Essay and drawing copyright 1997 by Barrie Maguire
The Irish, it is said, love to celebrate their own situation no matter what it may be.
That may explain my need to tell you how my children, now that they have grown, are methodically stripping the medals from my uniform, the protective coating from my ego, and forcing me to look honestly at myself.
Right now, I'm not feeling too good about this. I feel a little exposed, a little jumpy whenever my kids haul up from the past their questions or complaints. They are only vaguely aware of what they are doing to me; they're focusing on their own problems, attempting to come to grips with their own demons.
The thing is, my children weren't supposed to have demons. The great personal myth of my life was that I was such a terrific father that all of my children couldn't help but grow up to be happy, contented, healthy reflections of their remarkable dad.
I actually used to believe those things about myself. I believed I was a little better at parenting than others, certainly better than my ex-wife, my children's mother. Better than the parents of my children's friends, even those moms and dads who had kept their marriages and families intact.
The proof was there to see: my kids grew up to be artists, intellectuals; they were bright, affable, independent, and funny. (Just like me!).
My awakening came gradually, sometimes punctuated with blinding flashes of the obvious, such as the time I got into an argument with one of my grown sons. As if I had stepped on a land mine left over from a war ten years past, a "harmless" suggestion ignited a furious argument. In a few seconds we were standing, screaming at each other, red-faced, neck veins popping, while other family members watched in horror. I shouted something like, "Why in god's name do you have to act like this?" and he shouted back, "I learned it from you!" End of debate.
On another occasion, a different child sat on the couch in my living room and told me tearfully that I hadn't been much of a father lately, hadn't shown any interest, or asked any questions. Stunned again, I realized this was true.
Another child phoned long distance to tell me that her counselor had suggested that she call me and ask me to "apologize for neglecting her as a child."
I apologized on the spot, thinking as I spoke that I had neglected her, twenty years before, back when I'd been struggling to stay afloat myself, back in my single-parent days.
Ahhh, my single-parent days. A built-in excuse for so many lapses in behavior back then and ever since. Those single parent days, exhausting and difficult as they were, were also fertile ground for self-delusion: it was so easy to rationalize, to cut corners, to over-delegate, to "take care of my needs, too."
I built a pedestal in those single-parent days. A high marble pedestal with a bronze plaque that read, "He was, for a time, a single father of five children!" I climbed up onto that pedestal while others gazed at me in awe and respect. I told my story, the single-dad story, a thousand times. I even wrote a book about it! The story nourished me, buoyed me in hard times, helped me earn the admiration and affection of co-workers, neighbors, strangers and friends.
My ex-wife? It must have annoyed the hell out of her, but she kept her thoughts to herself.
As for my children, now that they're grown, they just shake their heads.
You see, they know. They've known the real me all along. The funny me, the annoying me, the supportive me, the distant me, the angry me, the nurturing me.
There's an old toast that goes, "May you live long enough for your children to forgive you." I am hopeful. Even encouraged. What my children are doing is better than mere forgiving. They've already brought a ladder over and leaned it up against my pedestal, and encouraged me to climb down.
The closer to the ground I get, the lighter I feel. It's been tiring, lugging my myth around. It's a relief to get it off my chest: I'm just a father, no better or worse than millions of other fathers. And you don't need to be Irish to celebrate that.
Barrie Maguire is a writer and artist in Narberth, Pa.