Notes on Being a Father, and a Son

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Return of the Prodigal Son

It was a curious experience to read for the first time, several years ago, a biography of my late father, a well-known Australian author. It was even more so when I heard the biographer talk on the radio “about getting into other people’s lives who are not there to tell the story themselves… about staying true to the facts and the emotional lives of their subjects”. I was the eldest son of my father’s second marriage, and I had never spoken to this person. I wondered what I might have contributed to her understanding of the emotional life of my father if I had.

When I left home for the last time, after a few false starts in the life I’d already taken, in my teens, to calling my own, I thought it was the beginning of an uneasy truce with him. The bad-tempered enmity I felt towards him – and, God knows, he probably felt towards me – was not so vehemently expressed as it was when I was a teenager. With some hurt, we had both come to accept that neither of us was going to live up to the other’s expectations and anyway, neither of us had ever been really sure what those expectations were. We kept our distance from each other –  easy enough to do as I’d ended up in another country – but I couldn’t escape the persistent itch to gain his attention, and more importantly, his approval, an admission that still embarrasses me, not least because it reminds me of just how much effort I wasted on futility.

“All I want is for you to be happy, son,” my father used to tell me. A lot of fathers tell their sons the same thing but only a virtuous few really mean it. The rest are being disingenuous, dancing around the reality that, if confronted, would compel them to say, “All I want is for you to make me happy.” The common flaw of fathers is that they want their sons to be a credit to them. The common flaw of sons is that they’re all too aware of this: even if they make it on their own terms, they can’t rest until they also make it on their fathers’, which are often less clearly defined and much harder to satisfy.

I was never close to my father. Notice that I always refer to him as ‘father’. I can’t remember calling him ‘dad’ much even as a kid, and when I did it was with caution, as if it was somehow too familiar. He often emphasised the 38 years that separated our ages, preferring the image of himself as a wise elder, a counsellor, a confessor – sometimes, even his closest friends couldn’t help but think of him as an avuncular prelate – rather than as a parent, with the tricky emotional empathy and unqualified love that entailed. Not surprisingly, he was easier to respect than love, and although I tried to do both, we were uncomfortable around each other unless I let him interpret his paternal role as instructive, consolatory or beneficent. He was generous to a fault with his time, his advice and his money – and not just to his family – but miserly with what I wanted most. Himself.

How is it, then, that everything about my father, good and bad, has shaped my persona? From early childhood, my impressions of him were the raw materials from which I created a maquette of the man I didn’t want to be. On it, I tried to re-work, if not set right, all the flaws I perceived.

The common flaw of fathers is that they want their sons to be a credit to them. The common flaw of sons is that they’re all too aware of this.

Most sons do this, but it disturbs many fathers because all they can do is stand back and watch what has been modelled from them take on a different life. The imperfections revealed are discomforting. They’re frustrated by the possibilities they overlooked. Occasionally, they try to guide their sons’ hands – as my father did – and berate them when they struggle to break free of their hold. “I’m trying to do what’s best for you,” my father used to insist, but we both recognised it as a lie. A father is, often, innately selfish in his concern. He meddles in his son’s life, his whole life, to regain and correct a few moments lost somewhere in his.

A son can be a second chance, an opportunity to improve upon or resolve a past life, maybe even redeem its failures: a father encourages a son either to follow in or avoid his footsteps, and he is sometimes uncomprehending or hurt when the son refuses. For others, like those famous patriarchs whose family tragedies are played out in public, a son can be an insidious rival, whose ambitions are seen, however improbably, to threaten their achievements.

Either way, there’s trouble. A father tries to send his son along a path that is not the one the son planned to take; rather, it often runs in the opposite direction and as not even the father knows where it leads, the son inevitably loses his way. In frustration, the son strikes out on his own, turning his back on his father.

That I’m writing this – forget what I’m writing for a minute – might be construed as evidence of how bootless defiance can be sometimes. What could be more apposite than a wayward son appeasing the memory of his father by going into the family business, even if just for a moment? And yet I am pretty sure the last thing my father wanted was for any of his children to become writers. Five of us tried, in different ways. Only three of us persisted, and only two eked out any kind of living from it – my youngest brother, who is a songwriter in New Orleans, and me. Such emulousness made not only my father but my mother nervous; it threatened to overturn a tacit agreement between them, made long before I was born, that for the rest of my father’s life – and, given her energetic management of his literary estate until a few years ago, my mother’s – the building and maintenance of his reputation was to be the main focus of their partnership. They wanted their children to succeed, but all of us got the feeling that it had to be in some lesser, if still commendable – but lesser would do – calling.

The relationship between a father and son is always a cat’s cradle of conflicting needs, and between my father and me, the threads wound way too tight. Right up until he died, at age 81, we squared off like a pair of aging boxers whenever we were around each other. It was tedious, especially as the outcome was always moot, and over the years, the inability even to pretend a measure of everyday civility eroded all but the most tenacious residue of affection. I was middle-aged by the time it stopped. My father was middle-aged when it started.

For the first couple of years of my son’s life, I puzzled over how to raise him. Truth is, it scared me.

A similar, wearisome and disaffecting scenario is played out in many families, but I’m not sure it revolves around a son’s need to assert himself. If anything, it’s the opposite. A son grows up mindful of his father growing old: a father know this. The closeness of their relationship or, through a darker lens, the limits of their tolerance of each other, depends on a father coming to terms with his imminent mortality – and a son, with his own mutability. In other words, it’s about both father and son being able to accept themselves.

My differences with my father, some fundamental, some just plain foolish, chafed through the last strands of our patience with each other in his last years, and I learned too late how much my love and admiration for him were overshadowed by my stubborn intolerance of his failings. Now I have grown to miss him more than I thought was possible. As I grow older, he has become more, not less, real to me, and more understandable.

My most persistent memories of him have also made me mindful of my relationship with my own son. Ironically, nearly the same number of years separate our ages as separated my father’s and mine.

For the first couple of years of my son’s life, I puzzled over how to raise him. Truth is, it scared me. There was nothing in my own upbringing that I could draw on to help me. Or so I thought. The writer, John Steinbeck, warned: “Father and son are natural enemies and each is happier and more secure in keeping it that way.” (I always knew he was referring mainly to writers and their sons.)

I was wrong. So was Steinbeck. Empathy may not have been one of my father’s strengths but his intellect and ability to articulate big ideas unarguably were. So while our emotional communication was limited, we talked. A lot. And somewhere within those many, long, occasionally Socratic conversations, was my father’s real legacy: a way of looking at the world that had, in the end, enabled me to frame a rich and eventful, if not always successful, life of my own.

Even before my son had learnt to talk, I started talking to him. He is now 25, and we are still talking. We talk every day. Unlike my father – but also maybe because of him – I have learned to listen. Only time will tell if it makes a difference to him. But it has already made a difference to me.


Cover image: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Return of the Prodigal Son, oil on canvas, 1667/1670


The Learned Pig

C.C. O'Hanlon

Creed O’Hanlon is a traveler, diarist and avid cycleur. His writing has been published in The New York Times, The Bulletin, and Griffith Review, and included in Best Australian Stories 2004 and Best Australian Essays 2005 (publ. by Black Inc.), as well as the anthology A Revealed Life: Australian Writers And Their Journeys In Memoir (publ. ABC Books).