Everyday Ethics

A few years ago, my father passed away, and since then I’ve
tended to keep my distance from the Father’s Day blitz each summer – too many
bittersweet, confused feelings.  Today, however, due to work, I read President Obama’s
thoughts on fatherhood
, and found myself fighting back unprofessional tears at
my desk.

Of all his words, these resonated the strongest:

I think about the pledge I made to her that day: that I would give her what I never had–that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father.

My relationship with my father was not an easy one, by any standards. Our family paid for many of his choices and mistakes. Unlike Obama’s family, the four of us stayed together until my father passed away of a long illness. During this illness, he succumbed to moments of dementia and paranoia. When this happened, it seemed to take me back to a point in childhood where he had all the control, and I had none. To be honest, it created a lot of anger. Anger that even then, when he was weak and practically immobile, he could frighten me, remind me of bad times, and take away any sense of security my adult self had gained.

When he died, I hadn’t spoken to him for a few days; he had been a tough patient for my mom, and I was disturbed hearing her tired, tearful voice on the phone. Frustrated, I told myself he had brought this on himself – a lifetime of bad choices had brought him to this place. Sadly for both of us, my decision meant that when he passed away in his sleep the last words I spoke to him were with irritation and blame.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t say the same words Obama now says in his letter.  I’ve always told myself, “I will give my children everything I didn’t have; they will feel safe, and enjoy a childhood free of worry.”  It has been my motivation for everything I want out of life – more than an amazing career, more than traveling around the world, more than finding the love of my life. To give these future children love, security, a steady presence and a steady heart.

However, around the time I lost my father, I also started to doubt the righteousness of this desire. It seems wrong, somehow, to put these aspirations on my unborn children – a large burden for my future family to carry.  I’m worried I’m being incredibly selfish. While my goals are well intentioned, are my motivations pure? Am I doing this for these children or for myself?

Despite my troubled relationship with my father, I loved him. He wasn’t an evil man, just a troubled man. And even with all the painful memories, I remember his hugs and cuddles, and how he taught me to love books; most importantly I remember how he loved me. To try to shape my life with the goal of erasing his influence on me….well, to say that this is a personal ethical dilemma is an understatement.

This Father’s Day I’ll think of my father, as many of us will. It occurs to me, while I most likely wouldn’t have written this honestly if he were still alive, I don’t know if I would be writing if it hadn’t been for him.  I don’t have the answer to this specific dilemma, but remembering that one little detail might just help me sort it out someday. 

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