While visiting my daughter Layla in Cape Town South Africa on Father’s Day 2017, my wife and I attended Mass near the hotel we were staying at. At the end of the Mass, the priest invited all present to give their father the gift of a grateful heart. To make such an invitation would be ludicrous on Mother’s Day, for who doesn’t love their own mom? In fact, if you find a person who bad mouths their own mom – calling out her sins on any day of the year (even with good reason) – then you’ve also probably found one of the loneliest persons in the world who has very few, in any, friends!!! If we are called to gloss over and ignore anyone’s sins, then the first person on that list most certainly should be our own mom!!! (Ok, a bad Catholic joke: Reference the Immaculate Conception! (lol)). All mothers are to be proclaimed as royalty on Mother’s Day, but this is not so, for Father’s Day. As we began walking back to the hotel, the priest’s invitation stirred a variety of insights and feelings within.
My initial thoughts recalled the many general conversations I have had with other fathers about how we, as a group, have been generally ridiculed, scapegoated, and portrayed as immature fools by the culture and media – and also about the myriad of caustic effects this reality has had on our relationships and family lives!!! When discussing the powerful ability of culture to inform and guide the perspectives of the masses, it is easy to acknowledge this, as a fact, especially when talking about foreign countries with different religions and cultures. Coming closer to home, it is also easy to acknowledge, as fact, this reality about ‘other’ Americans – especially when they are of a different socioeconomic class and/or region.
However, when the cultural argument is applied to a topic that touches our own heart and soul – when the shoe fits on our own stinky foot – it is all to easy to discount and discredit this reality as a fact. All of a sudden, we find ourselves babbling about our own freedom and ability to break with and to not be formed by the very same culture that we regularly acknowledge to blind and cripple others! As our culture continues its focus on highlighting and educating us to the contributions of women in our society and challenging the historical ills of patriarchy, it is a shame to see that so many good men in general and specifically the vocation of fatherhood itself has somehow been slammed and denigrated in the process.
After pausing my inward reflection and briefly sharing with my wife, she agreed that it is hard for many to link the two words, gratitude and fatherhood – given the absence of fathers from the lives of so many. This comment led me to reflect on my own life, where my own father was present for the first seven or eight years, and then disappeared until I was almost grown. Even with my dad present those early years, my experiences of him as a father was unduly colored until I became a parent. By what? …Yes, his actual absence, the cultural narrative surrounding fathers in general and finally the malicious, one sided narratives that my mother shared about why he was gone. To make long story short (as she would always say), he was simply crazy and she had to save us from his madness. She never shared and we never knew what the specifics about his “craziness and his madness” was really about. My mother was a strong minded and forthright woman with nine living brothers, so verbal and physical abuse definitely was not the issue…
It was not until much later, when I was married 7+ years and talking with my mother about leaving my marriage because of contrasting parenting styles and monetary standards, that she actually confessed the truth and shared openly about her part in the divorce. I sat in stunned silence as she took almost full ownership for it and even stated that, in retrospect, yes it was in lots of ways a big mistake. I had never questioned my mother, at least regarding this issue… …but, then who can question the queen in their life, unless he is the King? The late sixties and seventies of my childhood were times of great cultural change and as divorce became acceptable, it offered many professional women with income opportunities to break free of their marriages, whether for good or for bad… As she simply stated that night, how many divorces have you ever heard about, that was caused by the woman? Men have written their stories in books called history, whereas the stories of women – herstory – is often passed down orally in the lives of the children. After sharing her story, she paused quietly to let it sink in.
Then she hit me with that Mamma Queen back hand slap question that I was completely unprepared for: what do you really want, especially since you are claiming to be a Christian man of faith? To be right or to be married? She stated how the latter would require continual compromise, sacrifice and love, even if it was not received in kind. These are real faith aspects – ones that she simply chose to no longer give in her marriage, whereas the former only required her opinion, money and the support of her ‘crew.’ Reviewing the life I experienced without my dad’s presence, I knew the answer to that question and recommitted that night to ‘faithfully loving’ for the long haul. I simply would not permit my daughters to suffer the harsh realities that often accompany an absent dad – like having my kids call someone else, dad. Somehow, mamma had done it again: she slapped some sense into my hard head and changed my mind, helping me to see the light – that being right was being married…
After arriving back at the hotel in CapeTown and beginning to write this reflection, my daughter highlighted the point that an absence of the father in the family, for whatever the reason, will almost always lead to a resentment towards him in the lives of the children. Her comment resonated with me on many levels. I thought about those families and marraiges that are punctuated by absence: those married to career military men, world traveling executives or workaholic fathers… I suspect that over time, despite bringing home very much bacon, these fathers also come home to very real resentment – from both the wife and kids. Layla’s comment reminded me that absence in family life does not always make the heart grow fonder, for either the children or spouses, but often simply makes it grow cold and indifferent… Unfortunately and on some level, being absent in some measure (for good reasons) has always been a part of the historical reality of being a father: he must leave and go to fight that war, work that job, hunt and gather, etc. The real absence, sacrifice and costs associated with being a true father, are rarely appreciated and are truly often misunderstood by most, until they become fathers or loves a good one.
In a short hand written letter given to me by my daughter that Sunday, Layla thanked me for “my commitment to unconditional love that has made me an amazing parent.” She went on to say, that she was “grateful for my presence, patience and support every day.” Her letter and love, as does all that has transpired since that night twenty years ago when my mama backhanded me with that question, has confirmed both how truly ignorant I really was about the reality of real fathering and also how God’s grace and Spirit has stepped in to lead and guide me to the truth. By God’s grace, I was able to not only accept the contextual limitations of the relationship that had formed between my dad and myself by his death, but to also move forward not hating but praying for his soul – as I do for my mom. By staying married and allowing myself to be “beat down” by parenting (that’s both and understatement and another essay), I have grown to identify, know and appreciate “the dad side of me” that my father passed on – both genetically and through our limited relationship. There is still more work to be done in this areas for me, but the hard work that began the journey to having a grateful heart for my father, was started years ago.
My prayer this father’s day is that this tough work, of listening to and really understanding the often hidden truth about his story and his account of absence, can continue in earnest for those families struggling with the absence of fathers. My prayer is that we begin to acknowledge the complex relational, cultural and historical factors that have shaped and that continue to shape our sometimes warped and very incomplete perspectives of real fatherhood. My prayer is that some – just a bit, of the thick coated love slathered on our mothers – may be increasingly spread to our fathers as we prayerfully open our minds and hearts to the rarely understood and complex reality that is fatherhood. My prayer for our world, is that one day – soon – it will be just as ludricrous for a priest to stand up on Father’s Day as it is now on Mother’s Day, to ask that we give the gift of a grateful heart to our fathers.
Happy Father’s Day!