I recently had lunch with a good friend, a Korean-American husband and dad with an impressive career in the federal government. We discussed fatherhood, particularly the central role fathers play in imparting identity to their children.
My friend, like most other first- and second-generation Korean Americans, is doing a superb job of communicating Korean culture to his kids, including speaking the native tongue at home. Yet I pressed him: did not his American identity now trump his Korean heritage? Shouldn’t he be exposing his progeny to American culture and history as much as that of Korean, if not more so? As Americans, mustn’t they be raised as knowledgeable and proud of their American identity?
My friend, a patriotic American himself, had to agree.
The tension between the culture of one’s ethnic identity and the culture of one’s adopted land is an especially relevant one in the United States, where almost 15 percent of the population are immigrants. It is also front and center in former TAC editor Michael Brendan Dougherty’s new book, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home.
Dougherty (or MBD, as many TAC readers know him) is the product of an Irishman and an American woman. After their fling, his father remained in Ireland, married another woman, and raised his own family, and was thus largely absent from MBD’s childhood. The book is a series of honest, impassioned letters by MBD to his distant father, whom he deeply loves. Apart from demonstrating MBD’s remarkable proclivity for polished prose, the book offers a profound reflection on the connection between fatherhood and national identity. It also indicates that MBD, a father himself, is experiencing that tension between his Irish heritage and his American identity in raising his own children.
Dougherty’s autobiographical narrative makes a compelling case for the necessity of intimate father-child relationships. He writes: “I’ve been told all my life that I didn’t need my father…. I was encouraged to believe that I was better off without him, that my broken home was just another modern family, no worse than any other.”
Yet MBD’s experience undermined that narrative. Raised by his single mother, he yearned for a father figure who would love him, encourage him, and impart to him all the passions and life lessons needed to become a man. He mourns: “In all that time in America, none of the many substitute father figures in my life, my uncles or teachers, came and put an ash baseball bat in my hands.” This feeling of an essential deficiency in his upbringing extended even to the shape and style of his community: “These houses were built to lean on each other because the homes inside were broken…. An architecture of fatherlessness.”
Perhaps both as a cause and a result of this institutionalized American fatherlessness (50 percent of our nation’s children witness the breakup of their parents’ marriages), our culture encourages a certain cynicism towards fatherhood (see, for example, the portrayals of dads on most American sitcoms). It also promotes a sense of liberation from patriarchal customs and ideas. “We live in an age of disinheritance, with longings that we are discouraged from acknowledging,” MBD writes. This tendency has had deleterious effects on American society. This “myth of liberation—a liberation already accomplished—made my generation into powerless narcissists.” The more America encourages this liberation ideology, what MBD calls “a curator’s approach to life” where everyone can create their own bespoke identity, the more vapid and meaningless our lives appear. “We could try on any number of identities,” MBD writes, adding, “The project of self-definition seems epic and unimportant at the same time.”
Dougherty rightly perceives that this groundlessness doesn’t just injure individuals’ personal sense of place and purpose—it also ravages the broader national identity. He explains:
This myth of liberation was like a solvent that had slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life. It dissolved the bonds that held together past, present, and future. It dissolved the social bonds that hold together a community, and that make up a home.
Here is perhaps MBD’s most salient observation: fatherhood is critical to national welfare, not just for wonkish reasons like improved educational opportunities and reduced crime, but because it perpetuates a people. “The life of a nation proceeds from the father and the son,” he argues. The degree to which men are committed to being intimately involved in the lives of their children and in communicating truths of religious faith, work ethic, and family and civic responsibilities is perhaps the most influential factor in a nation’s health.
This reflects the old truth that the family, led by the father, is the “first society.” Seeing the deep, varied connections with his father, MBD writes: “It began to dawn on me that our relationship wasn’t a series of events, but an unalterable and primordial fact. The events were just the record of how we coped with this truth.” It was because of the recognition of this indelible union with his father that MBD himself promised to prioritize his own marriage. “From a very young age,” he writes, “I vowed that if I had children I would not raise them in a broken home like mine.”
I relate very personally to Dougherty’s reflections on the role of the father. Unlike MBD, my father was a constant, powerfully potent force in my life. I am indebted to him for the many sacrifices he made on my behalf, and the focused, intentional efforts he made to communicate to me masculinity, Christianity, and patriotism. When he died of cancer four days before the birth of my first child, I said it felt like God had died. The raw, almost blasphemous tone of such a remark took many people aback, but what I was communicating was that it felt almost impossible to imagine a world without my father. How could I live the Christian faith, how could I go to work, how could I love my wife or raise my children without his presence and wisdom?
Now as a father of three, I aim to communicate that uniquely American vision of the good life to my children. My father was himself of Polish descent, something most people who knew him were well aware of. Yet he was an American to the core: a veteran of the Vietnam war, a devout member of his church, and an active member of his community. This segues into my biggest critique of MBD’s story. Dougherty, though in possession of an American heritage that dates back to the 19th century, seems at times overly focused on communicating Irish culture to his own progeny. He sings them Irish songs and teaches them Irish Gaelic. He’ll presumably impart to them the same stories of the Easter Rising that so captivated him.
Given MBD’s experience, I get this “Erin go bragh” mentality—Ireland serves as connective tissue fusing him to his distant father. Yet Dougherty is fundamentally American. He may have grown up in the ugly “anonymous suburbs of New York,” but it is to such communities, however imperfect, that he owes his first and unparalleled allegiance. I myself, half-Irish and half-Polish, would like my children to have some knowledge and appreciation of their European ancestry. But this is far outweighed by the need to communicate a coherent, compelling American identity to them. Most essentially, they need to hurl a baseball, not a sliotar; to recognize the blues, not the bodhran; and to cherish barbecue, not bangers and mash. I suppose I could sing them Irish lullabies, but why, when they have such a rich American inheritance to imbibe?
I think Dougherty, whatever his Irish predilections, knows this truth. He writes quite stirringly:
Nationalism does not spring from the meatheaded conviction that one’s nation is best in every way, but from something like a panicked realization that nobody in authority or around you is taking the nation seriously, that everyone is engaged in some private enterprise, while the common inheritance is being threatened or robbed. It might put on a mask of invincibility, but it does so in full fearful knowledge of the nation’s vulnerability.
Ours is an America vulnerable to assaults from a cynical, anti-patriarchal “chronological snobbery,” as C.S. Lewis termed it, that condemns the men (and women) who founded this nation with much blood, sweat, and tears. My Irish and Polish forefathers who traversed the Atlantic to participate in the American experiment were enchanted with that vision. They aimed not only to adopt American culture, but to make it an inheritance for their children. For our nation to survive, we need fathers, be they of Irish, Korean, or Indian extraction, to do the same.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.