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July 2014

Fathers, Children, Microevolution and Reinterpretation: A Personal & Generational Narrative

So many of the feelings I had about myself weren’t really mine, but feelings I learned to have to try and fit into his world. ~ Scott Berkun, Why Fathers and Children Don't Get Along

Part of the story I make up about myself - and the feelings and judgments surrounding that story - is derived from conscious and unconscious messages I received from my father. I find revisiting and reinterpreting those messages - and making conscious choices about how I want to be in this world - is a lifetime's work. When I read Scott Berkun's post about his new book project on fathers and children, I started another round of revisitation and reinterpretation in a comment there ... which grew so long I realized it would be more appropriate to cut, paste and elaborate on it here as a blog post of its own. I'm going to take advantage of this migration and elaboration as a pretext for articulating a pet theory of microevolution that has evolved through my periodic reflections on father-child relationships in my family.

The message from my father that I revisit most often - and find most difficult to reinterpret - is: I am not worth spending time with.

When I trace the source of this message, I remember a period when I was around 9 (+/- 2) years old, when I would often ask my father if he would play ball with me - football, baseball or basketball, depending on the season. His verbal response was invariably "maybe later" (a phrase that can still trigger feelings of anger and resentment) and his subsequent actions invariably communicated "no". The message I unconsciously interpreted in his unwillingness to play ball with me was that I am not worth spending time with (i.e., it's about me, not him). The evasive way that message was communicated left me with the mostly unconscious conviction that people don't want to spend time with me, even if they say they do (or won't say they don't).

I now consciously interpret this message's origin as arising from my father's alcoholism, and on an intellectual level, after years of intermittent involvement in 12-step programs and other forms of counseling, I can see his disengagement as a symptom of that disease. And I can embrace the 3 Cs: I didn't cause it - the alcoholism or his disengagement - and couldn't control it or cure it when he was alive (he died in 1996). I don't believe my father was consciously choosing not to play ball with me, and I don't feel anger now when I think of him, but I sometimes still feel sadness. My feelings about him are tempered by what I know about his relationship with his own father, and the changes he was able to make in his own parenting.

Which brings me to my pet theory of microevolution: 99% of everything we do as parents is unconsciously channeling the behavior of one or both of our parents; 1% of what we do is based on conscious choices to reject negative parenting practices ("I will never do that to my son/daughter!"). I used to think that 1% of what we do is based on conscious choices to adopt positive parenting practices ("I will always to do that for my son/daughter") ... but I couldn't think of any positive practices I've consciously chosen to adopt. I believe we intend to consciously adopt or reject much higher percentages of our parents' parenting practices, but I so often find myself unconsciously behaving the same way my father or mother did, that I think the 99% estimate is more realistic.

Like my father, my paternal grandfather was also an alcoholic. Although my grandfather had many good qualities and was always very kind to me, my father told me that when he was growing up, his father was quick to bring out a razor strap to apply corporal punishment in disciplining his children. My father also told me that he swore he would never lay a hand - or razor strap - on his children, and he never did.

My maternal grandfather was not an alcoholic, and also had many good good qualities and was often very kind to me. However he was also very status conscious, and he regularly compared me and my accomplishments to those of my cousins. As I entered adolescence - a period during which my grades and my interest in many of the things he valued declined, while my cousins' academic and athletic accomplishments continued to shine - I was nearly always on the losing end of the comparison. He may have found me to be worth spending time with, but I don't believe he felt much pride about me, or at least not the kind of pride he so often expressed about his other grandsons.

While I'm not always sure I've made good progress in overcoming my own trance of unworthiness - the persistent conviction that "I'm not good enough" - I swore I would not pass the trance on to my children. I made conscious choices about always getting involved in my children's sports activities (as an assistant coach, scorekeeper or other administrative role) and I never - ever (!) - turned down an invitation to play ball. I also assiduously avoided temptations to engage in implicit or explicit comparisons.

Tears are welling up as I type these words ... as they do every time I hear Harry Chapin's classic song, Cats in the Cradle:

My son turned ten just the other day.
He said, "Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play.
Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "Not today,
I got a lot to do." He said, "That's ok."
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmmed,
Said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah.
You know I'm gonna be like him."

I often wonder how much I've turned out just like my father. I am not an alcoholic but I do tend to be a workaholic, a characteristic that I share with my father and both grandfathers. My wife has told me she sometimes feels like a "computer widow", due to my repeated prioritization of work over family (prospective future blog topic: husbands, wives and microevolution). I've been concerned that, despite my steadfast intention, and regular engagement in some dimensions of my children's lives, I may have unconsciously communicated a message of unworthiness to my children. I may have been willing to play ball with them, but possibly neglected them in other important ways.

I recently asked my 18-year-old son - and, separately, my 22-year-old daughter - about whether they feel unworthy, or whether they've ever felt that I thought they were not worth spending time with. I was happy that both reported healthy feelings of worthiness and assured me that they never received any unworthiness messages from me ... although I realize that self-awareness, and self-reporting (especially to authority figures), can be highly biased.

I also sent them a link to Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think, an essay tracing the evolutionary roots of our pervasive "craving for social approval and admiration, and a paralyzing fear of being disliked" that - as a praise junkie - I found both resonant and inspiring. Both of my children said they enjoyed the essay, but they do not see themselves as being inordinately weighed down by a social survival mammoth.

I don't know what other ills I have inflicted on my children - that will probably require future rounds of revisitation and reinterpretation, by me and them - but I like to believe I've made some microevolutionary improvement over an earlier generation.

As for my own personal evolution, I've been inspired by John Hagel's recent series of posts exploring the insights and impacts of personal narratives, identifying and understanding the dysfunctional forces that may have shaped our early lives, and then consciously crafting new personal narratives that transform those challenges into gifts for ourselves and others. I still feel very much like I'm between stories, which is probably why my blog and Twitter feed have tended to be less active and more professional / technical in nature lately. I am not yet willing to craft a new personal narrative, but I am increasingly open to new visitations and interpretations ... and evolution at various scales.