explorations of mindful fatherhood

One of My Biggest Fears


20130531-070751.jpgMy dad has issues. For a three year stint, he didn’t talk to me, for unknown reasons. I tried reaching out the olive branch on several occasions, through letters and email, but these attempts were met with absolute silence. It wasn’t until a pending trip to Chicago, that he responded to an email of mine. His response was pretty much, “What’s the problem. You know I’m not a good conversationalist.”

This is what scares me….neither am I.

When it comes down to it, my fear is that this legacy of emotional and communicative disconnect is going to bleed into my relationship with my own son.

My dad has his own set of problems. Born in the 1940’s and shipped to Viet Nam in his 20’s, I always knew my dad as the guy who “doesn’t like to talk about things.” This was the family narrative. You didn’t ask my dad about his life. The war was off limits. Discussions about his parents, especially his father, were out of bounds because his dad was institutionalized after a bout of incapacitating meningitis. Talk about his extended family was out of the question because he just hated the bastards. Aside from that, his only real interests seemed to be hunting and electronics, leaving few common interests between him and me (or most people).

“Alexithymic” is probably also a good way of describing my dad. It’s a word I picked up in grad school, which characterizes a person who is neither able to name his/her emotions or describe them in words. My dad and I have never had a single conversation about his feelings, nor has he ever offered up a description of them. In spite of his divorce, the death of his mother, his own cancer, none of these things enlivened a single visible emotion or mention of his feelings.

These two issues make it nearly impossible for me to talk with my dad, outside of topics such as the weather, traffic, or consumer electronics. We’ve never had the ability to talk. There were times in my life when my father and I just did more things together, and therefore spent more with one another. And yet, we weren’t necessarily close. So, as an adult man, separated from my father by half the country, there’s no way of connecting. We don’t live close enough to do things together, and conversations fall short, so our relationship languishes.

And so, each time I sit across from my son at the breakfast table in silence, or drive home with him in a quiet car, I project 20 years into a future in which we have nothing to say to one another. No bond.

There are times when conversations with my son really fall flat. My son is a relatively quiet kid. I’ve spent time with kids who provide a running narration or their thoughts or actions. Kids that are always talking. Or for some kids, once their interest is peaked, they can talk a mile a minute. This isn’t my son. He’s shy most of the time, and even when someone inquires about something he knows well, he gets self-conscious, or hesitant, preventing him from share what he knows. This is true whether it’s a stranger at a cash register, or even his parents at home.

Somehow, my wife has a magic with him, and they can have the longest conversations. I find that when I try, I’m pulling teeth. I get feedback that it’s my style. Sometimes I come across like an interviewer when having a discussion. I can pelt a person with endless questions. For my son, that doesn’t work, and he turns into a deer in headlights. I’ve tried easing up, and inquiring or opening up conversations in an inquisitive, non-threatening way. And yet I find these conversations still falter.

These scenarios bring up two things for me: anger and fear. The anger is directed at my own father. When I find myself stuck in conversation, I can’t help but think part of the reason is that I never got good modeling as a kid. If my dad was a bit more skilled, or for that matter, simply tried just a little bit harder, I might have some vocabulary for father-son dialogue. I feel robbed of some kind of formative experience that would have taught me the skills for connecting with my own son.

The second feeling is the fear I mentioned: that fear that in a few years or decades, my son and I won’t know what to say to one another. He’ll live far away and I won’t have any way of building in-roads with him, his family, or his life. Perhaps it’s a bit catastrophic, but nonetheless, it’s where my mind goes. I so desperately want a better relationship with my son, but when face-to-face, I sometimes feel incapacitated.

I substitute with time, activity, interest. When he’s around, I try to do things with him, or take an interest in the things he likes. For now, I think this works. But as he emerges into his teenage years and doesn’t want to spend time with me, or when he goes off to college, what am I to do? It’s something that I constantly grapple with, and need to keep facing head-on, before the years slip away.



Author: CJ Nigh

I am an East Coast writer with a Midwestern soul. Undead Dad is a blog about mindful fatherhood in the deadening age of hyper-technology and over-work. I also write science fiction for young adults.

10 thoughts on “One of My Biggest Fears

  1. It’s a little dark, but I get where you’re coming from. I think it’s perfectly natural to worry about projecting our own issues with our parents into the relationships with our children. The fact that you’re cognizant of the issue is a big step in the right direction. No, your son may not be a big talker with you, but at least he’s talking with one of you. I have one kid who tells me everything and one who’s phone I have to snoop through to find out what’s going on…not a thing I’m proud of, but at least I know where she is on the map. All you can do is keep trying–and the time and effort spent are not lost on him. Kids notice everything, and while he may not acknowledge it, he notices. He’s still learning from your example. Hang in there and keep plugging away at it!

  2. UDD
    Get Crazy
    That is my thought on your quandary. When I got married I also married a 9 year old kid with a ton of social challenges. He asked a out some bands I listened to and he really liked them.
    When I bought tickets for the next rock show I went to I got one for him. He was not a fan of motley Crüe at the time but he quickly became one. That is just an example for you. My point is this. I think that in life sometimes you might get to a place where conversation is not loud enough. Sometimes you have to go out and create moments that will live in your heart forever. For Brett and I it was the Crüe. I do t know you that we’ll but I follow you because I find your writing to be very sincere. Pick something your son is into and get into it with him or just go do something you and your son know nothing about and discover it together. Whatever you do, just go make a moment together.

    KISS is on tour find out when they are coming to your town. My son and I will be there and trust me, that will be a moment. I hope that helps man and if you two want to head down to SC in August you can come to the show with us and stay at the house. Good luck brother!!

  3. Don’t minimize the importance of doing things with him. Plenty of people talk and don’t spend the time. And it doesn’t have to be entertaining. It can be mundane things like “Come wash the car with me.” Cooking, teaching him a new skill, doing a chore together can go far in building a non-verbal connection and relationship.
    I understand your worry. That would worry me too, but don’t despair. Even if neither of you are talkers, you can build relationship.

  4. Hey, I understand your fear too. And people have given you some great ideas. You might also be interested in a book I’m reading. I previously assumed this book was superficial, but it’s not. It’s not about “doing” the right thing, but about developing the necessary character traits to “be” a good person (which is what virtue ethics is, from my perspective). So, for example, when he talks about being able to interact effectively with others and have them trust you and “open” up to you, he explains that you can’t just “do” or “say” the “right” things, instead you have to “be” the kind of person the other person feels able to trust. He explains that a key element of that is “being” someone who genuinely tries to understand the other person, before trying to be understood. The thing that really sold me on this book was some examples the author used early on about how a new way of seeing things began changing his parenting and his examples were really big ones that I could relate to. The book is The 7 habits of Highly Effective People. It’s pretty cool.

  5. The fact you are even thinking of this means you will be a great dad. I had an amazing Dad who died at 50 when I was 21. I have written a lot of posts about him. I thought I would send you this post as to me it is everything that was brilliant about my Dad.

  6. I have parallel fears of being hypercritical of my daughter. Sometimes fighting against natural inclinations means that overcompensation becomes just as alienating. Awareness is always the first step, as well as recognizing that you and your child are not copies of the past, even if there are some behavioral similarities. Being available, interested and reliable are the best things you can do – and unlike your own experience, when he asks questions, be ready to talk. Sometimes, when you worry about it, just say to him “Hey – we can talk about anything and you can ask me any questions you want.” It alleviates your anxiety and lets him know the door is always open.

  7. But you won’t let your father son relationship slip away, you are acknowledging this fear. Which leads me to believe you’ll attach yourself to the fact.
    Keeping an open dialogue is the main thing, and never giving it up! Even if he seems uninterested.
    Who even knows if your dad ever thought of it, between you guys. He is his own person. Sounds like he didnt, doesnt make it wrong or right if that is his way. But you have a chance to never let this happen in your next course in life with your son, a big chance. Your son is young, and being shy n weary is fine n normal. He is still finding his way. Let him be himself like usual, but he has to be taught the importance of your relationship growing. Anyone can be a father, but it takes a real strong willed person to be a dad.

  8. Your concern shows you’re already past the relationship you and your dad have. I have one simple thought that you may or may not be currently doing. If you have a habit of “interviewing” him and he kind of clams up, how about you do the talking? Maybe if you share with him what’s on your heart and mind, he’ll learn that men talk, and eventually it will create a safe environment for him to share, too.

  9. Wow what an honest and moving post. When it comes to our children, we spend all the days and nights of their lives worrying that we are going to be the parent we WANT to be and hoping like hell we don’t mess up. So congratulations, you are normal! On a more serious note, I do think your concerns are totally valid. My husband has a plethora of Dad issues and it occupies alot of his time thinking about how to be the exact opposite of his Dad. he is always scared the negative aspects of his own father will creep into his parenting style. His oldest is now 19 and our youngest is nearly 6 and I am so proud of the Dad he is to all of his kids as well as my two children. The best relationships survive the silences and words are not always needed.

  10. Your dad reminds me some of mine own. We don’t have much of a relationship. It’s been the same awkward few words here and there and routine get togethers for over a decade now.

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