January 1, 2002

Model Behavior

Filed under: Fatherhood — schroder @ 3:00 pm

In grade school, our teachers made us write Valentine cards to every student in our class. I found this exercise frustrating and never quite understood the value until I opened my stack of cards. As contrived as it seemed, it provided one moment each year for everyone in my little world to think a nice thought about each other.

Holidays can be a double-edged sword – for many, they are a time to be with family, friends and loved ones; for others, the picture-postcard images that bombard them only serve to heighten their loneliness.

There are so many ways to counter this – and they take no more effort than we expended in grade school. My friend Ann Morris’ church has a group that gathers each February and sends a Valentine to every member who is over age 50. Much like the Martin Luther King holiday is evolving to promote community service, it could be time for Valentine’s Day to evolve as well.

Last summer, I took a larger role in my daughter’s life. We moved into an apartment together in Charlotte while she attended her senior year in high school and I commuted a few days a week back to Atlanta. We had some adjustment problems – after all, it had been eight years since we lived in the same house for more than a week or two. In the end, it was a wonderful experience.

Some of my friends thought, given the circumstances, I was going too far in my fatherly duties – that she had to learn that certain behavior results in certain consequences. I was torn. I didn’t want to stand between her and a life lesson. But I also knew that on my deathbed I wouldn’t look back and wish I had spent more time in the office last year. Was I making this sacrifice to make me feel better or was it truly the right thing to do?

I was burdened by two theories I once read about fathers. One says the way a father treats his children is instrumental in their adult perception of who and what God is like. The other says that a father should take his daughter out “on dates” – open the door to the car for her, hold her chair at dinner and have nice conversation across a table – to model how she should be treated later by a real date.

My daughter is now 18. I occasionally watch her pursue guys that her mother and I don’t feel are, let’s say, appropriate. Despite our desire to control the situation, we know she is getting old enough to make her own choices. I keep hoping that somewhere, in the back of her head, she remembers our evenings together and is only going through a phase.

Our time together as roommates has ended. But I know my role as her father hasn’t. When Valentines Day comes, I will send her a card and perhaps a gift. And if we aren’t able to have dinner together that night, I will try to remember that Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be what the commercials are telling me. It is not just a day for people who are in love, but yet another reminder of how to act for those who love.

“The Journey” Together

Filed under: Family,Life Stories — schroder @ 12:00 pm

My friends tease that I’m related to everyone in Atlanta. What is true is that I am “the baby” of my immediate family of two brothers and two sisters. We are rather spread out: by the time I was born, my oldest sister was nearly college-age. While some of us had traveled together through the years, it occurred to me that we had never all been on the same trip when we boarded the same airplane two years ago to go to a cousin’s wedding in Maine. (In hindsight, we probably should have split up on different flights.) The trip was a success and we agreed to get together each year.

One of the things about my big family is when we get together, we often only have time for small-talk. When we planned this year’s annual weekend together for August, I was interested in finding a tool to break down the normal barriers.

In July, I ventured into and was incredibly surprised by the premiere of a locally produced film. As the 90-minute film rolled along, I realized the experience of watching “The Journey” is similar to my life: It isn’t filmed particularly well, the sound is rough in spots, the plot is unpredictable and isn’t even laid out in a logical sequence. Then I began to listen for the pearls of wisdom hidden amidst its rocky scenes. And there were many.

After I emerged from the theatre, I had one urge: to ensure my family saw this film together. I wasn’t sure why, but I had a hunch that if anything could hot-wire an emotional reaction from my siblings, The Journey might be it. I was right.

After a glass or two of wine, we all sat down to view it. They laughed, they listened and some cried. As we prepared dinner, each one pulled me aside to share a significant emotion the film had triggered. At the table, instead of the normal banter, I asked each person, including in-laws, to share the thoughts they had quietly told me. For my family, this led to the most significant discussion we’ve ever had.

One sister said she realized her grandmother was the only family member she felt had ever really connected with her and she lamented she didn’t have such a relationship yet with her own grandchildren. A brother lamented that he had let issues prevent him from sharing his appreciation with our dad before his death seven years ago. One questioned why her approach to her son was so restrictive and why she didn’t appreciate his novel nature. She realized it was because that was how she was raised. Another feared for a grandchild’s self-esteem as he exposed his sensitive nature to his “macho” world. My mom was suddenly struck by never having told her long-deceased mother thanks for all the unappreciated sacrifices she had made when trying to raise three daughters during very, very tough times.

For me, I learned that, despite my nature to hide in tough times, it is okay to ask others for help when I need it. I also reaffirmed that, in the end, being a good father, manager, lover or friend is more about listening than lecturing. I need to listen more. That night at dinner, when I did listen, I could not believe the stories I heard.

Soon, it was time to clean up the dishes and call it a night. As we wandered off to bed and even when we have reconvened since, my family returned to our normal ways of relating. Yet something is slightly altered. For we have opened up and shared a deep fear or regret with our group and now, having shared that, we will are able to reconnect on a deeper level as the happy and sad scenes are written into our individual journeys.

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