My dad died when I was 9. For most of my life, I would have denied that his death had any real impact on my development.
After all, I was a fiercely self-sufficient young boy with a strong sense of awareness at a very young age. On the day my dad died, I mentally took on the role of “oldest male” in the house and never really saw his death as a negative. I suppose that’s strange, but I’ve always been the type who rises to meet adversity.
Of course, there was a touch of silliness to it. I didn’t get a job as my grandfather did when his dad died. I didn’t take over the role of raising my brother. And in actuality, I didn’t know squat.
But, I did grow up a lot on the day my dad died from an embolism caused by a metal plate used to mend a broken leg. My sense of responsibility was immediate and immutable. In many ways, I acted as adult-like as my immature mind could muster.
It wasn’t until my kids were born that I started to realize something had been lost. Consider:
From the age of 9, I did not have a male role model in my life. Sure, both of my grandfathers were alive, but they never really took over the father role. One grandfather played catch but rarely talked about anything substantive and the other grandfather did nothing athletic but loved to argue politics. Yet neither became mentors or surrogate dads. My mom never married and never brought boyfriends home.
In some ways, I was a very self-confident boy. I did well in most sports I tried. I was fairly successful in school. On the other hand, my mom did not provide the male perspective to competition. I was told it was “okay” to lose rather than it was “okay” to win!
In academics, my mom was always supportive and generally accepted whatever I wanted to do. She encouraged me when I needed it. What was missing, perhaps, was the enabling that dads can provide. For example, Seth is fantastic in school, but easily falls into the “I-don’t-have-to-work-hard-because-it’s-too-easy” trap. I know from personal experience that such an attitude will cause problems down the road, so I compliment when Seth does good work, but remind my boy that there is room for improvement when he rushes through his math problems and makes sloppy mistakes.
Of course, I also missed out on a lot of rough-housing, spirited arguments, male bonding and the reassurance that dad would be there if I fell. I believe that I’m much less risk averse as a person because I never had that backstop.
Perhaps the biggest missing piece from my life involved dating. You see, I was completely clueless in high school and clearly well behind my peers in social matters. I was fearful when a girl would develop a crush on me, because I didn’t have a dad telling me this was a good thing!
My wife doesn’t mind. Had I been given the male perspective when I was younger, I might have married before I met her. On the other hand, I would rather my children enter their dating years with some male perspective.
I am writing these words, of course, because today is Father’s Day and I think the message that dad’s are essential to bringing up children is often forgotten. While plenty of children without fathers have grown into highly successful adults, studies consistently reveal that having a dad provides a huge advantage.
“I say this as someone who grew up without a father in my life,” President Obama recently said according to The New York Times. “That’s something that leaves a hole in a child’s heart that governments can’t fill.” And it’s that hole that I’ve only recently discovered as a man in his 40s.
The good news is that I embrace my role as a dad. I try to bring confidence, stability, education and balance to my children. Oftentimes, I feel like I’m failing at my mission, but my wife assures me I’m doing okay.
Recently, I’ve reached for past experiences to solve various parenting problems I encounter and come up blank. The information I need simply is not there. I suspect this will become more problematic as my kids reach the age I lost my father.
Of course with parenting, it’s hard to measure success when you’re peeling one kid off the other. But I keep trying. And perhaps that’s the one lesson all dads need to keep in mind: Don’t give up.