Several years ago, I was having a drink with an acquaintance, a man around my age. Given my work in the parenting space, topics of family and fatherhood never seem too far off. And here again we found one of those welcome opportunities to talk candidly about family – the kind of intimate conversations people crave in a world of Facebook humblebrags and false fronts, all the digital fig leaves that people use to hide their nakedness.
As we talked, I learned that he had always had a contentious relationship with his father, a relationship that worsened into adulthood and estranged the two men until his father died. Worse yet, the father’s death was a horrific suicide.
A few beats of silence passed. Since we weren’t particularly close at that point, I hesitated before asking the difficult question:
“Did you reconcile before he passed away?”
They hadn’t. His eyes welled up as he described how it still haunted him. It was a short goodbye, the last time they spoke. Caustic, hurtful words. And yet the finality of the situation allowed him some measure of comfort, telling himself he had done all he could. Of course, this rationalization works just fine in cases where literally nothing more can be done.
But as I listened, I realized it wasn’t just his answer I wanted to hear. I needed to know how to answer it myself.
When I became a father in my twenties, it redefined my world in nearly every respect – a refrain we hear often from guys in our community. Since then, I’ve dedicated the majority of my adult life to not only the healthy upbringing of my own children, but also to furthering mentorship and fatherhood causes around the world. I’ve gone all in, even shifting my work toward parent-focused marketing to try to help guide the portrayals and perceptions of today’s dads in the media.
And yet, despite all that, here’s my own lamentable truth: I have a totally broken relationship with my own father. I’ve definitely put in a lot of effort trying to heal wounds and bridge gaps over the years. But to paraphrase Brené Brown, there’s a lot of freedom in knowing yourself, owning your own story, and setting reasonable boundaries for the sake of yourself and your family. Healthy relationships thrive in this kind of environment. Unhealthy ones do not. And ours didn’t.
In way too many families, parents fail to recognize that their adult children are in fact adults, and they struggle to respect their children’s boundaries and decisions. This sets up the kind of toxic dynamic that can persist through generations if left unchecked. My job as a dad is to be the best possible man I can be for my family, and to set the agenda in my life that enables me to do so.
I’m at peace with how I’ve handled my relationship with my parents, yet at times I feel like the proverbial cobbler whose children have no shoes. The internal voice jeers, “What the hell can you offer the fatherhood cause if you haven’t even figured out how to repair the relationship with your own dad?” Maybe. But I also know that family relationships are rarely clear-cut, and it’s certainly not so in this case.
At the 2014 Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans, the panel called “Parenting it Forward: Compensating for Our Own Flawed Fathers” was especially important to me. This panel featured some of the most professionally accomplished men in social media. Guys I really admire, like Caleb Gardner, Charlie Capen, and Ryan Hamilton. But rather than discuss metrics or monetization, topics they would be eminently qualified to speak on at any social media conference, they spoke of brokenness, loss, absenteeism and/or the failures of their own fathers, and how these factors had propelled their own deep sense of duty as fathers and fatherhood advocates. It was exactly the kind of conversation that made me profoundly proud of the vulnerable dialogue these parents explored, and grateful for its healing effect on both the speakers and the audience.
Over the years I’ve found a huge amount of comfort through this brotherhood of men. In adulthood, I’ve come to believe in the importance of ongoing masculine influences not only on children, but also on other men. No doubt, women play an absolutely essential ongoing role in most men’s lives. But the fact is, masculinity is defined in roughly 4 billion different ways on our planet, and it’s something that only men can bestow upon other men.
In many ways our community is a “second home” to the men who might otherwise feel isolated in their circumstances. Here they’re able to connect, and build shared memories and bonds of trust. Bonds they sustain throughout the year through candid, intentional conversations as well as mutual mentorship. Not to mention the memories of some epic karaoke sessions on Bourbon Street.
For myself and the other people in this situation, most of us hope for a reconciliation that doesn’t come at the expense of boundaries or anyone’s sense of self worth. Even more importantly, we hope this happens before we have to say goodbye to our parents. Between a short goodbye and a long goodbye, I’ll take the latter. That’s a road paved with second chances.
John Pacini is co-founder of the Dad 2.0 Summit and its parent company, XY Media, LLC.