I have had many fathers. I had two fathers who saved my life. I had grandfathers, uncles and friends, and I have learned from all of them. My brother was my best father. How many fathers have you had? One? Perhaps you have had more than that. Let me explain.
My dad, Bill Deguire, was a brash, effervescent man. We loved each other dearly, but he was not fully equipped for his role. Although devoted to me, he was self-absorbed. I could count on him in a crisis; he rescued me while I was engulfed in flame. But his temper was fierce and unpredictable. Sometimes I didn’t feel safe with him.
My second father was my surgeon, Dr. John Constable. He operated on me countless times and rebuilt my entire body. More importantly, he was a stable, caring presence throughout my childhood. Usually I stayed in the hospital alone, without my parents. But Dr. Constable was a daily presence, looking out for me, and explaining my medical care. My dad couldn’t help me feel safe, but Dr. Constable could.
I could go on, explaining every father figure I have ever had, but I think you see the point. We get one set of biological parents, a mother and a father, and that is that. However, the universe sends us multiple people to care for us. Thank God for that. The chance that your biological parents will be able to perfectly meet all your physical and emotional needs is infinitesimally small.
It is hard to accept that our parents have limitations. I spend years with clients working on this issue. Sometimes they tell me that their parents were perfect, only to acknowledge later that their parents failed them miserably. Sometimes clients believe that if they only try harder, their parent will meet their needs. Clients can cling to this hope for decades, waiting for their disappointing parent to finally come through. They bargain, they try harder. Maybe if they just smile and don’t argue. Maybe if they graduate college and make them proud. Maybe this Christmas will be different.
We cling so hard to our parents, hoping to get everything we need from them. But parents are people, and they have been around the block a few times themselves. Parents were also raised by their own limited and imperfect families. They may be frankly incapable of giving us what we need.
Often, as I hear these sad tales, I notice other people in my clients’ lives. Maybe there is a best friend, who is utterly reliable. Maybe there is an older brother who is loving and emotionally sensitive. Maybe there is an aunt who calls them when they need help. (I have had all of these people, by the way).
One thing we know about getting through trauma is that you don’t need to have perfect parents. You just need somebody. Resilient folks often come from devastating backgrounds of neglect and abuse, but they will smile, telling you about their grandfather, or pastor, or a really kind neighbor. It turns out that people can get by with being loved and seen in other kinds of relationships. They do need somebody, but it doesn’t have to be a parent.
The problem is that folks may not notice who is truly there for them. They focus sadly on the disappointing mother, or the distant father. They try and try and try to make these relationships work. That’s ok, but it can take away from enjoying the healthy relationships they do have.
I loved my dad. He scared me sometimes, but he taught me about theater, history, loyalty, and having fun.
I also loved my step-father. He was not paternal, but he taught me about enjoying nature.
I also loved my surgeon. He was not verbally expressive, but I felt 100% safe with him.
I loved my brother, who turned out to be the best father I ever had. He died young, but he taught me about kindness, listening, and honesty.
All of these men were fathers to me. Look around. How many fathers did you have? Maybe it was your old coach, or a teacher, or a cousin, or an uncle. If you have had several father figures, you might thank them on this Fathers’ Day. Imagine what a gift that could be to a man who has been there for you, to be remembered and thanked for his kindness. I can just see their smiles now, opening up your email, or reading your text.
To all the fathers, and men who give their father-like love to others, Happy Father’s Day. You make the world a better place.
Note: This resilience blog will return in July, 2019.