Monday, December 12, 2005

My Dad (and Mom)

Two weeks ago I went to a funeral for my husband's Uncle Rich. Funerals do make you think. I watched Rich's kids get up and talk about him, and I thought about what I would say when my father passes away (which, god willing, won't be for a long, long time).

Some wise person once said, "the older I get, the smarter my parents are". As a teenager I thought my parents were disastrous. But now that I have kids of my own, and now that I've learned so much about my husband's alcoholic father, my parents seem like saints. My dad grew up in a small town in Iowa. His father had multiple sclerosis. He was bedridden for most of my dad's life, and died when my dad was about 20. My dad had a much older sister and a much younger brother, so in a lot of ways he was an only child. I think he was incredibly lonely, which explains why he married my mom, who is the 6th of 7 children. Anyway, he didn't want to be a farmer so he decided he should get an education. He had a cousin who was going to college across the river in Nebraska, so on the first day of classes my dad packed up his car and drove over there to see if he could enroll. They took him.

My mom, by contrast, had already watched her five older siblings go through college. Two of them already had PhDs and were teaching at the college when my mom went there. So my mom was already planning on getting a PhD when she met my dad. She is a year older, so when she graduated from college, they got married and went straight to the University of Nebraska, where my dad finished his degree, and my mom started her PhD in chemistry. This is Nebraska, people. In 1961. My mom got pregnant instantaneously and had three children by the time she finished her degree. (Incidentally, on their two graduate student stipends they rented a house and employed a live-in au pair to help with the kids.) Back when there was no powdered formula or disposable diapers or microwave ovens or Barney videos, my mom got a PhD in chemistry in five years while raising three kids. Not that I feel inadequate or anything.

When it was time to go looking for jobs, everyone wanted to hire my dad and no one had much interest in my mom. They found a place that would take them both, but my mom didn't last there long because of all the male chauvanist bullshit. She got a teaching job at a nursing college and did that for the next 20 or so years. She had me shortly after starting her teaching job. My little sister was a huge surprise to everyone 15 years later (when my mom was 45!).

So my parents have four daughters and one son. My brother is a little ... different. He was never the typical boy. He never played sports or excelled at school. So maybe it was because he didn't have a typical son that my dad treated us girls the way he did. I think the biggest gift my parents ever gave me is that they never once, not for a fraction of a second, not overtly, covertly, subliminally or otherwise, led us to believe that there were things we couldn't do or shouldn't do because we were female. It wasn't that they were big cheerleaders. They never said stuff like, "go on, you can do it, go for it!" They just assumed that we could do whatever we set our minds to. If I went to them to ask for permission, they would just give me blank looks and say, "of course you can do it. why wouldn't you be able to?" Once, when I was about 10, my dad bought a lawn spreader which required "some assembly". Looking back I think he must have had a bet with my mom that I could put it together. But whatever the motivation, he just said to me, "put this thing together. Your mom and I are going out for a cup of coffee. Try to have it done by the time we come back." And I did.

When I was in college I told them I wanted to go visit some of my friends who were studying abroad in Europe. They bought me a Eurail pass and let me go to Europe for three weeks alone. At the funeral two weeks ago, my husband's cousin, who is 40, was told by her father to hit the road early because of the threat of snow. And she did. That episode reminded me of the song by No Doubt, "I'm just a girl in the world, that's all that they'll let me be. They won't let me drive late at night." Once my husband and I were going to dinner at another relative's house, and their daughter, who was in her 20's and sharing an apartment with a friend, came over for dinner, too. When she showed up she apologized for being late but said that something odd had happened to the electricity in their apartment. Some of the outlets worked and some didn't and their were no lights in the bathroom. Her dad said, don't worry, punkin, I'll go back there with you after dinner and find the fuse box and fix it for you. Rrrrrrr. Is it so much to ask that fathers treat their daughters like adults? My dad showed me how to flip the switch in the fuse box when I was tall enough to reach it. He showed my how to use a volt meter and wire an outlet and fix a toilet and anything else that had to be done as a normal part of life. And my mom taught me to cook and bake and sew and convert grams to moles. Nothing was off limits. Nothing was "a man's job" or "women's work". My mom often taught evening classes, so my dad did a lot of cooking. My mom even sewed him a frilly pink apron to wear that said "Dad's the cook". My dad changed dirty diapers and got up to feed the babies at night. I have often asked my mom how she was able to raise five children and get a PhD and have a career, and she always says the same thing: "Your dad helped and made it possible."

The other thing my dad did which I think has helped me be successful in life is that he never punished failure. He never punished us for stupid mistakes. Bad behavior, yes. But not accidents or stupidity. Once I was backing "my" car out of the driveway and I sideswiped my mother's car. He came out and looked at it and said "Oh well. It's only money." And that was it. He knew I already felt very stupid. He didn't need to punish me or belittle me by asking pointless questions like "what were you thinking!" Whenever I made mistakes he would say that same things, like "now you know why we don't let you kids do X." Or "that's one mistake you'll never make again." He never yelled. I was probably 12 or so when I first heard him cuss (he said "damn").

I'm a mom now and I know how hard it can be to judge when your kids are ready to take on different responsibilities. I think, having 5 kids, my parents just couldn't do everything for us, so they made sure we learned how to take care of ourselves. Plus I think the fact that they both grew up on the farm gave them a decidedly UNromantic view of childhood. Children on the farm work, and we were expected to work too. I did my own laundry by the time I was 13. When I started highschool I signed my dad's name to all my notes from home (with his permission), so that I could take care of that bit of business by myself. That way the people at school didn't know what my dad's signature looked like. My signature was his signature as far as they knew. My parents raised me to take care of myself. I was a straight-A student, and if I wanted to take a day off from school once in a while I was free to do it. And I did, because I hated high school.

I think these days we really infantalize kids and teach them to be dependent and to feel entitled. I think that if I had had one of those overprotective fathers, I probably wouldn't be a professor now, or even a scientist. I would probably be a real estate agent or a CPA or something. I might still be successful on a lot of levels. But I'm not sure that I would feel that I had the right or ability to choose whatever I wanted. I think I would feel more as though I did what society expected me to do, and I might always wonder if I could have been something different or something more. I don't wonder about that now, and I think I owe a lot of that to my dad.

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