The transition into manhood sometimes requires a true understanding one’s father, writes Albert Okagbue.
When I went to college at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, I received a full academic scholarship and did not ask my parents for money for school. I acquired some debt along the way but I enjoyed the independence it gave me. However, by the time I was in graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin, paying almost $20K per semester for out-of-state tuition, I panicked. The result was a verbal exchange with my father that still stands as a major turning point in my young adult life.
The way my family works is that my father is the “provider”. He is a Professor of Microbiology and earns much more than my mother who is a high school Home Economics teacher. When he works, his income determines our family’s standard of living. In my late teens, it turned out that my parents could not afford to fund my college education, so I earned scholarships to do so myself. Unfortunately for me, there are very few scholarships for top Graduate Accounting programs – they figure we’ll all be rich someday – so a few months into the program at the University of Texas-Austin, the time bomb inside of me exploded.
I remembered that my father was never “excited” about me pursuing an Accounting career. It dawned on me that in all the things I did outside of the classroom he was typically supportive, occasionally skeptical, but hardly ever thrilled. These emotions were intensified when my financial plans proved to be unfeasible in Austin. I found that I couldn’t get enough work to support myself in school, due to the city’s notorious underemployment. I then ended up borrowing even more money for living expenses, to ensure that I could complete the academic program I so desperately felt I needed. Around this time, I gave my father a piece of my mind. In a six-page letter (typed), I accused him of not supporting me, and unleashed an emotional tirade as if he had just forgot about my education. True to his nature, he replied in a letter just as long, twice as reasoned, and three times as effective as mine (you don’t get tenure without being a great writer). He was not angry, and did not “dress me down”. Instead, he brought me and my emotions back to reality.
He reminded me of my family’s educational and financial history: from his funding of my mother’s college degree with his income during his Doctoral studies and the financial hardships he fought by letting his career take him from Nigeria to Scotland, the U.S., Zimbabwe, back to the U.S., before his current academic position in Nigeria. He then dropped his own bomb on me, pointing out that although he could have easily funded my education in Nigeria (instead of bringing me to the U.S.), I would most likely not get a job there. From his teaching job there, he knew that the country was not producing enough jobs for educated people my age. It became clear that he had good reason to bet on me finding success here in the U.S. regardless of the challenges I might face.
My conversation with my father was not really about money. Certainly, on the surface, I had financial problems, but as usual, money was just a symptom of something else. What really happened there is that I was undergoing a transition to manhood, and thus needed to iron out a few things with the most important man in my life. From a Christian perspective, John Eldredge (author of “Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul”) would say that I had to recognize that my father is a son of Adam, and all sons of Adam fail their sons like he failed his own. In his book, Eldredge went on to say that [to discover the secret to my soul] I have to express to my father that I feel he has failed me, and forgive him.
Robert A. Glover, the author of “No More Mr Nice Guy” has a similar perspective, albeit one that is secular in nature. As a Certified Marriage and Family Therapist, Glover observes in his book that most men in industrialized environments spend very little time with their sons. This is because they usually work outside the home in places that they cannot routinely take their sons – unlike the agrarian professions of the past. Additionally, he points out that the majority of teachers molding young boys are female, just as most childcare is “traditionally” done by women in the home. Both authors agree that women cannot teach manhood.
The unintended result of this scarcity of male-to-male interaction is that that many men do not really know their fathers. Depending on our particular experiences with our fathers and/or our mother’s opinion of them, we either think they are fundamentally flawed, or flawlessly perfect. Apparently, we cannot become real men until we learn that neither statement is true for any real man. Glover makes a compelling case in his book that men should initiate real conversations with their fathers (it’s never too late) because we have to learn that being a real man involves having faults, and that is OK. He further emphasizes the importance of these interactions because so many men today are raised without their fathers. He says even those men need to have a conversation with their fathers, so they might learn what they came from without a woman’s interference (typically their mothers).
I am not saying that I agree with all of my father’s decisions for my life. He is a “no-news-is-good-news” kind of guy, and my personality-type certainly doesn’t prefer that mindset. I am convinced that I could have benefited greatly from seeing him more outwardly excited about the things that I poured my heart into, including my Accounting career. Still, my conversation with him filled a void much greater than these petty things. From a personal/developmental perspective, I benefit from knowing him for who he is, and understanding that even though he is not jumping up and down, he is incredibly proud of me (has always been) and prays for me every day. From a financial perspective (money started this after all), I benefit tremendously from understanding his true intentions. The way I see it now, my success in life is a relay race he began running before I could think for myself, therefore I should pick up the baton and keep going, rather than complaining that he didn’t give me a different, more colorful one.
To all men reading this, I ask: Have you had this sort of conversation with your father yet? What is your story?