Tag Archives: fathers

Modeling Agency:  The Gift of a Father’s Inspiration, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jun

My father would take me to the playground, and put me on mood swings. Jay London

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdomUmberto Eco

Beauty is not who you are on the outside, it is the wisdom and time you gave away to save another struggling soul like youShannon Alder

I should no longer define myself as the son of a father who couldn’t or hasn’t or wouldn’t or wasn’t.  Cameron Conaway

A few weeks ago in this space, I posted an essay honoring mothers for their sometimes heart-wrenching task of accompaniment — helping children to overcome the challenges that we can no longer “fix” for them.   The images of refugee mothers dragging their children across hostile terrain, away from everything familiar but no longer safe, is a gut-clutching narrative that is repeated, in tone if not in substance, millions of times over in our fragmented world.

Fathers, of course, are hardly excluded from such painful and emotionally-draining experiences.  Indeed, two images in these past days have moved me beyond the dull ache that often results from long days in UN conference rooms.  The first is perhaps the more familiar:  a Honduran man who brought his child across the US border only to have them immediately separated by US agents. The man was subsequently taken to some sort of prison facility where he apparently hanged himself, taking with him we can only assume portions of shame and remorse for daring and then failing to seek a safer and perhaps even more prosperous environment for his family.

As angry as this story of separation made me, the other image was in some ways even more tragic.  A young Syrian boy awakens after surgery to discover that the landmine that prompted the surgery in the first place has left him dazed and confused, but also blind.  As he flails away in his makeshift bed, his father attempts to comfort that which might never be comforted, a boy who must now deal with the double trauma of injury and darkness, and the father who knows that, despite the destruction all around punctuated by the threat of more landmines, his son will now need more from him – and for a longer period — than he ever imagined.

The insights here for me are twofold and apply to most all parents and caregivers. The first is the extraordinary violence and indifference that characterizes our treatment of so many children in this world. How do we rationalize children forcibly separated from parents, having to play in a field with un-exploded landmines, recruited into armed insurgencies and brothels, forced to beg for provisions that might sustain their lives but won’t allow their brains – let alone their hearts – to grow?

And the second insight is the burdens that all of this places on caregivers – on fathers who take their protective and provider responsibilities seriously – parents and others who must bear to watch an often heartless world plunging their children into darkness and despair.  As many parents now recognize, we can stand sentry on the porches of our homes, but the storms that make more of our eyes suspicious and our souls frustrated are unlikely to be frightened away.  The wolves, it seems, have gained strength of wind and a more strategic predatory interest since they first appeared in our fables.

And our now-apparent propensity for short-term policy fixes is only likely to make our long term prognosis more alarming; that time, past our time, when our collective lack of vision and kindness that jeopardizes any sustainable peace will come home to roost.

I am not a father myself, and many of my closest father-friends know to take some of my reflections on fathering as worth only the smallest grain of salt.  But I think most would agree that if we want children of character, children who care about things other than themselves, children who have the courage and resilience both to face up to the threats from storms and rebuild better in their aftermath, then we have much that we now need to model for them.

The best fathers and others who accompany children known to me do this as a matter of course.  They eschew the “do as I say not as I do” method of child influence for lives that are transparent and accountable, lives that seek to demonstrate the perseverance, resourcefulness, kindness, duty and integrity that they would be pleased to see more of in the world, certainly more of in the children they raise and know.  These fathers and others inspire lives of sustainability and service by living lives of sustainability and service, lives of strength and resilience by adapting and persevering.  They know to fill an increasingly barren and distracted landscape, not with words but with active hands and a big heart.

If there was ever a time for us to reboot our responsibilities to the next generations, this just might be it.  As it turns out, the “little scraps of wisdom” that fathers impart are often the very scraps that get children out in the world rather than shrinking in the corner, that help them create circles of concern as large as their hearts can bear, that help them cash in their anxiety and suspicions for a curious, compassionate and confident engagement with life.

Today is the World Day to Combat Desertification, a day for me to reflect on both the reality and the metaphor of our creeping deserts; the lands that can no long support a harvest, the souls that can no longer sustain meaningful connection, sometimes not even to our closest of kin. In our climate-damaged world, we are losing more and more precious land by the day, thus sending more and more families on a perilous journey to find safe spaces for children, land that will yield its fruits and strangers willing to risk becoming neighbors.

At the end of our days, as those of us who dare to make policy for others will also discover, our children are unlikely to ask why we didn’t buy them the latest gadgets to distract them from life, but why we didn’t do more to fix what’s broken in our world and why we didn’t prepare them better to fix things once we’re gone?

For all the fathers out there who are prepared to fully and lovingly answer those questions, we are forever in your debt. Through your strength of character and willingness to model, you are doing your part to make the desert bloom again.

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Throwing a Wrench into Another Father’s Day, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Jun

One of the interesting things for me over the years is noticing the difference in moods leading up to the “days” we set aside to honor parents.   Mother’s Day is a huge emotional and commercial undertaking which fathers, lovers and children ignore at their mortal peril.  Father’s Day, on the other hand, barely registers interest:  somewhat greater than National Gingersnap Day (July 1 in case you care to celebrate) and about the same as the dreaded (for many of us in the US) Columbus Day.

I started Father’s Day weekend in the same way that I start most weekends – with my church family at the All Saints food pantry.   On the pantry line, most of the people (and most of the women) seemed to have little recollection of or interest in this ritual time to honor fathers.   Back home nursing sore muscles, those few TV commercials that bothered at all focused on dad’s apparent unending need for tools – wrenches seem to be a popular choice this year.  I like wrenches, especially their metaphorical capacity for tightening and loosening, but again neither grateful recognition nor other emotional content was present.  Checking my policy-oriented twitter feed it was filled, even on this day, with gendered discourse focused primarily on the (legitimate) concerns of women and girls.

Not much at hand to encourage today’s message. Fortunately, I was inspired to start thinking earlier about fathers during a busy UN week punctuated by persons possessing and/or insisting on attention to an array of physical and mental disabilities.  They came to the UN in large numbers from around the world to advocate for more rigorous and comprehensive compliance by states to their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

This may be my single favorite event of the UN year, in part because of the compelling messages that people in wheelchairs or “speaking” in sign language are particularly well suited to communicate to the rest of us. Messages about pushing through limitations. Messages about the blatant inadequacies of our notions of success, beauty and perfection.  Messages about seeking equity and inclusion, about reaching beyond comfort zones to touch the needs and aspirations of persons habitually marginalized due solely to limitations of mobility, learning, communications or psychology, limitations that are only more visible than our own and often seen as a bigger “problem” by those around persons with disabilities than by the persons themselves.

During this particular week at the UN, not everyone could go out for buffet lunches or run on treadmills at the gym.  Not everyone could be fitted for clothes off the rack at Saks or drive to the ocean for the weekend.   These delegates on disabilities weren’t here to impress others or see the sights, but rather to see to it that people like themselves matter, and matter fully.

And my how they did so!  The events surrounding the formal meeting of States Parties were among the most issue-diverse and courageous I have seen at the UN, linking persons with disabilities to needs and concerns across the UN’s vast agenda – from sustainable development goals and employment discrimination to war-related disabilities and involuntary limitations on freedom of movement.  Controversies over “consent” were particularly paramount this week, with disabilities advocates seeking to ensure (rightly) that they have control over any and all decisions made about them, including all those decisions allegedly made “in their best interest.”

The quality of discussions and interactions this week within the disability community, in some ways, reminded me of the best of the fathers in my life:  Willing to ask the next question; willing to push through the latest challenge; willing to explore beyond the immediate horizon; willing to work with people’s limitations (we all have such) to put them in the best positions to succeed; willing to accept the obligations that stem from being the responsible party; willing to honor promises (including one this week to gender balance the CRDP) and not just make them; willing to use wrenches (real and metaphorical) to loosen and tighten the screws that bind us together with the goal of ensuring more fair and efficient public institutions, and more competent and inclusive communities.

I know so many fathers who embody such interests and traits of character.  I know so many fathers who also teach other peoples’ children, bind other peoples’ wounds, open doors to the homeless and hungry, mentor youth through difficult times; even attend to jobs that are literally killing them so that their children (and others in their communities) can have a chance at a better life in these challenging and sometimes discouraging times.

I see fathers in my life pushing their children to be better people, to neither give up nor give in, to resist dependencies that convert character into comfort, to stay both humble and focused, to take the risk of pulling others up short when they wander too far off course.

These are a few of the many things that so many fathers (and other nurturing men) in my life – family, friends and colleagues – bring to this world still very much in-progress.  My “Waffle House” cap, the one which I’m now wearing in my office, is hereby and mostly gratefully tipped to each of you.

Fatherhood, Care-giving and its Caveats, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jun

For those of you who have endured years of my Father’s Day commentary, this might seem like an outlier message.  Bear with me, if you can stand to do so, as I attempt to blend a tribute to fathers with a bit of what I hope at least will seem like relevant policy analysis.  You can let me know if you approve of the results – with caveats of course.

Like many of words we use, misuse and overuse, “caveat” has a range of meanings, but mostly related to declarations or even warnings of stipulations or conditions that might impact our commitments; or alternatively it refers to “limitations,” as in ways in which what is presented to us as sufficient ‘truth’ is more accurately a restrictive (sometimes dramatically so) viewpoint on a situation or incident that begs for a more comprehensive and thoughtful lens.

“Caveats” in both senses have long been a part of the UN’s nomenclature, used by states to contextualize their investments of funding and personnel, and by NGOs and policy experts to assess the “missing elements” in what might otherwise be helpful analysis of security, development or social issues.

The conditions/stipulations aspect of “caveats” was on display Wednesday in the UN Security Council where members were given candid and thoughtful briefings by Force Commanders on the state-of-play in peacekeeping operations.   In our view, these briefings are not held frequently enough to accomplish what Nigeria noted were more flexible adjustments to what at times could be seen as peacekeeping mandates with eroding relevance.  Briefings are also not held often enough to allow some of the women who were in uniform in Council chambers to share assessments and experiences through their own, still-too-often-ignored perspectives.

One notable feature of this briefing was the practice by some troop contributing countries to issue “caveats” to full and unconditional participation in peacekeeping operations. These contributors, in essence, maintain the right to identify “conditions” based on judgments of operations that needlessly jeopardize the well-being of seconded troops; conditions which would therefore exempt such troops from obeying to the letter relevant orders of Force Commanders.

The need for such caveats, as noted by New Zealand (which has recently revoked its own), relates in part to the perception of some states that UN peacekeeping operations are burdened by mandates the complexity of which overwhelms training and capacity in the field, thus exacerbating relevant security threats.   But as other states and commanders noted, if caveats are warranted, there is a proper time and place for them.  Such stipulations should be stated as early in the process as possible.  Moreover, caveats must remain flexible enough to accommodate shifting circumstances, including successful UN efforts to address field concerns.  In other words, reasonable caveats should not be posed as last-minute, categorical demands but as timely and flexible responses to conditions that are not yet sufficient to warrant unconditional assent.

The UN will continue to grapple with the challenges of caveats in peacekeeping operations. Like that or not, we can all at least acknowledge that, in some form or other, we have our own caveats; we all have “conditions” for things, even important things like marriage and family.  Some of those conditions even apply to our erstwhile caregivers, specifically regarding the ways in which we want to be cared for — and ways we don’t — that are independent of others’ need to “care” for us.   Many of us have overwhelmed others, and been overwhelmed ourselves, in caregiving scenarios that were much more about the one setting the terms of care than about the one receiving the caring attention.  Not all “caring” feels like caring and such feelings are not always unwarranted: a bit like the security assessments of UN member states, the conditions for and benefits of caregiving are to a significant extent in the eyes (and hearts) of its recipients.

Beyond conditions, there is the scenario of “caveats” as limitations. Last Tuesday at the UN, Chelsea Clinton headlined an event co-sponsored by MenCare Advocacy and @UNFPA at which a report was released entitled “State of the World’s Fathers.”  The full report can be accessed at www.sowf.men-care.org.

This latest iteration of our “state of the world,” which I must say I was a bit reluctant at first to pick up, painted a generally positive (if limited) assessment of the status (and potential benefits) of fathers as caregivers, a role important for childless men (such as myself) to assume as well.  My reluctance was related in part to the increasing tendency within UN (and other) circles to assume generic caregiving deficits on the part of men (based on restrictive definitions as much as on male sloth) along with the notion that the value of fathers lies primarily in their willingness to be engaged, as the report puts it, “in ways that women want.”  Given that the report fails to highlight let alone enumerate the manifold outcomes and contexts of “caregiving,” the report seems to “patronize” male caring capacity more than explore, encourage and even celebrate its diverse manifestations.

The report utilizes as its one, relevant lens for caregiving, father interactions with young children and domestic chores, citing (quite rightly) that worldwide such men spend less time at these responsibilities than women do.  This is a gap that most fathers I know (across many cultures) both fully acknowledge and have done something to address, in some limited instances a lot to address.

It is useful for this report to identify caring gaps and to suggest remedial options in the (still too many) situations where remediation is warranted. But it is surely a bit disingenuous to create some essentialist equivalence between “caregiving” and time spent with young children and ironing boards.  Caregiving is of course very much about those things, including for fathers; but it is also about vocational and life mentoring, about getting up at 2AM during a thunderstorm to patch an elderly neighbor’s leaky roof, about inspiring people through classrooms and religious institutions, about offering assistance to a lonely traveler, about making personal sacrifices to enhance the educational prospects of family members, about holding the hands of people suffering from grief or tragedy, about being reliable to others and faithful to our word, about adjusting ourselves to the new conditions (caveats, if you will) of evolving young lives rather than forcing youth to become imperfect replicas of our imperfect selves.

There is so much more that could be listed here.   Caregiving by fathers and others is incredibly multi-faceted.   It requires a flexibility and fairness of spirit.  It involves an ability to process kindly and attentively the (sometimes maddening) demands and limitations of others, including of course, partners and children.

Many of the fathers I know do these and any number of related things.   They might wish to have more time with their children – or to assist the children of others – but they are often doing things that bring value and benefit to the home, and also to the world, our world, the world that any children they have sired are soon destined to inherit.  If preparing and guiding people, young and old, to face and cope with challenges in these messy times cannot be fully acknowledged as “caregiving,” I’m at a loss to understand its meaning. If providing materially (and hopefully emotionally) secure contexts for growth and challenge is not “caregiving,” regardless of whether it corresponds neatly to what some others might “want,” then we need urgently to find new terms to honor this service.

As most of us can attest from our own life experiences, father doesn’t always know best.   But just as clearly, many fathers and their male surrogates do much to help children and others prepare for hopeful, thoughtful, independent participation in a complex, rapidly shifting and too-often unsettling world.  The specifics of this caring might at times seem out of context and rather “old-school,” and those specifics might well include too many baseball practices and too few dirty diapers. Still the reliability of this caregiving and the willingness to work through the many stages and caveats of others’ lives are essential to positive growth and development.  I am personally and extraordinarily grateful to the many fathers in my own contexts and around the world who, through their actions and values, stay this challenging course.