I’m rarely (if ever) affected by talk radio, but the other morning I was moved to tears by a piece on my local NPR station (WAMC/Northeast Public Radio). The story, narrated by the author, was about one woman’s experience growing up in the wake of a tragically unstable mother’s ever-shifting mood storms and her father’s ability to communicate — or rather translate — the chaos of the situation to both her and her young, fearful siblings. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this story was not the subject matter, not the fact that the events took place in the Valium-clouded, gender-role stereotyped 1950s, but the overall message: a father’s role as communicator. At that very moment, my childhood flashed before my eyes; I was aching.
As individuals, my mother and father are amazing, caring humans, and I love them with all my heart. They gave us the love and support that we needed, but working as a team — as parents — they were unsuccessful and they know this. (I hope they can forgive me for these words; I know this might be tough for them to hear.) I grew up in a chaotic, unpredictable environment. My sister and I were often misguided as young children because my parents were perpetually fighting.
As a result, I took on the role of chief communicator, often consoling my sister or breaking up an argument between my folks — that’s a big responsibility when you’re only 10. I often longed to visit friends’ homes so that I could witness what it was like to see a “normal” family interact. One where Dad comes home from work and takes the kids under his arm, rustles their hair and asks how their day was, and then proceeds to talk about his, filled with happy details about his interactions with others, or maybe how he “saved the day” at the office (Because that’s what Dads do, right? They save they day).
These were fantasies I once had, and ones I was able to revisit just the other morning as I listened to the gripping tale on the radio. I kept thinking how lucky this woman was to have had her father’s words to comfort and inform her. My stomach began to twist in knots and I started to sweat; trauma has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. Just then, I had an awakening: My husband is that father; he saves the day, every day. How remarkable.
Our story: My husband and I are great friends and have respect for each another. Our philosophies are aligned as far as family is concerned. Neither gender is dominant in our household. We split our roles down the middle. With the exception of my responsibility of carrying, giving birth and nursing my daughter, we operate as a team – 150 percent.
We’re college-educated parents; both of us have professional careers, yet our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. I come from a “disrupted” home and he from a “functional” one – meaning one where his father and mother are still married and have assumed more “traditional” gender roles. Father is stoic and silent and mother is sweet and compassionate. My husband embodies both his mother’s compassion and father’s strength. His words are always steady, supportive and reassuring, even on the most stressful of days, and for this I am eternally grateful.
Sometimes it seems as if I was destined to meet him so that he could relieve me of my seemingly lifelong duties as chief communicator. It was a long, hard road, and man, did I need that break. Women are so often looked at as the therapists, sounding boards, conflict resolvers of the family. I’m here to say, it doesn’t need to be this way.
It’s important for men to acknowledge this side of themselves, get in touch with it, for the sake of your family. Fathers, sometimes saving the day can be as simple as asking how your child’s day was. Take a minute to engage with your child, your wife, your partner over a simple, meaningful question. In my experience, words will often speak louder than actions. My plea to you is: Use them.
Photo: Melinda Jane Photography courtesy of Ann Marie Woolsey
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