Nurturing Manhood in my Sons


When we started Fandads five years ago, we had a somewhat of a vision of what we wanted to do. We wanted to share how two “fanboys” grew up into “fandads” and how they passed down their geekiness to their kids. As in life, things do not always go as planned. We veered away from that path here and there, but we always tried to get back on course. There are a few heartfelt posts on here  hidden among the reviews, giveaways and geeky news that we share with you. Click the Dadlife tab to read some of these. 
At Dad 2.0 I realized that we never really established a voice for the blog and that is something that we are going to try to do. While we are a site about having fun and doing geeky things with our kids, we have to face the reality of life and how it is not always so sunny.
My English Professor and I established a good friendship when I was studying at school. He helped me out with my Honor’s Thesis and even came out and handed water to me and other teachers during our strike two years ago. He is a real passionate man and I always had fun in his classes, no kidding. 
I have followed him on Facebook for a good while now and I would always comment on his posts about his sons. The things he would write about what they would talk about were hilarious and heartbreaking at times. I mean, we are all floored every now and then by the words that come out of our children’s mouths.  I reached out to him and asked him if he would like to contribute to the blog (we are always looking for submissions) and he responded with a yes and wanted to share about what he has been going through with his family.
So my friends, please welcome Dr. Tim Libretti and enjoy his first post of many to come. 
My friend Victor asked me if I would be interested in writing a blog about my experiences as a dad.  He followed many of my postings on Facebook, which were often about my two sons, Caleb and Elijah, who are eleven and nine years-old, respectively; and I guess he thought my material seemed suitable for his forum.  I told him I would love to write about being a parent on one condition: the blog would be an ongoing series.  I let him know that I’m going through a divorce and that such a forum would be a meaningful place for me to reflect on this significant life transition as I worked through it with my sons.  Perhaps needless to say, going through the divorce has made me hyper-conscious of what is going on with my sons and how my behaviors, moods, and attitudes impact them. People—and all the books—tell me that what will matter most in this painful process is how they see me handling and adjusting to the situation.  If I can act like everything is ok and will be ok and move in the world as if a happy life lies ahead for us despite this rupture in our family life, they will feel reassured and have a sense of stability.
Acting is what I’ve been trying to do, and I’m not always the best at it as the stress and exhaustion of the divorce ordeal often get the best of me, which is why it felt good the other night to relate on Facebook an experience I had with my son.  After Caleb’s band concert, I was driving home with Elijah past the university where I chair the English Department.  Perhaps motivated by the all of the energy and talk around the mayoral run-off in Chicago last spring, Elijah thought to ask me if I had to be elected to be chair of the English Department and also if the president of the university had to be elected.  I explained that the university president was hired but not elected, and that I had to be elected by the English Department faculty and then approved and appointed by the administration.  Elijah responded that he understood why the faculty in the English department, many of whom he knows, would elect me. I asked what he meant, and he explained, “Well, you’re a teacher, too, so they’ll like that because you’ll understand them, and you really care about the people you work with.”
As you might imagine, this answer floored me.  It’s not that often that parents get a glimpse into how their children see them, and this statement represented one of those times.  More to the point, Elijah’s conclusions were the result of his observations of how I behave in the world, how I do my job, and how I interact with and treat others.  Elijah has spent a good amount of time with me at the university so he sees me interacting with faculty, students, and other administrators and generally going about the business of my profession.  I don’t really talk overtly about caring about my colleagues, students, and other co-workers, but that he observed this meant a lot to me and also revealed to me just how carefully my children watch and absorb what I do, far more than what I say.  And it felt good to know that he was learning from me how to respect people and the work they do and to create a community that values mutual aid.
This moment reinforced how important it is that I model in my behavior how to move through the difficult process of the divorce with a faith that, despite whatever struggles we face, we will work through the process cooperatively and caringly and hopefully with some measure of grace and humor and live a happy life together as we all evolve.  I had to remind myself of this lesson in a recent encounter with Elijah, who is an extremely sensitive person who radars in on one’s feelings. I was folding laundry in the living room and chatting with him while he played with his action figures, when he stopped, looked at me, and said, “You look really sad, daddy.”  Well, I was really sad, so chances are I looked so. My first response internally, though, was a kind of anxiety that I had revealed myself in a way I shouldn’t have.  I wanted to show strength, not weakness.  I wanted to maintain a positive attitude to convey to them that our lives would be happy ones even as we dealt with a trying transition.  My first verbal response, having been caught in the act of feeling sad, was to admit that indeed I was very sad and to stress that, even so, it was not his job to worry about it or to take care of me.  It’s my job to take care of him, I emphasized.  He looked at me point blank with his compassionate eyes and said, with a wisdom and maturity seemingly beyond his years, “But I want to take care of you, daddy.” As they say, out of the mouth of babes!
Letting my nine-year old son take care of me, though, strained every instinct, every sense, of what it meant to me to be a good parent and to take care of my children, especially as we transition through a divorce and I try to be hyper-vigilant of their emotional states and needs.  But then I reflected on what lesson I wanted to impart to my sons through my behavior.  Certainly, I want them to behave in caring ways towards others and the world at large and to act with an ethos of mutual aid, so why should I discourage him from acting in caretaking and compassionate ways towards another human being, even if that person is his father? After all, I always joke with my sons that I’ll need them to take care of me when I’m an old man, which is not too far off. 
Perhaps even more importantly, though, I thought, is modeling how to accept care and compassion from others in times of need.  Of course I expect and want my children to seek and accept my help. I no doubt model that behavior and also foster the expectation that it is perfectly right and natural both that I help them and that they accept that help. That is the world I want for them. I want them to feel comfortable asking for what they need and want and accepting it gratefully when it is given. Yet, as I often have difficulty accepting help, not to mention even asking for it, I recognized in this encounter with Elijah that I was not doing a good job of modeling how to accept the care he was offering me.  My own insistence that it’s my job to take care of him and not his to take care of me was at once discouraging him from taking care of others and also modeling for him a reluctance to accept the help of others, neither of which characteristics I would wish upon him.
In teaching him to be a man in a world in which men are often dissuaded from expressing and understanding their feelings, showing emotion, and caretaking—qualities and actions deemed “feminine”—I want him to cultivate an emotional intelligence that allows him to be sensitive not just to others’ feelings, as he clearly already is, but to his own so he knows how to work through and understand his emotions and his larger self.  This lesson calls up for me Bob Dylan’s words from his song Forever Young:
May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
My sons give me much every day and enrich my life in ways I don’t have space here to expound. They are my rabbis. Indeed, any parent can acknowledge and attest to how much their children give them.  For those of us who seek to cultivate a world that practices the cultural value of mutual aid, it is important we accept and acknowledge all that our children have and want to give us so they will continue to give of themselves as they grow and mature and, equally importantly, so they can seek and accept the aid of others.  It strikes me that too often in our individualist culture, we are taught the value of doing things for ourselves, of achieving on our own, when rarely are our highest achievements purely individual.  My son Elijah reminded me of the skill and maturity required to acknowledge and accept aid from others and to embrace a truly cooperative and compassionate ethos to guide us in our social and emotional lives.

It is often my children who remind me of the world I want to create for them and the larger world I want them to enjoy now and in the future.
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