My Dad Showed Up...A Half-Century Late
By Allan Shedlin
Grampsy and Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
NOTE: A version of this post was published and distributed to a worldwide audience by The New York Times/Hearst News Service on Father's Day 2002.
My Dad took an earlier shuttle flight than originally planned so he could get to the dock in time to see me shove off for my certifying exam in sculling.
At 87 years, he looked incredibly robust, carrying his camera to record this mini-milestone in a sport that I had taken up to commemorate my 60th birthday, only a week earlier. I always had wanted to learn to row but had never had the time. I always had wanted my father to show an interest in and be supportive of my athletic endeavors, but he never seemed to have the time.
Once launched onto the Potomac River, I had a 50-year flashback to my childhood in the Bronx, where I played shortstop for Pappy's Devils, my elementary school softball team, affectionately named after my fifth-grade teacher, Joe Papaleo, my first important alternative male role model. Although the intervening years dull the memory of those days on the baseball diamond, the yearning for paternal interest and support remained constant. In fact, the longing to have my Dad attend one of my sports events increased throughout my high school and college soccer career.
For decades I rationalized that expectations for men in the 1940s and 50s were different from today: Fathers then were not expected to be much more than breadwinners and disciplinarians. In those days, nurturing was considered to be a mother's job, not something you expected of dads. But all my rationalizing did little to lessen the sadness I felt: Although father-as-nurturer is a relatively new role, the desire and need for father nurturing are not new. Sometimes there is a roughness to the world that only a daddy can smooth out.
It may never be too late for a father to demonstrate his interest in and support of his child. It is certainly never too early.
I could never have predicted that I would have to wait until I was the grandfather of four, and he the great-grandfather of eight, for him to attend one of my sports events. Just as surely, I could not imagine that his being at one would still be important to me. It may never be too late for a father to demonstrate his interest in and support of his child. It is certainly never too early. Learning what is important to your kids shows them that you take them as seriously as they take themselves.
Perhaps, after a half-century of waiting, I should not have been so surprised at how good I felt about his presence on the dock. After all, one of the many things I've learned in interviewing kids is that they are very reluctant to give up thinking and hoping that their fathers will eventually come around (literally and figuratively). The desire and need for paternal support and approval are so strong that it trumps reasonable evidence that such support may not be forthcoming. The longing for it remains intense, even if submerged.
From the many fathers I've spoken with over the years I've learned that they, too, experienced intense feelings of sadness and loss, particularly when they reflected on squandered opportunities to spend more time with their children. With sadness, they shared feelings that echoed yearnings they had felt for the attention of their own fathers when they had been kids.
It is important to interrupt this cycle of yearning, to develop a new mindset, and to act upon it. Several years ago, believing that the traditional conception of "father" was too limiting, I coined the term "daddying" to describe the commitment and involvement in their kids' lives that many men are choosing today. Daddying occurs when fatherhood and nurturing converge.
From the many fathers I've spoken with over the years I've learned that they, too, experienced intense feelings of sadness and loss, particularly when they reflected on squandered opportunities to spend more time with their children...feelings that echoed yearnings they had felt for the attention of their own fathers when they had been kids.
While the biological act of fathering requires no commitment – just the contribution of sperm – the ongoing process of daddying requires a lifelong commitment to one's children. Daddying means connection, nurturing, emotional involvement, support, advocacy, protection, and informality.
As my experience with my Dad illustrates, it's never too late to start. It’s never too late to begin daddying exuberantly, to begin the process of becoming the father you want to be, the one you always wished you had.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.