What to say about fathers, I thought to myself, and prayed, which has not already been said? I have known a lot of fathers, some wonderful like my own, some pretty good, some indifferent, some harsh and abusive. So much judgement we bring to the idea of fathers, measuring them against one another and deciding on their merit or otherwise! We do the same to mothers of course, and we blame the failures of our lives (often with good cause, often without) on our parents, and seldom credit them with our successes.
But the truth is that there are as many different fathers as there are men. And that all men are father figures whether or not they have had their own children. Oh, we all have our ideas of what a father should be like, and our own regrets perhaps, about the fathering we did not receive, or we did not give. We think, maybe, that a father should be strong, a doler-out of discipline or a teller of epic tales of derring-do. Some kind of epitome of masculinity, depicting all the best qualities of whatever we’ve decided maleness ought to be.
In point of fact, there is only one perfect father, and the comparison with him is always going to be a rather unfair one, yet we do it instinctively, and perhaps that is why parenthood is one of the toughest and least respected roles in our society. It is also one of the most important to do well.
Pondering a little more, I think that acceptance of the idea that our dads did and are doing their best is the wisest course, putting our judgement to one side. Because whatever standards our dads did or don’t measure up to, the best thing that an earthly father can do is be present. To just be himself, offering of himself, loving us as himself. Just as the manliest thing a man can be is himself, whole and not held to anyone else’s idea of what he should constitute as a human being.
Is the worst thing a father can be, then, absent? Well outside of abuse, perhaps. But that depends what we mean. Sometimes the best dads are ones who don’t live with their children, but who still spend time with them, making sacrifices of hours, money and travel to do so. So it is maybe emotional absence that is the most harmful, and emotional presence the best thing a man can do for his kids.
That we or they know love, this is all that matters. It might only be half an hour being pushed on the swings in the park once a fortnight, or a phone call grabbed between shifts. As long as during that short time there is love, that’s being a great dad. So is giving up your job to look after the children, as both men and women do. Because sacrifice and time are key in any act of loving.
So this Father’s Day, I counsel that we give our dads some acceptance, that we cut them some slack. That we let them relax into being themselves with us. That we recognise that they do all deserve that “Best Dad in the World” card. Because there is no magic formula to family, and if we are showing up, we are doing it right.