Fatherhood, Failure, and Hope

I have lived long enough to know this: the greatest obstacle in my life preventing me from exploring my fullest potential has ever been an enduring conviction that what I say, make, sing, create, produce, promote … will never find an audience.

When I began teaching long, long ago in San Francisco, I was encouraged to see myself as if from the outside, from the perspective of another. And what I saw was a young man, quite eager, yet debilitatingly insecure, who tended to begin lessons, get his class working on a task, and then shuffle his way quietly to the back of the room where he might more easily avoid the gaze of his students. … Considering that this is how it all began for me as an educator, I am amazed that I survived in this profession.

However ill-received the theories of psychoanalysis may be by many today, it is—or should be—indisputable that one’s early experience may have more than simply a residual impact on one’s future. The past might easily shade in the tones of the present if not stitch the very lines onto the canvas within which we will be expected to remain ensconced while we timidly test the colors of the palette that someone else—or some other time—has provided us with.

There is a sense of freedom that is juridically determined. Yet more significantly, there is the freedom that we grant or deny ourselves. The freedom to do, to explore, to believe. And most relevant, to believe in ourselves and what we are capable of.

I never counted on fatherhood playing a significant role in my life. And yet others have remarked on how close I am to my daughter, how precious it is to see a father spending so much time with his child, adoring his child, nurturing her. And I appreciate every one of these comments. I find it appalling that any man would accept the role of father and then turn his back on his children, seek to escape into loathsome self-indulgence.

I was reading a report on BBC yesterday, an analysis of statistics that indicates that more children are abused and even killed or allowed to die of neglect within their own families—their OWN families—in the United States than in any other industrialized nation. I was not terribly surprised by this report. Just saddened. And deeply angered.

If you have not the commitment to stay with the child you help to bring into this world, to protect her, play with her, guide her, direct her, laugh and cry with her, encourage her own journey of self-exploration—then why in God’s name did you become a father, you miserable cretin?

Is it easy? Of course not. It is easy to love my daughter, yes. It is easy to find joy in the time I spend with her, certainly. However, the hardest thing I have found in being a father has been my own inhibiting sense of self. My own fear that I will … how should I put this? … screw up! That I will fail her. That I will teach her unwittingly to think and behave as I do, including my many faults. Raising a child is a demanding and profoundly vulnerable investigation into yourself.

When I published my novel, I was sure no one would read it. I hesitated from committing myself to a book signing, because I was sure no one would come. When my latest textbook came out, my wife offered to arrange a talk at the local library or to set up a table at a teacher’s convention to promote it. And I have declined each suggestion, because that dark voice clinging cruelly to the back of my mind chants over and over again, “Why would anyone want to listen to you? Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are? Who do you…”

The very voice that I struggle to silence in the presence of my daughter. But how can I? How can I avoid the questions that plague me, asking me, Will my daughter learn my faults? Will she grow to doubt herself, just as I doubt myself? Will she hold back from expressing herself publicly because she fears what others will think of her?

When my mother passed away, I found my memories drawn more and more to my father, who has always been as much a friend to me as a paternal authority. And what amazes me is that, however intelligent I may seem to be, however capable I am of critical thinking and historical analysis, I cannot for the life of me remember a time when my father failed me. Rationally thinking, I must assume that he made mistakes. He is a man, after all. But what mistakes? What am I missing?

And in that apparent failure of my intellect, I find some solace. Perhaps, I tell myself, the mistakes didn’t matter so much. Perhaps that is why I cannot remember any of them. And perhaps—just perhaps—my daughter, once she is grown to womanhood, will feel the same way about me. Maybe all the things I see myself doing wrong now … will not matter to her in the years to come. Maybe she will, God willing, go on to embrace her memories of me, when I am gone, as a good man. And a loving father. And somebody she truly loved. Just as I love her.

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