When people learn that I am the youngest of ten kids they invariably ask, “What did your dad do?” Although gender roles are shifting, dads are still presumed to be bread-winners. It’s a rare man whose ego is not threatened by a spouse who earns more than he. A stay-at-home dad is really swimming against social norms!
Yet when people ask what my dad “did” to support ten kids and a wife, I really am at a loss for words. Yes, I know his places of employment and who issued his paycheck. In the status-conscious pecking order of their over-55 retirement community Dad would boast that he owned a Pontiac car and GMC truck franchise. Which he did — but that was for fewer than ten years and before I have any conscious memory.
Over the years, my standard answer has evolved, “Dad did whatever he needed to earn money — he was a farmer, small business owner, a manager, a salesman, an entrepreneurial genius.” All that is true! This also enables me to defend his reputation and express my esteem within the competitive world of the masculine pecking-order.
Here is the factual truth. My father finished his career as the manager of a parking ramp in downtown Omaha. That used to embarrass me. That is probably the reason for the retrieval of his Pontiac/GMC franchise identity with his card-playing buddies at the Sun City rec center. Yes, he felt the weight of raising ten kids. He also labored under the cultural burdens of what it means to be a “successful” man.
But, here’s the real truth. I’m bored by the question! It’s so unfair and irrelevant to the dad I love — probably to all dads. Yes, Mom and Dad raised ten kids. He died at 83. My Mom did not “run out of money” until 18 months before her death at 97! Dad only finished the tenth grade. Mom never went to high school. By any economic or social standard I would say they were pretty damn successful!
Even that defensive explanation fails to explain the man. My dad was a decent poet. He was horrible at telling jokes because he’d be laughing too hard to deliver the punch line. He had really hairy arms which I loved stroking when he was holding me on his lap. A favorite photo shows my dad wearing a fedora, suit, white shirt and tie, and tweed overcoat when he took my sister and me sledding at the park. My love of gardening — the earth — comes from him.
Every hamburger is still rated against those I ate with my Dad in small town cafes when I accompanied him as a farm equipment sales rep. Except for my Mom, my Dad’s greatest asset was a deep, mature and vibrant spirituality. Though ten of us exasperated and exhausted him with regularity, my dad was immensely proud of his family. We knew that — and his investment paid off.
What did my dad do? Whatever he needed to do. Most of all, he showed up! Too many dads are missing — absent from too many lives and too many homes. Some are simply AWOL. Others are enslaved by needing to make money to sustain a lifestyle that is virtually unsustainable. Yes, my dad worked really hard. But in too many neighborhoods — both rich and poor — too many kids are left with a gnawing father-deficit. We were not!
We all need mentors, coaches, teachers, uncles, neighbors, role-models providing a rich assortment of male relationships. Having no children of my own I take seriously — and with great satisfaction — these essential roles. Yet, my knees buckle at the prospect of doing what my dad did.
On this Fathers Day I am immensely proud to be the son of my dad — a man who was never missing in action!