If divorce has taught me anything, it’s that a father can’t be all things to his children, and certainly not his sons. Even with the best of intentions, no man can possess every ingredient needed to nurture a boy into healthy manhood.
That while it may not ‘take a village’, it most certainly demands more than what one man alone can accomplish. We are all finite creatures with strengths and weaknesses. Every father is going to have gaps in his abilities, behavior, or character that if not careful can unwillingly be passed on to our sons. The question then is knowing where the spaces are and doing what we can not to impart them to the next generation.
Performance coaches often use the term ‘Board of Directors’ to represent a group of people who have been purposefully chosen to fill in the spaces of those qualities we lack. If I struggle with financial discipline, I find someone who is financially successful. If I grapple with sexual purity, I ask another of strong moral character to hold me accountable. It’s an idea that was birthed in the leadership and self-help movements but has found its way to nearly every job from ditch digger to the doctor. This board serves as a lifeline for advice, a sounding board for ideas, and a team of encouragers during difficult times.
I’m beginning to think fatherhood might demand a similar approach.
This was my reoccurring thought while reading a Father’s Day Op-Ed in the NY Times by Phil Knight, founder of the iconic American shoe company, Nike.
Few days on the calendar are more emotionally fraught for me, more psychologically stacked, than Father’s Day. A proud father, a proud grandfather, I’m also a grieving father, having lost my oldest son 12 years ago, and a grieving son, having lost my father in 1981.
I also lost my surrogate father on Christmas Eve, 1999.
My father, though good and kind, suffered some deep and inexplicable shame because he was the son of a butcher. His effect, therefore, was an elaborate overcompensation, a stylized emulation of respectability, which precluded any “vulgar” displays of emotion. In all my life I can’t recall him once paying me a direct compliment. Nor did he ever bestow his unconditional approval. So I looked elsewhere.
I wasn’t unique, I don’t think. One in three American children grows up in a household with no father; countless more, beyond the ken of studies and statistics, have fathers with whom they can’t connect. And regardless of biology or circumstance, many of us, maybe most of us, simply need more than the one dad allotted by a tightfisted nature.
He called this shortage a, ‘father deficit.’
It would be easy to criticize his dad for not giving the boy what he needed most. And surely any father who is incapable or unwilling to offer his child that emotional lifeblood is committing a grave and sometimes irreversible sin. But not all can or should be placed at this or any father’s feet. As I have learned from personal experience, it’s hard to give what was never received.
I have only one video recording of my dad, filmed long after I had graduated college and left home. It’s my mother and him on a car ride during a trip to the Smokey Mountains. When I first stumbled on the clip, I was hoping I might once again hear my dad’s voice. That’s what is most difficult for me to remember two decades after his death. Maybe to recapture a glimpse of his persona, hear that deep drawl, or see the sideways smirk that could make you laugh or send you running for cover.
But all I got instead were the guttural tones of someone annoyed at having a camera shoved his face. My disappointment served as a reminder to the type of person he was and wasn’t; a man of few words and fewer emotions. A father who found it difficult to connect with anyone who wasn’t interested in what he found interesting. A disconnect that was perhaps most apparent with me, his only son. The truth is, I never knew my dad, his hopes or fears, wants or dreams. To me he was always at a distance, a faint figure on the far horizon ever out of reach, immovable and stoic like a statue. The most intimate detail I ever knew of him, which I learned second hand from my mother, was his lifelong disappointment at not being allowed to play high school basketball. It was believed afternoon practices would get too much in the way of evening chores.
I’ve carried that disconnect in the form of near debilitating insecurity. A belief I’d never be enough because I can never remember my dad telling me I was. Perhaps that’s why I’ve placed such emphasis, in early adulthood, on career and financial success. Both became the lapels and ribbons that showed the world I had what it takes when the one I needed to hear it from the most never did. But I don’t blame my father for any of this. I truly believe he did the very best he knew how and was only able to give that he, as a boy, had received. My grandfather was a WWII veteran who couldn’t read or write his own name. A simple man, he married a woman who showed her affection through food. She loved you with fried chicken and chocolate rolls but struggled to give anything more. This was the love my dad knew as a child, a mother who couldn’t and a father who didn’t really know how.
It’s only through Providence, now as a father myself, that I’m barely able to make out what lay behind and before me. To faintly see how the dominoes line up and where they might fall if I follow in my father and grandfather’s footsteps. Who is learning to accept some of his weaknesses and who fears to pass them on to that boy who shares his name. A father who has just enough humility to recognize I’m probably little better than my own father at giving what was never received, and to appreciate that other’s are needed to fill in some of those gaps.
I think Phil Knight’s father knew this as well. He continues:
Recently, I visited my alma mater to give a reading of my new memoir. Before going onstage, I took a tour of the library’s Bowerman Collection. I was keenly interested. And then I was floored. There, in one of the acid-free boxes, lay a sheaf of yellowed correspondence between Bill Bowerman and … Bill Knight.
My father and my surrogate. I knew the two had been acquainted as Oregon undergrads, but I had no idea they’d kept in touch through the years, or that, ahead of my arrival on campus, they’d exchanged a flurry of letters about young Phil — my education, athletic and otherwise.
For 60 years I’d assumed that I’d chosen my surrogate all by myself, or else that a wise fate had intervened. Reading those letters, I saw that my father had consciously and deliberately passed the baton to Bowerman, who graciously and carefully accepted.
For many years I held a deep resentment that another man, my son’s step-father, was so intimately connected with his life, coaching his sports teams, taking him fishing, building bicycle ramps together. I felt that my role as father had been diluted through no fault of my own. I had been shortchanged, relegated more to the position of distant fun uncle. But I no longer see it that way. After a decade, I’ve grown not only to appreciate the role he plays in our son’s life but even to admire their bond, which is so different my what he and I share.
Coming to terms with all of this has helped me to recognize now, as Bill Knight did, that fatherhood isn’t about holding that baton for the entire race. But instead, at the appropriate time, handing on to others we believe will carry it more graciously and carefully that we might have ourselves.