I am proud of me. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved during my life—and, more importantly, who I am. At age 70, the feeling of unequivocal self-pride has been a long time coming, and as I reflect this Father’s Day on my relationship with my son, I understand why proud of me is my greatest accomplishment, as a father and human being.
I was not always proud of me.
Far from it. Throughout my childhood and into middle age, unworthy, inadequate, and second-rate were my default feelings. This image of myself as having little intrinsic value—and thus, nothing to be proud of—emerged, I think, from growing up with an emotionally toxic father. My mother was loving, but she was incapable of defending her children from him. Though my father was not physically abusive, my brother and I lived in constant fear of his rage. He possessed a temper that could uncork at any time and for what often seemed no apparent reason, leaving us feeling eviscerated. He was dismissive of our desires. If we questioned his request or demand, he often replied, “Humor me.” We intuitively understood his retort as code for prioritizing his emotional needs (whatever they were), never ours. When we tempted fate, and asked, “Why not, why can’t I, why can’t we …,” his standard rejoinder, “I’m in no mood,” informed us of the consequences, should either of us persist: Kaboom! Be verbally pummeled, shouted into oblivion.
My father never expressed positive regard for himself.
I recall him as self-deprecating, and self-loathing. He earned a living writing for various commercial publications he derided. As an adolescent, I remember him speaking to an acquaintance visiting us at home. The man asked what he had been up to lately. My father replied, “Garbage writing.” He seemed to detest himself more than he detested most people. He reserved his only praise for those whose intellect and acerbic wit served to annihilate lesser minds.
My father did possess a sense of humor. His joking was usually devoted to demeaning others, including me. I was the occasional punch line in stories delivered with bonhomie to acquaintances or relatives in my presence. A favorite concerned the singular impediment to my predilection as a child to run away when he upset me—hunger. In this one, I was about 6. “After throwing his shirt out the window, Paul would bolt from the front door, reach the corner, stop, and then return. ‘I’m running away after lunch!’ And then, well, he’s still here!” I have no memory of trying to escape. No matter, the point was to make others laugh. Everyone did, except me.
In short, I learned from my father that who I was wasn’t much: someone to speak of in jest, and never to be taken seriously. He died in 2010. During my lifetime, I never felt seen or heard by him. I cannot recall him saying, “I’m proud of you, Paul.”
When I became a parent, raising my little boy was a snap.
I simply created an experience opposite from mine. Our relationship was mutually loving and emotionally fulfilling. What I hid, however, was my daily fear that eventually he would discover I was not a good father, and he would no longer love me.
Upon the arrival of adolescence, I was unprepared for my teenager’s dismissiveness, and his willful expressions of independence. I interpreted these behaviors as a rejection of me, as a referendum on just how ineffectual a father I was. Finally, the truth. I was a fraudulent dad. I did not deserve his love. And I found myself, more often than I care to recall, angrily responding to his adolescent sass the way I had responded to my father’s rage: I withdrew emotionally, cloaking myself in silence. I endured my son’s rejection as I endured my father’s. To say the least, I was not proud of me.
During those teenage years, I often wondered, would I replicate my father’s sense of inadequacy and anger? Would I alienate my son as my father had alienated me? During that time and well into my son’s young adulthood, I benefited from various insights—garnered mostly from reading about parenting, periodic counseling, and relentless introspection about what being a good father actually meant—that subsequently led me to discover a dad I was increasingly proud of. Among the myriad discoveries that constructed this sense of self-pride, two stand out. The first was that my feelings about me, no matter how negative, represented my feelings only. Not the truth.
When I considered possible truths about me (I was a caring, loving father and person) and separated them from how I felt, I began to regard myself as a good father, and one I could be proud of. Second, I realized “my father and me” was not “my son and me.” I realized the conviction I had carried for much of my life—since I could not love my own father, sooner or later I would engender that response to me in my son—was a myth. I realized my vision of who I wanted to become as a father and a human being could be determined, actualized, and owned by me. Yes, I would carry my past forever. But that did not mean my past should dictate my future.
Today, I often think about the consequences of proud of me.
The two that most reinforce my feelings of self-pride are my capacity to express what it is I’m proud of, and my understanding of why proud of me is my greatest accomplishment.
As a human being, I’m proud of my capacity to experience joy and satisfaction over my achievements and those of others. When someone says, congratulations, I am proud of how satisfying it is for me to respond, thank you. I am equally proud of how satisfying it is for me to celebrate the achievements of others. I take pride in recognizing that my feelings—happy, sad, whatever they may be—reflect only my feelings, and not the truth. My feelings do not speak for me. I do. Therefore, they cannot contradict my sense of self-pride.
As a father, I’m proud: I am emotionally accessible to my son; when my son speaks, I hear him; when my son stands before me, I see him; I acknowledge my son’s feelings; my son is emotionally safe in my presence; I am emotionally responsible for me, not my son; I encourage and compliment my son; I can disagree with and critique my son while still respecting him; I love my son without condition.
Children seem to be wired to be proud of their father. Yet, if the father is not proud of himself, regardless of his achievements, can his child be proud of him?
Not long ago, my son complimented me on a professional achievement. “I’m proud of you, Dad,” he said. I replied, “Thank you.” I am certain that to my son, the unequivocal acceptance of his praise informs him I am as proud of me as he is. And because I am proud of me, he is secure in the knowledge his unequivocal love and affection is reciprocated by me, from the bottom of my heart.
Paul Alan Ruben is a two-time Grammy winner for Best Spoken Word. His debut short story collection, Terms of Engagement: Stories of the Father and Son, will be published in November, 2018.
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