Fatherhood. I tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder on anything in my life than being a parent, being a dad — and with joy. It’s not hard work, it’s joyful work. But it wasn’t always that way.
I was afraid of being a dad, and especially afraid of being a dad for a son, because of the relationship I had with my dad. Once when I was young, I told him that I was never going to be like him, and I stormed off. I thought I had really hurt him, really showed him. I must have been about 16 years old.
He came down to my room, walked in and said to me said, “I couldn’t be more proud of you.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time because I didn’t know my dad’s history. He said he didn’t want to be like his dad either.
My dad grew up in a very abusive household, and I didn’t know why I always was uncomfortable and afraid of my grandfather on my dad’s side until I was about 30. We had a phone conversation, and I said I just want to talk to you as a man. I told him that I didn’t know how to be his son. He said I don’t know how to be your dad, but if you will sit through the uncomfortable moments of silence and awkwardness, I promise to do the same — and we’ll figure it out together. So, I flew my dad out to Baltimore, and we sat there and we talked. He started telling me about his childhood, and I finally understood why he never took me fishing when I wanted to go fishing, why he was never really a close dad to me. He said, “I didn’t want to be like my dad either.”
Here was this 16-year-old kid looking back at him thinking, “What? I said something that was supposed to hurt you, and you’re now telling me how proud you are of me?” Then he said something that I will never forget: “However, son, you had better replace what you’ve learned from me with something else, because if you don’t, you will grow up to be exactly like me.”
It’s taken me into my 40s to be able to replace enough in me and make it mine in order to be a decent dad, now at 53. I feel like I’m just starting to be a good dad, and my kids are all growing up. But if you don’t know who you are, and you don’t know what it means to be a man, you’re never going to be able to pass that on in a positive way — and we have a grave responsibility. In the abusive family that I grew up in, where abuse now has spread through the generations, somebody has to be the man, to put their hand up, to catch the fist and say, “That’s not the way a man treats a woman or anyone else.”
Raphe is 12 years old now. We were sitting on the couch on vacation, and he was talking about girls, and he said, “You know, how do you know when she’s the one, dad?” And I said, “Well, you’re not going to know for several years.” At 12, you don’t know who the one is, but we joked for a while. Finally, I said, “You’re going to know when you meet the woman when you want to to be a better man for her. She’ll be the one who makes you a better person. And not because they’re molding you, but because you want to.” I got choked up as I was saying that, thinking about Tanya. Here’s my 12-year-old son, who leaned in and didn’t mock me for the tears in my eyes. He hugged me, and whispered in my ear, “I love how much you love mom.”
The examples that we have to set for our children are important, and they’re authentic, they’re real, they’re natural, and those are the ones our kids will emulate. Those will be the ones our kids crave.
This Father’s Day, they are celebrating you as a dad and as a man. Be the best man you can be.