What's a father?
October 16, 2018 10:16 AM   Subscribe

My dad died the day before I turned six, so I don't have much experience with fathers. I'm 33 now. What did I miss?

Yes, I'm in therapy. Grief is an interesting thing, and right now I'm wondering what there is for me to grieve. I have examples from popular culture: throwing the ball around! Getting the shotgun out when a young man wants to date his daughter! (Yikes.) Giving sage advice! Working on the car/in the yard! But I have basically no real-life experience, other than with my stepfather, with whom I never really had much of a relationship at all.

What's a father to you? Is it different from a mother? How?
posted by woodvine to Human Relations (33 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I would guess you're mourning the Platonic Ideal of a father. I mean, mine was a madcap alcoholic who was tons of fun but absolutely shit as a father. I literally buried his ashes in a cocktail shaker. Other people had dads who beat them, raped them, abandoned them, neglected them, lied to them, whatever. Don't get caught up in the fairytale, I guess -- your dad would have been as flawed as a dad as you are as a man now.

My stepfather was conversely quite wonderful but we have never thrown a ball around, worked on a car or in the yard, and he has never dispensed dating or other advice to me beyond teaching me to drive and reassuring me that the other drivers would do their best not to hit me. He's bailed me out of tight spots, at least once with actual bail, so many times. He is also flawed because he's human; he put his hands on me once at the height of my teenaged rage antics. He's never taken me to the ballgame he promised to take me to. He's really bad at having a relationship with any of us not through the intermediary of my mother. He unintentionally betrayed my sister in a way that can never be fixed. I love him so much anyway.

A dad is just a guy, with all of the variables that comes with.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:27 AM on October 16, 2018 [19 favorites]

This is a bit chatfilter, but I'll say this: My dad lived until I was 40 and did none of the things you list as examples.

My parents didn't divorce, he had pretty good jobs until he created his own great job/company, but all this time -- as I tell my therapist -- he pretty much just seemed to want to be left alone (like his dad, and now childless me). He was also a terrible teacher and mentor (let alone mere advice), even though I showed early aptitude for the exact things he did for a living. He wasn't a terrible guy, just kind of indifferent to the whole project of having children.

I can almost guarantee your imaginary father is well above the median, unless you're also building in spanking, piss-poor logic, and other human failings.
posted by rhizome at 10:31 AM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't know anyone whose experience of having a father was anything like the positive portrayals in popular culture. In my own case, my parents divorced when I was a toddler. My dad disappeared for long stretches of time, then showed up with extravagant gifts and took me to amusement parks, then disappeared again. The biggest difference from my mom was that he didn't make me feel safe. He wasn't violent or dangerous in any way, but he just wasn't nurturing at all and as a young child I was keenly aware that he didn't know what he was doing. He didn't do any of the examples you listed or any stereotypical "dad" things at all. I did have lots of different fun experiences with him on visitation, but it was more like he felt compelled to have a packed agenda while he had me, and had the money to fund lots of trips. He meant well. I think he wanted to be a good dad. He just lacked follow through. To say the least.
posted by HotToddy at 10:40 AM on October 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel like you are going to get either a lot of stereotypical responses to this or the response that this is too individual to really answer. Not sure my answer will be much different. However, you might want to consider reading parenting books aimed at dads.

This is from Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5,

"In general, fathers play to arouse and excite their babies, while mothers generally concentrate on more low-key stimulation such as gentle rocking, quiet interactive games, singing, and soothing activities...For a unique perspective on fatherhood see the book Dad to Dad: Parenting like a Pro by pediatrician David L Hill." (Please note: I have not read the recommended book.)

My (limited, my daughter is a year old) experience has been that she needs one parent to be the "safe harbor" to go back to when she's feeling overwhelmed and the other parent to be the adventurous one. We don't stay in these roles as we each have areas in our life where we feel more adventurous than the other. You might consider what the balance of this is like in your life.
posted by CMcG at 10:46 AM on October 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

My father was an abusive narcissist and I would have been much better off without him. My children have a great father who loves them and plays with them and makes them feel safe but even that is completely alien to me. I watch in wonder most of the time.
posted by lydhre at 10:49 AM on October 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

My father is still alive but I had about as much of a male role model as you did. I've often thought that when he dies I won't mourn him so much as mourning the fact that I never really had much of a father.

We cannot possibly know what you missed out on from your own father. It really depends on the sort of person he was. As DarlingBri has pointed out, not all fathers are good at being fathers. Ideally, you might have had a Mike Brady sort of dad, who would take you aside when you needed advice, or teach you to drive or arrange for Don Drysdale to come to your house and talk you out of your dream of being a professional baseball player or any number of "dad" things, but it could have just as easily been... not that.

For my son, I'm trying to be the father that I never had. To me that means trying to guide him in the ways of the world as best I can, teaching him kindness and respect. I changed a ton of diapers and gave him baths every other night. I helped breastfeed him when it became a two person job (I did not actually supply the milk). I play catch with him and teach him how to drill a straight hole in a 2/4. I teach him about privilege. Lately I'm teaching him about consent and everything that I'm learning from listening to #metoo stories. This is certainly not a topic that my dad would have had any experience with. In, fact, being around him he usually taught me the exact opposite and would often brag about what his "one use" for women was. I have heard my dad yell the n-word at the TV multiple times. He voted for Trump.

Basically my dad was, and still is, an asshole.

I hope you get some more positive comments in this thread. I certainly know people who had wonderful fathers. They had that Mike Brady or Ward Cleaver. They were taught to fix cars and throw a football and play cards. They didn't have to teach themselves to shave or how to buy clothes. They were taught how to watch football.

Nobody taught me how to watch football. My wife is the one who taught my son how to watch it.

I'm very sorry you never had the chance to know your father. More often than not I wish I didn't know mine.
posted by bondcliff at 10:51 AM on October 16, 2018 [15 favorites]

This sounds trite, but having a father was and is different than having a mother for me because...they are different people with different personalities.

My father did some stereotypically dad things -- he worked late sometimes and so we would eat with my (stay-at-home) mother and go to bed before he got in. But sometimes he'd call up before he left the office and ask my mother if she wanted him to bring a pizza home. He had a secretary but she wasn't very good (according to him) so he and my mother spent a lot of time together while she proofread reports and things he did for work. That's a good memory of the two of them enjoying time together. He went to the father/daughter Girl Scout stuff with me. Sometimes he lost his temper over small stuff and would be scary. He didn't get too upset over big stuff though. When we were very little he would go around the house on all fours and let us ride him like a horse. He's pre-Boomer and I'm barely at the tail end of of Gen-X so our generation divide was baffling to both of us. I think having older parents definitely shaped my character and personality in ways it wouldn't have been otherwise.

He tells us about family members who had died before we were born (though my mother and grandmothers do/did a lot more of that).

Non-stereotypical but personal things - he sometimes taught us the names of the constellations, or about different kinds of rock or the names of trees. He played (sometimes still does) his guitar and sang. As a retiree, he finds unfamiliar plants in his neighborhood and tries to figure out what they are. He taught us to learn for ourselves about anything that interested us. My mother did some of that, but not as much. That may be his most valuable contribution as a father to my life (other than, you know, my existence).
posted by frobozz at 11:00 AM on October 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Dad and mom do different things because they are different people and have different interests. What those exact interests might have been you should be able to determine from your dad's relatives (and maybe your mom) but how much ability/interest he might have had to share those interests with others are variables that are unknowable.

If you are interested, figure out what your dad liked to do from his relatives and his stuff, and when you do those same things image what he might have taught you. Or take on something he liked to do in his honor.

You are lucky in that you get to choose in your mind if dad is a gruff teacher, a jokester, or a shortcutter. As you can see from above most people have that outlined for them from dad's actions and it's not always positive.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:01 AM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

My own father was and is a crap dad. Just awful. Narcissistic, demanding, indifferent but then really really nosy and involved, never really wanted me (no, literally, he told me that).

But my father-in-law was a WONDERFUL dad. And he became a fantastic father figure to me. He listened. He really, truly listened to what I had to say. It was obvious that he wasn't just waiting for me to finish talking so he could have his turn. He cared about my thoughts and feelings. He cheered me on when things were good and buoyed me up when things were bad. He liked spending time with me and clearly didn't make me feel like it was just another obligation. And because he was my husband's dad, I knew that if we ever had kids (we did), my husband had had the BEST role model and he would make a wonderful father (he has).

I'm so grateful that I was able to have him in my life, even though it was way too short a time (he passed away many years ago). I got to see what a good dad looked like and what a good dad did. I already knew at the time that my dad wasn't a good dad, but I was so fortunate to have a good dad in my life.
posted by cooker girl at 11:02 AM on October 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

DarlingBri wrote that maybe you are grieving the loss of the Platonic ideal of a father -- in that way, I think, the answer to your question of "what did I miss?" is, "not much." When I think of my father, with whom I had and have a decent relationship, I nonetheless mostly think of the ways that I didn't really have much of a father, like bondcliff wrote above. I think many people's experiences with their fathers, especially as we grow up, is heavily coloured by grieving the loss of the Platonic ideal of a father.
posted by Pwoink at 11:08 AM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

My father was somewhat more stereotypical despite being an ex-hippie with a huge beard: he grilled things, liked football, let my sister & I "wrestle" with him when we were little (this mainly involved letting us tackle him while he made sure we didn't hurt ourselves), he tried his best to teach me math (he loved math), tried to teach me to love fly fishing & woodworking, fixed the car (sometimes haphazardly), did DIY stuff around the house (including almost getting trapped in our vaulted ceiling while doing some electrical work), took care of the body when our beloved cat was accidentally killed, and coincidentally also managed to dominate his scientific field for thirty years before retiring as the head of a multinational research group with >$100 million in annual funding (point being, he worked like a maniac and still did dadly things). Now he builds canoes and fly-fishes.

He's been pretty great.
posted by aramaic at 11:15 AM on October 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

A father is also a model of who you could become. In fact, he's a likely blueprint for who you will become. How you feel about that prospect depends on how much you respect and like your father as a person.

My father was very involved in my life, but he never did any of the things that you describe as pop culture's version of fatherhood. I did beg him to play catch with me when I was very interested in baseball, and he tried it once but claimed I threw too hard and wouldn't do it with me again. Cars and sports and stuff just aren't hobbies of his, so they aren't things that he did with me. When I begged and pleaded with him to, he'd agree once in a blue moon, but he always hated it. He likes art and music and movies, so we did things like going to art shows and dancing around to music and going on walks and watching movies together instead. He also always played lots of goofy little games with me, like folded napkins into little animals that "came to life" for me or whistled crazy songs or "tricked" me with quasi-magic tricks like hiding something under the table and then BOOM having it appear. Honestly, he plays with my cat very similarly now!

He's got a fairly gentle disposition but I wouldn't say that he's nurturing, per se. Certainly not like my mother. And he's never been one to give me any guidance or advice. Literally, I think he's never given me any in his life. He's kind of emotionally distant, but I think that's because he's poor at expressing himself and is pretty solipsistic at this point. He definitely loves me, but he always shows it in sideways kinds of ways. Like if I'm going on a trip, he'll read up on my destination ad nauseum and I guess kind of live vicariously through me.

My father can be very frustrating to me sometimes, but my frustrations have more to do with his life choices and foibles than they do with his actions as a father. He drinks too much and is very undisciplined, never really got it together work-wise, and those things affect me and to a much greater extent my mother in negative ways, and I hate that. But you know, people are going to do what they're going to do.

If I hadn't grown up with my father in my life, I think that my childhood would have been more rigid and less whimsical, more sensible and less chaotic. I think I would be less accepting of people but also maybe more secure.

I think how you relate to your father really comes down to who he is as a person. The thing about the Platonic ideal is that it's flat, it's the ideal of a man who exists ONLY as a father and not as a human being. In real life, you have a relationship with the human being who also happens to be your father.
posted by rue72 at 11:16 AM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

My dad is still living, in his 70s and, though he and I are very different in terms of our interests, temperament, and politics (and often didn't get along when I was younger), he has been a consistently calm, supportive, good-in-a-crisis presence in my life since I was a kid.

Although he and I aren't hugely close, having someone like that looking out for me decade after decade taught me a lot about what it means practically to love someone - not the sentiment, but the actual work, which matters more. Also what it means to live up to the obligations you've created for yourself even when they're difficult, and the huge, often hard-to-articulate value to the people close to you of just consistently showing up, doing your best under the circumstances, and sometimes being willing to put their happiness or experience before your own.

His own father, as I understand it, often did not do these things, so I've also learned something about the possibility of changing and breaking bad cycles - in part just out of a desire to do so and force of will. All of this stuff comes regularly to bear in my own attempts at parenting.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:31 AM on October 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m probably one of those mythical people with a really great dad. More than anything he has been there for me with every kind of support that he can. This included college tuition (which I am endlessly thankful for) but also knowing that I’ve always had a place I can come back to if what I’m doing doesn’t work out. Taking a leap is a lot less scary when you know the void is filled with feathers and padding.
posted by raccoon409 at 11:44 AM on October 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

My dad is weird and flawed like all dads (all humans, really). Nurturing was not part of the Dad role (if there was a Dad role) when he was a young child or a young father. He never changed a diaper or woke up in the middle of the night. He once forgot me at daycare.

But a few years ago, when I was flying back to my place from a conference and the flight had to be diverted to an airport near him due to weather, and I was trying to figure out how to get back home without spending several hundred dollars on a cab, he came to the airport unasked at 10 PM, picked me up, and drove me to my house 2 hours away through heavy fog, then turned around and drove 2 hours back because he had to go to work the next day.

So yeah. Team Dad.
posted by basalganglia at 12:09 PM on October 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just want to emphasize this quote, which I'll be taking with me to therapy: I think many people's experiences with their fathers, especially as we grow up, is heavily coloured by grieving the loss of the Platonic ideal of a father.

It's weird, right, because we do have these very specific cultural ideas about What The Dad Should Do, despite the fact that of course every dad is a human being. (There's no way my dad could fix a car, so he sure couldn't teach me to; I'm not even sure he knew who I was dating in high school; I've very rarely asked for or received advice from him...But he's a decent person who does the best he can, and really, how can we ask for more than that?)

This stuff is all really hard and yours is not an answerable question, really. The range of possible fathers, like the range of possible mothers, contains just about every value of n. I suspect it would be more helpful for you to find out more about your own specific father -- that might give you a sort of roadmap for the kind of father he would have been if he'd survived, and in that way let you know "what you missed."

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 12:46 PM on October 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I lost my father around the same age. Some things I hadn't anticipated, that came up years after his death, that sound trivial but that bothered me a lot in my teenage years: I didn't have anyone to teach me to tie a necktie or drive a manual transmission.
posted by thelonius at 12:54 PM on October 16, 2018

Having a father as well as a mother, to me, was a way to learn about What Relationships Are. Obviously that's not a great model in all circumstances, but I'm sure that's one difference between growing up with one parent and two (depending on when your stepdad entered the picture). I grew up seeing them disagree, advocate for each other, deal with in-laws, work through big decisions, fight, make sacrifices for the other, co-parent, etc. every day.
posted by mosst at 12:59 PM on October 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

The things I most remember about growing up with my dad -- the good stuff, the things I want to remember -- are all the times he tried to share his interest in the things he liked with me. It was never didactic or pushy, and it was reciprocated -- he taught me how to play gin rummy, I taught him how to play Super Mario Bros. But looking back on it now, I realize that he made a very consistent and sustained effort to stave off the post-divorce mandatory-2-nights-per-week-at-dad's-house ennui by involving me in the things that he thought were fun and interesting, and I'm really glad he did. I don't know if he still listens to the Harder They Come soundtrack album, but I still do.

Yeah, there was ball-throwing and divorced dad pity parties and emotional distance and other stereotypical dad stuff that you get in varying degrees when you have a dad who's more or less around, but none of it feels especially significant in retrospect. I don't recall any of it unless I really try to. But every damn time I turn on a football game I think about my dad patiently explaining what "offsides" and "holding" meant for the thousandth time while the people behind us were getting drunk and loud.

My mom tended to make her time with me all about me, and her time was her time. In some ways I felt more integrated into my dad's life than hers even though I spent more time with her and she was the more "involved" parent by any objective measure.

Beyond that observation, I feel ill-equipped to answer how a father differs from a mother. When your parents split it messes up the dynamic, and for my own part I've been a full-custody single dad for a very long time. To me it kind of feels like there's one role that matters, "parent," and the adults who made you either step up to that role jointly or individually or not.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:30 PM on October 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think there are a lot of us on this site (and now a few in this thread) for whom our fathers were an absence, a lost opportunity, or a more active sort of short- and long-term harm. For me, Dad is the name on the label on the jar where I keep most of my bitterness and seething and self-doubt. “Dad’s Spicy Blend.”

But dads who were assholes or villains can be useful too, as bondcliff eloquently suggests: they can be inverse role models, something to define yourself as other than. Becoming a parent myself has given me the most obvious opportunities to act different from the way my father did, but it’s not just in parenting that I’ve looked at how he acted and then done the other thing. Every story about my dad is a story of terrible judgment, and he’s sort of a rolling object lesson in Ways I Don’t Want to Be. I think this is a great and pretty common function of parents, even the ones who aren’t reckless alcoholics or racist/sexist jerks or sociopaths or whatever: when you’re a young kid maybe they’re your heroes; as you grow up and gain a more nuanced understanding of how they act in the world, you start dreaming your own fanfiction about how you might do things differently when you’re big--protect yourself better, use your powers for good, root for a different team; then you grow up more and get to start actually doing those things differently yourself. Or trying to. It’s one of the big projects of adolescence, I guess, one I’m still working on well into my 40s.

(Can mothers play that role too? For sure. I know men & women who have similar relationships with their mothers. I feel like there’s a generational aspect to some fathers’ toxic masculinity & patriarchal nonsense [my parents were the earliest boomers, and they were deeply traditional on gender roles even while also sorta being hippies], but I’m not confident enough in pop sociology to generalize about that.)
posted by miles per flower at 1:39 PM on October 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think having two (or more!) parents growing up is not necessary to creating a good human, but I do think that having a second parent gives a child a wider perspective on normal behavior.

Most kids grow up thinking that their environment is normal, because they lack the experience to compare and contrast. If there's just one parent/caregiver around, I think that's harder. Having multiple parental figures means that they have more than one person that DEFINES "normal". One parent cuts the crusts off of sandwiches, the other uses extra peanut butter. One parent hates being late and yells if you're not out the door when the school bus is out front, the other parent waves the bus on and drives you to school. One parent likes board games, the other likes walking the dog. Only having one of those default experiences makes it harder to have a safe way of trying different ways of being, of getting different responses to the same conversation. (I see my kid do this a lot with his parents, telling one of us a joke and then the other, or asking for ice cream, or whatever.) It's something I've noticed in myself, and I saw my dad most weekends. Some stepparents do this, but some don't.

A thing I might grieve, in your situation, is losing the opportunity to know someone important to your early life, a person that most adults in modern society do get to know and bond with as adults.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:43 PM on October 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm so very sorry you didn't get to have a dad. Learning to mourn things is a hard thing in and of itself, it is a very hard thing indeed to mourn something you never had.

My dad was what is perhaps the only thing worse than the dad that wasn't there. My dad's still alive, but I use the word "was" very actively and intentionally there. He's no longer my dad. This seems weird and maybe dumb, but it was important for me to divorce myself from the idea that he always would be my dad, that he would always be there until he wasn't. My dad was (I literally just typed "is" there, then had to backspace it out and self-correct again) one of those guys who was the reason we have a #metoo movement. It's a very sad story and most days I live free of the memories of it, because the only ones I have aren't very good ones. The rest is just kind of a shadowy haze that I get glimpses of sometimes through conversations with siblings or cousins. My psychotherapist has told me that's basically par for the course in people who were raised in traumatic environs like mine.

So there's that. And then there's my son.

He's only 1 year old and holy hell is he growing up fast. I'm already seeing the ways that I'm a horrible father by nature - my wife points them out in kind ways and I'm constantly asking myself how I could be so inept at this. But I really, really *want* to be a good dad to him. I want that desperately. For him, not for me.

I want to teach him about respect by respecting him as a person. Like, his choices, and his interests, and just his essence as a person, regardless of the fact that he came into being from my wife and I, physically.

I want to teach him about love by doing the hard and humble work of loving him and my wife more than myself. I want him to see me giving up things I want so that they can have things they want. I want to see him seeing me say no to the evening meeting so I can spend dinner with them. I want him to see me dancing in the kitchen with my wife. I want him to see me disagreeing with her in healthy ways. I want him to hear me apologizing and owning it and really working to change when I am wrong. I want him to see me being wrong and it still be OK because it can be fixed.

I want to teach him about caring deeply for the people on the margins, people with so much more need than we have. I want to show up as a caring person myself, and make him feel like I have his back, and I create space for him, and I welcome his ideas. I want to do that so that he can do that for people around him - make them feel psychologically safe. Richard Rohr said "We do not attain anything by our own holiness but by ten thousand surrenders to mercy. A
lifetime of received forgiveness allows you to become mercy." I want him to be mercy to everyone around him.

I want him to see that it's OK to get upset, and be scared, and to not know what to do. I want him to know that it's OK to have feelings and it's OK to cry when you have them. And that it doesn't make you any less of a man or human being.

I want him to see the value of hard work and of being a person who does what they say they will do. Who gets things done and follows through.

I hope beyond hope that my son will be the optimistic person that I strive so hard to be against my natural tendencies. I want him to understand what Colin Powell meant by "optimism is a force multiplier," and then I want him to wield that force for good in the world around him.

Most of all, I want him to know that whoever he decides he wants to be, whatever choices he wants to make for his life, I will still be here for him, I will still love him, and I will still support him. I want him to know that I'm interested in what he's interested in purely because he's interested in it (I don't find baking and knitting fascinating in their own right, but I forwarded that pie link on the front page to my wife yesterday and showed it to her last night because I know *she* loves those things).

I don't ever want to lie to him. I don't ever want hit him, or make him feel unsafe in any way. I don't ever want to make him feel like he has to hide things, to make him feel 'caught.' I want him to come to me with hard questions about anything and everything, and I want him to learn that sometimes it's going to be OK even when I don't have an answer.

There's a whole host of things that I want for him that I got in bits and pieces or not at all. There are quite a few things I got that I don't want him to ever experience. Who I want to be as a dad is the dad I never got to have. You can do that for you too. It's OK to not be OK, but it's also a good thing to do the (very hard!) work to make things better.

Personally, though, my mantra for the second half of my life is Fred Rogers' (the closest thing I had to a dad, myself): I like you just the way you are.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:20 PM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

on preview: there was a second "is" in that sentence that I STILL had to go back and edit to "was." it's hard work!
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:22 PM on October 16, 2018

My father died when I was three (and my brother was born a month later). Mom said it had a profound effect on my personality but I don't remember. I think not having a father affected my brother most as he has talked about it, and he had a lot of trouble being a dad himself. I have wistful thoughts occasionally but no grief. And I do suspect his death had an effect on my relationships with men because of expecting betrayal (by dying, you see). Mom never remarried so I have no fatherly lineaments.
posted by MovableBookLady at 2:28 PM on October 16, 2018

Due to his alcoholism, I grew up with two very different dads: Drinking Dad and Sober Dad. Sober Dad is mostly awesome and is someone who I can call any time day or night for help or guidance; I love that guy. Drinking Dad is someone I have given clear boundaries for my own mental health.

My husband grew up without his biological father (an addict who was uninterested in any kind of responsibility). Because of this, he decided that he wants to give our daughter the father he never had. My daughter is growing up with norms like: dads bring their daughters to Girl Scout meetings, dad often cooks dinner, dad plays board games if it's raining outside, dad cleans the house, dad is home from work every night at a predictable time, he talks about problems and looks for genuine solutions, he knows which children's medicine is best for a cold, he's there for bedtime every single night and says, "I love you."
posted by WaspEnterprises at 2:31 PM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Due to my Dad's alcoholism (and recovery) he also had two lives: Personality Dad and Shame Spiral Dad. This also speaks to MovableBookLady's comment because my older brother more or less coasted right through his recovery, whereas I was 12 or 13 when he traded in alcoholism for workaholism and he gave up his Daddy-ness right when I needed it (bullying, girls, etc.). I'm the one who ended up with a mohawk and legal scrapes.
posted by rhizome at 2:40 PM on October 16, 2018

There was a point somewhere in childhood where I became aware that some of my peers, whose parents were newly divorced (this was the 70s and there was a lot of that) actually envied me for having a dead parent, perhaps because there's a kind of justification for self-pity in it, perhaps because the situation was so more clear-cut and free from unpleasant interpersonal issues, compared to theirs, perhaps because I did not have any Mom's House/Dad's House/Dad's new family stuff. I thought that was crazy, and now I find it very sad.
posted by thelonius at 3:26 PM on October 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Again, people are individuals -- I think everyone with a good relationship with their father (like me! He's flawed, but he's a sweetheart) is going to say that they can't pull apart generic 'having a father' from the individual human being they love.

Mine was always sort of nonjudgmentally delighted by me and my sister. We're all, um, moderately eccentric? Very moderately, but a combination of overly bookish and with a very silly sense of humor. So we crack each other up like no one else on earth. (My mother (they're divorced since shortly after I graduated from college, but were together when I was a kid) is close enough to participate and have fun with, but not on precisely the same wavelength in the same way.) And really enjoys bareknuckle no-holds barred arguing about stuff: anyone else on the planet (except my sister), if I'm in an intellectual argument, I am being cautious and worrying about people's feelings. Dad can dish it out but can also take it in good humor.

Completely practically reliable, on large scale stuff. He's kind of lowish energy -- talking him into doing anything particular may or may not happen -- but if he said he was going to be responsible for doing something, there was no need to worry about it at all. That's sort of my baseline for what it means to be an adult.

Almost good politics -- that is, better than 95% of the country, cutting him slack for being an elderly white guy who is unfortunately 'respectability politics' inclined, which can get racist in context. But as between any two actually existing candidates, he is guaranteed going to jump in the correct direction, and my politics are better than his because he brought me up with solid enough left-wing values to correct the areas where he's got some problems (and of course I'm sure I've got some of my own). I never had to be rebellious about politics, and even where he's got problems, he'll listen to me chewing him out about it with no hurt feelings. (I realize this is a problem for the world's tiniest violin, but Trump's advent has been super shitty for boring-looking elderly white men with decent politics. He used to enjoy talking to people in public places -- since Trump turned into a thing, though, awful people spot him and assume he's an ally. It's really kind of wrecked random socializing for him.)

And a fantastic role model for just managing life competently and adequately -- like, most parts of adulting aren't that hard, and he never made them look that hard. From watching him I always sort of assumed that anything an ordinary person was expected to do in day to day life, I could figure out how to do as well as I needed to either by looking for the directions or asking someone. Which sounds obvious, but feeling as if there aren't any big secrets out there was a big help.
posted by LizardBreath at 3:54 PM on October 16, 2018

I think I'll have to be one of the ones who'll say I have a really fantastic dad.

Honestly, he was and continues to be a model of how to treat people with respect and care. I've always felt that he truly listened to me, and when my mom and I flared up at each other (two very similar personalities there) - he was always the one who played the mediator role between us.

He is incredibly knowledgeable and he never treated any question I had as beyond what I could grasp. I got straightforward honest answers, and he allowed me to genuinely participate in all discussions. As I grew older, I borrowed extensively from his library of books and got into all kinds of things I probably shouldn't have at my age, but he trusted me and I hope I repaid his trust. The borrowing went the other way too - he read lots of the young adult books I was into so we were able to have lots of discussions about books and swap recommendations.

He was never into the stereotypical dad stuff - not into sports or cars. We didn't even have a tv growing up. He was obsessed with competitive Scrabble. I got really into it for a while too, playing countless games with him. His love of words built my vocabulary like nothing else, because I could always count on him for a quick definition or explanation.

He was by no means perfect. He could sometimes slack on the planning front, leaving my mom to do a fair bit of emotional labor. My mom once decided that she would just not invite a relative of his to our house to see when he'd get around to it. 15 years and she's still waiting.

But he is a wonderful warm, caring, compassionate person. For the most part we agreed on the fundamentals - politics, how to treat other people. I've always known that no matter what I'd have him to fall back on - and that's been huge.

When I think about him, various vignettes come to mind:

After I locked myself into their room one too many times as a surly teenager, him ramming on the door and breaking the lock. That door never did get another lock.

My dad pacing up and down downstairs when I was taking a pregnancy test as a 17 year old because I was convinced I was actually pregnant despite neither my boyfriend nor me actually taking our clothes off. Him giving me a huge hug when I told him it was negative and telling me that getting pregnant isn't something that can happen magically (I think back and wonder that he told me that - but it was what I needed to hear - I was an abnormally anxious kid, much more likely to get a panic attack than to actually do something unsafe).

Hanging out with him outside the GRE exam center, looking at all the other kids cramming vocabulary lists. He said, you know, it's really not fair, all these people trying to learn in a few weeks what you've had a whole lifetime to learn. He was right, it's not fair.

I remember when I got my period as a 11 year old, that he never once made me feel weird or awkward about it, calmly running to the store if I told him I needed supplies, treating it all just as part of life.

I remember playing Scrabble with him in the middle of the Corbett National Park (I grew up in India) - during the afternoon rest period, when we were supposed to leave the animals to their siestas. It was raining and we had tea, biscuits and Scrabble - perfect!
posted by peacheater at 4:40 PM on October 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I had a great but non-typical Dad who was a mass of contradictions. He was generally unemployed. He was an intellectual. He was my stay-at-home parent, and was great at pontificating on any topic you could imagine. He loved art, had his ABD PhD in Art History, and was a semi-professional photographer. He did the Times crossword in fine-point Sharpie. He was messy and never finished anything without massive amounts of prompting.

He had a previous family and never introduced his other two kids to me, so I grew up knowing about them and seeing their photographs but never meeting them. He never lifted a hand to me in anger. The one time I got caught shoplifting, he came and collected me and never told my Mom abut it, who would have been violent towards me. He taught me how to wire a lamp, how to develop black and white film, how to paint furniture and walls, how to use tools. He was a mediocre cook. He loved dogs and tolerated cats. He was impossible to buy Father's Day cards for, because he didn't golf or cut the grass or do other stereotypical Dad things.

He played classical guitar, and when they were younger he and Mom had a jazz trio where he played bass, she piano, and they had a drummer. He was passionately political, liberal all the way, and while he was alive he was always railing against injustice. He would go away on holidays to see his other kids, but I got him all the rest of the time so I feel bad for them. He carefully taught me to never throw away screws or small plastic things until you know exactly what they belonged to. He read extensively, both the newspaper and books. He saved articles for me back in the 80s when I was in college the first time, and would mail them to me periodically, or give me a big stack when I came home on breaks. When I was a young teen, we watched the original Cosmos together and talked about science and the stars.

He gave me lots of advice, and was the reason I managed to get myself psyched up to finish college. When I whined that if I went back I'd end up graduating at 35, he reminded me that I'd be 35 anyway, did I want to be 35 with a degree or without?

He and Mom fought sometimes, bitterly and loudly. But they managed to stay together until his death; things were better when Mom started making more money. Ultimately he wasn't great at being a productive member of society. He smoked a lot and was a moderate alcoholic, and died of lung cancer. But he was a great Dad and I miss him deeply. So that's what Dads are, to me.
posted by clone boulevard at 5:44 PM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've been thinking about this thread all day, and about my comment.

I need to be fair to my dad. He hardly knew his father and had a hellish childhood and only a sixth grade education because his mother made him quit school so he could work. He did do some traditional "dad" things when I was little. He's an asshole and a racist, and he didn't guide me at all, but I did learn some things from him.

He wasn't around much after my parents split when I was in seventh grade, and for a few years before then he was mostly useless, but as a kid I saw that when something needed to be done around the house, he did it. He finished some rooms, he rebuilt the basement stairs, he fixed the cars. I remember seeing him all cut up from thorn bushes after a day of cleaning the back yard. He got some buddies from work and they put up an above-ground pool for us. My first bike was one we found at the dump and he fixed it up so I could ride it. He had his workbench and his tools and he would fix just about anything. He worked and put food on the table. We always had health insurance.

I learned that's what dads do and that's what I do now. Even more than he did. Way more.

Of course mothers do all those things too, but I learned them from my dad.
posted by bondcliff at 6:06 PM on October 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I write a lot about my dad on Metafilter. He died when I was 24 - it's not so much that I didn't know him while I was growing up but that he never got a chance to know me during the rest of my growing up.
posted by bendy at 8:33 PM on October 16, 2018

My dad was the one who read me a story before bed every night, who drove me to school and practices and rehearsals, who took me to the grocery store and the library, the person who comforted me when I was upset. He did a lot of the stereotypical mom things, in other words, because he was the primary childrearer when I was a kid. We also played catch and went fishing, he taught me how to drive and change a tire, we built birdhouses at his workbench, and he taught me how to identify fossils. These seem like dad-lier things to do because they're coded male.

Because I'm a lesbian, my kids won't have a dad. They'll have an anonymous sperm donor and two moms. Both of us are fairly androgynous in our gender performance, so assume I'll do some of the "dad" things (identifying birds/taking the kids to the skate park/going to a ball game and getting mustard all over ourselves/teaching them how to tie a tie and polish shoes) and my partner will do some others (how to do taxes/how to drive/how to fix and build things at her workbench/playing catch/going to the ball park and getting mustard all over themselves). I'm telling you this because, as others have noted above, it seems important for kids to have a couple of different parent figures because it exposes them to different types of people and models certain adult behaviors. It sounds like your stepfather could have been that second person, but wasn't, and I am sorry about that.
posted by coppermoss at 7:04 AM on October 17, 2018

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