I am now in my thirty-fifth year of being a father. And I had a father of my own for sixty years. So, if nothing else qualifies me to talk on the subject of father-son relationships, I suppose the sum of those ninety-five years can’t be completely discounted.
Literature is replete with the complexities of relationships that can exist between fathers and their sons. It’s easy to see why the topic provides such fertile ground for literary exploration. Because of the unique aspects of the biological and familial relationship, any man can see himself, or at least a variant of himself, in a son. And if you’re lucky enough to have two, as I do, who are different in their career pursuits, personalities, and interests, you get two views of the person you might have been if you had only had a father like you. And from the son’s perspective, every father must, at some point, represent a challenge of a life to emulate, or avoid, or maybe a little of both, as the case might be.
In my youth, I was fascinated by my father, to the point of revering him. It helped that he saved my life twice, but he was also a man who was seemingly respected and loved by so many of the adults I knew and saw relating to him. I never doubted his love for me, even if I had far fewer of the direct interactions with him that many of my friends had with their fathers.
As a medical doctor (the old fashioned kind who made house calls), my dad had precious little time to engage heavily in the raising of my brother and me. Thus, he never taught me much about how to play sports, even though he was a superb athlete in his youth (lettering in gymnastics, football, tennis, boxing, and swimming in high school). And he never spent much time helping me in my schoolwork or teaching me how to study, even though he was a top student himself, winning awards in math and science in high school, graduating with honors from Stanford, and then doing the same at the University of Chicago for his medical degree.
And he never spent a lot of time talking to me about philosophy or religion or politics, even though he was a thoughtful man with a strong sense of morality and spirituality. I cherished those times when I could probe his mind on things that I thought much about, but those times were few and far between.
But he was a great man, a good man, a much loved man, and for much of my youth, I longed to grow up to be just like him (to the point that I pushed myself, against his advice, to undertake a grueling pre-med curriculum in college for which I was ill-suited, both by interest and aptitude). I was well into my twenties before I realized that I was not my father, could never be my father, and needed to be a person I could be comfortable being.
And I was probably a good ten or twenty years older than that when I finally began to see my father more realistically, with the kind of foibles and failings that all of us have, with the idiosyncrasies and compulsions that are common to our species, and with the limitations and inhibitions that restrict the ability to fully self-actualize that all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, deal with as we struggle with the vagaries of life.
When my first son was born, I gave my father’s name to him as his middle name, and when my second son was born I gave my middle name to him as his middle name. In doing so, I was thinking, somehow, that I was providing a connection between the two of them to the father and grandfather they were to have. Curiously, neither of my sons now uses those middle names, which is more ironic to me than regretful. They have found their own way, chosen their own paths, just as I ultimately did.
But as their father, I tried to be all the things my father had not been for me. And so, I engaged fully with them in their little league activities, tried to help them with homework and study skills, and spoke to them often and regularly about philosophical musings and political issues. As the years passed, I grew to see more of myself in my younger son, even as I bonded more easily with my older son. Now, as the young adults that they are, they are not shy about pointing out the ways in which I fell short of what I could have been, both as a parent and as a person. It’s another irony, I suppose. Where I kept my discoveries of my father’s shortcomings to myself (for the most part), my sons are very comfortable expressing their discoveries of mine to me.
As I look back, I know there are things I could have done better as a father. I could have praised less and encouraged more in some instances, been less critical and more supportive in others. I could have been more involved at certain points in their development and less intrusive at others. I could have been less judgmental at times, and more circumspect at others.
In the end, to be a father to a son requires a set of skills that I’m not sure can be fully identified. At least I haven’t yet identified them. But it isn’t a science, and the books that do exist don’t provide a perfected blueprint.
In truth, it’s a struggle, even with the best of intentions and with the deepest sense of love that can only exist in a parent for a child. The rewards can be limited to memories—of a winning hit in a little league game, or of a sense of pride at a valedictory speech, or of a family trip to a national park.
And, of course, there is the man the child becomes, which can, hopefully, be the greatest reward of all.