"I'm a father. That's what matters most.
Nothing matters more."
Copyright © 2018
by Ralph F. Couey
I remember clearly the first time I held our first newborn. I was in awe at the power of life as it lay cradled in my arms, and feeling absolutely unqualified for the task that lay ahead. I remembered my Dad, and how easy he made fatherhood seem. He was always confident and resolute. Never once did I ever see him unsure of anything. His decisions were perfect, and he always had the right words and the correct solutions. He was a man of immense dignity and a commanding presence that was always in the house, even when he wasn't. I thought about all that as my new son stared up at me, and hoping that I would be to him at least a fraction of what my Dad was to me.
Fathers have a compelling influence on their children's lives. That's the way it's supposed to be. For a girl, if she does not get the attention, affection, and support from her father, she will later look for that in other men, in very destructive ways. Much of the confidence a young woman has will have been instilled by her father. And when she chooses a young man, chances are he will have some of her father in him. It is interesting to note that Robert E. Lee had three daughters, none of whom married. As one said much later, "None of them, in terms of character, courage, and inner strength came close to father."
Boys grow up (although some women would dispute that) and at some point, we become men. That moment of transition is different for all of us. For me, it wasn't graduating high school, leaving home to be on my own, or even getting married. In that moment in the presence of my infant son, for whose life I was now totally responsible, I realized that my childhood was over.
With some exceptions, we idolize our fathers. Even in those difficult teen years, they are fundamentally vital to our growth. And when that mantle of fatherhood fell upon our shoulders, we knew the model for which we would follow.
Children need walls to define proper behavior. They need strong examples of morality and ethics, and the willingness to stand their ground. They need to know that authority needs to be respected, and there are cultural and societal expectations that must be fulfilled. Above all, they need to know that life will throw at them some excruciatingly difficult and exquisitely painful moments, which have to be faced head-on. Dad is the one who teaches these things, and the one who must endure the anger of that malleable soul in order to imprint those most important lessons. As one who endured such conversations, it is hard to take. As one who tired to deliver those conversations, they're even harder to give.
A man is measured by the company he keeps, therefore he chooses his real friends with care. If he associates with men of strong character, high morals and ethics, and unbreakable determination, then he will also be known by these attributes. If he associates with those of dishonest, dishonorable, or even criminal character, then he will be tarred with that same brush. His honor is his most treasured possession and he knows that as his children see the behaviors that he honors in the quality of his associations, they will instinctively strive to emulate those qualities in their relationships. As Thomas Carlyle said, “Show me the man you honor, and I will know what kind of man you are, for it shows me what your ideal of manhood is and what kind of man you long to be.”
As men, as fathers, we will always be held to a high standard. We must choose to rise to that level and live up to those expectations. None of us live in a vacuum; there are too many others who depend upon us and look up to us and we must earn that trust and that respect.
As I look back on my life as a father, I can see, first off, all the mistakes I made and how they hurt my kids. I can see with painful regret the many times I put other things, in retrospect unimportant, ahead of my responsibilities to my kids. I know now that all those years I spent trying to find my identity of self, that I should have looked solely to my children and realized that my most important identity was "Daddy." That's the trap we walk into all too often. We think that if we're good at a job and bring home a good paycheck providing food and shelter, and sometimes a few really nice things, that ought to be enough. We strive continually to achieve professionally, to attain a position of honor and respect in the job, while forgetting that the most important job we will ever have are those young lives we have at home. Don't get me wrong, money is essential to survival. But in the final analysis, jobs are temporary. Children are forever. Our willingness or failure to remember that will mark their lives for better or worse.
It's not easy being a father; harder still to be a Dad. It really is the hardest thing we will ever do. We have only a short space of time, less than ten years really, to mold them into good people, and it is time that cannot ever be wasted.
If we done this task right, or even mostly right, there will come that Father's Day when we look upon our happy, well-adjusted, and successful children as adults. And maybe, just maybe, we'll hear from them those magic words...
"Thanks, Dad. You did all right."