‘You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.’
“On Children”, ‘The Prophet’ (1923); Kahlil Gilbran
So if every real-life example you’ve been given of what it means to be a father, of what it takes to be a father, is corrupt, broken and mostly useless, how likely is it you’ll be a good father?
I never knew the father’s of the kids I knew while growing up. My first male school-teacher was in grade five. I only started playing organized sports in high school. Until I was in my mid-teens the major male influences in my life were my grandfather and my mother’s brother.
From the age of eight until my early teens I visited with my grandfather five or six weekends a year, including one or two weeks in the summer on his hobby farm, and a long weekend at Christmas.
My uncle, who has his own ‘issues’ with his mother and father, would occasionally show up at my grandfather’s farm for a weekend while my brother and I were there.
The only other ‘real-world’ examples in my life of fathers, or father-figures, would have been the few boyfriends my mother brought home.
There weren’t many, but there were three major ones… the lawyer, the artist and the mathematician.
Sometime between 1982 and 1983, when I was twelve or thirteen, my mother became involved with a local lawyer. He really wasn’t much of a factor in my life, except that he was around. I don’t remember him disciplining me, or even being around at dinner. I definitely do not have any lasting mementos from our time together.
I do remember, however, my mother cared very much for him. There was one night when they were arguing, I could hear them from my bedroom, and I heard my mother telling him to “point that somewhere else”. Then I heard her scream out, and him saying something like “it’ll be okay.”
I hurried downstairs, and tentatively walked into the storage shed off the kitchen. I found her bleeding from beside her eye, and him still holding the ski-pole. My mother quickly assured me everything was fine, and that I should go back to bed. We’ve never discussed the incident.
The guy had been waving the ski pole at her, until it finally cut her open.
Not too long afterwards I found out — by eavesdropping on a conversation — he had been promising my mother that he had left his wife to have a relationship with my mother, but after a few months went back to his wife while continuing his relationship with my mother.
A few years later, around 1985, we moved in with her boyfriend, a locally-based but nationally known artist, in his extremely rural farm house. I remember she was very excited about the move.
He was older than my mother, maybe by fifteen years or more. He had a black belt in judo, he made an excellent living on his art (ceramics), he had no children, and was really uncomfortable around me. He tried though… I suppose. I never liked him. There were three incidents that defined our relationship.
We had a mini-argument where I, being 15-years old-ish, made a smartass remark, and he leapt from the couch to the doorway where I stood, to within inches of my face, in the blink of an eye. I can’t remember what he said, but I was sure he was going to hit me.
The next was me stealing money from him. I went though his filing cabinet, where he kept his orders, and found a bunch of $20 bills stapled to invoices. I might have gotten to $200 before I stopped.
The third was him insisting I cut several (20-ish) cords of wood for him, because he thought I was lazy (even though I spent my summers working on local farms as a minimum wage farmhand). In return he would pay me $200 dollars (unrelated to the money I stole). I worked on it for a few hours a week, after school, using a sledgehammer and wedge. In return I received several lectures from him about how a man could do the job in a few days.
I finally took two days, twelve hours each, and finished the job. I would cut enough to fill his pickup, then drive it to the shed where I’d stack the wood. The final day was dark, and very damp, and when I tossed the final piece on the pile on his truck it slid all the way to the back window, in slow motion, and shattered it.
I walked into his workshop and told him what happened. The only reason he didn’t beat on me was my mother was standing in the room with us. As it was he got very angry, and took a few steps towards me before leaving for a few hours. He used my paycheque to fix the window.
…he also ran over my cat. So that could be the fourth, I guess.
After my mother broke up with him he sent her a letter, part of which I read while she was in the store. He was begging my mother to come back, and thought things could work the second time because he’d pay to send my brother and I to a boarding school.
The third boyfriend was an honest to God ‘mountain man’. He had a large property way, way back in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, and would take walks that could last for days. He was constantly showing up unexpectedly to help his neighbours fix their roof, or build a barn or whatever.
He was also, from what I remember, a math prodigy who graduated from McGill University before he was twenty.
He didn’t spend a lot of time with my brother and I at first, but I do know he and my mother became very close. After less than a year he proposed, and she accepted. That was when we started spending more time at his mountain home.
Which was as boring as dirt, but he was a good man. I have a master mechanic for an uncle, and an engineer for a grandfather, but this was the first man to teach me about engines.
After the proposal he did a lot to make me feel comfortable, and I did start to believe he could be a father to me.
Which is when he died. Seriously, roughly two or three weeks after I felt like I had stepped over a line, and accepted the idea of him as a father, he died from a pulmonary embolism.
I didn’t love him, but I did respect him and was ready for him to be my father.
I was one of his pallbearers.
I’ve always considered his death to be one of the primary… releases of my depression. Everything I had been ignoring started to unravel after he died.
I quit school a few months later, and moved 3,000km from home for eight months. When I came back home I had been drunk for six months. I tried high school again, but it wasn’t working. My mother and brother had moved in with her new boyfriend — they eventually married, and he’s a great guy.
So I became suicidal, quit high school and spent a month in the Ottawa General Hospital psychiatric ward.
I don’t know what it means to be a father. I get the dictionary definition, I get the Cosby Show cultural references, I even understand that all I really have to do, the bare minimum, is to provide an example by not hurting him, by not hurting myself, and teaching him to not hurt the people around him.
But all of the examples in my life, all of the lessons I’ve been taught, tell me to leave. To not be involved in my son’s life, or to be minimally involved. My father abandoned me when I was three, the next person I accepted as a father died when I was seventeen.
In between was just stupidity.
I spend two or three full days with my son, and I also see him for short periods during a few evenings. In between I feel guilty… partially for not seeing him, but mostly because it’s more comfortable being on my own.
My girlfriend has an older son, he’s five. His father is a fucking joke. He pays no child support, activity-time is daddy plays online poker for four hours while his son sits in a dark room playing video games or watching movies. Visitation is Tuesdays and Thursdays for three hours each, and every second weekend. It’s 50-50 that he shows up.
…my girlfriend’s ex-husband’s father was an alcoholic, and an idiot, and abandoned him for long periods of time.
I look at my son’s older brother, and I think… fuck, you’ve been abandoned by your father, and your grandfather, and you don’t even know it. And in ten years you’ll be as fucked up as the rest of us who grew up without a father, and you’ll be helping to teach my son how to be a human being.
It just keeps rolling along.
But the thing is, I know I can be a father to both my son and to his older brother. At least I want to, occasionally. All I have to do is lean in, commit to the job, put together lists of activities and actually follow through with them. Engage them.
But, the thing is, it just feels like something is missing. And maybe it starts from having no father figure, but also comes from the fourteen-years of the manic depression being untreated, and having a mother who was mostly absent from my childhood, and being so isolated and unable to maintain long term relationships.
All of it, however, is tied up into the giant package of my not understanding what it takes to be a father.