April 17, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Here’s a fine and touching tribute to his father by Frank Bruni of the New York Times (New York Times, 4/15/15). It’s well worth the read for a number of reasons. One is Bruni’s love and respect for his father and his ability to see him clearly. Another is his dad’s many fine qualities. But, all that said, I wonder if Bruni sees exactly what he’s saying.
His father looks to have been quite a guy all his life.
It’s funny how modest his desires can be, given what a grand life he’s lived. He’s the American dream incarnate, all pluck and luck and ferociously hard work and sweetly savored payoff.
He grew up outside New York City, the oldest child of relatively poor immigrants from southern Italy. English was his second language.
He managed to be elected president of his high school over the blond quarterback from the right side of the tracks, then won a full scholarship to college. But first he had to persuade his parents that four years in New Hampshire at a place called Dartmouth could be as beneficial as an apprenticeship in a trade.
He married a grade-school sweetheart and stayed married to her through business school, a sequence of better jobs and a succession of bigger homes until she died at 61, just months shy of his retirement and of what were supposed to be their golden years.
In short, he’s the man we’ve heard about so often over many decades — the immigrant who worked hard, worked smart, persevered and came out on top. He gave his kids and his wife far more than he ever had and now he’s savvy enough to savor the results. But that’s not the main thing Bruni wants us to know about his father.
Bruni’s dad has a love of playing blackjack at the casinos. He’d prefer to go to Vegas, but at the age of 80 has to opt for Atlantic City that’s much closer to his home. He loves to go with his now-grown children who he tells he has a secret about playing the game. When they sit down at the table, he reveals what it is.
He asked each of us — his kids, our life mates — to stretch out a hand. And into every palm he pressed two crisp hundred-dollar bills, so that our initial bets would be on him and we would start out ahead of the game.
“See?” he said. “You’re already a winner.”
That was it — his secret for blackjack, which is really his secret for life, and has nothing, obviously, to do with the money, which we’re blessed enough not to need too keenly and he’s blessed enough not to miss too badly.
It has to do with his eagerness, in this late stage of life, to make sure that we understand our primacy in his thoughts and his jubilation in our presence. It has to do with his expansiveness.
That’s his “secret,” the beauty of giving.
But Bruni’s larger point is that, when his wife died, his dad changed.
It’s the phase of his life since my mother that I find most compelling, because it’s a tribute to what people are capable of on the inside, not the outside.
They can open up, soften up and step up. When Mom was around, my father’s assigned role in the family was as the stern disciplinarian — he played the warden, so that Mom could be our friend — and he was never forced to notice our hurts or attend to them, to provide succor and counsel in matters of the heart.
Then he had to, because he was the only parent left. He held my sister’s hand through her divorce. He made sure to tell me and my partner that our place in the family was the same as any other couple’s.
And his nine grandchildren, only two of whom my mother lived to meet, came to know him as their most fervent and forgiving cheerleader, ever vigilant, ever indulgent. Their birthdays are the sturdiest part of his memory. He never fails to send a gift.
A generous man from the start, he has somehow grown even more generous still, not just with items of measurable value but with those of immeasurable worth, like his time. His gestures. His emotions.
He has figured out what makes him happiest, and it’s doing the little bit that he can to nudge the people he loves toward their own contentment.
Bruni’s rightly proud of his father who did so much for his family and even after his wife died, still does. When she died, he changed to be the shoulder to cry on, the cheerleader, the elder who’s wise enough to know what’s most valuable in life. Good for him.
But it’s here that I wonder if Bruni quite grasps what he’s saying. Of course his main point is to write a moving piece about his father and the possibilities of change even late in life. And he’s done that quite well.
But what I see are words like “my father’s assigned role in the family was...” What I see are the words that aren’t there but are suggested. I see a man whose mode of being a father, whose way of giving to his family was to work hard and well and deliver an ever higher standard of living to his wife and children. In short, he was the typical, traditional dad; he was the breadwinner and apparently a good one.
So who exactly “assigned” him that role? Doubtless he embraced it and probably wouldn’t have had it any other way. The man is probably proud to have done all he did for his wife and kids. And why not? It probably never occurred to him that someone else could have pulled their share of the breadwinning load and thereby carved out time for him to get to know his kids when they were growing up.
After all, since at least the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, when someone in the family had to leave home, go to the factory and earn the family’s living, that someone was Dad. Prior to that, the great majority of men lived in the same dwelling as their wives and children and rarely strayed far. The field they tilled was close by and whatever artisanry they pursued, they did at home. That meant they spent just about as much time with their kids as Mom did.
For the past 500 years or so, that’s all been very different because we favored mothers over fathers in childcare and fathers over mothers in earning. Unsurprisingly, so did Bruni’s father.
But that breadwinner role he embraced and in which he performed so well is clearly not the only one for which he was fit. Look at what he did once his wife died and opened the field for him. Without her to play her role, he could expand his repertoire, which he did. All of a sudden, he dropped the “stern disciplinarian” role and picked up that of the nurturer. Of course, he had that ability all along, but the nature of the parenting roles he and his wife played didn’t allow him to show that side of himself. Only with her gone could he do so and, to his credit, he did.
Unlike about 90% - 95% of mammals, human beings are a bi-parental species. That means that each parent — not just one — produce certain sex hormones that connect them to their children and cause them to behave like parents, i.e. protective and nurturing. What Bruni’s dad did during their childhood was to damp down his nurturing role and redirect it toward breadwinning. But, given the opportunity, that nurturing side came out. Pretty much any father who’s been given the chance to bond with his kids would do the same thing Bruni’s father did.
What Bruni seems to have missed is the power of societal expectations in what fathers do and what they don’t do. Those expectations of course go back far, far into prehistory when, in hunter-gatherer groups, men tended to be the protectors and providers of resources and women, whose bodies were the only ones able to feed infants, spent more time with the children. That made sense.
But today we live under far different conditions than those of just a few hundred years ago, let alone a few thousand. Today, the survival of humanity clearly no longer depends on optimizing our ability to reproduce. Indeed, it probably depends on fewer people, not more. So we are free to put aside those parental roles and we should.
Fathers are ready to do that. Many are eager to spend more time with their children and many sets of data demonstrate that they’re doing exactly that. It’s time courts and laws dropped the pretense that children need only mothers or that fathers don’t care about their children or that bringing home the bacon in some way isn’t a legitimate way of being a parent.
It’s time courts allowed fathers to be the fathers they can be, like the one Frank Bruni’s father became, when circumstances allowed it.
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