This is part five of an 11-part series of blog excerpts written by Bea V. Larsen, JD, Center for Resolution of Disputes. These eleven blogs also appeared in Care Management Journals, Volume 15, Number 1, 2014. Full sample downloads of this journal are available here.
I’m sure it’s true for all of us: Our personal past informs our professional present.
The father seated in my office weeps without shame. He and his wife have not yet told their 11-year-old daughter that their marriage is ending. For both of them this looms as a painful task, but he is the parent who feels most at risk of losing or diminishing the precious connection to this child. Although much more involved than fathers in years past, because of his work commitments his wife assumed the primary parenting role. Would he continue to have a secure place in his daughter’s life when living on his own and no longer with her for part of every day? He fears he will not. I empathize and want to reassure him, but how?
Later, I search for childhood memories of my own father and realize that, except for his place at Sunday dinners, I have few, for he was usually absent as I was growing up. To keep bread on the table during the Depression years, my father left home before I woke and returned after dark. Then, as our financial fortunes began to ease, came the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, my older brother’s entry into the army, and the detonation of atomic bombs. These are the events that I remember commanded our attention when the family was together during my teen years. I left home for college just after the war ended, to return only for brief visits.
Yet, one personal memory remains vivid. When 11 years old, I cut my own hair, snipping off long locks to create bangs. My mother did not hide her utter dismay. But when my father came home and was brought to view the damage, even in the face of my mother’s frowning disapproval, he said: I like it very much. She’s very pretty.
My spirits soared.
An important moment for me, if remembered so many decades later.
The perhaps idealized memory I hold of my father is of a quiet kind man, always with a newspaper in hand, who seemed pleased whenever he saw me. I grew up believing he loved and approved of me unconditionally, a gift fully appreciated only much later in life as I witnessed the struggle of a close friend whose abiding memory is of her father’s relentless disapproval.
I told my client this story in a private moment when next we met, and suggested that his daughter will never forget the important kindnesses he has shown her in the past and will in the future. Although no longer a constant presence in her life, there will now be moments just the two of them will share. Some will be memorable. He smiles but retreats into silence.
The other father I have known well is the man I married. Len strove to be a father like my own, and mostly he was, until he wasn’t. In the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War raged, the conversation at our dinner table, and on the campus at which he taught, roiled with dissent. The sexual revolution was in full sway just as our teenagers came of age. As parents we sought to adjust to the swiftly changing times, but were in turmoil, trying to understand but still hold to the standards we then thought sound.
When Len came home one day and found one of our sons upstairs with a girlfriend, in anger he told him it must never happen again, or he must leave. It was our house, so our rules. I silently acquiesced to his edict, agreeing with his reasons, if less sure about the threat, but alert to the rage with which his quick decision was made, knowing some but not all of the sources.
Unwilling to agree, our son moved to a tiny apartment (guess who paid the rent?) until he left for college some months later. But the child grown to maturity learns to place parents in the context of their times and unique personal history. In the years that followed, both father and son apologized and the relationship became relaxed and loving once again. I share this story with my client as well. Our missteps can repair.
And what is the message from fathers today: anything goes, just stay safe?