What does it mean to be a father? Hmmm…I asked a bunch of fellow fathers about their perspective on that question. To see all the other posts in this one-week series, visit the list of contributors. Here’s what Eric Windhorst had to say:
“The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents” – C.G. Jung
A few weeks ago, Jason asked me if I would be willing to write a short piece about my perspectives on, and experiences of, being a father. Naturally, my initial reaction consisted of fear and trembling—the pangs of acute imposter syndrome. I wondered: What could I add to the conversation?
You see, I come from a long line of disengaged dads.
My grandfather (my mother’s dad) is a case in point. My grandfather was a preoccupied, emotionally unavailable man. He spent his adult life chasing the American dream, and, though he became materially successful, he overlooked an important investment—his family. When he did engage with his loved ones, my grandfather was often critical of them. No one seemed able to live up to his stringent standards. Perhaps not even himself.
I’ve heard that my opa (my father’s dad) was like my grandfather. He too was often distant and disengaged. My opa had a hard life. As a young man, he weathered a World War (something I’m told he never talked about), he emigrated to Canada in the 1950s with a wife and young child (and little else), and, he spent his working days as a hired-hand on a Niagara fruit farm. I’ve often wondered about the psychological toll taken by the traumas my opa endured. Did these distresses cause his disconnection?
My dad’s story reads similarly to my opa’s and grandfather’s. Though my dad provided adequately for his family’s material needs, he did not emotionally invest in his family. When home, my father spent much of his time in front of the television, recuperating from his demanding job as an elementary school teacher. I often tried to draw my father out of his work-induced stupor. But, engagement was elusive. By the time evening rolled around, my dad had little left to give.
The Storyline Shifts
The parenting pattern my forefathers established was likely to repeat itself with me. As a young man, I too was preoccupied and emotionally unavailable. I was also angry.
Miraculously though, something in me shifted when my first child, Natalie, was born.
As I’ve written in a previous piece, Natalie’s arrival catalyzed my own personal growth. I’m not sure exactly why or how, but my first child’s birth birthed something in me.
I am privileged to have been the first person to hold Natalie after her birth. I clearly remember embracing Natalie’s tiny newborn body against my chest and feeling incredibly vulnerable and exposed. When Natalie’s beautiful blue eyes met mine, I sensed that she saw me. She saw the anger, the pain, the hurt. Natalie’s gaze was demanding: father, heal thyself.
Over the eight years since Natalie’s birth, I’ve grown immensely (mostly for the better, I think). I’ve healed a lot of hurt (some of which had been handed down multi-generationally), unearthed my true self, and am living a much more meaningful life. Remarkably, through this growth process, I’ve also had the opportunity to reconnect with my own father—a man who later in his life also refused to settle for the status quo. This reunion has been incredibly redemptive and rewarding.
I am now an active and emotionally engaged father to two beautiful children. While I surely have failed (and surely will fail) Gavin and Natalie in many ways, I know that my intentional presence and emotional availability to them is an incredible gift. I am providing my children with roots that will nourish them for the rest of their lives.
Written by Eric Windhorst
Eric is a counsellor & coach, educator, writer, and (re)searcher passionate about connecting people with nature – both outer and inner. Often, Eric can be found, kids in tow, exploring the many beautiful natural places surrounding his downtown Hamilton home. You can learn more about Eric and his multifaceted work at ericwindhorst.ca.