My Father, My Enemy
Sons and fathers notoriously have bad relationships. They don’t understand each other. They don’t appreciate each other. One’s too sissy for the other. One’s too macho for the other. They cause the fights at family reunions. They order wives and mothers and grandmothers and daughters to shun the offending other, as if their own anger is so righteous that everyone around should feel it to the same degree. And they keep the estrangements going for years and years, because they’re too stubborn to ever give up trying to prove that they’re right, and too filled with testosterone to make peace. Maybe on a deathbed. But then again, often not.
If fathers and sons are so tough on each other, is it any wonder that in romances, fathers and brothers often betray and abuse the heroine? They lose her in a card game, as if she’s an extra pile of something they don’t need around. They barter her in a land deal, as if she’s a tree to be harvested. They enmesh her in poverty, as if their comfort is much more important than hers. And they quite frequently prostitute her.
And yet, the estranged son yearns for his father’s openly expressed love. And the betrayed heroine yearns equally for proof of her father’s or brother’s affection. But we know that they are looking in vain.
How strange, then, that the romantic hero also knows this and somehow resolves most of this emotional turmoil. Simply by loving the heroine. Sometimes even by being a substitute father figure to a misbehaving brother of the heroine. But what the hero also does is provide the economic rock upon which a new family can be created. Thus, he takes up the father’s basic task.
The thing is, both sons and daughters were cash assets to a father in the old days. The father used them to increase his own wealth or save himself from poverty. He saw that as his right, but also as his duty, to keep the family unit as intact as possible. For the son, it might mean a lifetime of slavery to the family business, often a farm. For the daughter, it might mean a marriage to a man she didn’t much like, who might work in the family business or otherwise help it flourish.
As sons and daughters have become more able to escape the tyranny of their fathers, largely because our society now offers superior mobility and thus economic independence, have they been able to forge different or better relationships with them? Or is a father still an enemy?
It does seem counterintuitive to talk about the negatives of fathers around Father’s Day, another sentimental American celebration of a myth. The myth of the great dad. Who is that father? Have you ever met one? A friend just e-mailed me Ben Stein’s essay about how hard fathers work and how unappreciated they are especially because they don’t whine about the difficulties of their years of labor supporting a family. Okay. Fair enough. But isn’t the lack of whining part of that stubborn refusal to show any emotion that could be construed as a weakness? And why is it a weakness if it is expressed inside the family? Why can’t a father come home from work and say the boss is a jerk and the job is in jeopardy? The children see the father put on his business uniform, much as they see the mother put on hers, plus an extra coating of face makeup for many moms, to armor themselves for the battle. So why is in impossible for the father to relax and admit that he might not win the battle? Or that he’s doing it for people he loves? Or that he appreciates his family members for who they are, not only to the degree that they become pawns or foot soldiers in his war? A father becomes an enemy within if he undermines or openly scoffs at his family. If he tells them they aren’t good enough, they spend their whole lives fighting that pronouncement. So why do it?
A lot of people have mixed feelings about their fathers. And even if grown children want to heal breaches, sometimes fathers won’t let them. Sometimes, the only satisfactory conversation with a father is with his tombstone. This Father’s Day, have the conversation with the living father if possible. Because no matter what he is and what he has done, your father is not really your enemy. Just watch out for his famous sucker punch, okay?