It's one of those days that sneaks up on me and seems like it will never really be anything more than yet another Hallmark profit center, yet which always ends up affecting me more than I expect.
Part of my cynicism towards Father's Day no doubt stems from the fact that I already spend so much time with my kids. As a stay-at-home-dad (and I'm growing more comfortable with the "Mr. Mom" tag purely out of spite against those who try to seem polite by avoiding it) I get to wake my kids and feed them breakfast and pack them for school and walk them to the bus stop and drive them to pre-school and deliver their homework when I find it mislaid and forgotten on the kitchen table and I get to come pick them up from the school nurse when they spike a fever and I get to go sit in the pediatrician's office and leaf aimlessly through tattered copies of Good Housekeeping (“...wow, that Marisa Tomei really has some interesting ideas for easy chicken dishes...").
Basically, it's tough for me to buy into the traditional vision of what fatherhood is "supposed" to be in suburban America, so all the clichéd hoary old refs to Eisenhower-era stereotypes (golf, yardwork, inability to do anything domestic around the house...) just miss the mark for me.
But then Father's Day rolls around, and inevitably there will be some odd moment or too that kicks me into a weirdly introspective and reflective mood, and I'll suddenly start thinking about capital-F Fatherhood.
This morning we were out of milk. The Wife rolled in from work with the traditional mixed carton of donuts (it's a Sunday thing around here: when Mom works Saturday nights, she brings home donuts on Sunday morning), but donuts without milk is kinda like alcohol free beer. I mean, what's the point?
So I toodle off to grab a few gallon of milk (hell, with four kids I often think it would make better economic sense to just buy a few Jersey heifers and a milking stool...), come back and find that the kitchen table has gifts and cards waiting. As usual, I'd totally forgotten that this day was Father's Day.
What got to me was not the token piece of expensive folded cardstock (I'm just not much of a fan of commercial gift cards), but the homemade little messages each of the four kids had insisted on including in the pile. My oldest gave me four hand-made coupons redeemable for "one hour of quiet writing time — no whining, no fighting with brothers and sister."
Second oldest gave me a sheet of art paper whereupon he had inscribed and decorated as many variations of "you da man" and "you rock" as his ten year old brain could come up with (and it was an impressive collection).
Third son gave me a drawing of a pirate ship and said "I like watching pirate movies with you."
Fourth child (the daughter) gave me some sort of butterfly drawing (her exuberance still far exceeds her abilities...) and said "you are cool like butterflies, daddy!"
(Which, having no real reference and considering the spirit of the occasion, I took as a compliment.)
The thing of it is, as I looked at these odd little bits of paper, I realized that I had the coolest most wonderful gift that these guys could give me. They all see and understand me as an individual person rather than just some iconic symbol of authority. They know me as a writer, and a movie fan, and a lover of words, and a fan of odd imagery and allegory. They don't see me as just "that guy who goes to work," but rather that guy who is a core part of their lives. And when look at them, I see annoying little snot nosed punks, but I also see amazingly interesting small people, people who have these fascinating intriguing personalities and these wild wonderful individual hopes and dreams and expectations for their futures.
Let's be clear: I'm not the easiest dad. Sure, I like to goof around and act silly and play games, and there are a great many things I do which are intended to amuse and entertain my kids, but I am very honest with them that I am not interested in being their friend. I am not their friend—I am their father, and that means I have a job to do, and so do they.
My job is to teach and prepare them for the day when I will no longer be there to save their sorry butts, to grow them into useful functional dependable adults with honor and respect and value. And to do that there will be times—a great many times, in fact— where I am forced to be something quite opposite from their friend. I will be driven by the responsibilities of this job to push them harder than they want to be pushed, to judge and punish for failures and transgressions, to prioritize and delegate in ways that might not always seem fair and might not always be fair.
In short, my oft-thankless job as father is not to be their friend today but rather to try and turn them into the kinds of people I (and others) might one day value as friends and compatriots. Their job is to understand and accept this, and to try and live up to the impossibly high standards I lay out before them.
And this morning I realize that what they gave me, without ever intending or realizing it, was reason to feel proud: proud of what I've tried to teach, and proud of what they have tried to learn.
And that is probably the coolest gift I have ever received.
Happy Father's Day. May your efforts be rewarded.