What I’ve learned from all the dads I’ve had

There have been a few 'dads' who've wandered into and out of my life… but what I've mostly learned from them is the kind of dad I don't want to be.

Dad and son running in from surf

For such a vitally important job, it’s surprising, and almost alarming, that this high-pressure role comes with zero hours of actual training.

Theoretically, you should learn about being a dad from watching your own old man as you’re growing up, although no one mentions you’re supposed to be taking notes at the time.

The problem with that, particularly if you’re of a certain vintage, is that the previous generation of fathers (and even more so the generations before that) didn’t actually have much to say on the subject.

Or on a lot of subjects.

Quite a few of them also got away with not being around very much, right from the moment of your birth, which society almost demanded that they miss, to that endless succession of Saturdays when they were playing golf/fishing/generally avoiding being a parent.

Being largely the product of a single mother, with an intermittent father and a few step-dads thrown in, I was always very curious about other people’s male role models, and watched them with great interest. I also listened closely, but didn’t hear much other than some occasional theatrical shouting.

My pop

The dad whose work I saw the most was Pop, my Dad’s dad… a man with an almost Zen-like ability to sit, and relish in, a smoky silence.

Pop would hunker down on the lino floor of his wife’s kitchen, low enough that the sound of her constant chatter would somehow fly right over him. And while she parented, and then grandparented, two generations of my family, he would sit and smoke, still and silent like a human chimney.

We would spend whole days together, fishing — a favoured pastime of the lost-voiced generations for obvious reasons — or rattling around the farm at 4km/h in his truck without ever exchanging a word. Indeed, as my memory of him fades, I can barely recall what his voice sounded like, nor a single thing he said.

So it kind of made sense to me that my own father often spent his words like $1000 bills, and I was just as happy to receive them.

My biological dad

I can’t remember living with him, because my parents’ break-up has somehow been blanked out of my brain. And there were some hard years where he focused on his new job, as a step father to someone else’s two sons and cut me off; no birthday cards, no calls… and no setting a good example.

But then he crept back into my life, appearing fully formed once his second wife left him, and it was then that he was in a position to explain how little she’d enjoyed my existence… and why he’d had to leave me out in the cold.

In my early 20s, we established a relationship, speaking mainly through an American interpreter called Jim Beam; conversations always followed by heavy hangovers.

I heard his regret, I felt his attempts to make amends, I wondered at his ability to work as a warder in maximum security jails for years, his huge hands marked by beatings, his heart scarred by tales of brutal killing and an absence of remorse.

I saw, with a strange, wounded pride, that he’d won both the respect and the enduring love of my two stepbrothers, despite not sharing a single strand of DNA with either. I felt that they were like him; tough but gentle, wielding a loud voice but a soft hand.

Strict, but caring.

Not much for conversation.

And then, 20 years ago this November, he was gone… ten years before I had my first child. A decade too soon for me to seek advice, or see those giant, hard-working hands holding my baby boy.

There’s so much I’d like to ask him now, but plenty more I’d like to tell him. And some forgiveness I wish I’d given, now that I know how much my absence, and continued resistance, must have hurt him.

My final dad

I’ve had other fathers, the step kind, the unkind, and those with a “what am I supposed to do with you?” look of pleading on their faces.

The one I now call my father (it’s a big step when you let the ‘step’ part of ‘stepfather’ go…) my last and final, is a good man.

He’s a provider, a hard worker, a positive example… and someone I know is proud of me. But he, too, came from a generation where fathers were rarely seen and only heard when you’d done something wrong.

What I learned from him is that a large percentage of parenting is just turning up. And that a shared love of televised sport is a much better way to communicate, or at least quietly commune, than a bottle of bourbon.

I’m jealous of friends of mine who’ve had great fathers, Dads who took to the job with ease and threw themselves into it every day. I can see those friends have turned out to be great people, but to be honest, I don’t know many of them.

More than half of my mates grew up without their original father in their house, and I don’t think that’s uncommon.

The dad I want to be

What I’ve most learned from all the dads I’ve had, and those I’ve watched, is what I don’t want to be.

I feared that I was going into the most important job I’d ever do without training, without great examples to fall back on, without anyone to ask for help.

And I think I felt like a lot of modern dads when I realised that I wanted to be the kind of father I never had. Like the one I wished I had. A combination of the dad from Family Ties, Homer Simpson and Jed Bartlett in The West Wing (not Martin Sheen in real life, obviously, he’s a total fuck-up).

I want to talk to my kids, to tell them anything and everything they want to know, to be an open door rather than a closed one, to be a dad who gives them hugs, not handshakes.

I want them to know it’s okay to cry, but not to lie, and another million hokey home-truths that I hear myself telling them, that come from God knows where.

I want to be an example to them, to inspire them, even though I had no idea how to do that when I started.

And I never want to give them the silent treatment, or make promises and not keep them.

What I’ve realised, as I approach my tenth anniversary of being a Dad this week, is that it’s a job that’s both much harder and far easier than I feared it would be.

Somehow you know, most days at least, what to do, just by listening to your instincts and doing what feels right. All the training you need turns out to be the on-the-job kind, because somehow, magically, your kids teach you how to be a parent.

And it turns out to be the best damn job on the planet… (but, obviously I don’t have teenagers yet…)

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