In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, ‘That’s My Boy’, Rob Pluke explores the gift of difference our sons can give us and how fathers must manage their disappointment if they are to receive it.
I was raised in a family that believed in sport, and as a faithful adherent, I had the idea that sport was the royal road to self-worth. And then along came my children. One of them made the mistake of fetching my old bat from the closet, and swinging it around with promise. “Aha!” I thought, “A star is born”. In two tics, I was down at the local sports shop. I bought the right sized bat, gloves, pads, box, bowling machine and balls. Oh, and a reduced-price DVD of our famous 438 win. I felt so right, so charged, so very much like the dad I’d always imagined I’d be. Once home, I skipped into the living room, and presented my son with his future….
But I’d completely misread my son. For him, the bat was actually an axe, and that was the sum of his interest.
A lot of time has passed since then. Two of my children are adults, and the third is nearly there. And, as fate would have it, none of them is interested in sports – at least not the kind of sports that fell within the doctrinal strictures of my upbringing. Disappointing.
So fathering hasn’t been quite what I expected. I thought they’d like what I like. I never realised they would have their own minds. But they do. And because they do, I’ve found myself crying at choir concerts, chewing my nails at gymnastic competitions, marvelling at the grace and discipline of ballet, sweating as I lose yet another family debate, and laughing. A lot.
Still though, whenever my children come close to achieving my version of glory, a part of me goes crazy – and I become super-prone to disappointment. The Cricket Coach lives on inside me. I still toss out the odd offer, especially to my son. But his response – “I’m fine thanks” – stops me dead. Never was a forward-defensive played with more aplomb.
Disappointment. I try to treat the feeling like a beeping alarm. When it goes off, I look at myself. Which of my expectations has been thwarted? Where am I upset? I attempt to track my pain back to its source. As such, disappointment has helped me unpack my unconscious desires – those parts of me that stubbornly cling to my version of the ideal family, the ideal son and the ideal Dad.
GET OVER YOURSELF
I think I’m getting better. Nowadays, when I feel let down by my children, I take a moment. Of course, I’m feeling horrible. It’s rather like sucking a bitter lozenge. I want to spit it out. But I hold it in and attempt to stay open and engaged. I guess it’s about learning, in the midst of our horrible, to think relationally.
This means side-stepping easy options, such as placing our hurt on others. Criticizing, withdrawing, and threatening our children are examples of this. But my frustrations with the paths my children take are exactly that, my frustrations. We fathers must own our own yearnings, contain our own fears and not seek to project them onto our offspring. It’s tough! But it’s one of the best ways of gauging whether we’re living for ourselves or for them.
I guess it’s about ‘forgetting the self’ which, for me anyway, is wholly counter-intuitive. It feels wrong and it feels scary. It’s the loss of control that troubles me most. It’s not just that I can’t control my child’s choices, it’s that, even if he makes some truly awful decisions, I can’t escape anywhere. Because I still love him. I may protest, I may feel gutted, but basically, I’m screwed, because I’m still his dad.
I’ve come to see this as a necessary helplessness. It’s the silent partner of father-son commitment. The forgotten element of long-haul love. It brings you to the end of yourself, your power, your influence, and your imagination. In fact, it brings you to the outer limits of what you used to know about love.
Across this border waits your son. You know you have to do it, so you take the first step, and enter his world. You catch your breath. You settle your shoulders. You look him in the eyes, and say “You are enough”. In turn, he draws closer. He presses his face to your chest. You feel his arms reach around you, his hands press against your side. And he says: “So are you dad. So are you”.
I couldn’t ask for a better gift this Father’s Day or any day.