Happy Father's Day
There is a big difference between paternity and fatherhood. There is a big difference between someone who is a sperm-donor and the man who raises a child. One is defined by a moment of pleasure, the other is fulfilled by years of effort. One is a dime a dozen, the other is priceless.
On Father's Day we honor those who help raise our children. The family unit is a very interesting and complex thing. Certainly motherhood is the prime institution that carries procreation through with the birthing process (where I come in). But the reproductive process doesn't stop there. Crucial in reproduction is the raising of a successful human being. The development of a human being is a continuum from conception to death, of which birth is that semantic dividing line between what we call fetus and what we call child. We all continue developing, and parents, after birth, serve as the umbilical cord to the world a child grows in.
In my practice of obstetrics and gynecology, I see young girls have a happy and successful adolescence, but I also see some who make disastrous mistakes. Usually these are of a sexual nature. I am not an anthropologist or sociologist, but it seems to me that the young girl who becomes sexually active too early is the one who doesn't have a meaningful father image in her life. It's as if this biological unit is seeking the other half of parentage in some sort of way. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when the mother must play both mom and dad, there's a distortion that the daughter resents. This represents a tough time in mother-daughter relationships, and if reason and intelligence prevail, they get through it to become friends later on. But the bumpy road is painful for both mother and daughter while it lasts, and sometimes there is not a happy ending.
There is a deeper, intangible value to a father besides provider. As the ratio of fatherless families tilts heavy compared to two-parent families, we see more and more shocking examples of youth rage, now spilling into gun play and other senseless violence. True, maladaptive behavior is multifaceted, impacted by poverty, abuse, and lack of guidance; but aren't those things that a father can complement a mother's care to avoid. There are some jobs that are too big for the one of them. Like full parenting. So on Father's Day we should salute the fathers who raise their children after helping make them. We should salute the fatherhood in those mothers who don't have a husband to help. And most of all, we should salute those children, who in spite of getting ripped off at birth by a father's absence, rise above it all to do well.
This article was supposed to appear in our local paper on Father's Day, 1999. I figured to have it written the day before I was to take my entire family to Hawaii. I had blocked off the day before to pack, make all of my phone calls, and tidy up all of my bills, dictations, and of course this. The only medical duties were to make rounds at the hospital. Seeing my patients, I explained to them again how I'd be leaving town and turning their care over to my partner. That's when the phone call came from my wife, who told me that the plane we were to take the next morning;the one that had required over a year's advance reservations;had just left.
I could have sworn the tickets had been dated for the next day.
All of the loose ends suddenly became unimportant as I dropped everything to call the single most important person in the world. My travel agent, after pausing with her hand over the phone for a moment, told me that there was another plane leaving in ninety minutes from Baton Rouge, and if we could pack in ten minutes and plead our case, we might be able to fly stand-by via Dallas and Los Angeles to Honolulu.
What was a father to do? Certainly not worry. That was a Mother's job.
"What's the big deal?" I asked her. "Just throw a bunch of stuff in the suitcases and let's roll."
"Riiiiiight..." she said, mimicking Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movie.
On the road after said impossible feat, we drove madly in silence, remembering that scene in "Home Alone." We both snapped our heads around to take a quick count of children. Yes, we had remembered to turn off the lights, to turn the AC up, close the garage door, take the airline tickets;and yes, we had remembered to bring all of the children.
When my wife and I were expecting our first baby in 1982, I asked her obstetrician if I could come into the exam room to hear our baby's heartbeat for the first time. Even though I myself was an obstetrician, he minded!
"You're an OBGYN and you want to hear this?" he asked, finding my need to hear what I had heard a million times ridiculous. And although it was true I had heard countless unborn beating hearts, this was in fact my own child. If I were a race car driver and my son or daughter were to follow into my footsteps, I would be sure to be there for that first race. Of course, this was back in, when a father's pacing in the labor and delivery waiting room was not yet a distant memory. We switched doctors anyway.
Recently my family and I suffered the loss of both my father and my brother-in-law. One was an old man, the other a young one. One death made me sad, the other made me feel ripped off. One was going to happen;I knew at some time in the foreseeable future, the other I still can't believe has happened. Last month my daughter and niece;my father's granddaughter and my brother-in-law's daughter;danced together at the ballet recital so beautifully, and I couldn't help but look at them through their father's and grandfather's eyes. We live on in our children and I saw these two fine men in each arabesque and pirouette. Fatherhood is really looking at one's children, wife, and family, and seeing in them yourself and your father and his father.
Fatherhood is going to each piano recital, ballet, and soccer match, video in hand while trying to shush the other ones soon to follow in their older siblings' footsteps. Fatherhood is turning on the hot shower at three in the morning for the croupy cough. Fatherhood is putting oneself third, then fourth, and then finally jockeying for position with the family dog. Fatherhood is shelling out that ridiculous amount for the "retired" beanie baby or that good school. Fatherhood is sleeping in the same bed with the expectant mother, knowing about every little ache and pain and taking part in the birthing process, even if cutting the cord seems hokey to some. Fatherhood is going with the family on vacation, even if it means fighting the strangers in 28D and 28F for an armrest for seven hours in a seat that doesn't recline because the exit row is the only space left on the standby list.
Fatherhood is being there for the family and the family-to-be, because that's what parenthood is all about.
In ancient times there was a great reverence for the hearth, the fireplace of the home, because this is where all the family gathered around. The hearth was the symbol of the home. I was able to spend my Father's Day in Hawaii with my wife and all of my children after all. If home is the house where the family is, then I spent Father's Day at home, even though it was a time-share condo with no fireplace at all.
Affection between a man and woman is special, because the baby that results makes them a family. If the doctor-patient relationship is special in obstetrics, then the doctor-couple relationship is all the more, because the family is the highest form of human affection and devotion.
In my own practice I'm thrilled to have the father-to-be come to any and all of the prenatal visits and then the delivery.
Obstetricians get to be there not just when the baby arrives, but when the family is born.
For all of the fathers who don't know it, here's a belated Happy Father's Day wish, because they're equally as beautiful as the mothers giving birth. And nothing makes this clearer to me than watching both the mother and the father at a delivery. Or watching children coming of age on a stage through the wide-open eyes of fathers who have gone on. Or not caring who wins the armrest war on Row 28, for there are much bigger things to be caring about.