My father died when I was 24 years old and nowhere close to being settled in life. He never met my husband or children. Yet as I move through marriage and parenthood, the lessons he taught me bubble up from beneath the surface and manifest in my daily life. His legacy proves that much of what kids learn may not be overt ‘lessons,’ but rather a gradual osmosis of values and truths, illustrated by example. The values and truths of his life reveal a kind of casual and unobtrusive feminism that have become a part of my world view and shaped who I am.
On My Value:
My father was a coach and athlete, bestowed with three daughters. I never once CONSIDERED that he had wished for a boy. I remember overhearing his conversation with a relative once:
“Poor guy, you never did get a son!”
“Why would I want any kids other than these? They’re amazing! So smart. They are so so smart!”
We were all pretty girls, yet I rarely heard him comment on our appearance. On the other hand he constantly praised our intellect and encouraged our talents. He read every research paper I wrote although I can’t imagine they all held his interest. He inspired me to work harder in school with his sheer excitement over my accomplishments. Without coming out and saying it, he taught me that what was inside my head held more importance than the prettiness of my face. Placing value on attributes other than appearance made a lasting impact.
Before stay-at-home dads were in vogue or parental leave was extended to fathers, my dad was in the trenches. Every morning we woke up to him cooking us breakfast. Eggs, oatmeal or the occasional bowl of cereal were prepared by him while our mother got ready for work. He packed our lunches himself, balanced meals ready for us to grab on our way out the door. I want to point out that it literally never occurred to me until recently that it was my dad and not my mom doing these things. I’m not saying he was a hero for doing it – it was not an issue. He was just taking care of his kids.
But it became a relevant lesson when my husband and I started a family in a somewhat traditional and conservative suburb. I now frequently hear things like:
“Omg you’re so lucky that your husband helps you clean! Most men don’t do things like that!”
“Oh your husband will babysit, that’s so nice!”
Every time some (well-meaning) woman is shocked that my husband is involved in the daily life of our kids, an image of my dad in the kitchen flashes to mind. It helps remind me that this concept of parenting as a team is not some new-fangled approach to child-rearing. It’s the way some people did it all along. Kids learn lessons from the balance of duties in our own homes whether we realize it or not, and mental pictures are worth more than a thousand words.
My dad to me once after I brought a college boyfriend home for dinner:
“Amanda I just want you to be happy. But you need to listen to the way he talks to you. I didn’t hear much respect.”
To my sister who was contemplating ending a relationship:
“You can break up with him for any reason you want. You may just not like the color of his eyes anymore. It doesn’t matter the reason. If you want to end it that is your right.”
Years later I read between the lines of his specific advice. I hear that I should always expect to be treated with dignity and respect in my life. I hear that we are in charge of our relationships and are never obligated to compromise integrity or peace to save another’s feelings.
My dad favored harmony over hashing things out and would usually remain silent when my sisters and I debated politics at the dinner table. I doubt he would have been quick to label himself as a feminist. But every message he reinforced to me through his life tells me that he regarded me as an equal who should be treated as such. He taught me a lot about what it means to be a strong woman without ever coming out and saying the words. He wanted me to value my intellect and expect respect and equality from everyone in my life. If that’s not a feminist I don’t know what is.
His legacy reminds me that we all pass on messages to our children through not only the words we speak, but the lives we lead and the way we handle situations. I have a responsibility to live values I wish my kids to replicate, and I have a pretty good example on the way to do it. Hopefully I can try to emulate the ideals I want my children to value – one day I may just be surprised at what example taught them the most.