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Good Father v. Bad Dad

Was your father your friend? Your enemy? Or was he just a man doing his best?

Some men are excellent dads, but they are not necessarily the ones you’ll see on the posters for Father’s Day: They are not the chipper, grinning, and glad-handing guys shown in ads, but instead are the exhausted, underpaid, and under-appreciated men who commute to work, worry about their pay-checks, and keep quiet about their own anxieties so that the rest of their family won’t lose sleep.

My good father was one of those exhausted men. He worked nine hours a day and took both a bus and subway to get to the place where his family sewed bedspreads and curtains for a living. Travel took him about two hours each way. That’s 13 hours spent doing stuff he didn’t want to do so that we could live in a house and not in an apartment; it meant he had maybe five hours to be with us, his family.

Yet it never occurred to me that my father wouldn’t have time for me. OK, so I knew enough not to expect him to show up at plays I was in or to attend the award events that other families flocked to en-masse; not even after my mother died did he do this “stuff,” because this “stuff” was not something he considered very important for him to attend.

I knew he didn’t like meeting strangers and felt out of place amongst the other parents. With his grade-school education, he was shy in front of teachers. But he understood my projects were important to me—and that’s what mattered. My father encouraged me whole-heartedly despite the fact that he didn’t feel a need to be physically present to demonstrate his support.

I accepted his encouragement in the way he offered it and learned to play to a wider audience in public; it wasn’t his applause I was seeking, after all, because I knew I already had it. To him, I had nothing to prove.

When I got to college, I realized just how much pressure other parents—especially fathers—often put on their children. The girls I knew had to prove they were at the top of the class in order to justify their parents’ ambitions for them; they were terrified of disappointing their fathers.

I knew my father wouldn’t be disappointed in me unless I ended up: 1. married to a moron; or 2. in jail. Those were the only deal-breakers. Everything else we could work through.

A good father loves unconditionally but allows you to understand him well enough to make sense of his actions. A bad dad attaches an emotional price tag to everything, meaning that your success is his success, your failure is his failure, and, essentially, nothing is ever yours. He’s not there as a support or a guide, but as an overseer and a judge.

I’ve come to believe that the straightjacket of masculinity is just as confining as the straightjacket of femininity and that it’s just as hard to be a good dad as it is to be a good mom.

Not everybody can do it.

Actually, not very many people can do it—at least, not all of the time. Being a parent might not be the toughest job in the world, but it’s certainly one of the least easily assessed. Not until generations have passed can you discover whether you’ve been good at your job.

To those men who have, I want to raise a toast and say, “Thank you, from the heart, for all you’ve given us, and all you’ve done.”

Happy Father’s Day.

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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