How Michael Riedlinger learned to be a father in a fatherless family.
Like many men my age, I grew up without a father. Sure, there was mom’s long-term boyfriend, and the eventual step-dad with the substance abuse problem, but the rock in my family was my mom. What I learned about being a man and father mostly came from guesswork and learning what not to do, but also from a friend’s dad. It wasn’t that he mentored me directly, I don’t think we ever really had what you’d call a “heart-to-heart” conversation, but I watched how he interacted with his kids, my friends, very closely. Maybe some of my other fatherless peers did the same. Most, I’m guessing, did not. Most of what my generation seems to have learned came by example of how not to be and how not to live.
In my adult life, I’ve made it a point to be emotionally involved in my children’s lives. I wake up my teenage son for school every morning, usually singing a song that is equal parts goofy and annoying (LMFAO, anyone?) and my two toddlers often sit in my lap while read to them. When they get into trouble, and what kid doesn’t, I’m not one to resort to rampant yelling. I try to avoid that because that’s how my absentee father operated. I’m not him, and my kids aren’t me. Instead, we talk, man to child, and I don’t talk down to them. Perhaps because I spent so long fantasizing what it would be like to have a dad, the memory of what I felt and thought at the ages my kids are at is always fresh. Kids screw up because they haven’t learned how not to yet, and so I teach them. It takes more time than yelling and throwing around angry glares, and it teaches them not only how to be better people, but that their dad is human too. It teaches them that I know where they are in the world, and that their dad “gets it.”
“Getting it” was a big deal to me as a kid. My best friend’s dad played Dungeons and Dragons, watched Star Trek, and carried a gun to work (he was Chief of Police, after all), so he certainly “got it”, and just when his son and I were about to run off and do something stupid, he would do something amazing: He would ask questions. Not the kind of questions you see in police interrogations either. My friend’s dad would ask questions that made him, and by extension me, think about our actions and choices. I try to teach my own kids the same way now. Instead of just brow beating them until they remember the canned responses, I teach them by getting them to think for themselves.
I saw this type of fathering only one other time: when I was on a smoke break at a renaissance faire in Wisconsin. I watched a young boy, maybe five or six years old, fall face-first into some gravel while jumping over logs. His dad, the equivalent of a Medieval Times carny, was on top of him in an instant, and I almost had to strain to hear what he did next. Instead of yelling at the boy for playing dangerously, as my father might have, he comforted the boy.
“Shh,” he told him. “You’re okay. Just tell me why you hurt yourself.”
I thought it was a strange question. Did this guy think his son had hurt himself on purpose?
“I fell!” The boy started to cry again, but his father calmed him.
“Do you remember that I told you the logs were too dangerous to play on?” The father remained calm. He didn’t get angry at his son’s defiance, or raise his voice, but the kid still hung his head and stared at his feet. He nodded an acknowledgement to his dad, who continued. “And maybe now you believe me?” The boy started to cry again, and this time the dad let him. He hugged his son, and let the boy express his shame through tears. The rest of that summer, I watched that boy run around our outdoor break area, and he never went near the gravel and logs again.
I wanted to be that kind of father. I wanted to be present, and I wanted my own children to trust me at my word. I wanted to earn that trust though, and I’ve worked every day on doing that. As much as my mother taught me, and she taught me a lot about being a decent human being, she couldn’t teach me about being a man or a father. I learned that a good man is one who takes part in the lives of his kids, and teaches instead of bullies. I learned that a good man could make letting him down hurt more than a spanking from a belt, and that a good man needn’t raise his voice in order to command respect. The men my mom had around, my father, her boyfriends, and my step-dad, didn’t teach me these things. They never set a good example, and they showed me what it feels like to be the child of someone who is not a good man.
The fear, sadness, and intimidation I felt as a child will never be a curse I visit upon my own children. As I step into my middle-aged years, I can only take what I’ve learned and hope I set the example for my kids that wasn’t immediately available for me. I just try to live as a good man and father every day, providing love, understanding, and guidance where I can. For now, the kids seem like happy, well-adjusted little humans, and I don’t hope they know I love them; I make sure, every day, that they know my love directly.
—Photo credit: breahn/Flickr