by Joy Jones
“Daddy, what’s the biggest number of numbers?” I remember asking my father that question when I was five years old. I was recounting this episode recently to my friend, Gwen, explaining how my father kept me counting higher and higher.
Whenever I reached a number that seemed really big he would ask, ”Can you add one to that?” and because I always could, I kept going. “And that’s how I learned the concept of infinity,” I told Gwen.
“I always love it when you talk about your Dad,” she said in a wistful tone. Her longing surprised me because I thought she’d had a father in the home. However, her father had worked the evening shift so he was rarely home when she was home. Then he died when she was in junior high school.
And that sigh in her voice reminded me one more time, how very wonderful – and increasingly rare it is – to have a father.
June is not only the month for Father’s Day, it is the most popular month for weddings. This June marks the 60th wedding anniversary of my parents. In wedding day pictures, my mother looks ecstatic. My father looks petrified. Not long ago, I asked him what was he thinking at that time. “Wondering whether or not I was doing the right thing,” he replied.
“So why did you get married?” I asked.
“Because I wanted to have children.”
How times have changed. Love-marriage-baby carriage is no longer the automatic order of things. And even if you start off following the traditional path, there’s no guarantee that you’ll last beyond the proverbial seven-year-itch period. According to the US Census, a first marriage is likely to unravel with a separation in year seven, a divorce in year eight. It is well known that the divorce rate is slightly below 50%.
I have often had friends tell me point blank that they envy or even resent me for having a ‘real’ father. I believe that having a ‘real’ father is not just the result of a man who takes his responsibility to his children seriously although that’s a critical component. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a confluence of conditions to make a good father – things which now seem to be in short supply.
You’re probably thinking that a good role model is necessary. That certainly makes it better, but I’m not so sure it’s a requirement. My father’s father died when he was twelve yet I give my dad high marks on his parenting skills. One of the most conscientious and committed dads I know, ‘Bumpy’, is a man who did not meet his father until he was a teenager, and then only had conflicted and intermittent contact with his dad. With three marriages, Bumpy’s’ own track record hasn’t exactly been smooth and easy either, yet he is known as ‘Father Hen’ in his extended family because of his active and nurturing role in his sons’ lives. It’s easier when you have a good example, but it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to figure out that if your father didn’t do the right things, then doing the opposite of what he did might be a useful starting point.
Being a decent father is helped by having a wise wife, ideally the woman with whom you created the children. Being a good mother is not only how you treat your children. It’s also how you help shape your children’s view of their father. As I got older, I could see some of my parents’ shortcomings – not just as parents but as a husband and as a wife. If either had sought a divorce, I would have understood their reasons. But they did not bad-mouth one another to me or my siblings. In fact, my mother consistently undertook it to underscore to me the importance of my father’s contribution to the family. After I graduated from college, she would often say to me, “Don’t think just because you have a good job you don’t need a man to have a baby. You may not need the man, but the child needs a father.”