I’ve been seeing a therapist for anxiety, and she’s been asking me some difficult questions about my values. She says most of mine are driven by “not” statements.
She asked me what I want from my job, and I said, “To not get fired.” She asked me what I wanted from my spirituality, and I said, “To not go to hell.” And when she asked me what I wanted as a parent and husband, I said, “To not be my father.”
I didn’t have a very good father. He left my mother when I was 9. She was his second wife. He died from his addictions just after divorcing his fourth wife. I used to spend the money I made making pizzas to bail him out of jail. Sometimes it felt like he set up families like franchises.
My parents had an ugly divorce. It thrust me from one home to another and forced me to take sides when I wanted unity. I don’t want to introduce my children to new moms and new siblings every few years. I don’t want my children to scrape up bail money for me.
My therapist told me that whenever she hears “not statements” for values, she knows there’s anxiety. It means that the person is running from something, and she wanted me to move toward something. That’s where the values come in.
But that really is the difficult part of coming from a nasty childhood. Anyone from a broken home can tell you that having a parent leave is motivating. I spent most of my 20s — and a good portion of my 30s — trying as hard as I could to not be my father.
He drank, so I don’t. He didn’t go to college, so I did. He left several wives, so I have made it a point to stick it out with mine.
Not that it has taken all that much sticking out. But I made it a point to say that divorce isn’t an option, and a good part of the reason I made that commitment was because divorce was my father’s go-to. When the marriage didn’t go the way he wanted, he walked out. I’m committed to working through the rough patches, so my marriage comes out stronger.
But all of this conversation on values left me with a question: Is not being my father the same as being a good father? Or a great father? I think anyone who was raised in a broken home should ask this question of themselves, father or mother. Because it can be scary to say that you want to be better than the parents you had, when your parents may have not been all that dedicated. That sets the bar pretty low.
All this talk of values has really made me look forward, not back, and realize that there comes a time in every parent’s life when they have to stop looking at how far they’ve come from the poor examples who raised them and begin looking at what kind of parent they are becoming.
That is what breaking the cycle really looks like.
It means values. What do I value in a father? What do I want my children to see and feel from me as a father? What direction am I heading?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions, and ultimately, I’ve come up with a few values. I want my children to know that I love them — without a shadow of a doubt. I want them to feel secure with me. And I want them to know what a good father looks like.
I want them to see me love their mother in all my actions. I want them to know that in a good marriage, love is a verb. I want them to see me take their mother out on dates and bring her flowers. I want them to see us compromise. I want them to watch me get frustrated, calm down, and try again. I want them to see me go to work every day because sometimes love is just that practical. I want them to hear me pray at dinner for their well-being.
Because the fact is that it took me until my 30s to begin looking at what I want to be as a father, rather than what I don’t want to be. And I honestly feel that showing my children how to look forward to what they want to accomplish — rather than what they don’t want — is a huge step up for them.
Or, at least, I hope it is. Because honestly, I cannot force my children to be good parents. I can’t force them to grow up and go to college and care for others. I can’t make them good or even great spouses. But what I can do is set a very good example. I can show them what a good father looks like. And by doing that, I will be giving them far, far more than my father ever did.