– Harry Chapin
We sat at my daughter's kitchen table catching up on the first full day of our Christmas visit to Washington. Her son, my first grandchild, Lucas, sat in his high chair as engrossed in the proceedings at a level that you would not expect from a six-month-old. Distracted as he sized up the new additions to his surroundings, he did not hear his father come in the door.
As his dad entered his field of view, Lucas’ reaction was instantaneous; a smile filled his whole face and he shook with excitement. The bond between the two was obvious and I could feel a smile form on my face. Had my nervous system not been fully developed, I might have shaken like my grandson. Instead, I could feel a tear form in my eye.
As I lay in bed that night my thoughts wandered to my father. There is a picture on my Mom's wall that shows the connection that he had with me. It was taken in front of our apartment building in the Bronx and it shows my mom and grandparents dutifully looking towards the camera. My dad is staring intently at me.
I can relate to my father in that instant as I have experienced that miraculous bond that was present the first time I laid eyes on my newborn children. However, the reciprocation is not automatic but earned. The excitement that literally bubbled up through Lucas' body is cultivated with love, attention, and time. He has learned that his father can be depended on, not only for nourishment and care but also for unconditional love.
While I know from the look in my father's eyes in that picture that he loved me, he was not capable at that point in his life of fully investing in our relationship. Damaged by the flawed relationship with his father, he immersed himself in his work instead of his family. I wonder if he ever experienced the joy of a greeting like the one Lucas gave to my son-in-law.
Gift-giving provided an example of my dad's detachment from the acts of parenting; while the tags may have indicated "from Mom and Dad," they were picked out, purchased from the store, and wrapped by my mom. He surely made occasional suggestions but these were probably based more on the hopes and dreams that he had for me than my actual interests. There is not much time to get to know what makes your son click when you are working seven days a week and getting home as bedtime is approaching.
This is not to say that my father was completely detached from forming holiday traditions. Every year he and my uncles would mysteriously disappear from the Christmas Eve festivities claiming to need something from the store. My younger self never connected this to the fact that Santa would visit our house not while we slept, but while we were visiting with the extended family.
There is one Christmas that stands out to me because my mother turned the usual Holiday routine on its head. She and my Dad had hit a rough patch and were temporarily separated. Not willing to keep up the charade of "from Mom and Dad” under those circumstances, she informed my father that he was responsible for his own gift-giving that year.
Yes, the guilt (and a little bit of passive aggressiveness towards my mom) probably pushed him to over-indulge. I do not remember everything under the tree that year but the thrill of receiving things that came directly from him still resonates in my memory.
As I navigated my way through fatherhood, I concentrated on being a different type of father to my children. While I could not always avoid working long hours, I made sure to prioritize family time during weekends. I also took on the responsibility for gift shopping, ensuring that gift tags stating "From Mom and Dad" were accurate.
While society pretends that it views the participation of dads in the raising of their kids as essential (and blames the absent ones for its ills), it does little to facilitate the ability of dads to bond with their children. The United States is “one of six countries in the world — and the only rich country — without any form of national paid leave.”
Canadian fathers are given at least 24 weeks of paid paternity leave by the government; this “exceptional” country does not provide any. Luckily for Lucas, his Dad's employer does provide leave, allowing them the time to get to know each other and facilitating that burst of joy that my grandson experiences when his Dad walks into the room. My father was not even allowed in the delivery room when I was born and, after waiting through hours of my extended delivery, went back to the office to await news of my arrival.
As I spend the week with my daughter's expanding family, I am hopeful that they are not outliers. All children deserve the full involvement of all of their parents. Holidays are meant for spending time with family and that time is so much more meaningful when the celebrating is preceded by just getting reacquainted.
Carl Petersen is a parent advocate for public education, particularly for students with special education needs, who serves as the Education Chair for the Northridge East Neighborhood Council. As a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race, he was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action. Dr. Diane Ravitch has called him “a valiant fighter for public schools in Los Angeles.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.
About the Creator
Carl Petersen is a parent advocate for students with SpEd needs and public education. As a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race, he was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action. Opinions are his own.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions