Tuesday, December 7, 2010

They make you want to be a better man

Yes, I stole that title from a cheesy line in a movie. But it's true, and I think it might be a nearly universal feeling among fathers. Mothers, at least the ones I know, seem to be caught up with wanting to be the best mothers they can be right now for their children. They are focused on the decisions they make in child rearing. And while men are also concerned about being good fathers in the here and now, our real hang up is about image.

We want to be perfect in our children's eyes - the funniest, the strongest, the smartest, the coolest, the most successful. In short, we want to be superheroes to our children. Why? Well, first of all, it's hard to convince adults that we're superheroes, but with kids we can pull it off. But mostly it's because we feel that we teach by example. By being strong ourselves, by striving for what we want, we teach our children to be and do the same.

Of course, many women also model many of these traits, especially when it comes to teaching their daughters to be strong and independent. But at the risk of going out on a limb, I would venture to say that, until relatively recently, its men who have been the most concerned about the image and character they reflect back to their children (albeit boys) - how they deal with others in the outside world, their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. A man's worth, after all, has always been measured in the public sphere.

So I shouldn't be surprised to find that since having children, considerations such as where I am in life, what I've achieved, who I am as a person, my character, have all weighed heavily on my mind. When I bring these concerns up to Julie, she gives me a very puzzled look. "But you're a wonderful father," she says, "That's what matters." Maybe, but it's not good enough, even if it should be. I have to achieve something. I have to be able to look at myself in a mirror and say, I contributed something worthwhile to this world I live in, that I'm doing what I want to be doing, not just what pays the bills. Otherwise, how do I look my children in the eyes and tell them to strive to do what they love to do, to be who they are, to take all necessary risks, to compromise nothing when it comes to their potential.

I've compromised a lot - taken the easy path. We all do, and I'm not beating myself up about it. But still, how do I ask from my children what I haven't been willing to do myself? I'm not particularly fond of my job, but I do it anyway. I love reading, writing, thinking, but don't find much time for these passions. I used to love the piano, but haven't played one in years. And the callouses on the tips of my fingers from playing guitar, they're gone.

None of this should come as a surprise. As John Lennon said, "life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." But kids can help to refocus you. They can make you a better man. I have this blog, and through it I've taken the initiative to actually do something I've always wanted to do - write. I've also started querying magazines for article ideas I have. It may all come to very little, but I'm giving it a try, putting myself out there, at least a little.

And for mothers out there everywhere, when a father spends too much time at the office, or seems obsessed with relaunching his career or taking up an old hobby, do gently remind him that his family comes first. But also keep in mind that family just might be the driving force behind his seemingly foolish choices. Unless he's quite the exception to the rule, he needs to feel valued and successful out there to be a superhero at home.

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