All about Dad

The many chal­lenges of mod­ern fa­ther­hood

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - richard­joseph­mor­gan@ya­ Richard Mor­gan, a writer in New York, is the au­thor of “Born in Bed­lam.”

Not ev­ery­one cel­e­brates their fa­ther on Fa­ther’s Day. I re­cently Googled mine for the first time — to dou­blecheck that he was still alive. He was not a good dad; we are not close. He taught me one cru­cial les­son, though: that fa­ther­hood is not about his way of be­ing a dad.

Dur­ing a trip to Dis­ney World when I was 13, one night I de­cided to sleep inmy swim trunks at the ho­tel. I hadn’t got­ten them wet be­cause I didn’t know how to swim (still don’t). He scolded me at bed­time, then he yelled at me, then, when I didn’t re­move the suit, he beat me on my arms and legs. Fi­nally, he stripped me. All in front of my younger sib­lings and our mom. The youngest, my brother, was 8.

In the dark of that room, naked and bleed­ing, only the sound ofmy sobs filled the si­lence — un­til I be­gan putting my trunks back on. My fa­ther heard the hushed rus­tles, got out of bed, pulled me up by my hair un­til he could lift me by my neck and dragged me to the park­ing lot, throw­ing me against the car door and telling me to get in. He drove so fu­ri­ously as he swerved onto the main road that I tried, un­suc­cess­fully, to open the door and roll out. I saw my mother, in tears, chas­ing af­ter the car and pic­tured the tail­lights glar­ing at her like the taunt­ing eyes of a flee­ing de­mon.

“Bas­tard,” my fa­ther mut­tered. He was en­raged that night, as he of­ten was, at me more than my sib­lings, be­cause I, the first­born, had made my fa­ther a fa­ther. I was the prover­bial 98-pound weak­ling, so I hurled words over fists, mostly half-pla­gia­rized take­downs from

trashy soaps like “Days of Our Lives” and “Mel­rose Place.”

“Bas­tard? I wish!” I said. “I wish I was an or­phan! I wish I wasn’t your son be­cause you’re no­body’s fa­ther.”

He pulled over un­der a bill­board and yanked me out. He pressed my face into gravel with his sneaker. “We don’t sleep in the clothes we’ve worn all day be­cause we are not pigs,” he growled. “But you want to be a pig, fine. This is how pigs live. Are you a pig?”

This was one of those traps abu­sive par­ents lay, like a vi­o­lent ver­sion of “Does this dress make my butt look big?” There was gravel inmy mouth, but he heard me: “Go to hell!”

None of this turned up in the Google search. Mostly I found ma­te­rial about the suc­cess­ful ca­reer of an in­vestor, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ex­ec­u­tive and gov­ern­ment sci­en­tist.

I won­dered where his kids were. Not me or my two younger sis­ters or our younger brother — I mean our half-brother and half-sis­ter from the se­cret fam­ily he raised while os­ten­si­bly try­ing to patch things up with my mother. Hav­ing got­ten her to type up his dis­ser­ta­tion, he left her in Lon­don to care for three young chil­dren and a fourth on the way while he set things up for us to join him in Mary­land a year and a half later. He took a gov­ern­ment job in Washington, af­ter which he was al­ways too busy to see us, even though he found time to visit Grace­land.

Even­tu­ally we joined him, but even our mo­ments to­gether were fraught. As kids, my sib­lings and I used to cheer from the back seat: “We want wobblies!” He al­ways obliged. We didn’t know un­til much later that this game had a grown-up name, too: driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence. To­day, when peo­ple ask about the long, deep scar across my fore­head, I don’t mince words: “My fa­ther drove drunk a lot.” That par­tic­u­lar scar re­sulted from a crash on an icy bridge when I was 7.

He leaned heav­ily on his ac­cent, as Brits in Amer­ica do, and had a vibe of Hugh Grant if Hugh went to the gym all the time. “Your dad’s ba­si­cally James Bond,” friends at school would say when he picked me up. I bet 007 would be a ter­ri­ble fa­ther, too.

How did he be­come that way? My grand­fa­ther is a de­light. My aunt and un­cles are all won­der­ful peo­ple and par­ents. I look at my cousins — the chil­dren of Zeus, Po­sei­don and Athena — and won­der why I got stuck with Hades for a fa­ther. He fan­cied him­self Mi­das, but he ex­celled only at van­ity. I’ve learned, in read­ing about the psy­chol­ogy of abu­sive par­ents, that it’s com­mon for abu­sive fathers to be nar­cis­sis­tic, crav­ing not just at­ten­tion but cel­e­bra­tion. Even the most bumbling of par­ents will tell you that hav­ing chil­dren means giv­ing up both.

We gave him even less than nor­mal, I sus­pect, be­cause he did so lit­tle to earn our love. At break­fast one morn­ing, he re­turned from a long run ask­ing us to fetch him milk; we poured a glass from the car­ton that had been on the ta­ble for the past hour or so. He threw the drink in our faces. “The milk’s warm, you mo­rons!” We laughed at his tantrum, my first mem­ory of mock­ing him, even in his anger. As teenagers, we openly de­bated what we’d do if we ran into him with one of his sus­pected mis­tresses at the mall. As an ar­ro­gant col­lege stu­dent, re­al­iz­ing he didn’t know what “an­te­bel­lum” meant, I heard my­self, “Cat’s in the Cra­dle”-style, be­lit­tling him ex­actly as he’d be­lit­tled me: “Why are you so stupid?”

My neigh­bor’s dad taught me to ride a bike. A bar­ber taught me to shave. My mother gave me the birds-and-bees talk. My high school chem­istry teacher taught me about sports and in­tegrity and how to play pool.

That last one hap­pened when I was 15, in the

I still think, de­spite it

all, that fa­ther­hood is the high­est

form of man­li­ness.

rec room of a North Carolina half­way house for ru­n­aways. I had shown my teacher my bruises, and he had helped me es­cape, driv­ing me from a friend’s house to the shel­ter. I scratched the ta­ble on my first try. He put his hand on my shoul­der, and I flinched, ex­pect­ing, out of habit, to be hit. I started cry­ing. “It’s okay,” he said, leav­ing his hand there. “You’re not bad. You’re spe­cial. And they know that here.” It was the first time I felt touched by fa­ther­hood (my teacher was new to it, with 1-year-old twin daugh­ters).

My mother at­tended the shel­ter’s coun­sel­ing ses­sions, but my fa­ther didn’t. When I’d scold him in later ar­gu­ments for cross­ing his arms dur­ing a se­ri­ous talk, he’d say that I’d been “watch­ing too much Oprah.” Once, when he wouldn’t drive me to an im­por­tant track meet, I walked along the high­way to get to school. When he pulled his car ahead of me, wait­ing, I hitch­hiked my way past him. I’d rather have taken my chances with some­one who’d pick up a 15-year-old hitch­hiker.

Af­ter 13 years to­gether in Amer­ica, first in Mary­land and then in North Carolina, my par­ents sep­a­rated in 1998, for­mally di­vorc­ing in 2003.

Even­tu­ally, I gath­ered my courage and sev­ered ties. “I’m truly ashamed to know you and worse yet to be re­lated to you, to be your son,” I wrote in a 2004 e-mail that was the last com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween us, spurred by his an­nounce­ment of his se­cret fam­ily. “The idea of grow­ing up to be like you makes menau­seous. I sup­pose, in a back­wards way, I can thank you for that: for pro­vid­ing me with such a clear ex­am­ple of the per­son I never want to be.”

(Con­tacted by The Washington Post, the au­thor’s fa­ther de­nied hit­ting his son at Dis­ney World or driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence.)

Par­ent­hood is sup­pos­edly en­shrined in hu­man­ity’s mys­ti­cal root lan­guage—“fa­ther” is baba in Man­darin, baba in Per­sian, babbo in Ital­ian, papa in Rus­sian and abba in He­brew. But my mother didn’t want those words in our house. So we called my dad by his first name. I used to be­grudge her that. I wanted a “dad” just like ev­ery other kid, but now I think she knew he was never wor­thy of the ti­tle. A few years ago, he was banned from my sis­ter’s wed­ding. No won­der that, dur­ing a re­cent chat, my pa­ter­nal grand­mother, his mom, told me she hoped he didn’t come to her fu­neral.

For a long time, I hated my fa­ther so much that my ha­tred ex­tended to any­thing he liked, such as but­ter pe­can ice cream. I was de­ter­mined to be Not Him. But to be ex­actly his op­po­site was still to let him de­fine me. I have to live my life as best I can, for the same rea­son I had to pull my swim trunks back on in that Florida ho­tel room — not be­cause I wanted to swim, and not be­cause I wanted to make any­one an­gry, but be­cause it was my way of find­ing dig­nity in dis­as­ter. It is said that you truly be­come the per­son you’re meant to be when you lose aparent. Dis­con­nect­ing from my dad fi­nally al­lowed me to be­come my own man.

Like a Jew on Christ­mas or a Mets fan dur­ing the World Se­ries, I’ve made my peace that Fa­ther’s Day hap­pens with or with­out me. So I’ve made do. I’ve made it Fathers’ Day, plu­ral, which this year, glo­ri­ously, is June 21, the long­est day of the year. That’s as it should be. Sun­shine is the best dis­in­fec­tant.

I spend the day think­ing about fa­ther­hood, whether I’ll ever have kids, what I’d like them to call me. (Papa, I think.) I think about the lessons I’ve learned from my friends’ dads. From my friends who’ve be­come dads. I think about what it means to be a man, be­cause I still think, de­spite it all, that fa­ther­hood is the high­est state of man­li­ness, the high­est com­pli­ment to chil­dren and the high­est com­ple­ment to moth­ers.

I find my­self drawn to the many forms of fa­ther­hood. I read about the dad who set up a mi­cro-na­tion so he could make his daugh­ter a lit­eral princess. I read about 21-year-old Barack Obama, locked out of his apart­ment on his first night in New York, sleep­ing in an al­ley, sob­bing and read­ing a let­ter from his es­tranged fa­ther; and about Pres­i­dent Obama telling re­porters that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” At wed­dings, I lis­ten for fa­ther­hood ref­er­ences in the groom’s vows and al­ways cry at those fa­ther-and-bride dances. I won­der what JFK Jr. thought of fa­ther­hood, or what Prince Wil­liam thinks. I won­der if Je­sus, the Son, ever wished He’d got­ten a go at fa­ther­hood. I won­der if I’d ever feel in­clined to hit my own chil­dren, and I joke that I’m such an over­achiev­ing fa­ther al­ready that I’ve ac­com­plished dad bod and dad hu­mor be­fore hav­ing kids. I think about fa­ther­hood the way you might think about the en­vi­ron­ment on Earth Day.

Cer­tainly chil­dren can be mon­sters (“Hitler with my wife’s eyes” is how a friend de­scribed his in­fant daugh­ter to me), and I was no an­gel. But, as a writer, I love the chal­lenge of fa­ther­hood— the pos­si­bil­i­ties of it!— be­cause it is the op­po­site of writ­ing. Writ­ers can be frauds, con­jur­ing eru­di­tion with the right words, pre­tend­ing to be smarter or fun­nier or cooler or kin­der than we are for a sen­tence or para­graph or es­say or novel. But not for 20 years.

Fa­ther­hood is a cru­cible, a dis­tillery, away of wring­ing out a man to see if he can still be his best at his worst, his strong­est at his most vul­ner­a­ble, his most thought­ful at his most ex­hausted. Like any good test, it has its fair share of fail­ures. It’s not quite an “A for ef­fort” game. But, as the NBA’s Steph Curry said at a news con­fer­ence cel­e­brat­ing his Western Con­fer­ence Fi­nals win, as his young daugh­ter made an adorable spec­ta­cle next to him: “What­ever comes our way, we gotta be able to fight through it.” I can’t wait.



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