(This article was written for Parenting Now and first appeared in The Register-Guard here.)
I have a question for all the fathers and father-figures out there. When do you think fatherhood begins? Some of you might say when you find out your partner is pregnant. Others say it’s when you first see that sonogram or hear baby’s heartbeat for the first time. Still others say it really hits you when you first get to see and hold your new little one in your arms. But, what if I said something different? What if I told you that fatherhood for you began when you were born? That fatherhood started and was being nourished as you were learning to walk and to talk. Its seeds were being planted as you were learning to ride a bike, to get back up after you fell, or when you experienced your first heartbreak. How did your father or father-figure respond as you experienced these things? Was he encouraging and loving? Was he distant or demanding? Was he there? I believe that your thoughts and feelings on fatherhood…both good and bad…start with your father figure.
For some of you this may bring up really bad thoughts and memories. Perhaps your father was abusive or angry, maybe he was tough and hardworking, physically present but emotionally not so much. Some of you are having good and pleasant memories come up: games of catch in the backyard, learning new skills from Dad or just spending time with him. Whatever is coming up for you, take a moment and pick out just 1-2 words that you would use to describe your father.
Got those words? Great! Now, what I want you to do is think about your own child. Picture them all grown up, 20, 30 or 40 years from now. And someone asks them…what 1-2 words would you use to describe your father?
What words do you want them to use to describe you?
We use this activity a lot in a workshop I facilitate called Boot Camp for New Dads. We invite dads to share their words for their fathers and we get a pretty mixed bag of emotions and feelings about their dads. But, almost every single dad in our workshop is very clear about what they want kids to say about them. They mention words like caring, present, engaged, funny and loving. They often think long and hard and you can tell that this activity is stirring up a lot of feelings and emotions.
Thinking about how someone will talk about you and remember you to others is a scary and powerful motivator. It makes us look long and hard at our actions and our values. It makes us examine our thoughts and every interaction we have with our children. Are we earning those words that we want them to say? Or are we perhaps creating words or memories for them that we are not so fond of?
The great news is that we at Parenting Now believe that it is never, ever too late to earn those words you hope they’ll say about you someday. You just need to get started. Take some time to lean into this activity today…think about the words you would use to describe your own dad or father-figure. Write them down. Then take a long hard look at what you think are the words your child would use to describe you right now at this moment. Are those the words that you want? What words do you want your child to use to describe you?
Write them down, then go out and earn them!
This is fatherhood…