My Sixteen-year-old Fatherhood Inspiration
In 1976 I heard a song that possibly changed my idea of fatherhood forever.
Not that I was a father in 1976—I was a 16-year-old Service Station Technician, specializing in vehicle fuel distribution, windshield cleansing and maintenance, fatigued internal combustion petroleum replacement specialist, and motor vehicle tire replacement artist. I drove a beige 1969 Volkswagen Type 2 with a Cal Custom air filter and a very loud cassette deck. Frampton came alive that year.
I was storing tires along the upper rack that lined the north wall of Stadium Shell Service directly above the solvent tank, and the battered greasy AM radio on the workbench was playing a then two-year-old hit: Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”. This a teary-eyed emo piece about the protagonist’s relationship with a growing son, and how the singer’s own preoccupation with self-realization and career returned to haunt him via his son’s rejection of him for the same reasons. “He’d grown up just like me” was the repeating rejoinder. It was some sort of Karmic revenge, with our singer facing the torment he’d dispensed as a father.
Something changed right then. Not in some strange folk singer-as-deity kind of way, though.
I considered my relationship with my own father, and the accepted paradigm of the time. Dads worked hard and died early—the average at the time was something like 15 years before their spouses. Work hard, die early. That’s what men did in the sixties and seventies. And in the process of all this working hard and dying early, a father’s role was to be the family hard-ass and not be bothered with the emotional welfare of his children. That was part of women’s work with the vacuuming and PTA and the cooking—it was not fatherhood.
Dad took his sixties fatherhood role seriously.
He worked very hard for his family, was appropriately gruff and strict (he was a former Naval officer), bought his gin by the case at the package store, and spent his emotional energy at the office. He was a good man, and was the best father he knew how to be- 100%. Good enough we named our son after him.
But, like the father in the song, Dad kept his emotional distance except when angry or frustrated. I wanted more—needed more, which was not in fashion at the time. He hadn’t time for his youngest son—I had siblings that, at best, distracted him. By the time I came along, he was pretty much “over” parenting. I didn’t know any father that spent much time with their kids at all.
It was years before I understood that, as a physician specializing in helping patients with often severe life-shattering injuries, Dad had to channel his empathy towards his patients.
These folks were often recently paralyzed or worse, and he had to help them transition to an entirely new life. The few contacts I had with his patients and staff indicated he was far more patient and understanding with them than perhaps his family. Understandable, given the nature of his work.
My friend’s dads were very similar—work hard, die early. Sure, there were Little League fathers but as I was not the baseball type, I knew none of them.
The song got me thinking—what would life be like with a father who made his son the first priority? A father who was always present to guide the pathway to adulthood, to help a son understand how life worked? A man who had the time to equip a son with the tools necessary to be a kind, powerful, productive, and caring human being? A father who knew what it felt like to hate school and love to learn?
What would THAT be like, I thought in my brown uniform pants with the bright yellow Shell uniform shirt? Is that even possible? What would that take? And how about that Equal Rights Act—part of the 1976 Republican Party Platform- (how’s that for delicious irony?) will that change familial relationships?
Because I knew I didn’t want to end up like the singer—or the singer’s son.
27 years later when I had the chance to become the father about which I’d dreamed, I grabbed it with both hands.
I had a spouse who did her best to understand why I’d want to do something like that (and how much it would cost!) and took a chance. She took a chance that maybe I was right—maybe there was a better way to raise a child than what she or I had experienced.
Perhaps our son’s experience with fatherhood could be stronger and better.
I think it has.