Thoughts on Fathers

So, with this whole rapist swimmer asshole and his joke of a punishment, there’s a lot of discussion about men, about rape culture, about damaging patriarchal values right now, and I agree with a lot of it– our cultural environment is highly toxic, and encourages men towards animalistic behavior, telling them they’re entitled to women’s bodies and that it’s natural to have urges to hurt or take advantage of them, telling them to be wildly out of touch with their own emotions, their own bodies, to ignore their pain (physical or emotional) and channel it into gaining power over others, and that to do anything else is weak and shameful. This is the flip side of patriarchal sexism– if everything female is weak (emotions, self-care, love, gentleness, nurturing, etc.), then for a man to be balanced and healthy emotionally and physically, he’s discredited and mocked. It’s a very problematic cycle for both genders, not to mention the trans* individuals who are between the gender dichotomy and are victim to both sets of problems. As feminists, we often focus on the horrible things women are suffering right now– and we should, because these things need to be brought to light, and people need to understand that these things are not okay. But feminism is about equality, about removing the gendered nature of normal human behaviors like sexuality, having a full emotional range, being molested or otherwise abused, being empathetic, being strong, crying, falling head over heels in love, liking poetry, liking hunting, liking blue or pink or shiny, sparkly things, wanting to be an astronaut or a doctor or a teacher or a nurse or an engineer or a firefighter or a ballet dancer. The best version of ourselves lies between the binary framework imposed on behaviors that come naturally to all of us, regardless of our sex, and the worst version of ourselves is evidenced in a culture that teaches women that everything about themselves is inadequate and somehow at fault, and that teaches men that to show any of those “feminine” behaviors is shameful.

Anyway. I could go on about the problems of sexism and the patriarchy and gender culture forever. I got my degree in cultural anthropology. They don’t let you graduate if you can’t go on about it at serious length.

Point is, I came across this post on Tumblr talking about how “shitty fathers” are a universal experience because we teach men to be irresponsible and abusive and be part of this culture of toxic masculinity and by the time they have kids, they’re way too screwed up to raise them.

And I can’t, in a lot of ways, argue with that. Our patriarchal culture is as damaging for men (albeit in less obvious ways) as it is for women. We teach them to follow a harmful cultural paradigm the same way we teach women, enculturating them as children and then being surprised when they turn out exactly how we’ve taught them to be– choosing power over empathy, the illusion of strength over growth, hiding their feelings so as not to appear vulnerable, engaging in violence rather than problem solving. In part, this is the fault of our culture as a whole. In part, it is the fault of parents who perpetuate this, and also the fault of men who, when they grow up and receive an education and experience the world, choose to ignore the illogical nature of this paradigm and continue perpetuating it as well because it’s easier that way.

But I don’t want to talk about how the culture persists. I want to talk about how it is interrupted. I want to talk about my dad.

I am one of few girls I grew up with or know without “daddy issues”– that is to say, I have an amazing relationship with my father. There are no open questions between us, no history of secret abuse, nothing that hasn’t been discussed and dealt with. There have been, and sometimes still are, issues– when he feels I’m not doing things the right way, when I feel he’s not seeing things the right way, whatever– as there are between all functional adult people who have opinions. But at the end of the day, he’s the first man I think of when I think of people who choose to step away from the culture that taught them abusive behaviors. My father (and mother, actually) had a crappy dad. That’s his story, and it’s not mine to tell, but suffice to say, I never met my grandfather on that side because of his violent behavior. I don’t think I missed anything. My father had a crappy dad, and while his mother was a wonderful, kind, loving woman who loved him without reserve, she was trapped in a situation that her culture taught her she wasn’t allowed to get out of. This was not her fault. She did remarkable things within the world she had, and whatever she did, whatever pieces of kindness and logic and observation and goodness she had, she imparted to my father. But the point is, my dad didn’t exactly grow up with progressive, well-educated parents who rejected the gender paradigm. He grew up in Kentucky in the 70’s, where men were men and the rule of thumb was taken pretty literally.

He’s a Celtic musician and environmental preservationist who wears a kilt, sings about the power of the feminine divine, and spent 20 years running a neopagan festival and retreat center with my liberal feminist mother in the middle of the Bible belt. He did theater. He loves Yeats’ poetry. He sang lullabies to his daughter every night, and while he never liked the fact that I love makeup and glitter and would make “ew” noises whenever I put them on, he also never tried to stop me from wearing them. When I was really little and had so many nightmares that I kept my sick mom from sleeping, he set up a cot in my room and sang me to sleep and sat with me if I woke up scared. He never told me I was too young to have feelings for boys (or that there was anything wrong with having feelings for girls, and never treated my girlfriends any differently than my boyfriends, even if they were fewer and farther between), never told me I was supposed to remain “pure,” never told me that I should get married and give him grandchildren– none of the things that other fathers around me were telling their daughters. He taught me how to defend myself from a very young age, sparring (carefully) with me as a little kid, teaching me kicks and blocks and pressure points so that I would never have to be a victim. He taught me how to cook, how to sing, how to paint, how to fish, how to keep myself safe in the woods or the ocean. He shared comic books and other nerdy stuff with me. He taught me astronomy. He taught me that my body was mine and mine alone, and how to defend it when people didn’t ask for consent before coming near it (which, damn, saved my life more than once in high school.) He taught me to follow my creative instincts and passions and never doubt that if I took my creativity seriously, it could be a life path, not just a hobby. He told boys who dated me that they didn’t need to worry about him– that I was the one they should be afraid of if they hurt me. He yelled at me if I screwed up, yes, but he was also pretty damn democratic about it– if I didn’t lie, I wasn’t in big trouble; if I explained myself, and was reasonable, he would be reasonable. (It worked more than it didn’t, which isn’t to say it always worked, because people are fallible, but it worked pretty damn well.) He read my work and supported my writing and my art, both by making sure I always had the supplies I needed and by giving good criticism so I could get better. (My mom, of course, also contributed to all of these things, but we did Mother’s Day last month, and it’s his turn.) I never had the kind of youth where I felt the need to lie to my parents or keep secrets from them (except maybe about how many starcrunches I had eaten, but that stopped when I was about 12)– I told them when I started dating, when I started having sex, when I questioned my life choices, when I was in trouble, when I was depressed. My father and mother divvied some of these things up– I talked to mom about boys more than I talked to dad, but dad is the one who gave me The Talk when I first started asking at the age of four– but my father never made himself unavailable, never said that there were Girl things and Boy things. He never made me feel that anything was out of my reach, and not in an unrealistic American Dream sort of way, but in the way where he made sure I knew that I was smart, and capable, and that if I didn’t know how to do something, I always had the option of learning how to do it.

I could go on– with either of my parents, there are a lot of incredible things they did for me and imparted to me– but the point is this: my father had a very toxic background, in terms of male role models, expectations for men, and the general patriarchal milieu of crap. He didn’t have the advantage of internet culture (which can be toxic, yes, but leads to the rapid spread of positive information as well as negative behavior) or the idea of gender enculturation or any of that until college, when he started studying anthropology and getting involved in the pagan community.

So, seeming non sequitur time–my boyfriend said something to me the other day. I randomly asked him what his favorite thing about me was, and he said, “You– well, this is going to sound very weird and clinical, sorry, but you do this thing where when you learn something, about yourself or other people or just… something negative, or problematic, you look at it and process the information and adjust accordingly. You adapt. You’re a living, growing, learning, changing person all the time, and I love that.”

Non sequitur explanation– my dad came from this toxic environment that told him to be angry and abusive to be manly, that taught that men were one thing and women were another and that men weren’t supposed to be about their feelings and all that. And then he started studying other cultures across the world and throughout time and looking at this religion that worships the divine feminine with the divine masculine and wherein they trade roles constantly. And he did the thing. He processed information and grew accordingly. I know he wasn’t his dad’s version of a “man” to begin with– it’s not like he ran off to a liberal arts college in Florida so he could marry a “pure” Christian woman and treat her like crap, okay, he had complex interests and skills from youth, but he chose to focus on them. He didn’t let himself become a product of his environment. He followed that urge to be more, worked his ass off doing stuff like building railroads and working at dinner theaters and shit, and he did the normal dumb college stuff, too, sure, but he learned things. He allowed himself to be changed by the things he learned. He didn’t stop assimilating new knowledge. He became a whole man, not the binary half-a-man with no feelings or empathy or gentleness or complexity that our culture has designed. He did “manly” things like martial arts and fishing and reading comic books and drinking beer and whatnot, but he also put on robes and worshipped the Goddess in the moonlight and explored ancient Mayan ruins and made staffs to sell at festivals and wore wrap skirts (I still own one of them, Dad, it’s blue and white and has cranes on it) and painted mountains and cooked for his family and became the dad that I have. He’s a white, cis, hetero male with a beard, and he doesn’t use that to make anyone feel like they owe him anything. If people owe him something, it’s a favor from when he’s done one for them already. There’s no sexist entitlement. From my earliest childhood, he treated me like a person, not a girl, and empowered me to be whatever kind of person I wanted to be, as long as I had integrity.

Yes, as a white, cis, hetero male, he had easier access to education  and privilege than men of color, trans men, and queer men do. Privilege is hereby acknowledged. But he came from a lower middle class family in the South where he was taught all the toxic crap that we still teach men in the “boys will be boys” culture, and he became a creative, brilliant feminist man who raised a daughter who never had to be afraid or ashamed or secretive with her father. I was hit by a boy at preschool once, and my female teacher just said, “boys will be boys. He probably likes you.” When I went home and told my dad, he said, “kick his butt, if that’s how he shows that he likes you, you don’t want him to like you,” and showed me how to pinch a pressure point in his arm if he tried it again.

My friends’ parents never worried about my father, and had no reason to. He was the Trustworthy Dad. He still is. He is, as my friend Parking Lot Dude says, usually while in Dad’s hotel room at Dragon*con, drinking beer with us and eating Dad’s homemade beef jerky, “the coolest f*cking dad, can he be my dad?” He’s one of my best friends in the world, and not just because he raised me, but because he’s one of the few men in the world I’ve encountered who put integrity before power, who can discuss political and religious issues with intelligence and fervor without being an asshole about it, who doesn’t tell me I need to be any certain way because I’m a girl. He feels entitled to my respect because he’s my father, but he also knows that he would lose that respect if he stopped being worthy of it. And he’s never acted like he’s entitled to any other kind of behavior or choices from me, especially not just because I’m a girl. I don’t owe him a career path or grandchildren or a certain way of looking or any other thing, because I’m a whole, complex person, and he has always been very clear about that. We can disagree. We can debate. He might hate my eyeliner and cringe at the thought of glitter and seriously question the sanity behind my relationship choices.

But he supports me, and loves me, and is proud of me– not because I’m his baby girl, but because he helped create me and is proud that he helped make a person with skills, who makes good choices, who is open and honest with him and trusts him. I never doubt that I have a home to go back to. I never doubt that if my life falls apart, my parents will catch me and help me back on my feet, and that I won’t be shamed for it. I have wonderful parents– complicated, crazy, ridiculous parents, who I frequently argue with and sometimes want to squirt with a water gun just so they’ll stop talking, like bad cats, but I’m aware that that probably isn’t appropriate behavior, so I avoid it– and I am so grateful. My dad is a pinnacle among dads. He’s not a perfect person, that’s not at all what I’m trying to get across– he’s complex and flawed and filled with doubt and optimism and dreams and fears like anybody. What makes him awesome isn’t that he’s perfect, it’s that he chooses to do better. We are, as my old therapist would say, nothing but the sum of our choices. We can talk about who we are all day long, but our idea of ourselves is nothing if it doesn’t line up with the choices we make. And I don’t know my dad’s idea of himself, I don’t live in his brain. But I know what the sum of his choices is. I watch him choose every day, when faced with difficult decisions, people who let him down, people who treat him more poorly than he deserves, he chooses integrity. He works for a strong woman. He is married to a strong woman. He raised a strong woman. He isn’t intimidated by us; he doesn’t ask us to make ourselves small so he can feel big and strong. He chooses to be strong, to process his vulnerabilities and issues by talking about them and going fishing and taking the dogs on long walks and calling his family and other, generally healthy, things. He chooses, over and over, every day, to be a good dad, to be a good husband, to be a good friend, to be a creative and productive human who doesn’t reduce the idea of being a man to one binary concept. He keeps bees! He makes jerky and dried apples! He figured out how to make gluten free deep fried popcorn shrimp with me just to relive a memory from my childhood that I’d thought I’d never get to experience again because I can’t eat gluten. He cooks with me! He picks me up from the airport when I get back from three months in Ireland! He took me to Ireland in the first place. He sings with me when I drink. He makes my friends feel safe and at home and like they aren’t being judged or looked down on. He’s a freaking great dad.

So, long ramble over. In summary, Tumblr OP and other people all over the internet, I don’t need to say not all men. We already know it’s not all men. There’s that whole poisonous M&M metaphor that explains why that’s a problematic argument. I’m just as wary of men as a whole as you are; I walk with my knife in my hand when I’m in a dark parking lot. We all have examples of good and bad men in our lives– usually more than one of each. What I am saying is that there is a bad culture of masculinity. It’s awful. And when men, particularly fathers or men who participate in enculturating the next generation, choose to stop perpetuating it, they make things better. Not just by not repeating terrible behaviors– which, yes, okay, is a low bar of expectation, but it’s a start, and a sadly small percentage of men are even rolling their eyes and stepping over that bar, so we’ll start somewhere– but by raising a generation of people who have a better starting place than the toxic culture they came from. I am the best (and sometimes worst, I know) of both my parents, and it’s their choices that I am grateful for, because they chose really good bests to have.

I spent the last week alone at my childhood home with my dad. He’d go to work. I’d wake up, spin wool, make hats, write, whatever. He’d come home. We’d have dinner (GARLIC BACON CESAR SALAD FROM SCRATCH FOR THE WIN) and binge-watch cooking shows and travel shows and talk about life, and then he’d go to bed and I’d binge watch superhero shows he’s already caught up on. It was good. It was peaceful and awesome, and I got to recharge. I guess what I’m saying is that, as Father’s Day approaches, I’m really thinking about how lucky I am to have the dad I have.

Thanks, Dad, for choosing to be better than the world tells you to be, and for raising me to do the same.

(And to the dads of rapist swimmer dude and all other creepy, horrible dudes, maybe start expecting better of yourself and your offspring. Better masculine culture starts with choosing to stop perpetuating the shitty one. Be a good example, and stop defending the bad ones.)

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Fathers

  1. Beautifully written, and true! I’m so glad to know your dad as he gives me hope for the gender as a whole. I’m also glad that you recognize these qualities and wrote this to honor him. I want to say you are both lucky to have each other, but I don’t think that luck had much to do with it. You have both worked to be good, aware and loving people who know that there is always more to learn. Thank you for writing this. It’s also the first response to the rapist swimmer incident that I’ve seen that actually addresses the real underlying problem while providing steps that can lead to a real solution.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just read your short story Salt-Skin and Pie and came looking for your blog to tell you how much I loved it. I loved it so much. Then I started reading this, and I love this. Thank you for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, thank you so much! ❤ I am so glad that story gave you something; it was very cathartic for me to write, and helped me a lot to get out into the world. I can't tell you how much it means that someone else liked it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Alena, I have known your dad for over 20 years. Not well, but well enough to say that yes, indeed, he is a special man. And your mother, likewise. I knew you when you were tiny, and it is only logical that your parents could produce the wonderful woman that you are today. I absolutely love your writing. You have a special talent. I have every confidence in your becoming a great writer in the not too distant future. Bright blessings!


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