She had known that they were all bored by him, but it had never occurred to her that he was equally bored by them. He was as ever kind and subdued, but the sad perspicacity which she had learnt in suffering suggested to her that, though he probably never acknowledged it to himself and never would, in his heart he disliked her.
– W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
In 1984 Paul and I had a talk about parenting. Still new in our relationship, we had that Swiss cheese sort of confidence in our communications. We talked and talked and talked on deeper and deeper issues until we found ourselves in a blank space where we clearly could not go. Being fathers was one of those voids. After we examined my desire to be a parent for the first time in my life, we talked about the stability I was developing and the energy we both had. We gave example after example of how wonderfully playful Paul was with children, how he engaged their fantasies, and how he encouraged their expressiveness.
A moment later we were in mid-air. Paul didn’t want children. We each sought some footing and he finally said he’d think about it in three years. Later that night, I wrote an entry for December 31 to check in with Paul in April of 1987.
And I did check in. Three years later Paul still didn’t want to be a father. I was heartbroken. He felt bad but he as adamant. It was no longer his age or his career. He feared his own childhood would make parenting problematic. We no longer had Swiss cheese in our communications. We had developed a pattern of finding elegant solutions for intractable differences. For this one we landed on a plan that I could parent as many young people as I wanted; they would not be ours and would not live with us. He, in turn would be completely supportive. Being a man of his word, Paul remained supportive of this for more than 25 years.
Over those decades we helped some young people get through high school and college, we bought books, listened to problems, took trips, picked up the pieces of their failed relationship experiments, and when possible, supported their parents along the way. A couple of times, these young people stayed with us very briefly, often just a night or two. There were some memorable and lovely times when they would call late at night and ask me to come over to intercede with a tough moment with their parents. I’d just listen for hours until they sorted it out with each other.
As multiple sclerosis increasingly impaired Paul’s movements and increased my need to provide care for him, the young people whom we helped became fewer in number and more tenuous in our connections. But this shift spawned in me a practice I have returned to each year for Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. On the former, I specifically appreciate my oldest sister who recently turned 80, for her participation in parenting me as a child. I also thank all of those women – those aunts, neighbors, cousins, teachers, counselors, librarians, coaches, and more – who are our other mothers.
Then, for Fathers’ Day, I thank my brother-in-law, my 10th grade running coach, my driver’s ed teacher, Russell Durning, Denny Fisher, camp counselors, and Boys’ Club counselors for being my other fathers.
This business of parenting without a title is incredibly freeing and rewarding. It is also fraught with challenges. Who gives permission to have the feelings of associated with an empty nest? What do we do when the young person’s anger with the system gets aimed at us, when their parents get a pass and we get the resentment? How are we supposed to act when they graduate and we are not included? It seems that the benefits of all of these other parents cannot be fully actualized until the other parents are somehow named.
Every few years this old saying seems to resurface: It takes a village to raise a child. How will we then successfully raise young people when we do not see the villagers at work? What will satisfy our hunger for our fathers when we don’t say hello to him when he shows up in some unexpected person?