Bringing Up Father

How My Children Taught Me the Secret of Fatherhood

Stick figure family | Photo by Zdenek Sasek

This article first appeared in the May/June 1988 issue.

Mother taught me that fathering was the most noble of man’s callings. Her own father—a judge, senator, poet, and editor—had died when she was two, but she brightened my childhood with her glorious fantasies about what he would have done had he lived and how wonderful her life would have been as a result. In Mother’s fantasy, happiness was a father who would just hang out with you and talk with you about the nature of the world and the meaning of life. I fell in love with this heroic myth of father as the man who knew all the secrets of life and sat around telling them to you.

Even though I knew I wanted to be a father when I grew up, I didn’t know exactly what skills were required. I needed a model of a father, a real live one would could talk to me about what the profession was really like, and how it might differ from my mother’s fantasies. That should not have been too difficult a job. My mother had thoughtfully provided me with a fine father, and it would seem natural for me to have talked to him. But that wasn’t the way it worked out—for me, for my friends, or for just about any other man growing up in my generation.
We of the ’40s and ’50s grew up with fathers who were off at war or at work, and who weren’t part of the family even when they were at home. We were essentially fatherless. When we had children, we became fatherless fathers. We either had no concept of what fathers were for, or some glorified fantasy of the paternal ideal. Lost and confused, we waited for somebody to tell us what we were supposed to do. Some of us assumed that our wives knew what fathers were about, forgetting that our wives hadn’t had fathers either.
Fatherless men may go through life in a childlike position. Having been raised by women, they assume that women are supposed to take care of men and children. But they may not know what men are supposed to do in return after they get the women to take care of them. Some of these fatherless men have never known a grown man well enough to know how to act when they themselves become grown men. Men who have been raised without fathers can’t help but be amateur parents, and may even be amateur human beings.
Fatherless men are at risk in many ways. Such men may fear the power of mothers to such a degree that they shrink in terror when the wives become mothers. These fathers may withdraw from the family, and actually cut out on a wife and child, or, in milder cases, they may hang around at the periphery of the family and join sides with the child against the power of the mother.
Men who lost their fathers to work may think of men as economic units only. They may become workaholics themselves, and if they don’t achieve financial success, they may feel their failure is total, and may desert the family, having little feeling for the other functions they could be performing. Others may be eager to be parents, bur confuse fathering with other “masculine” activities. They may set themselves up as supervisors, or go into full scale competition with their wives to win the family parenting championship.

Life without Father

I spent most of my childhood trying to get a grown man to talk to me about what life was like for a guy when he grew up. I remember Dad when I was little, and he was as glorious as my mother’s fantasies of her father; but then he went off to the war. We learned how to get along without him. Mother, my younger sister Joanna, and I moved back to Griffin, Georgia, where my parents had grown up. Almost everybody in town were kinfolks of one degree or another. Gran and Pops ran the funeral home in the grand antebellum mansion. When we moved in with them they gave me the big bedroom just above the casket room. Dad’s parents lived just across the street. I liked staying with Gran and Pops, and felt secure listening to Pops puttering around in the embalming room while Gran played Bach on the organ.
I missed my Daddy. He had left me in the care of the father he adored and he trusted Pops would be a perfectly acceptable substitute father. But Pops didn’t really like talking with live people. He was hot-tempered and impatient, and he thought I asked too many questions. Nevertheless, he tried to stand in loco paternis. He would take me hunting with him, and we’d sit around a fire all night listening to the dogs bark. I’d have to be very quiet, so he could tell which dog was barking and whether it had treed a raccoon or a possum. It seemed that Pops’ favorite activity was sitting in the dark listening to dogs bark.
When Dad came back after the war, I was 11, and we didn’t know one another. He had no idea that I needed anything from him. We moved away from my grandparents to a small town in Alabama. I as accustomed to being extravagantly adored by my mother and my grandmothers, but Dad was more realistic. I was ready to learn about reality. I tried to get him to talk to me about it. He only wanted to talk about the war: it was the time of his life. But I was disappointed to learn that, after everything the rest of us went through so he could go off to war, he never even got shot at. I felt cheated.
I knew my father was a good man, certainly the finest man in Prattville, maybe the finest in all of Alabama. And I could see that compared to my friends’ fathers, he was a god. Sonny’s father was an alcoholic who had disappeared long ago. All traces and pictures of him had been removed. Each time we’d see a drunk passed out on the sidewalk, we’d wonder if he was Sonny’s father. Buddy’s dad was a manic-depressive who had been married 11 times. He used to drop by from time to time to try to kill his children (they escaped.) Bubba’s dad was the rich one. He was a retired professional wrestler who now ran gambling and prostitution rings through his taxicab business. He wasn’t at home much, and he never came to school functions, but he gave Bubba amazing presents on all special occasions.
Dad worked hard and was respected. He was strong and reliable, and I felt secure with him. But I had the fantasy of an ideal father who would tell me the secrets a father knows, so I could become an ideal father when my time came. I could never talk to Dad. He had gotten used to noise, working at the cotton mills, and he didn’t like silence. He could relax best if there were three radios going, all at the same time, with different ballgames on each of them, and my mother screaming over the top of the athletic ensemble trying as always to get his attention and ending up having another drink instead. My sister, Joanna, did better with him and always saw him quite differently than I did. Joanna just sat in his lap, and pretended to be interested in whatever he was interested in—usually just listening to ballgames. I’d show him the things I’d written, and he’d say I was too smart for him, and then he’d go back to his baseball games on the radio. I tried sports, and he just looked disgusted at my clumsiness. I thought he wanted me to be a great athlete like he was, and I wasn’t, so I concluded I was a disappointment to him. Dad didn’t say one way or the other.

The Uncles

Mother’s sister, Aunt Emily, was married to a surgeon, Uncle Harry, who was a great golfer, bridge player, and war hero. They didn’t have children, so they joined in parenting us. I knew Uncle Harry loved me—he delivered me, and circumcised me, and gave me a choo choo train when I was a baby, but he never talked to me. Aunt Emily said he was most comfortable with people who were under anesthesia. Uncle Harry didn’t say.
Sometimes Mother’s drinking would get out of hand and things would get rather wild at home. Joanna and I would be sent off to stay with Dad’s sister, Aunt Josie and Uncle Mac, who already had six kids and a house full of animals, and wouldn’t notice two extras. I always loved that. Uncle Mac was a great storyteller, but as a dentist, he wasn’t used to having people talk back to him. Nevertheless, Uncle Mac’s monologues were a lot more interesting than Dad’s baseball games. The eight children would sit around and listen to Uncle Mac’s stories, even if we’d heard them many times. But it was crowded at Uncle Mac’s knee.
The best times for me were when I could get my teeth worked on. I could get up in the big dental chair, and Uncle Mac would put metal things in my mouth and just talk to me. In retrospect, I think it would have better if I could have talked back some of the time, and he might have listened. But since I’d never had a conversation with a man, I didn’t really know what I was missing.
As I got older, Mother’s drinking got more out of control. We never knew what to expect; it was a problem but not really a disaster. Although she was outrageous, and often frightening, she was damned good company, and I knew she loved me. She relished family stories, the tragedies and comedies of everyone we’d ever been kin to. I had fun with her, and felt the security of knowing she would tell me what was on her mind, and would listen to what was on mine. I wanted Dad to keep her sober and sane, meanwhile he expected me to handle that too. Neither of us could succeed, and we both felt pretty helpless, but he wouldn’t talk about it, and made it clear that he didn’t want me to talk about it either.

Leaving Home

When I was 16, I went off to college. At irregular intervals, I would get thick letters from Mother, vividly describing her life or her state of mind, or the happenings in the town. She might tell me stories about some ancestor that had just come to her mind. Or she might launch into an appraisal of my talents or my shortcomings, and which ancestor was the source of each of my qualities. Her letters, like her conversation, sparkled and delighted. Each was a masterpiece, and all were worth saving. My friends enjoyed reading them too. We even considered publishing them.
But the most amazing thing was that every single day for four years, I got a letter from my father. The letters were usually very short, and I didn’t keep them. They’d say: Dear Son, We’re fine. Love, Dad. Sometimes his letters would be newsy: Dear Son, Jack and Leonard brought us some birds they shot. We had them for dinner. We’re fine. Love, Dad. Once or twice, his letters would be philosophical: Dear Son, Lots of high school kids getting married. Must be an epidemic of morality. Too many preachers in town. We’re fine.Love, Dad. It was as if he were finally talking to me. I knew then that he loved me and I never again doubted it.
After mother died, he married her best friend of 50 years, who listened to him. He began to talk and was happy. When he was nearing his death, he finally wanted to talk with me about his life, though by then he barely had the breath to speak. What he said wasn’t important—the important thing was that he talked to me. I finally realized what an uncomplicated man he was, and that he really didn’t have any great secrets of life that he was holding back from me.
I saw that I had known everything there was to know about him all along. He’d been very close to his father, and had spent his childhood sitting in the dark with him, listening to dogs bark, and that was all he needed. He couldn’t understand why I made things so complicated, why I wanted to talk instead of sitting there with him listening to the baseball games. He just did his duty, and hoped for the best. He was glad to be alive, and when he was dying he couldn’t think of anything to regret. I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much we loved each other while there was still time.

A Fatherless Father

While my job in my family was to become my mother’s father, my job in real life was to become a father to my own children. Becoming a therapist was secondary—I had to do something to support myself, and above all to make my parents proud of me, so I went to medical school. I liked surgery, but my feet hurt if I operated for too long, and the conversations over operating tables were disjointed and dreary. I kept talking to my patients in my desperate effort to understand how the world worked. I began to think, maybe I should be a psychiatrist.
I married Betsy, whose father, grandfather, and uncle were psychiatrists. Her mother was a nurse turned social worker. Betsy was, and is, the sanest human being I’ve ever known. (Aunt Emily introduced us, and I am eternally grateful. That was the second nicest thing anybody ever did for me since Uncle Harry delivered me.) I didn’t finally decide to go ahead and be a psychiatrist until I knew we were pregnant. I had the naïve hope that being a shrink would turn me into a competent parent—I’ve always gotten therapy and parenting confused.
I started both careers on the same day, July 5, 1961. That morning I began my psychiatric residency, and that afternoon, Betsy gave birth to Tina, our first child. It was not only the happiest day of my life, but the most stabilizing. I was a father, ergo I now existed as part of the succession of the generations. I was now a link in the biological and historical chain of human history. I was now connected not just to the past but to the future of the human race. At the same time, I felt like a somewhat fatherless father, and that was an awkward position.

Learning Normal

Since July 5, 1961 my profession has been child raising. I’ve been practicing on our three children, plus seven nieces and nephews who volunteered to varying degrees to let us take a hand in their raising. And then, in my spare time, I’ve made my living by applying what I’ve learned from my family to other people’s families and other people’s children. In turn, I used my job as a family therapist to learn enough about the workings of the world to help my children grow up and make good connections with reality. Most of all, I’ve relied on my children to teach me about how one becomes a human being.
Our first child, Tina, was the most fascinating thing I had ever encountered. I had raised horses, cows, dogs, cats, chickens, fighting roosters, and rabbits and I’d taken apart clocks and golf balls, knitting machines and dead bodies, but I’d never come across anything so complex and mysterious as a live, baby human.
I never punished, or even criticized Tina. She says now that it scared her that I didn’t find more faults in her to correct. She remembers how frightening it was for her when I assured her she was practically perfect in every way, and could be declared a grown-up on the spot. (She thinks she was eight at the time.) Tina excelled without really competing with her academically incredible cousin Anne, or her athletic brother and cousins. In fact, she wasn’t like a child at all: she always concerned herself more with everyone else than with herself.
Frank IV, who arrived a year after his sister, did not seem practically perfect in every way. Tina was my standard of perfection, and he wasn’t just like Tina. He wasn’t like me either. I must have assumed that he would have my talents as automatically as he had my name. Instead, he seemed more like my father, a great athlete and an omnicompetent person, but not an intellectual. Frank could memorize anything, and make good grades when he had to, but he wasn’t a scholar, like his cousin Jimmy in the same class. I wanted him to be me, so I could go through childhood again and get it right this time. He wasn’t me, but he was everything I would have loved to have been. He had some innate ability to fix things and he always knew where everything in the house could be found. Girls were chasing him from the day he hit puberty; some mornings he would find strange women in his bed. Mostly, he was an athlete, even more than his grandfather or his cousin Pitt. He was all-everything in running sports. He organized a team that won the state championship. He went around founding and coaching running teams. His name and his picture were in the paper every week for years. He was a celebrity, and we both liked it—perhaps too much.
But I remember when he was in the eighth grade, and couldn’t seem to pass history. I drilled him in it for hours, just on the difference between Vasco de Gama and Cabeze de Vaca. My frustration mounted, and he still couldn’t make the distinction, or worry about it. Instead, he began to worry about my blood pressure and talked me into going running with him to loosen up before we started again. He had cleared a cross country track that ran for miles along the creek behind our house. I ran with him, but after a mile and a half, I threw up and fell in the creek, and he carried me home.
As he grew older, things got quite tense between us. Once we even fought physically. I was stronger, but he outlasted and finally overpowered me. That scared us both, and after that he always did the few things I told him to do.
I talked to him a lot, trying to be the father I wanted. From time to time, I’d question why I was trying to change this wonderful person into a different kind of wonderful person. We went to therapy, and the therapist told me, “Stop trying to change this person into a different kind of wonderful person.” I realized I was trying to fix someone who wasn’t broke. I was trying to turn Frank into me. I backed off and noticed that he was different from me, but fine all the same.

The Third Time Around

I don’t remember raising my youngest child, Ginger. She was born in Denver, when I was in academics and thus largely unemployed and free to hang out with my children. I’d passed my psychoanalytic phase of fearing all the terrible things parents do to their children. Now I was dealing with family crises, and I was no longer looking for problems, I was letting them find me, and Ginger never had any. We moved back to Atlanta when she was under two, and suddenly I was running the mental health services for the city and becoming quite overwhelmed. Then I went into private practice, and Betsy worked with me, leaving the office in mid-afternoon to be home for Ginger. By the time I got home, Ginger had had all the parenting she could handle. She didn’t seem to need me. In our neighborhood, by chance, all the children were just Ginger’s age; she went up the street to play and I don’t think she came back until she was 12.
I think I was gone too much. Ginger didn’t seem to know me very well. She got some ideas about fathers from television or other people’s experiences. I remember times when she would make assumptions about my system of values that had nothing to do with me. She’d make me ashtrays at camp, when I’d stopped smoking. She assumed I spoke for some sort of religion when I hadn’t been to church in decades. She feared I’d punish her for saying the same four letter words I used in every other sentence. I mush not have been spending enough time with her. Tina was always trying to talk to me about problems she or others were having, and Frank was worried about me and wanted me to go exercise with him, but Ginger was up the street or on the phone with her friends.
I think of her infancy, when I carried her through the Rockies on my back, and how she felt then like part of me. But work distracted me for just a little while, and when I looked again she was grown. It was all so horribly fast, and I missed it. So I tried to get to know her, and found that it wasn’t that easy. I knew then what my father had gone through when he got back from the war, and couldn’t make contact with me. I’m still working on it. She entertains me. She is an actress and a singer, and I am her most eager audience. Was this how my father felt about me?
Betsy’s relationship with each of the children was and is quite different from mine. Betsy grew up Catholic in a family of unshakeable solidity and confidence. Her world view is surer, and less convoluted than mine. She assumes the world should work properly. She’s not always patient, but she’s never less than sensible. She never idealized Tina as I did; they’re more like best friends. She didn’t fight with Frank as I did, wasn’t frustrated by what he was interested in and what he wasn’t. She was always very close to Ginger, and Ginger to her. I made a living, and fixed things, and drove the morning carpool, and did most of the cooking at home, but I didn’t have a flexible schedule, so I wasn’t the one the kids came to for the goods and services they needed. The children, like I, came to rely on Betsy to take care of things, to manage our lives.

The Gang of Ten

The process by which my children came to be the people they are today still seems quite mysterious to me. Clearly from the first day they were born, Betsy and I began guessing what their characters and personalities would be. I’m sure our guesses became either self-fulfilling prophesies, or challenges, just as they were when I was growing up. I remember being told I was smart, so I went upstairs and memorized a book and finished school with a 99 average. I also remember being told I wasn’t a good athlete, whereupon I proceeded to strike out and fall down. When I was told I was kind, I would give people a hug. When I was told I was rude, I would stick out my tongue. I was being compared and contrasted with my father, so I differentiated rather drastically. Our mothers were constantly comparing me and my cousin Ernest, and defending our natures, and even today I am disarmingly frank and he is steadfastly earnest. On the other hand, when my sister and I were told, “Frank may be good with schoolwork, but Joanna understands people and human nature,” there was an implied criticism, as if we could and should change that. So we both resisted that definition of ourselves. Joanna became an educator, and I a shrink, because we were determined not to accept the limitations of those comparisons.
Our three children were part of a cohort of 10, with their seven cousins. As parent Betsy and I were a noisily well-functioning pair, be we always knew we were part of a larger team of family and that we were involved with all 10 kids, not just our three. The 10 were strikingly different from one another, yet all successful. They did it by specializing, over quite a range. Now they range from mathematicians to poets, from physical therapist to family therapist, from obstetricians to professional athletes, from actresses to bankers. They are all close to the same age: now in their twenties. All 10 were high achievers in school: valedictorians, presidents of things, and state champions in various sports. Each found a special area of achievement, and they tended to contrast with one another rather than compete.
The nieces and nephews have been only a little less central to my life than my children, and my children feel much the same way about their Aunt Joanna, and Betsy’s brother, Jim and his wife Julie. Those relationships are reliable and comfortable. I discovered early on that I was better as un-uncle than as a father. As an uncle I didn’t feel the pressure to know what I was doing. I didn’t have to be sure of the answers. Instead, I could simply acknowledge the complexity and sensitivity of the questions. I discovered that uncles and aunts are stabilizers, who defuse generational conflict by respecting the family hierarchy and presenting a long range perspective. And they are stimulators, offering an alternative reality. Come to think of it, that’s what therapists do too.

Raising Hell

Adolescence was both the most exhilarating and the toughest time for me as a parent. Some of the 10 kids got sullen, some stormy, some sloppy, some driven, some weird. There were quite a few sleepless nights, but, mercifully, not too many trips to the jail or the emergency room. A few times we tried to get the police to take them away, but the police wouldn’t keep them. The world in the ‘70s was a little saner than it had been a decade before. Even so, two kids on our little street, a solid middle-class enclave, were murdered separately in drug deals, and many of our friend’s kids were either in treatment with me, or in psychiatric hospitals. All 10 of ours got through it without killing themselves or us, but they sure got our attention. I felt like an expert of adolescence by the time all of them had passed the finish line. The year Frank was 14, I think I would have forgiven my parents everything.
When I look back, I realize that I was wilder as a teenager than any of them. I think of the time when Dad finally lost his temper. I was 15 and had gone to a movies with a friend and former bootlegger who was just home from the Marines, and we ran into Hank Williams, the famous country singer, and went out for a night of drinking homemade whiskey and calling on country chiropractors’ offices in search of drugs for Hank. I didn’t get home until after daybreak, and Mother was pacing the balcony in her black dress and long black gloves making funeral plans. She was stone cold sober, which was scary enough, and I was still a little drunk. I don’t remember what I said, but Dad knocked me the full length of the center hall and dumped me upside down in the garbage can. He said, “Don’t upset your mother again.” I never thought of that as child abuse.
Traditionally, at puberty kids get the message that their sexuality is too unsettling for the family to deal with. They are sent into the adolescent underground to get their sexual training without having to disturb the family. But the adolescent underground isn’t safe—it offers non-sexual dangers as well. Somebody in the family—not necessarily the mother and father—needs to be there to know what children of any age are doing. We and all the kids got through it fine. Maybe it was because we were trying so hard not to scare them underground, or maybe it was because they had one another to keep them hooked into their family rather than their generation. It really helps if the family is large enough and diverse enough to encompass members of all age groups.
Ginger loves to tell the story of losing her virginity. She felt embarrassed the next morning, afraid to tell us but even more afraid to keep it secret. Over grits and bacon, she—already the actress—did her best Sarah Bernhardt routine of acute guilt and shame. I asked what was wrong, and she told me. She say I said, “Good. I was afraid something was wrong. That’s normal. It’s no big deal. Pass the grits.” Betsy looked up cheerfully and said, “The first time usually isn’t real good. How was it for you?

Raising Parents

Now that my kids are through adolescence and more or less out on their own, the secret of life has become very clear to me—while parents are raising children, the children are raising the parents. As children grow up, they force their parents to be aware of every stage of human development, of every step along the path to maturity. The parents, having to think about the issues raised by the children re-experience that stage in their own childhood. As parents you get to reconsider how you were raised, you get to correct your parents’ mistakes, and you get to rethink whatever it was that made you feel indignant, intolerant, or terrified of your own parents. Coordinating the process with a partner in parenting, or with other parents, enables you to expose yourself, and to get close to other people. After the first few years of raising a child, you may be having less effect on the child than the child is having on you. You, through raising the child, are able to raise yourself—and do it your way.
After raising a child or two, you can no longer believe in all those theories about the power of parents. Also, you begin to see a family not as a tight little biological triad, but as a mob of folks of various and shifting relationships who are all observing and reacting to varying degrees to a child growing up his or her own way in spite of whatever that mob of relatives is doing. Our kids were raised by teamwork, with parenting, grandparenting, aunting, uncleing, and cousining going on. (Dad was wonderful as a grandfather. He loved it!) Parents have a lot of influence but little outright power. The whole family though is a formidable force.
Families are, of course, infinitely too complex for formulas based on general systems theory, or any other simplification. I was relieved to realize that I am even more powerless as a parent than I am as a therapist. My liberation in both jobs came when I learned it was okay for me to say what I thought, but also okay for me to say, “Gosh, I don’t know what you ought to do. I guess we’ll both find out by seeing what happens.”

Therapists as Parents

I was wrong when I thought that being a therapist would help me as a parent. I’ve tried all the tricks, but none of them worked with my kids. My kids had mastered paradox by the second grade, and made clear that they liked enmeshment, as long as it was on their terms. They preferred that we just make clear what we wanted them to do: usually they’d do it, sometimes they wouldn’t. We feared we didn’t have much power, so we avoided testing it.
We wanted the kids to be real honest with us, and we wanted them to learn about real consequences, so we didn’t punish them for little things. I prepared myself to deal with really awful problems, and the ones that came up weren’t too bad.
Tina never did anything wrong in her life: even when she got too drunk to drive home from a party, she called for us to come get her. They expected punishment sometimes, though we didn’t really punish them much. When Frank was playing with matches in the woods and burned an acre, I told him he’d have to apologize to the people whose house he’d almost burned down. He remembers that he was grounded for a month, but we don’t recall grounding him. He must have thought he should be grounded, and then grounded himself. Later, he worked cheerfully as a dishwasher to pay for his car wrecks. Ginger had an unauthorized party at the house the first time we left her alone for a weekend. We still don’t know what they did to kill the ivy, or why they sprayed coca-cola on the oil paintings. We fussed about it, and had her repair the yard. She never did it again. Maybe I missed some even more exciting experiences by having such good kids.
As parents we can’t get by with mouthing truths the way we can as therapists. We have to embody them. We can’t kid our kids. They know what we do, not just what we say. We can’t erect boundaries against our children. Parent-child relationships are mutually intrusive. Our children may not pay very much attention to what we say, but they are studying us, and absorbing us. I’d always seem much of my mother in me, and much of me in both my daughters. I am gradually becoming my father, much as I might resist it, and my son is rapidly becoming me, now that I have given up on forcing him to do so.
Of course, that is the way therapy and being with a psychotherapist beats the hell out of being in a dental chair.

On the Job Training

I continue to believe that expertise at living is more helpful for a therapist than expertise at therapy. But then I assume that people, whether they be patients, parents, or children, are generally well intentioned, but misinformed. I don’t understand those theorists who think that families want nothing more in life than to defeat therapists, or who believe that parents are out to destroy children, for unconscious or conscious reasons. I just assume that people are amateurs at life, this is their first time doing it, and they are just muddling through the best they can with whatever they have learned in their own families from their own amateur parents. Our job is to respect their good intentions and amateur status, and provide our professional expertise in identifying and correcting their misinformation.
My mother was a severe alcoholic, a tragic and suicidal figure. My strong silent father protected ad enabled her, and ignored any piece of reality he couldn’t master. When I was a child, I wanted them to be different and was angry when they wouldn’t fulfill my childishly selfish fantasies of the parents I thought I deserved. I’m ashamed now that I ever felt that way—about my parents or about any other child’s parents. They did their best, and my sister and I turned out well, not necessarily despite the problems, perhaps because of the problems. But I couldn’t truly appreciate Mother and Dad, warts and all, until I raised my own children and felt my powerlessness as a parent, and the good intentions with which the job can be bungled.
Those years I spent regretting that my father did not impart the secrets of being a father to me, I didn’t realize that a father’s skills must be learned on the job. Raising fathers falls to the children and this may frustrate the children (and their mothers) and may bother the dads. Raising children and raising parents is worth the two or more decades it takes. I firmly believe it is the central experience of life. Those who bypass it may find themselves going through life still children themselves, still fighting against their parents or idealizing them, but either way seeing them as having the power. When I see my powerlessness as a parent, and my parents’ powerlessness as parents, I know the secret. I empower myself, and it feels good.
I am forever grateful to my 10 kids for raising me, but I’ll take some of the credit for Dad being such a great grandfather. Wordsworth was right—the child truly is father of the man.
Photo by Zdenek Sasek via iStock

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.