The Other Fathers

Father’s Day has always been fraught for me.

My dad died four years ago, and we were estranged for about ten years before that. The 30 years before the estrangement were ... confusing. My parents split up for a brief time when I was in junior high. When my dad left he named me “the man of the house.” When he came back, he asked me for permission. I was fourteen.

I’m not sure I ever learned what a father should be.

My dad was a pretty good cheerleader; he was always the loudest parent on the sidelines of my soccer games. I suppose he was also a decent model for the pursuit of intellectual excellence. He used to say, “I don’t want anyone to say I raised stupid kids.” In that regard, the bar was pretty low, but I still learned to read and reflect and reason because of him.

Overall, however, we just never clicked. It seems clear—to me, at least—that he never learned what a father should be either. I’m done blaming or grieving him for that, but Father’s Day makes me wonder: what does it really mean to be a dad?

I’ve been a dad myself for fourteen and a half years. My daughters are two of the coolest people I know. Abi is 14 and lights up whatever room she walks into; she’s a performer, always singing and dancing. Mari is 10 and as fierce as they come; she plays hard and loves hard. She’s funny, smart, and a great apologizer.

I love being their dad. I’m constantly astounded by the questions they ask and the adventures they undertake. They’re hard sometimes, but that’s to be expected. My long-term goal is to be friends with my kids as adults, maybe because I didn’t have that opportunity with my own father. He never really got to know either of them.

That’s his loss. I won’t make it my own.

I’m certainly tempted to wallow in the grief of being a fatherless father, but fortunately, I have been surrounded by other men who refused to let that happen.

Like Ray. I have fond memories of our drives to wrestling matches accompanied by mostly silence but also Gordon Lightfoot. I remember punting a basketball through his garage door window. I don’t remember being shamed for it (or having to pay for it). He taught me the power of quiet strength and the sheer joy of being proud of your kid. Without trying, he made me feel like a third son. I was family.

Or like Ed. He was the first coach to really trust me. And his was the first great team I ever played for. If I ever let him down, he  only used my failure to motivate me. I loved playing for him. He gave me the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. He also taught me that sometimes it’s better to be smart than strong.  

Or George. One of my favorite compliments is to be his “newest old friend.” He is my “oldest new friend.” Every minute with him is rich. He’s taught me the power of curiosity, always ready with a penetrating question and a patient ear. He’s modeled a kind of discernment which I have tried to pass down to my children by patiently understanding their hearts before responding with my own hurried thoughts.

Or like three different Steves and three different Davids (wild, right?) who are all incredibly gifted men. Professionally, they are masters of their fields. Personally, so wise and so humble. I’ve had moments with each of them that are tattooed on my soul. I’m done having children, and I’m grateful I have two daughters. But if I’d been given a son, he would have born their names.

I’m a lucky man to have had so many incredible fathers take an active role in my life. Despite my own story with my dad, which is mostly full of shame and disappointment, I also feel incredibly blessed to be able to celebrate the other fathers in my life on Father’s Day. And every day.

If Father’s Day is hard or complicated for you ... can you, will you, look around and see the many men who have impacted you and your children? Who are the Rays and Eds and Georges and Steves and Davids who have shaped you? Who are the men who have mentored your partners and children? I’m not suggesting at all that you dismiss your own fathers. I’m not suggesting that you celebrate in spite of your dad. I’m suggesting that you celebrate in light of your dad.

Again, this day is fraught for me. But Father’s Day is not just about me and my dad anymore. It’s about me and my girls now, too. They’re smart, creative, compassionate, wild and beautiful. They dance, swim, play and dream with reckless abandon. They’re teaching me what a father should be just as much as the many men who stepped into my life when I needed it.

May I forever be the type of dad to show quiet strength, to give my children the freedom to make mistakes, to listen patiently, to love my girls with everything I have, in the hopes that Father’s Day will never be fraught for them.

Guest post written by Zach Brittle. Zach is a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle, Wa. He is the founder of forBetter which offers online courses for couples. He is the best-selling author of The Relationship Alphabet and his writings and insights have also been featured in Verily Magazine, Real Simple Central, Men’s Health Magazine, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He has been happily married to Rebecca for 19 of 20 years – year #8 was pretty rough. Together, they have two daughters (10 & 14), a minivan, and most of the silverware they got as wedding presents. You can also listen to Zach on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast this week!