Celebrating either Father’s Day and Mother’s Day can be unsettling. We know about flawed but still unspeakably wonderful parents. But we are also uncomfortably aware of parents who range from ineffective to downright demonic. And we don’t get to choose our parents—we get who we get.
My own father—Pat Milligan—is gone. I wish I could talk with him today. My brother and I believe that he was an abused child, who suffered greatly. But he overcame much of it, and was a devoted and responsible father—even though, like most of his generation, he was never verbally demonstrative.
I was asked once, in mid-life, how I got along with my father. I was (as sometimes happens) surprised at what came out of my mouth: “Oh, my father and I are friends. We get along fine. My father from childhood is still my enemy, and I haven’t forgiven him.” I’m glad to say that now I have—perhaps because now I know more about the limits of my own ability to protect my own children from the wounds of my upbringing.
My father was, essentially, an only child. He knew nothing about being a sibling. He had four kids, and reared them successfully.
To the best of my knowledge, my father was the first one in his family’s history to get a degree. His four children have ten degrees among them. That’s an enormous achievement on his part. He reared us in a home in which we were surrounded by books and magazines, and he read “Time” magazine religiously. He was in church every Sunday, and accepted posts of leadership in the church. He paid his bills, never smoked or drank, and to my knowledge was never unfaithful to his wife. That’s a lot to say about a father.
So he was flawed. But I could have done far worse in the luck of the draw.
But on Father’s Day, when we’re celebrating fathers, I don’t hear enough celebration of the privileges of being a father.
And the terror.
I’m a father times five—three genetic offspring, and two step-kids, who have most generously and marvelously adopted me as an additional father (and I wouldn’t take anything for the privilege!) I didn’t have much of a hand in rearing them, but I was smart enough to marry their mother, and they have open-heartedly let me into their family.
Not every man gets to be a father. But we who do learn things—and find joys—that we could never experience in any other way.
During President Kennedy’s time in office he and Jackie lost a baby to “hyaline membrane disease.” (I was blessedly unaware later, when our third child was born with “respiratory distress syndrome,” that that was essentially the same thing. We did not lose her!) But my memory is that at the press conference after the baby died, the President said (apparently paraphrasing Francis Bacon), “Having children is giving hostages to fate.”
The chilling reality of that quote has struck me many times through the years. Becoming a parent means putting out there into the world people who are part of our very selves—flesh of our flesh, bone of our bones—and we are finally powerless, no matter how hard we try, to protect them from the dangers of the world. (And, sometimes, even from ourselves.) What happens to them happens to us, and nothing can stop that.
But oh, the joys of being a proud parent—about which so many volumes have been written. All three of my children finished college degrees—one of them with high honors. Three of my five children are parents—and I’ve told them both that they are better parents than I was. How gratifying is that! And all seven of their children are people I’m proud to know, and to claim as kin.
It’s often been said that children don’t come with a manual, and we don’t have to have a license (so far!) to become a parent. We have less formal training for parenthood than we do for driving a car. It’s a gigantic undertaking, and nobody gets it completely right. It’s always a dizzying blend of euphoria and worry, pride and terror, fun and guilt.
In “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Oscar Wilde said, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” Every parent needs forgiveness from their children—for the things we did wrong, for the things we failed to do, for the things we failed to understand, for the times when we put ourselves ahead of our sacred duties as parents. The lucky ones among us get that forgiveness.
SO! On this Father’s Day, I want to say a huge thanks to all five of my kids, for the joys and the privileges of being their father. I want to ask them once more for forgiveness for my shortcomings. And I want to tell them how proud I am of every one of them. Without them I would never have known the rich joys of fatherhood.