Last updated: June 17, 2023, at 12:39 p.m. PT
Originally published: June 17, 2023, at 12:39 p.m. PT
By Mark Putnam
Vice President, Social Impact Center, YMCA of Greater Seattle
Parenting a child today, especially a teen, is a life experience that takes strength and patience – for the parent and the child. I learned this (and so much more) from my father. He was born during WWII, raised in the 1950s, and of the generation where men generally weren’t looked to as the parent responsible for caregiving or emotional intelligence and health. But I was lucky. From the very beginning, my father chose to fill our family’s lives with love and compassion, approaching fatherhood with an open heart as well as an open mind.
My father has been there for me for all 53 years of my life, including the day I was born. True to the times, he was not in the delivery room. While my mom was in labor, he was rooting for the Chiefs over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. NFL notwithstanding, my dad has been there for my three sisters and me every step of the way. He’s still here as we begrudgingly enter middle age. And he has been the best of fathers – an incredible mentor to me, a social service professional, and now a father myself.
What he made so clear is even in the toughest times, fatherhood is a two-way street. You can either choose to grow together or grow apart. This sounds like an easy decision, but it is when the pressure is on, rules are bent, and trust is lost that true fatherhood is revealed.
All children deserve the same kind of love and support I was lucky enough to have all these years. In my social services work, I have learned that vital “father figures” can come in all forms, whether a parent, guardian, foster parent, mentor, or other loved one. I have seen families’ strength and resilience, and willingness to come together. And while it’s not an easy role, it’s worth it. You become a guide and mentor, but most importantly, you have this new indescribable connection. And that opportunity to grow.
I feel immensely lucky to have that opportunity to pass along the gifts with my daughter that my father bestowed upon me. I learn so much from my daughter as I share my love and experiences with her. We are so different. I’m an older white man, and she’s a young woman of color. Yet, with differences also come increased understanding and personal growth for both of us.
Whew, it is not always an easy thing, but I work to remind myself that whatever is awkward, complicated, embarrassing, or frustrating for me as a father cannot be any less challenging for her as a young person finding her way.
My daughter is now 19. She grew up in the smartphone era, with all its shiny thrills and also its impact on mental health. And beyond all the typical adolescent milestones, she grew up during a time of heightened spotlight on racial inequities and political and social unrest. She was a sophomore in high school when COVID-19 sent her world into a new virtual existence, with students everywhere logging into classes from their bedrooms, isolated from friends, and burrowing deeper into social media in pursuit of lost connections. This was a whole new world for parents and children everywhere.
This trifecta – ceaseless social media, divisive racial inequities, and COVID-induced isolation – shaped her youth and now young adulthood, along with my role as a father. Being a father to me has meant being there for her in every way possible by listening to and supporting her personal process of overcoming these obstacles. It’s taken many shapes, including participation in protests and community events. It means we’ve discussed the events of the day from my NY Times-informed viewpoint and her TikTok-informed perspective. And we’ve received professional support to help us process as a family and individually. We’ve learned that while our family is strong and resilient, we also need support from our community, schools, and mental health professionals.
I’m incredibly proud of my daughter and of the relationship we share.
And I think back to my father on this day and the vital role he has played in being willing to step outside of what was going on in his world to be present, open, and loving every day. He taught me what it means to grow alongside my daughter and build our relationship with compassion and love.
To all the other fathers, father figures, parents, and guardians: the love and sacrifice you bring to your families are seen, recognized, and likely to be passed on to support future generations. May every Father’s Day mark a new chapter of growth and love for you and your family.
And Happy Father’s Day, Dad!