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Embracing the chaos -- what dads do best

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Wednesday, June 23rd, 2004 — Let's hear it for dads! Word has it that some are feeling neglected with all the hoopla about the legendary mother-child connection is legendary. Pop songs like, "She Loves Me Like a Rock," and "The Mother-Child Reunion," suggest that mom is the parent who really counts.

Most dads deserve more credit. Children thrive on the unique brand of parenting a father can give. To moms this sometimes looks like benign neglect. To kids, it is a chance to test, to grow, to turn loose apron strings and become their own person.

At the risk of sounding unenlightened, I think in general mothers are more protective than dads. They like to hold tightly to the reins, while dads do not mind a little slack. Many dads enjoy being one of the kids -- defying mom's efforts at control and decorum.

I just returned from seeing the musical "Hairspray" in San Francisco. There is a scene in which the teenage daughter wants to audition for a television dance show. Her mother is convinced it will corrupt her or she will not get the part and be broken-hearted.

Enter dad. Mom says: "Talk to her. Tell her she can't go." So dad asks daughter, "Do you want to do it?" We instantly know what's coming. Daughter says she wants to go, and dad gives her his blessing.

Resisting the need to control and conform to social norms does not begin with the teen years. Like mother's milk, it is nourishment we receive from our fathers when we are very young. A la Robin Williams in "Mrs. Doubtfire," a dad's influence is a style thing -- even when parents are separated the father's "presence" is important.

My dad used to brag about the afternoon he babysat my older brother and me while he painted the living room.

I was an infant and my brother was 2. Dad just kept moving me and the blanket I was lying on so I would be next to him and kept on painting.

When my mother returned, she was horrified. I was "just lying there in the middle of the room" needing a diaper change. Who knows what my brother was doing?

Dad's idea of childcare -- as with the rest of life -- was a little rough around the edges. He loved spending time with us kids, and had no interest in the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

My earliest memory of my father is of Sunday-afternoon trips to the beach. Mom waved good-bye from the doorway, relishing a few hours without kids underfoot.

What I remember most is not the beach but the ride home. Dad put a cardboard box on the back seat of the family Fordand put me on top of it so I could see out. No seatbelts back then.

As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot, still wet and sandy, he began singing Old Man River in his deep, resonant voice I loved so much. It usually lulled me to sleep while my brother hung his head out the window in protest. We looked like a band of gypsies as we rolled along.

Those times with my father helped me learn to love myself -- and others -- without any pretenses. They gave me an inner freedom to trust my instincts, and resiliency to bounce back from disappointments.

I never doubted my father's love for me, and I will always love him for giving me the confidence to be myself, with the freedom to grow.

Now, as a mom myself, I see the deep affection my husband and sons have for each other. I also smile as I watch our sons parenting their children -- and notice some of familiar, "What are you thinking?" reactions of our daughters-in-law. The bonding between dads and kids is timeless -- and a blessing for all concerned.

This Father's Day, last Sunday, we celebrated dads who have the capacity to set aside the fine-tuning of parenting from time to time in favor of the big picture. To some this looks like chaos. To dads it is just kids being kids while learning to become independent, life-affirming adults.