.

He came to every baseball game I lost (there were precious few wins) and watched from the sidelines at all the football games I spent on the bench (precious little time on the field). But I can't recall a single time he came to any choir concert or play I was in. Not one single time. The overall sense I had was that he felt frustrated because I was not the son he wanted me to be. And, since he was the adult, like so many kids my internal response at a deep level was to believe it must be a problem on my end. Something must be wrong with me.

I am the youngest of 5 kids and the only boy. So, with a mainly-absent dad, between my sisters and my mom I was influenced mainly by females in my early formative years. But I sensed from my sisters they did not know what to do with me either. I'm sure that, in part, this was just being the youngest. I was the new kid who made an already crowded social milieu that much more complex.

In addition, though, I sensed my stark difference from them all the more as I grew up. They all got certain kinds of clothes. Mine were different. They all were allowed to choose from a certain list of activities in and out of school. My choices were not the same. They all got certain emotional responses from mom and dad for certain behaviors. Mine were different. It's like they had a list of rules to live by that they knew but it was a girls-only secret. I could intuit and perceive some of them and even try to follow them...but it just didn't work. I was different and I did not know what to do with that any more than my father or my sisters did.

My mom tried to intervene where she could. She was the one person who at least seemed to somewhat understand me. When I did things they saw as peculiar, she'd tell them "He's just being a boy" (which served to reinforce and even normalize that "being a boy" means your family doesn't like you or know what to do with you when you behave "that way"). And mom would encourage my sisters to play with me, but they wouldn't always include me. When I was lonely and expressed that to her, my mom's stock response was "Well, I guess you'll just have to learn to play by yourself" (meta-message: "being a boy" means being lonely a lot of the time and just having to deal with that). Maybe she was at the end of her rope and didn't know what to do with me either. Maybe she was just trying to toughen me up and teach me to move past challenges. Whatever the motivation behind her comments, the main result was to reinforce the fact that I was different and no one knew what to do with me.

I did what I could to fit in. One year for Hallowe'en my costume was Pippy Longstocking (the female protagonist of some great children's adventure stories). I think a part of me figured if I could perhaps at least be a "tomboy" -- some sort of middle-ground between boy and girl -- then I could fit in.

Between the sense I got from my dad that I was not what he wanted, and the sense of being so different from my sisters and mom, I wrestled a lot with gender roles. I saw movies like "Freaky Friday" where people wake up in a different body, and I lay awake some nights as a kid and wished/prayed I could wake up in the morning and just magically be a girl. Then I'd fit in. Then dad would like me. Then I would have power. Then the world would be an OK place. Then I would be OK.

But that never happened. And I grew up as a man still feeling not quite right somehow. It has taken my whole life thus far, in fact, to continue working through these feelings and internal senses of not fitting in.

As I mentioned in the preface, I appreciate both the fact of my maleness and the nuanced femininity within me. And I am fully secure in who I am. This security, however, does not mean it is not challenging still, at times, to be who I am. Feeling different still comes up. Here are a couple recent examples:

  • In an unrelated conversation, I mentioned to a coworker that I was the youngest of 5 kids and the only boy (in a home with an emotionally absent dad). She commented "Oh, wow, that makes total sense!" and when I asked her what she meant she said she now understands how I became a nurse and work so well in a mainly female environment. My heart was encouraged by this affirmation and at the same time part of what my heart heard was "Oh, that makes sense now. You're not a regular man, so of course you fit in better than you would if you were not so different"
  • I've posted a few things re: #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen and a number of women have thanked me for restoring in them a level of trust and hope that some men do "get it". Hurray -- I felt connected and understood and accepted. Oh wait, except all that connection was with women. Not a single man has responded to those posts in a like-minded way or in person to even discuss it. I'm glad to not be "the scary snatcher-dude I have to be afraid of" to the women around me, but it is painfully obvious how different that makes me from most men. 

But I digress. At this point either you get it or you don't and me continuing to ramble on about it is not going to enhance the former nor change the latter.

Back to the conclusion of Father's Day Blues

Along the way I got married and for the past 25+ years Cathy and I have developed a wonderful life together. Early on in our marriage we discussed children -- even had a couple tentative names picked out. For a variety of reasons (which I won't go into here) we decided neither to have children, nor to adopt. For the sake of brevity suffice to say over the years we have experienced a number of people who don't know what to do with this. Or worse, they think there is something to do about this so they try to "fix" us, because we're, what's the word? Oh yeah: Different.

Over the years I have waxed and waned in my satisfaction with not being a dad. It is what it is, and we have no desire to adopt at this point. But still, I like to think I would have made a good dad. I see Father's Day commercials and sometimes I get misty-eyed wishing I'd had kids so that I could have at least taken the chance to try and be a different dad to my kids than my dad was to me. But that did not happen.

So here we are at Father's Day again. Heart-string-twanging commercials on TV, and Facebook posts about gifts of power tools and flannel shirts, goofy cards and meat-filled breakfasts made by little hands.

And I know some GREAT dads and have some pretty darn good memories of my own dad. So I celebrate with everyone who celebrates dads today. I even put cool pictures of my dad as my profile picture and cover photo on facebook -- not insincerely.

But I'm not a dad. And in general I did not have "a great dad".

And today when it seems like every other man out there is being celebrated for being a dad, or people are writing awesome stuff about how amazing their own dad is/was -- I am left out. Again.


And yes, I know all the things about being "a father figure" and all that. Yes, it is true and yet it is not the same. And we all know it is not the same.

So here I am, who I am -- a fatherless man who is not a father, on Father's Day -- feeling once again not-a-part-of-things.


~ Keith

PS / Epilogue: because "being secure" is not always 100%, and some of you will so badly want to silver-lining me, I will go ahead and mention here that in case you were wondering yes I have posted before on how awesome my dad and mom and sisters are. You can search my archives to read those posts which were honest and true. Before my dad died he and I talked about all of this some, and that was healing and good...and didn't change what was. And now that he is gone, I am again/still fatherless.

And I chose not to add anything about that up there in the body of this message because sometimes it is OK to just feel bad and to be sad and to not have to "find a balance" and "be fair" because those don't help in moments like these -- they just serve to invalidate the negative emotions and that is not productive or helpful. Don't believe me? Take 3 minutes and go watch this video.


Linda said...

We all have something that makes us different. You and I had opposite family make up. I had 4 brothers and I was the youngest and only girl. My parents did not share their feelings, their emotions or hopes with me, so I struggle to this day to do the same with my family and friends. I don't blame them, it was how they were raised as well. So I don't relate well with other women and how they socialize and communicate. It makes me different as well. But God chose this family for me and I will continue to pray, learn and grow. By the grace of God.

Can Opener Boy said...

Thanks for sharing that Linda. I knew the youngest and only girl part, but not the rest. I appreciate your empathy very much.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this, friend- from the heart. I am hopeful that you already know this next part I'm about to write. I have NO DOUBT that you have positively impacted many people's lives in a "fatherly"/mentor way...probably more so that their own fathers have. You have huge gifts to share and I am so glad that you do.

Can Opener Boy said...

Thanks very much Kristen. I receive that. =)