As we reflect on this year's Father's Day, it might be good for a moment to think about the millions of families who aren't in a Father Knows Best, Norman Rockwell situation, including how President Obama was raised and formed. In America today, more than 20 million dads are raising children in a nontraditional environment where they are trying to make up the rules as they go along. This can best be described as a "blended" situation: whether it is a divorced father remarried, a single dad, a widowed dad, someone being the "father" in a same sex relationship, or just someone fathering someone who needs it without a direct connection. And I am one of those dads.
I recall a few years back when my oldest son was graduating from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where he just had become fluent in Arabic and the Army soon would be sending him off to Iraq. It was an important graduation for him and his class, since they were the first class graduated where everyone knew upon entering they would be sent into harm's way when finished.
So, all of us who cared for him and loved him flew out there to attend including: me, his mom who I had been divorced from for more than 15 years, his two other brothers that his mom and I had together, my second wife who helped raise him (and I had divorced a year or so earlier), his sister who I had during my second marriage, and his other brother who my first wife had after we were divorced. Whew!!! I told this to one of my best friends at the time, and she laughed and said, "whoa, now that is a yours, mine, and ours."
As I sat there in this crazy group of folks, all of us proud of Daniel as he graduated, it was a moment to pause and realize that it took a lot of love and work by all of us to allow and accomplish that scene.
There are really no rule books or instruction manuals for dads who are raising sons and daughters in this modern way. How do we manage separate houses where our kids shift back and forth? What is the right way to handle holidays? When we have children by others or bring people into our lives that have children, how is it best to handle the blending? How do we handle Father's Day? So many questions, stress points, anxiety-producing events, and personalities to think through and manage by all involved.
What's the secret to success? I don't really have one, and I certainly have made many mistakes along the way. The main thing is to throw out the expectations of yourself and the "shoulds" in your head, and allow yourself to be ok with making it up as you go along. Be open to the uncertainty that exists through all this, and don't let anyone tell you what's the best way to do it.
Besides that overarching theme, what I know is there are just a few guidelines one might want to keep in mind as a dad or someone in a relationship with a dad:
- Love openly and unconditionally as best you can everyone involved. If you have a choice between fear and love, choose love. If you have a choice between staying open or closing off, stay open. If you have a choice between being right and being happy, choose happy.
- Lead your children, but also simultaneously let your kids lead you. Showing children what it looks like to be kind and accepting and live a life of integrity is very important, but as important is following the lead of our children's feelings. Don't force them to do something uncomfortable. Let them go at there pace as best you are able, and do more inviting than ordering. Push them outside yours and their comfort zone, but make sure they feel safe.
- The women involved in our relationships have a huge part in how successful our fatherhood is. The stresses for them helping raise children not their own is immense. The anxiety on bringing another man into their kid's life is huge. Communicate about all that as much as you can and look for places of understanding and acceptance. And be openly grateful to the women who help us manage these "blends" in life.
Those three things are really all I know for sure, and after that it's really your journey, your path, and your adventure. Keep in mind that in a few years these modern dads will replace the traditional dads as a majority, so you have a growing support group whether your a man or a woman trying to manage all of this.
As we approach this modern concept of fatherhood, it is good to recall the story passed down through the centuries. The story of a dad who didn't have sole custody of his son, and that son was raised by another man married to the boy's mother. A "stepfather" who had to accept the responsibilities of being a father to a child not his own and love that child through all the years. And as you reflect on that story, remember Joseph and Mary managed to raise a son who changed the world.