When it comes to shout-outs to parents, mothers tend to get more of them than fathers, because mothers often do more of the hands-on nurturing — both emotionally and physically — especially when children are young.
And when kids are struggling with psychiatric and learning disorders, mothers are often the ones who log the most hours and become the most passionate advocates, going to enormous lengths to help kids feel better and do better, often at substantial personal cost.
But there are a lot of very engaged fathers, too, whom we admire for the remarkable things they do for and with their kids, and we don’t sing their praises often enough. So, in time for Father’s Day, we’d like to do just that.
One thing we see is more and more fathers making major efforts to really tune into their kids — especially kids whose minds work differently from their own — and sharing what they’ve learned both about their kids and themselves in the process.
As one father says about his nonverbal autistic son, “His autism forced me to listen to what interested him above all else.”
In this case, it was horses that interested the child above all else, and helped him find his voice, which led the family to a spectacularly beautiful horse-filled valley in Mongolia, and a documentary called The Horse Boy. But the challenge of really understanding what’s happening in a child’s head, not only what’s causing him pain but what’s making him who he is, is a quest a lot of fathers find themselves on, even if the results are usually less cinematic.
Learning from kids
Another of them is Buzz Bissinger, best known as the author of Friday Night Lights, who published a book last year about a cross-country trip with his brain-damaged 24-year-old son Zach. Father’s Day is a tough, emotionally raw book, in part because it turned out to be more about Bissinger’s struggles coming to terms with Zach than it is about Zach, who is considerably less intense, anxious, competitive and heavily medicated than his rather accomplished father.
Bissinger acknowledges this obliquely when asked by an interviewer if he learned anything new about Zach on the trip. “I really did,” he said. “First of all, his ability for empathy stunned me. He really wanted to help me and to calm me down.”
To his credit, he learned a few other things, too, about what Zach needs and wants, including independence and privacy. At one dinner when he asked too many personal questions, Bissinger reports Zach said, “You know, Dad, you just have to back off a little. I’m not a lab specimen.”
More men are writing blogs about their experiences as dads, too, and there are some very compelling voices on the male side. Frank South, a father of two kids with ADHD who has ADHD himself, is a successful TV screenwriter who decided to become the stay-at-home parent. Sometimes he writes about his kids’ issues, like his daughter’s explosive temper, and sometimes his own, like this rather lovely piece about going to career day at school.
Other fathers we admire are those who, in an effort to figure out what would help their kids, end up creating businesses or services that can help a lot of other kids too. Thorkil Sonne, for instance, started a software testing company in Denmark to employ young adults with autism, building on their strengths—attention to detail, precision, and unerring focus — and providing support where they needed it, to bolster things like weak social skills. He also started Specialist People Foundation to prompt development of similar companies in other countries.
Dads as providers
But I can’t finish without noting how many dads support their kids by, well, supporting them. Many special needs families learn that they need one parent at home full time, and moms often step up — leaving their husbands to take on the pressure of being solo providers. When one parent is working long inflexible hours away from home, he often misses out on family time and all the rewards that come with it, and his sacrifice is often too easily overlooked, too.
I add this in part thinking of my own dad. I grew up in an era in which fathers weren’t expected to be terribly engaged with their daughters, and mine, an engineer and an avid fisherman, wasn’t. He left the house every day before 7am, got back in time to sit down to dinner, read the paper, and watch a little TV. He rarely talked about what he did in between, and left my sister and I pretty much to my mother to raise.
When my father finally retired from Boeing, I had three kids of my own and my husband and I both worked. It occurred to me then that I had never quite appreciated all those years of heavy lifting on his part. So I wrote him a letter thanking him. It was with some shame and some sadness that I realized it was the first time I had done so.