The years have flown by since I received a call that you passed away at a hospice facility during a blizzard on Dec. 28, 2010. Time has faded some memories of my conflicted feelings during the days and weeks following your death. However, recollection of my first thought after hanging up the phone remains vivid: Did you ever really see me? Guess I’ll never know.
Before continuing, Dad, I recognize that you’re not available to tell your side of things. And your side may be different than mine. Let me acknowledge that fact. That said, let me commemorate Father’s Day by telling you what I’ve concluded as a result of my relationship with you, and my own son. Among a father’s most important child-rearing responsibilities is acknowledgment. It occurs to me now, Dad, that if I had one wish for a do-over between you and me, it would be that you said just once, I hear you. Would have been a game-changer for us, I think.
Let me begin, Dad, by briefly describing life without your acknowledgment. Then I’ll list some of acknowledgement’s benefits that I believe have helped create a loving, immutable connection between my son and me. As an aside, Dad, I think you would have approved (maybe been proud) of my effort to ensure that, unlike our experience, my son feels seen by me.
Though I saw you throughout your life, right up until a few days before you died, I do not believe you ever saw me. I’ll be more specific. Throughout my childhood and as an adult, I do not recall you ever asking me how I was. I never heard, how do you feel? What matters to you, Paul? I’m listening. Whether I appeared happy or sad or perplexed or contemplative to you, I do not recall your recognition of those feelings. You were consistent, however, in letting my brother and me know how you were feeling. Which was alternately lousy, angry, irritated, or “in no mood” for us, as you often said.
The consequences of never being heard were numerous, Dad. I often felt, especially in your presence, unsafe, insecure, afraid, unimportant, undeserving, as if I didn’t matter to you.
I’m sure you suspected while you were alive that we did not enjoy a loving, emotionally connected relationship. Perhaps you wished to hug me, say that you loved me, take trips with me, go to a ballgame, even ask me a simple question about me. It just never happened. I’ll never know why.
On this Father’s Day, I hope that, as it pertains to this question of acknowledgment, our experience will encourage other dads to contemplate these fundamental questions: Do I ever receive my child’s communication with a shrug, a half-hearted reply, no reply at all? When my child speaks, does she believe I really hear her? Does my toddler believe that when he talks (or wails, yells, whines, maybe even kicks at the door in frustration), I hear him? When my daughter’s requests, needs, even demands are asserted, does she sometimes wonder if her protestations are directed to deaf ears? Or worse, that the only response she’ll get from me is my own tempest? Does my son know that even if I believe he is wrong or stubborn or a gigantic pain in the ass that I, as the father—the most important role model in his life—hear him? That I recognize his feelings. That I am telling him, in effect, I see you. That I understand you are feeling this way or that. And that even though I may or may not agree with you, even though I may see fit to exact a punishment for a transgression, still, I hear you. I acknowledge your feelings as real, as legitimate, as belonging to you.
Suppose a dad does feel he’s been remiss in acknowledging his child. What vocabulary or strategies can be used to rectify things? Based on our experience, Dad, I’d suggest the following:
I hear you. Period. Not, I hear you, but… Just, I hear you. Let that rejoinder sink in. Let your child know he or she is heard. The but can come later.
I hear that you are… (fill in the feeling: happy, sad, upset, angry, conflicted, anxious, etc.). Speak to me. I’m listening.
I want you to talk to me about your feelings. Even though I see things differently than you, even though I cannot grant your wishes. Remember, children need their feelings to be recognized, even when what they hear from you doesn’t get their immediate wish granted.
Question. Listen. Question. Ask questions about experiences and feelings. What happened today? How are you feeling about the things you’re telling me? Save your opinions for later. Let your child speak! Question, listen, question.
Begin every disagreement by acknowledging your child’s feelings. Then you can differ. Then you can turn that difference into a rule, one that, if violated, will require a punishment. First, let your child hear: I, your father, acknowledge your side of things, and that you are unhappy.
Rule of thumb: When in doubt, say nothing! Listen.
Father’s Day reminds me that you were unable to hear me, Dad. It’s a painful memory. I am, however, fortunate to be the beneficiary of a child whom I’ve tried to hear. And by the way, have I always succeeded? No. Were there occasions I could have done a better job acknowledging my son? Yes. There still are. That said, I don’t think the loving connection between my son and me requires a perfect dad. As your child, I never yearned for perfection. I did yearn to be heard and understood. And acknowledged.
I remain saddened that you never asked me about my feelings. Much less heard them. Had you, I wonder how you would have responded. I don’t know. I am certain that if I mentioned some of the feelings the child who is acknowledged by the father experiences, you would wholeheartedly agree:
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