This Dad Says
Dad: Michael Isaacs, 65
Home: Atlanta, GA
Daughter: Ashley, 30
Being a father has been the most challenging, rewarding, difficult, sad, joyous, life enriching part of my life, for which I will forever be grateful. I would not trade it for anything. Many times during Ashley’s, my only child, typical teenage years I looked forward to her leaving home for college. When it finally happened the opposite occurred. I found myself wishing I had more children still at home as I wasn’t ready to give up the day-to-day joys of fathering and I missed and worried about her terribly.
It was a long journey from when I used to talk to her in her mother’s belly to the now charming, 30 year old, young woman with whom I have a great adult relationship. How did we get through it and what happened to all that time? It was a blur of constant strife, love and activity.
Raising a child it is not easy; they don’t come with an owner’s manual. To make things more difficult, when Ashley was around 6 her mother and I separated and a year later divorced. As divorces go it was more or less amicable, but you don’t end a long term marriage without some anger, hurt feelings, raised voices and lingering resentment. It would have been easy for both of us to allow our anger to control the relationship to the exclusion of Ashley’s best interest. We have all seen that play out in people we know. I felt badly that on at least some level, by getting a divorce Ashley would be harmed.
Therefore, I vowed that I would do all in my power to put Ashley’s needs ahead of my own. Arguments with your ex, over money and all the other blood boiling issues one deals with in a divorce involving children; anger, trying to prove you are right when you firmly believe in your cause, or that you are better, or smarter or all the other ego driven emotions, only brings harm to the child. I made a conscious decision to master those feelings.
Although there was much to be contentious about on both sides, Barbara was a good person who was also willing to act the grown up. It would have been infinitely more difficult had Barbara not held Ashley’s needs higher than her own. So we began the process of raising a child together. We attended school events together and shared driving duties to the many lessons and parties Ashley participated in. When there were performances or sports events we sat together to cheer Ashley on.
By the time the divorce was final I had met Ann, who would become my wife 3 years later. I got lucky again as Ann was mature enough and generous enough not to resent Barbara or my time with Ashley. In fact she became an additional parental asset with her professional background as a psychologist and a warm and loving step-mom. Barbara graciously accepted Ann as an additional adult in Ashley’s life.
It was not always easy and of course I am sure I failed at times, but always I held the context to act with honor. I paid all child support on time, and later when I was able paid more than was required. Ashley stayed at our house every other weekend went on vacations with us and joined us for visits to Ann’s family. Ashley being a normal child tried to exploit the differences between the two households. “I don’t have to do that at mom’s (dad’s)” was a common complaint we both heard. And of course to Ann, “you’re not my mom”. With regular communication between us all we were able to have a unified front to provide the consistent, discipline children need to civilize and prepare them for adult life.
There were many bumps in the road along the way. There were times when Ashley thought I was the meanest dad in the world. How could we not let her do what all her friends were allegedly doing? Our curfews were totally unreasonable, and why shouldn’t she be allowed to wear what ever she wanted?
Then suddenly it was over and things changed. Ashley went away to school, and we stopped most of the rules she suffered under previously. When she was home there were no more curfews. She could come and go as she pleased; we only asked that if she were going to be late or not come home to call and let us know so we wouldn’t worry, as if we could stop. It was at this point our relationship began to change. I was no longer the ogre in charge, but was changing to an advisor to be consulted when needed. I watched her find her way, making mistakes along the way as we all did and do.
Through various stops, starts, successes and failures she has found her way in her career and life. Her life is busy with her career and a very active social life. I am extremely fortunate that she lives in Atlanta, close at hand and not in a distant city, and that she chooses to include me in her life. She calls frequently, and we see each other regularly. Sometimes she asks for my advice.
I remember one perfect moment on a snowy day in a West Virginia mountain cabin when Ashley and I went out, just the two of us, to play. The sun sparkled on the pristine snow among the pines on a blue-sky winter day. We made a crude, ineffectual snowman, had a snowball fight and made snow angels that were angelic. The sound of her perfect, childhood laughter echoed off the snow banks through the hills and my heart swelled with joy at this perfect moment, this spot weld of love.
In my best moments as a father I acted out of a love for another that is greater than love for oneself and in those moments I was a bigger and better man. That is the gift of Fatherhood.
Dad: Adam Phillips, 55
Home: New York NY
Children: Samuel Noah, 18, Madison Wisconsin
I am glad to write about being a father for the new Fathering Forum website because being a dad is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I can imagine and I love to share my own perspective with others. So many emotions are part of being a father: pride, wistfulness, sadness, joy, equanimity, selflessness, nostalgia, confusion, concern and of course fun and connection are huge parts of it. And need I say that, through it all, LOVE (in its many guises) is the underlying context, the root and the flower. Truth be told, I was not prepared for being dad. It just sort of “happened” in my late 30s, and although being a husband was a huge learning curve for me, I always felt comfortable, at home and happy in my fathering role, as if I really could count on umpteen millions of years of DNA to help out, point the way, give me instincts that would naturally help my child grow in ways that were best for him. Of course, I made some mistakes, but I usually was able to forgive myself, clean up the mess, and move on. Being a parent (hell, being a human!) is quite a stew)
I got lucky in many ways. My son’s mother has great instincts too, and thought of many things (colored pencils, swing sets, various kinds of schools, making yummy mush) that I never knew. She has always been kind and respectful to our son. Also, Noah was a relatively easy child. His personality has always been fairly steady, thoughtful, outgoing, and he is a great communicator. He has innate dignity and poise. It is important to note that I have had the means to support him properly, and Noah has been blessed with family members on both sides who have taken an active interest in him and who he was. He is loved.
I’d say my greatest joy has been watching him grow more fully into himself, and witnessing the miracle of his personality develop from infancy to now, when he is basically a very young man (he leaves for university in a few weeks! Yikes!). He is unfolding every day, always surprising me, yet also just expressing who he has been basically from birth. I think that who we are is set pretty early, and it just takes the right environment and encouragement to fully blossom — a lifelong process, I am sure. I love our deep talks, our silliness sometimes, the way we sometimes know what the other is thinking or about to say before anything is said. I love listening to him play guitar. I like his new mustache! He has beautiful eyes too. He is kind, and great with kids. I predict I will be a grandfather sometime within the next decade. Reap the harvest, so they say.
Like every father, I have had my challenges and sorrows to contend with as a dad. Noah’s mother and I were divorced when he was only four, and it was very hard in the early years not seeing him day to day, and doing all the little things many parents complain about as drudgery, but to me are at the heart of hands-on loving – teaching him to tie his shoes, going to bed night after night with the same storybook, being there for him if he has bad dreams, dinners together every night. There were lots of legal issues around visitation (I wanted lots more than his mom felt comfortable with), and my hurt and anger sometimes spilled out in ways that were painful for him. I wish I had been more self-controlled in those days, better able to see down the road long term to the relationship we would have when he was able to make more choices for himself.
When he was 11, I moved up to New York, and I saw him less frequently but for longer periods of time, as I went back and forth often. For a long time, we spoke on the phone every night; sometimes it was just “Hi Dad, how ‘ya doing? I gotta go to bed but wanted to check in.” Sometimes our talks would last an hour or more. Things got easier when he was given his own cell phone, and he was able to take the train up to New York unaccompanied by a guardian.
Another challenge has been letting go, and releasing him into his own life, that does not circle around home and parents and school but is its own thing. I want to let him go and I want to hold him close. How I act, what I do in the real world is what matters, of course, and the progression has been a fairly smooth one. I try to listen carefully to what he says, and make sure he feels heard. Also, I am able to express my own feelings to Noah without any guilt tripping or “make-wrongs.” For better or worse, I have always shown Noah the human side of me, as well as my fathering role, and I think the many glimpses of the “wiring under the boards” – the social expectations, human frailty and yearning, the politics and power, the Big Questions – have served him well. We got to talk a lot about spirituality when I was preparing him for his Bar Mitzvah. I am delighted but unsurprised to see that at this stage in his life he is interested in Buddhism, anarchy and community-building, human ecology, brain science, Walt Whitman and music.
A turning point in my fathering came when I joined the Fathering Forum in 2006 or so. I had always fathered alone; I did not have the active and ongoing support of other dads to talk to, to seek advice from; I had also rarely experienced the privilege of offering my own perspective and experience as a dad to other fathers.
Here’s how it happened: I had just written a proposal for a series of workshops aimed at teenage fathers, and a man from Men’s Division International (which, for now, is the Fathering Forum’s umbrella organization) suggested I meet Dave Turk, who was holding small Fathering Forum Team meeting in his home. As soon as I arrived, I was welcome, and it was like taking a refreshing and bracing bath to hear what other dads are up to, and to support them in being the best dads they can be. Getting what other dads have to offer, and learning to honor my own potential contribution to other dads was a life-changer for me.
As Noah grows up, one way I can serve him is to expand the concept of what being a father is. As the years go by, who gets included in my fathering will encompass ever wider circles of influence – from the children of other dads I know, to the kids in my Upper West Side neighborhood, to the city, and ultimately the world. Someday, I hope to develop my own perspective to the point where I can bring the best of fathering (nurturing, kindness, strength, firmness of resolve, clarity, vulnerability) to all people, of whatever age, “of fathers born.”
Adam Phillips is the Community Outreach and Development Manager for the Fathering Forum and a New York City Fathering Forum Team leader (http://www.meetup.com/Fathering-Forum-NYC/). In his work life, he is a journalist at the Voice of America (www.AudiobyAdam.com) and a multi-faith minister (www.PhillipsCeremonies.Com). Reach him at email@example.com and at 917-670-9293
Want to share what being a dad is like from where you sit? The Fathering Forum welcomes your contribution. Click here to register and learn how.