What are you getting for Father’s Day? A sure bet is a shirt, hat, or apron declaring your paternal status. Another safe wager is underwear with an animal print or attached stuffed mammal. You’ll also get a greeting card with a dated or Disney-like adage. Some proclamations are true. Others, not so much.
It doesn’t matter if your child is a college student, a parent, or grandparent — you will always be “dad.” Yet, the fatherhood gig does eventually end. You might do stuff like cosigning a loan or buying a crib for the grandchild, but that’s more of the walking, breathing ATM thing rather than fathering.
Your refrigerator will notify you of paternal unemployment. If there are no school lunch menus, calendars, or newsletters on the door, you’ve moved into early retirement fathering. Instead of daily prompts, it becomes annual reminders, like Fathers Weekend at the university. You’re in fatherly retirement when the fridge door items are coupons for Lipitor and Viagra.
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Retired fathers like to tell active-duty dads to enjoy fathering because it will end sooner then they think. When you’re dealing with the terrible twos or a teen’s crappy attitude, the advice from senior fathers seems like pure unadulterated bullshit. But they are right.
If you ask fathers of a recent high school graduate, “Does it seem like it’s been 18 years?” they will mumble something that resembles a “no.” Their impaired speech is partly due to the angst about future college expenses. But most dads are emotionally numb because it really does happen in a flick of time. It seems like yesterday you were taking the training wheels off the bike.
One of my dearest friends, a childless Baptist minister, somehow empathized with the challenges of single fathering. When I was parentally overwhelmed, his go-to line was, “Your reward will come later.” It gave me some degree of solace believing that God would eventually recognize my work. And yet, I couldn’t shake the here-and-now question: “If this is the world’s hardest job, where’s my damn paycheck?” I recognized that eternal paradise or 72 virgins would be heavenly, but I didn’t want some post-dated reimbursement. I wanted to cash the check now.
After years of caring, guiding, and loving another person, you realize the father-child relationship is like the Taoist yin-yang symbol. The two, the child and father, are part of a unified whole. An unbreakable permanent bond.
Reflecting on fatherhood also releases a non-linear stream of memories that appear in hyperspeed. More intense than the cascade of recollections is the accompanying avalanche of emotions. It’s overwhelming.
And then it dawns on you. You don’t just remember being a dad. You feel fathering. Forever. That’s the real gift of Father’s Day.
Mark Shatz is a single dad, psychologist, and author of Comedy Writing Secrets (3rd ed). His favorite pastime is watching his teenage son outsmart “proven” parenting techniques.