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Challenge: What Do Fathers Do Best?

When they made fathers . . . breaking the mold

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Years ago I began the Life's Tool Box blog as a testament to my father, a consummate teacher of Industrial Arts, Driver Education, and many other life lessons. His frequent comment that "everything in life is easier when you have the right tool" seemed particularly relevant for both parents and educators. My hidden agenda in writing the blog was quite personal - I wanted to continue to engage my father, who, even in the early stages of vascular dementia, needed prompting to share the wisdom and wit he so readily offered to anyone and everyone he met.

Lately I have not written, perhaps at least partly because of the painful struggle with the ever-changing reality of my Dad's illness, and with the sadness of losing highly personal and valued treasures. Yet even in the midst of Dad's decline, our family continues to be blessed with moments of joy, and my father, ever the eye-twinklng sort, has beamed through weddings, graduations and the birth of his first grandchild. So as father's day approaches, I am reflecting on how our fathers change, and how they change us.

In one of my father's many iterations as a teacher, he ran a ceramics shop in high school. He learned to "throw" clay on the potter's wheel, and taught students to use molds, filling negative space with substance, and turning out things of great form and beauty. What a seemingly perfect metaphor for fatherhood. We are, each of us, who and what we are, thanks to the efforts of our parents who partnered in our creation.

Beyond bringing us into being, however, fathers mold us. They teach us lessons directly. In my dad's case that included everything from how to bang a hammer and change the oil in my car, to how to make great spaghetti sauce, and how to recognize plants. They teach us indirectly too, as we watch them navigate the worlds of work and family, the realms of expected manliness, and if they are willing to share it, and we are fortunate to witness it, their softer side. Some of my most powerful memories are of my father's passionate plea after his mother died, that I stay home from college longer, to keep him company, and of his teary visit to the heights of Masada and to touch the stones of the Western Wall.

I think that the mold metaphor for fatherhood is, however, critically flawed. First, fathers do not pour themselves into negative space. As all parents, they have a much greater challenge . . . to shape a living, breathing being who comes with factory pre-sets, built in temperamental tendencies and affinities. That is not the only problem with the metaphor, however. Using a mold to create something generally has minimal impact on the creator. Yet fatherhood is a particularly transformative experience. It molds men in wondrous ways.

Fatherhood turns big, strong men to mush. It challenges the male notion that every problem has a solution, since parenting comes with no road map and children deny simple solutions. Fatherhood creates opportunities for men to partner in new ways with others in their lives. Fatherhood makes every man a teacher, but it also makes every man a learner, with lessons that both elate and wound.

Of course, I did not witness my father's metamorphosis. The great, loving dad he was and is the only version of him I have ever known. Decades ago I was privileged to watch my husband transform into a father. A sensitive but spontaneous and fun loving soul, it was no surprise that he became a doting and playful father. I have watched his heart soar and his heart break through the years of our children's growing, and I know that he is who he is, and our children are who they are, because of the power of fatherhood.

More recently, I was blessed to watch the amazing transformation of our son into a Daddy. I was well prepared by friends and relatives for the delicious wonder of grandparenthood. And as all parents, I have long appreciated how happy it makes me to have my children happy. But I was totally unprepared to be so amazed, enamored, exhilarated, in seeing my son become a father. It is for him, and for us, a new level of happiness, of blessing, of a miracle we recognize and will jointly experience for years to come. I do not for one moment believe this experience will be diminished in the least when, with G-d's help, we are blessed with more grandchildren, as our family grows and perhaps our other sons are fortunate enough to become fathers.

As I prepare to celebrate father's day, I do not mean to ignore the miracles of motherhood. But for men, especially men in these transitional generations when old models of families and gender are no longer in play, fatherhood is perhaps the greatest molder of men. They are putty in the hands of the children they love . . . and they are shaped into superheroes and protectors, storytellers and lecturers, coaches and referees, advocates and enforcers. As fathers assume these roles and responsibilities they mold their sons and daughters. But Dads are molded too, made into men grander and richer than kings.

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