This year marks 15 years since my Dad passed away. The old gent would probably be tickled to learn that I’ve married someone superb, and have a splendid, imaginative and chatty daughter, although him being him, he’d probably tell her to stop prattling so much. God knows, I’ve been tempted to.
The reason I don’t tell her to shut up is because, well, I’m not my Dad. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a great Dad – he was – it’s just that I don’t go for his style of parenting. I try not to be impatient, or angry all the time, or a strict table-manners kind of guy, and I don’t want to hit my kid to punish her. OK, so I’ve sometimes failed at numbers 1 to 3, or at least made a confused and inconsistent bash at them, but #4 is still holding strong.
Before we go any further, I don’t want to give you the impression that my old man was an abusive monster. He wasn’t. He just had an explosive temper. Also, remember this was thirty years ago, and parenting styles have changed beyond recognition. The idea that kids were to be brought up with ‘positive reinforcement’ and talking through conflicts to resolve issues was embraced by some, but regarded with horror by most parents of the time. You punished the kid. You yelled at them. Some form of slapping or physical chastisement was used as a punitive correction. It was normal then.
Nowadays we make the kid think about the consequences of their actions, and give them time to calm down when there has been some sort of infraction. We get our kids to rationalise what they have done, and how they can ensure it doesn’t happen again. And we never shout.
(Yeah, yeah. To be honest, we don’t always do that, do we? We all have bad days. Yeah, I lose it occasionally and yell at my kid. So do you. Positive reinforcement doesn’t come naturally when you’re tired and pissed off, and it takes so much effort to sit down with the kid and rationalise their temper-tantrum bullshit. Yes, I’ve probably traumatised my child through shouting at her. She’ll get over it eventually, or have counseling like everyone else).
In a way, the contrast between my Dad and my style of parenting is characterised by fear. He had the capacity to scare me with his temper. And because of that experience, I also fear that what I do has an impact on my daughter, and can have a negative effect. I don’t think I’m alone in that – in fact, I’d go so far as to say there’s a general state of fear amongst other parents of my generation for the very same reason. I do sometimes wonder if my Dad considered that what he did to punish me would have a lifelong affect on me? I never asked him. He died long before I became a parent, and that’s the problem.
You see, I wish he was still around for many reasons. Sometimes I wish he could give me advice on being an adult, sometimes I wish I could ask him about his own childhood in the 1940s and 50s. Sometimes I wish I could go to him for job-related advice. Sometimes I wish I could talk to him more about jazz or engineering. And sometimes I wish I could confront him and finally demand to know why he thought that smacking his children that hard was a really good parenting tactic.
Above all, I wish he was around so that I could ask the one Dad I knew well when I was growing up exactly how to be a Dad.
Even after seven years of being a father, I still hit brick walls. I cannot comprehend certain things. I get stuck. And above all, I feel I’m doing this without anyone telling me how to do it. My operating manual on being a father was my Dad, and I now have to rely on the memory of his parenting, without asking him for his insight on how he did it. My mum is still around (and in pretty much better shape than the rest of the family), and she’s fantastic in all things… but she wasn’t a father. She was there, she witnessed me growing up, but she didn’t see things from the perspective of a father. Being a mother back then was more… well, it was more traditional I suppose. She stayed at home until I was about 8 years old.
My Dad, although reasonably liberal, was not a reconstructed man. He apparently refused to do nappies. He didn’t do evening meals (thank God. The only thing he could cook was a sort of minced-meat-and-rice thing, and he only made that for us after my parents’ separation, and he had moved into a flat, and had to cook for himself as a matter of survival). He wasn’t there for us when we came home from school. He didn’t really take us for days out by himself until my parents got divorced. That’s just how Dads were back then. Unthinkable now.
In all of those respects, I’m the opposite, and I think my daughter benefits from it in many ways. She and I have what I think is a pretty good relationship. She responds to my commands (usually after two or three repetitions), and when she’s in a particularly reasonable mood, she can articulate herself in debate. Sometimes she challenges my decisions, judgements, or punishments. Sometimes, when she can back up her protests with a reasoned argument, I’ll allow her legitimate complaint to overrule my decision. That never would have happened 30 years ago. You just didn’t challenge your parents. Either that, or my father’s ego would not have allowed the challenge to his authority.
I’m pretty sure my father suffered from a form of clinical depression. And I wish he could have come to terms with it, and talked about it with me. I wish he and I could have sat down and had an honest discussion about his mental state, but I don’t think the conventions of his own upbringing, and the perceived society reaction to a man with depression back then would have allowed it (it’s difficult enough as it is in these enlightened times). He couldn’t allow himself to be vulnerable, and so he disguised it with frustration and anger. Ironically of course, that just exposed himself to more vulnerabilities.
I mean, it didn’t help that he was permanently ill. What with type-1 diabetes from the age of 12, and subsequently cancer, a heart bypass operation, circulation troubles, and his limbs slowly numbing, it can’t have been easy. If I had that sort of long-term, incurable illness-thing that you know will lead to a truncated life and serious associated health problems, with additional life-threatening illnesses on the side, I’d be fucked off too.
I must stress again, he wasn’t a monstrous, abusive, violent bastard. He was an impatient man, and it would boil over, sometimes without any justification. He was also a clever man with a drive to succeed, and a good work ethic. He was fair. He taught me what was right, what was wrong, and about taking responsibility. He taught me about society’s corruption, and what is morally correct. He was all about justice and reason. He was all about history, and engineering, and creativity, and fun. So what if he pontificated sometimes? I still do it – fuck it, this whole blog is one big pompous rant in weekly instalments.
He was rarely drunk, but liked going out and having fun. He wasn’t a fan of big crowds, but loved people individually and saw his friends often. He cared about things. He loved. He was affectionate, and not afraid to show it. He loved model railways. He loved jazz. He was a good musician, and played the double bass with a number of reasonably well-known jazz performers. He loved comedy, and had a good sense of silly. There is a lot he gave me to aspire to.
Sarah never met him. We got together three months after he died. She’s never had a father-in-law, and I think, barring the occasional ideological shouting matches where he would’ve ended up with a grudging respect for her, they would have got on famously. She deserves to have a decent father-in-law, and she hasn’t got one.
He was 58 when he died. That’s nothing, far too young these days. He should be 73 and curmudgeonly. I’m only 40 now. If I was in his shoes, I’d have only 18 years of life left. That’s too short. He crammed in a lot in a relatively short space of time. I need to do more.
There is a gap in my sense of fatherhood, and that gap is my Lack of Dad. If that gap were filled, if he were still around, would I still be the same father? Would we live in this house? Would he be the loving and amiable grandfather I suspect he had the potential to be? Or would he have been just as prone to burst into a rage as always, only this time, he’d terrify my daughter. If he had, would I have stood up to him, calmed him down, or berated him for his lack of patience? I like to think I would have at the very least.
I wish I could ask him about stuff. Just call him up and have all the mysteries explained to me. In the fifteen years he’s been gone, I have imagined myself talking to him. I ask him questions that can never be answered:
How did you do fatherhood?
Who or what influenced you as a father?
Where did you get your parenting ideas from?
What were the expectations society forced upon you?
What guidance did you get?
What was the prevailing opinion on bringing up children?
What was I like as a child?
What did I do that frustrated you?
What did I do that amused you, or made you proud?
After you had lost your temper, did you feel as though you’d achieved the right response?
Or did you ever regret your impatience?
Did you really have to hit that hard? Did it ever really stop me from doing naughty things?
Were you depressed? Why couldn’t you talk to me about it?
Were you really angry all the time? Or did it just seem that way?
Do you think I’m now doing things wrong as a parent, or do you envy the things that I and other parents can do with our kids?
The thing is, his answers are always my own invention. What a rotten swizz.
I want to know the differences between growing up in the 1940s and 50s, starting a family and raising the family in the 70s and 80s, and what I’m doing now. There are people I could ask, sure, but they’re not my father. Only he and I know what it would be like to bridge that generational chasm, and it’s something I’m desperate to know, but can never really be satisfactorily addressed.
What he has provided me with is manifold and profound. In a way, his death made me the man I am now. His absence has meant that I have:
- Developed the ability to bring my kid up in my own way
- The space in which I can improvise parenthood skills
- Navigating fatherhood without his guidance has left me with self-reliance. However frustrating it has been for me, this is a good thing in the long term
- A sense of achievement. I’ve done this without any help or guidance from him. I’m a Dad, and have done this without a word of advice from him
- He was a good role-model as a father. I’ve just tried to copy the good things he did, and he’s given me just enough examples of crap parenting so that I know what to avoid
- Above all he was my father. He gave me a template to build on. In many ways, I’ve succeeded and surpassed him. In others, I need to do more. Curiously, the stuff I need to work at is more about having fun and being silly than discipline.
There is barely a mention of him on the internet. His footprint is in the memories people have of him. His ashes were scattered in a place where they could be carried away, and there is no gravestone or plaque anywhere. All he is now is some photographs, and – unusual, I know – an oil painting of him playing his double bass in concert. The template he provided moulded me into shape, but he left me no operating instructions, other than all the joy and pain he showed me.
And like all sons of their fathers, I intend to expand where possible, trim where necessary, and reshape that mould until it shapes my own daughter. I hope she can be able to ask both myself and Sarah how to adult when she’s older. And I hope she learn from me how to parent in years to come.
And I want to be there with her.