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When dads fail

Father's Day

Several years after my parents’ divorce, a former friend of theirs called me and, in the course of our conversation, called my father a “failure.”

I know Dad would be the first to agree with this assessment. His business ventures never took off like he hoped they would, money was always tight, and, yes, his marriage came to an end 30 years after it started. If anyone is aware of his weaknesses, it’s my dad.

When people mess up, it’s easy to see them as the summation of their mistakes, through the lens of their failures, noting only what they did wrong and rarely if ever what they did right.

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But … a failure?

After that woman said that about my dad, I went in my room and cried. I couldn’t bear to have my dad defined by some standard that says a man is only good and worthy if he makes a lot of money, has a successful career, and/or keeps his marriage together. Isn’t it possible to fail in some areas and be wildly successful in other, less measurable ones without being branded a loser?

How do you quantify, for example, the contributions of a father who worked his ice business nearly every hour of the day (and night) to provide for his five children? Who placed an office next to the ice-harvesting “cold room” where he would sleep between batches of ice and could tell, just by the plunks and whirs of the machinery, when it was ready to bag? Who taught his children every aspect of the process so they could run the place by themselves?

What kind of value do you give to a man who would then load his work-weary children into the old ice truck and drive to a tree-bowered river where they could float for hours in the cool, gurgling water? How do you assign worth to one who once cut deep under his garage floor to install a wood-burning furnace and spent each fall chain-sawing wood out of Washington’s National Forest and, with his children by his side, spent hours upon hours splitting and stacking the wood in the backyard?

Where, when analyzing a man’s worth, is the part that credits him for the umpteen evenings he spent helping me with my physics homework or explaining why we don’t believe in speaking in tongues? Who needs words when a father makes up a little piano ditty for you when you were a baby and even when you grow up, continues to play it when you’re in a surly mood?

I’ve spent a lot of years wishing my dad were like other dads. I’ve judged him and the way he expresses love according to some ideal I concocted in my mind, probably by watching too much 1980s television.

Dad isn’t that way, though. He didn’t bring me flowers after an orchestra performance or offer to shoot my first boyfriend if he got too handsy. He didn’t take me on daddy-daughter dates or kiss me goodnight very often.

But what he did do, in all his unique, out-of-the-box ways, was love me. And even though it didn’t look like I thought it should, I’ll take this “failure” of a dad any day.

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.

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