Happy Father's Day

Dateline: Sun 15 Jun 2008

Fathers have always been a mystery to me; fathers are elusive men who die too young and leave behind grief and longing, poetry, dry yellow newspaper clippings and tall tales of their wild exploits, told not by themselves over a glass of whiskey but others. It's something, but is it enough? As the feminists who shaped many of us in the 1960s and 70s used to say, why does a fish need a bicycle?

Once I became a mother, I learned to appreciate fathers not from the perspective of a daughter left behind, but as a wife and mother. As is so often the case in my life, it took both real-world experience and a book to get my head around fathers.

Kyle D. Pruett grew up in Indianapolis on the Northside and, as an adult, became a child psychiatrist and a professor at Yale University School of Medicine. Sometime in the 1980s, he wrote a ground-breaking book, "The Nurturing Father." He wrote about how fathers are different from mothers, and how that is OK. Fathers don't even carry babies the same way moms do, preferring to hold them, sometimes, like a football rather than a cherished package to press against one's breast.

I was fortunate enough to interview Pruett for a feature story for the Star. That invigorating conversation and his work helped educate me on fundamental differences between men and women as parents. It helped erase some of those "Father Knows Best" fantasies in exchange for real life, in which fathers, like mothers, sometimes screwed up but kept trying.

Another help was a newspaper columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer who wrote at the time about parent issues. I've forgotten his full name -- Dale something. I know he too has died.

He once wrote an excellent and forgiving piece called "The Good Enough Parent," which I've since learned is a phrase borrowed from the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who also wrote a book under the same name.

Here is some final food for thought from Bettelheim's work:

"In order to raise a child well, one ought not to try to be a perfect parent, as much as one should not expect one's child to be, or to become, a perfect individual. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings. Efforts to attain it typically interfere with that lenient response to the imperfections of others, including those of one's child, which also make good human relations possible.

"But it is quite possible to be a good enough parent -- that is, a parent who raises his child well. To achieve this, the mistakes we make in rearing our child -- errors often made just because of the intensity of our emotional involvement in and with our child, -- must be more than overcompensated for by the many instances in which we do right by our child."

Thanks to Susan Och in Michigan, who wrote about the above and excerpted it on her blog French Road Connections in 2005:

http://frconnect.blogspot.com/2005/03/good-enough-parent.html

And happy dad's day to one and all.

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