With Father’s Day just three days off, and since I have a few idle moments to while away, I thought it would make sense to explore fatherhood from the two angles that I am experienced in – father and son. They are decidedly different views of the same institution. There are contextual differences in regards to time and the cultural evolution that the passing of time brings. There are the perceptual differences of viewing the world through a child’s eyes, an adult’s eyes and the eyes of a father. Finally, there are vast differences in personality in regards to the paradigm one operates under and all these and other factors influence it.
My father grew up in a completely different time. Not just in a generational sense, but a generation that has seen unprecedented change across the entire spectrum of human history. His childhood only remotely resembles mine. In some respects it was perhaps better and in others maybe worse, but it doesn’t do to compare levels of quality, only to note that the differences are obvious. He is an only child and was raised by older parents that emigrated (legally) from Eastern Europe during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. He was born during the Great Depression in New York City, moved to Miami in his teens and finally Southern California - all before the end of his teen years. My grandparents were working class, worked very hard and provided as much as they could, but it was not much.
My Dad would be the first to tell you that he was not the smartest student, yet he excelled in school, skipping two grades before entering the University of Miami at 16. He believes that he was able to accomplish this and other significant achievements by working harder than others. I think he may be selling himself short. There is no doubt that he worked very hard to get where he is, but I think he’s a little smarter than he lets on. I understand what he means though. Being lucky or smart amounts to nothing without effort. It’s still true today and but one of the many places he and I used to differed in our perceptions of life. Thankfully, I have come around to his way of thinking in at least this respect.
He continued going to college after moving cross-country with his parents and everything they owned in 1952. He entered UCLA as a junior at the age of 18 and graduated two years later with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry. He then joined the US Army for a two-year stint before returning to school in pursuit of a Ph.D. at USC. His actual reason for returning to school, however, was to get out of the army two months early. Therefore, it was not long before he left USC to take a job at Rexall Drug. It paid $400.00 per month - a significant amount of money at the time.
After being passed up for a promotion by someone who was less qualified but had a Ph.D., my father decided that if he was going to succeed as a working chemist, he needed some initials after his name. He applied and was accepted to Stanford University’s graduate program in 1957. He managed to put himself through grad school just as he had in his undergraduate years and in 1961 he earned his Ph.D., putting initials not only after his name, but before it as well. He then returned to Southern California to work for the Richfield Corp., met my mother, got married and moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area for a new job, one he kept for many years.
In December of 1962, I came into the picture – my Dad became a father and my Mom a mother. In November of 1964 my brother came along and by September of 1966 I had a little sister. By this time my parents had settled down in a sleepy little town near Stanford University. This part of the Santa Clara Valley used to be known for its fruit orchards but is better known today as the Silicon Valley. It is the home I would spend the rest of my childhood in and the same home they still live in today. It afforded me the stability of attending the local elementary school, junior high school and high school all without ever moving or changing school districts. That sort of stability was rare in those days and an even greater rarity today. Furthermore, any aspirations I may have had for higher education were encouraged and supported, financially and otherwise.
My mother was a “stay at home mom,” better known as a “housewife” in those days and my father was a professional working long hours to not only provide for his family and get ahead, but stay there. In his childhood years, his parents were not able to provide that sort of financial stability and I am quite sure my Dad was intent on not having to live that way ever again. In that respect there is no doubt that he was successful; through hard work and education he never had to worry about where the next dollar was coming from.
We did all the family stuff that the typical or stereotypical middle-class suburban family does. We took a summer vacation virtually every summer. Some were to Southern California where most of our relatives still lived. While there we would go to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Hollywood, San Diego, Tijuana and the beaches. Then there were camping trips to the redwoods – Plumas Eureka State Park, Portola Valley, and Big Basin. There were even a couple of winter trips to Lake Tahoe, though neither of my parents had any particular fondness for the snow. We did the family and neighborhood summer bike rides downtown to the ice cream shop, Fourth of July block parties and Boy Scouts.
My Dad, from what I can determine, did not have a great deal of this kind of experience as a kid himself. Although the times, the places, and the circumstances were all different, somehow he was able to bring to the table what was needed for an absolutely a golden experience for any kid. That I was able to find any fault in this upbringing is only an embarrassment to myself, not any fault of his or my mother’s. They went above and beyond, yet I am positive that they didn’t view it as anything more than doing their job – a job I am equally sure they did not out of obligation but love.
Things changed when I hit my teen years. Not just the family dynamics, but the social fabric of the entire nation was redefining itself. The seventies and the eighties were a time when the country was trying to deal with the fallout over Vietnam, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and, of course, Watergate. It was a period of rapid social change and one that left some in my generation somewhat confused and many – as was true in my case – very apathetic. A combination of factors left me with a sense of entitlement that would have me chasing the quick fix for a very long time. Even if I had come with that proverbial “instruction manual,” my behavior would not have been covered in the “trouble shooting” section. In some respects my siblings followed my lead and in others they blazed their own trail and all the while all hell seemed to be breaking loose in so many families, yet everyone was in some sort of collective isolation; no one knew what to do and no one was talking.
Fast-forward 25 years. I am now a father of three young adults. My boys’ childhood is as different from mine as mine was from my Dad’s. The stability that my parents worked so hard to achieve was nowhere to be found in my kids’ life. It’s as different as night and day, yet there are those constants that perhaps don’t become apparent until one gets to experience them from the other side. Among them is that my love for my children is as unconditional as my father’s is for me. Another is that all I want for my kids it for them to be happy. I have discovered that no matter how much I want to, there are things that I cannot give them. Things like self-esteem and pride can’t be bought, they can’t be found and they can’t be won. They must be earned – they are the rewards gained only through action. And I can’t do it for them – it’s so very simple but a revelation all the same.
It is with new perspective and deep appreciation that I acknowledge all my father has done for me. He and my mother have sacrificed as I have – more - and what I know today is that the sacrifices I made as a father were nothing of the kind. That is, “sacrifice” is not the appropriate word. And although it has been at times both very painful and wonderful – often at the same time, it is part of the job and one I would (and probably will) do again without hesitation. I suspect that my parents feel the same way; in fact I know they do. I don’t look at what I am giving up, but what I am giving.
My Dad said to me once, not too long ago, that his appraisal of fatherhood is not measured by how successful his kids are and not by their level of education or other accolades and awards, but by their values. All those other things are dandy sources of pride, but pride does not equal satisfaction. In other words, if his kids have integrity, honesty, humility, dedication and a host of other similar qualities, then he has done his job well. I agree and would add that if my kids are generally happy… if happiness is their static state, then I have done my job well. Those qualities my Dad mentioned are the other side of the same equation. They are two forms of the same thing, as matter is to energy, so too is happiness to integrity. If indeed that is the measure of a good father, then my Dad measures up!
Happy Father’s Day Dad!