Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dancing on Daddy's Feet

Dancing On Daddy's Feet - in honor of upcoming Father's Day

(Excerpted from a Father's Day sermon I delivered two years ago)

According to Hallmark research there are 102 million cards in circulation about now – that is the number of Father’s Day cards expected to be given this year in the United States, making Father’s Day the fifth-largest card-sending occasion. I remember asking my mom, when I was little, why there wasn't a “Children's Day?” Her predictable response was that everyday is Children's Day. She said moms, dads, and grandparents deserve one day of the year that they get a special day. The idea of Father’s Day was conceived by Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Washington, while she listened to a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Dodd wanted a special day to honor her father, William Smart, a widowed Civil War veteran who was left to raise his six children on a farm. A day in June was chosen for the first Father’s Day celebration—June 19, 1910, proclaimed by Spokane’s mayor because it was the month of William Smart’s birth.

Dodd corrected the imbalance of honoring fathers, by communicating her support for her father as an important part of her life. Society has often relegated dads to the back of the parenting wagon.The tranformation of expectation of fathers in the twentieth century alone was tremendous. There is an expectation that fathers participate more in the process of raising children and be more involved in the day-to-day family life. Sometimes the role of nurturer is blended when the dad assumes more of the traditional care roles, and the other parent works. There are families where both parents are dads – how does the expectation appear then? I find it strange that while society has slowly moved the image and expectation of fatherhood more in sync family rhythms, children's toys still reflect a bias that girls will nurture and that boys will do. I want to see more boys' family life toys. If we want men that can nurture, then let us nurture that.

Expectation can be detrimental when communication or action doesn't happen. From the book “A Chosen Faith: An Introduction To Unitarian Universalism,” John Buehrens recounts the first Thanksgiving that he and his wife Gwen celebrated. He thought there were too many people, too many friends, and too much food. Gwen seemed to think it wasn't enough, not enough people, not enough recipes – she didn't want anything ommited. He had been asked to carve the turkey, something he had never done before. With good humor, he donned his apron and went to it. Much to his unhappiness his later reward was his wife bursting into tears. In her family the turkey was brought to the table and laid before the paterfamilias, grace is said, and then is carved. John cut it up in the kitchen. In response to his wife's tears John hollered, “So I fail patriarchy, what do you expect?” What a terrific question! What is expected of men, of fathers?

There are an estimated 66.3 million fathers in the United States today. What does that look like? We've all seen the commercials, the ideal portrayal of the involved dad, or the successful dad. What is the real picture of fatherhood? Is it the classic tale of throwing the football with the kids in the backyard and the white-toothed grinning dad who's grilling burgers on the back deck? Is fatherhood the single dad trying to get off in time to make his daughter's PTA meeting? Currently there are 2.3 million single dads with children under 18, up from 400,000 in 1970. Among single parents living with their children, 18 percent are men. What about the stay- at-home dad that organizes his kid's activities through his Blackberry? There are an estimated 143,000 “stay-at-home” dads. Fatherhood is not one stereotype or picture.

Then there are the dads that the media has given us. We've had iconic dads like Steve Douglas on My Three Sons to horrific nightmare dads like Darth Vader. There were the '70s dads Archie Bunker and George Jefferson. In the 1980's there was Al Bundee or even more underwhelming, Homer Simpson. Of course, let's not forget Doctor Huckstable from the Cosby Show. Looking at Frazier from the 90's or more recent shows, they seem to focus on the cute family dysfunction. Yet, love or saving action somehow brings them back together. Do happy endings come at the end of every episode? Is this fatherhood?

One literary depiction of fatherhood is in a book that my son got for his birthday called “And Tango Makes Three.” This children's book is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male Chinstrap Penguins in New York's Central Park Zoo. These same-sexed penguins formed a couple. The pair were observed trying to hatch a rock that resembled an egg. When zookeepers realized that Roy and Silo were both male and could have no viable egg between them, it occurred to them to give them the second egg of a mixed-sex penguin couple. The egg was from a couple which had previously been unable to successfully hatch two eggs at once. Roy and Silo hatched and raised the healthy young chick, a female named "Tango" by keepers, together as a family. This was one of the most controversial books in 2006. Schools tried to get parents to have to sign permission slips for children to read it, and one school moved it to the restricted section.

What about historical father figures? We have Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lost his father at eight and who's own son died at the age of five. He experienced many losses in his life – the loss of his first young wife caused him great spiritual upheaval. I think that this must have colored his parenting and his strong desire for inner strength, personal accountability and rugged individualism. Look at a different historical figure, Joseph Kennedy, who was the strong patriarchal presence of the famous Kennedy family. Having descended from poor irish immigrants, he had ambitiously made it to “the top” and pushed his children towards success. The drives of parents color the formation of their children.

We have all carried baggage from our parents at some time or another. Parents and parenting can certainly be a loaded subject. I actually had three father figures. As many of us have learned either by receiving or doing, there is no perfect parent. Parenting is a akin to mad science: you try different hypothises, add a touch of discipline to the beaker, with a dose of common sense, and a big splash of love, and see what happens... Parenting is messy, because our lives are messy. What works with the first child bombs with the second, and life circumstances change. A job is lost or relationships are strained; the love boat has crashed into a large ice block. We have dads that are involved, those that are over-involved, and those might be absent. With any parent, mother or father, the degrees of skill and presence vary.

Parenting is magical. Your day can be transformed by the transcendent mind of a four-year-old. One morning, I was having a lousy slow-to-wake morning after being up all night with Ehren and my oldest completely turned me around. After breakfast, Kiernan starts serenading me from the kitchen with his homemade "Ballet on Ice" song. He informs me that the kitchen floor is an ice rink and begins twirling and singing. After a few minutes of some lovely twirling he grabs his dump truck. He rides the dump truck rather elegantly, while singing and "dancing" in the truck. He says he has hurt his leg, but he's still doing ballet on ice via his truck. The gift of children is a ticket of transformation and invite into worlds we might only touch when we can shed our adult lens for a while.

Parenting requires some creative conversations. My husband Karl was talking to our four year old son, Kiernan about an eighty-two year old man that had died, and how it was a sad thing. Kiernan promptly announced that he wanted to be 82. Age and death aren't the easiest topic to communicate with pre-schoolers, though the topic had been broached before. Karl explained to Kiernan how long it would take for him to become eighty-two and that he is ten times as old as Kiernan. This caused some thought, and Kiernan looked up at Karl and asked if he would die when he was eighty two? I was glad I wasn't the target for this question, because it is hard to know how to give an answer that is both honest and well-targeted to what a young person can both appreciate and understand. Karl was honest and said that it could happen that late or earlier. Kiernan thought about it, and said “Daddy that's okay. Because you'll be in my dreams just like Yaya.” Yaya is my mom that Kiernan didn't meet because she passed away in 2000. Kiernan has had several dreams about my mother, so that has opened up the words and dialogue we use for life after death conversations.

The largest expectation I looked to in my father figures was safety and protection. In the chaos of my early years, I wanted stability and that was hard to find sometimes. One of my favorite memories as a child was walking on feet. I did this with my dad, my step dad, with my brother and whomever would let me glide on them. I felt like I was riding a giant and I remember feeling very protected and literally uplifed. Dancing on Daddy's feet, didn't have to be my daddy – it was that lighter than air feeling of being in concert with a male figure in my life. It was someone who cared enough to have a tomboy girl, barefoot and grimy-toed dance with her for a while. Those were the moments that made my heart fill up.

Children are not the only ones with expectations. Parents have their share. How we parent at twenty-something can differ greatly after a decade. The expectations of a parent for the first child often differ from the last born. As we age, our relationships with parents hopefully shift to friendship. Though our expectations can get caught in place. We might have trouble adapting our stories about how our parents fit into our lives or we in theirs. Our family of origin can become the binding glue of our ongoing relationship patterns with our own children, our spouses, or how we engage in friendships and congregational life. How we navigate these waters can be a map to the world before us, whether it is making peace, or recognizing the past; whether it is finding new relationship or letting go of the old. As I said earlier, expectation can be disastrous. Since I lost my mother when I was in my twenties, I have made a promise to myself to not live with regret in relationship. I have tried to move past my childhood expectation to reflect on what is now.

What is it that I want in a father as a thirty-four year old mother of two? The answer is, of course, just as complicated as when I was six. Sometimes it would still be nice to be swept up and carried to my bedroom after falling asleep during a movie, sometimes it would be great to dance on daddy's feet. But, I am more blessed with watching my sons boat on granddad's pond or learn about plants in my father's mountain garden. I love to watch Kiernan listening to boating adventures from his uncle Robert. I am able to share bedtime stories from my stepdad and carry on the seeds of activism that he planted in me with my own sons. I am nurtured by exploring the history of my dad's life that I never heard, because I hadn't thought to ask before. It is in the continuation of relationship that I find the blessed feeling of being uplifted.

Dancing on Daddy's feet has become a metaphor in parenting - in finding the magical moments to share with my own children.