Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Father's Badge of Honour

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

A few months ago, one of our great-nieces suffered a loss: Her hamster died. ‘Precious’ died on a Wednesday but her passing wasn’t totally unexpected. 
“I knew on Monday she was dying,” Mackenzie said to us, a group of women gathered in her grandmother’s kitchen for a family meal. “But she died just before I left for school. That was the problem.” 
Actually, the problem was that her mother was not home. 
We all turned to her mother, Kendel, with a collective, “Oh -- ” of sympathy. Kendel is an OR nurse so she was already at work when Precious breathed her last hamstery breath. With Kendel unreachable even by cell phone, Mackenzie could not even use the sound of her mother’s voice to induce the proper paroxysm of sobbing that comes with saying, “Mommy?” into the phone.
So Mackenzie turned to her father for comfort and support. 
Let’s compare for a moment the different responses from a mother and a father:
Mom - “Come here, baby. It’s okay to cry. Why don’t you stay home from school today and we’ll have a funeral and eat cupcakes?”
Dad - “It’s just a hamster. I’ll dig a hole in the woods and bury it when I get home from work.”
Now, I’m not quoting directly from Mackenzie’s household and I’m not disparaging fathers. It’s just that when you hear that a young girl turns to her father instead of her mother in the moments after the passing of a pet, you expect that something might get lost in translation. 
And yet why not Dad? Sometimes you need to eat cupcakes but sometimes you need to dry your eyes and get on with it. Either way, a father should be able to provide the support and comfort his daughter needs, even if he thinks it’s only a hamster, only a prom dress, only a boyfriend. 
The latter being the biggest challenge for any father when it comes to expressing sympathy. And yet one of my best memories of my dad came from an evening when I was heading out to break up with a boyfriend. Dad met me going out as he was returning home from walking the dog and when he said to me, “Be strong,” there were tears in his eyes. 
Likely tears of relief as much as they were tears of sympathy. Long after I’d reached adulthood, my mother explained that my father had been so protective of his teenaged daughters “because he remembered what he was like at that age.” I don’t recall my father being overly protective but that comment made me wish my father had spoken to me more about young men, men in general, about relationships, commitment and love. Looking back, I see how important a good father’s perspective is in the life of a young woman. 
For better or for worse, biology has designed us so that a woman needs to talk about what’s wrong while a man need to fix it and there are endless jokes -- and arguments -- because of it. But, gentlemen, really, sometimes you just have to talk. Talk to your daughters. And listen to them, whether it’s about the dead hamster, the ugly prom dress, or that boyfriend (maybe particularly then) because when the moment arrives when she needs you to bury the hamster (or the boyfriend), you want to step up and be the man she can count on. 
When your daughter turns to you with tears in her eyes, the only way to fix whatever is wrong, and the best way to empower her for the rest of her life, is to let your own tears show while you tell her to be strong. She’ll never forget it. 
A true badge of honour on a father are the mascara stains on his shirt. 

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