I spent this past Father’s Day at a soccer tournament up in Rockland County, alternating between cheering my son on and fearing he would drop of heat stroke. It is both exactly what I would have expected to be doing with a twelve-year-old son, and nothing I would have expected to be doing – exactly because that’s what twelve-year-old boys do, and nothing because I have essentially no interest in sports, and neither does my wife, so where did he come from?
Of course, kids are often wildly different from their parents in interests, abilities and personality. And they are often very similar. Genes can lie dormant for generations before popping up again unexpectedly – and nurture is funny, too, as often as not triggering reaction rather than replication.
But perhaps because I am an adoptive parent, I feel especially attuned to the patterns of similarity and difference. When my son and I share a familial joke, I’m especially delighted because there’s no reason to assume we’re both “made” to find the same things funny. And when he rejects something that I love, I wonder: did I introduce it to him in the wrong way? or are we just . . . made different? And perhaps because my son is approaching bar mitzvah, I’ve been doing a lot of accounting of my parenting in a period in my son’s life that is on the verge of formal completion.
A little more than a decade ago, I wrote a meditation on fatherhood that I still return to, over and over, partly because I’m incredibly vain about re-reading my work (or the small portion thereof that I think is any good) and partly because its themes really do recur over and over in my life, in different forms. Back then, I thought about fatherhood in precisely the terms Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus called unknown: as a matter of “conscious begetting.” Whether through nature or through nurture, my job was to bring a new being into being. How does one do that?
Well, I assumed – I can hardly bring a new being into being if I have not yet achieved “being” myself. I’d best get on that. And so I did, setting out – consciously – to make myself into the person who would be the proper father to this child.
From Caitlyn Jenner to Rachel Dolezal, conscious begetting is very much in the news these days – self-begetting, in their cases, but it’s always self-begetting, isn’t it; to say “I will mold this child” is to say, “I will make myself into the one who will mold this child.” And there’s something that’s been sticking in my craw about the chatter on both sides of these stories, and that is precisely the implicit conception of being that both sides share. Caitlyn Jenner either “is” a woman or she “is” a man deluding himself that he can be a woman. Rachel Dolezal either “is” a black woman or she “is” a white woman lying to people about being a black woman. And then we scream at each other about that “is,” and which “is” is true – and call each other names if we get it “wrong.”
But I do not experience life that way, as a core of being that is denied or accepted, repressed or revealed. Oh, I’ve had moments of that kind of experience, sure, moments of epiphany, or existential terror; moments when my life all seemed to make sense, or to be revealed as nonsense. But they are moments. And after each moment comes another moment.
Or, to quote Joyce:
Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.
I have a self, and I keep meeting him – he can’t be avoided or denied, not forever. But he also can’t be pinned like a butterfly. We do not seek ourselves, find ourselves, and end the search; we walk through ourselves. That is the search.
I thought, when I wrote that piece about fatherhood, that I needed to figure “it” out – the big “it,” the big “is” – before I could take on the mantle of fatherhood. How else could I pass “it” on – how else could I nurture another being to the fullness of “is?” It seemed like too big a burden to take on personally, alone – too awesome and too awful. I needed to off-load some of that responsibility, in my case onto tradition.
The bad news is: that responsibility can’t be off-loaded. You get no breaks as a father for saying, to your spouse or your community or your kid’s school, or your kid – or your god – “I did everything right; whatever’s wrong must be your fault.”
The good news is: the responsibility isn’t as awesome, or as awful, as it seemed. Nobody has “it” figured out, because there is no end to the figuring. Fatherhood, at least for me, isn’t being a rock, a love that never changes – perhaps because I “am” not a rock. It’s falling in love, over and over, with a creature that is constantly changing, as you are also changing.
And even if you fail, you succeed, in that you have left an impression – an impression of love – in a heart that will never be erased.
We disappoint, we disappear, we die, but we don’t.
Happy belated father’s day.