Recently I had a family in my office, gathered around my young-father client who was experiencing marital difficulties. This son of the family was going through a divorce he did not want, and his parents were present because they are loving, involved grandparents.
Sometimes I see parents of my grown clients who are really running the show behind scenes; and I have to separate them, visiting with my client alone, guiding him or her notwithstanding the parents’ inappropriate input.
But I did not sense that situation here. No, these were sane, rational grandparents who were present because the breakup of their son’s marriage was a family tragedy, and there are young children involved.
These grandparents were focused on the children; they were not bashing the young wife who was intent on leaving; they were not jockeying for financial position. They were worried, sincerely, about the kids. They were saying things like, “We wish she would go to marital counseling, but it seems she won’t…we want to keep a relationship with our daughter-in-law; we want to be able to know what the kids need and how we can help her with them. We don’t want those kids to do without simply because our son and their mother cannot get along…” This was rather refreshing after my usual day full of clients bent on revenge and self-dealing.
During our conference late-50ish grandfather (I’ll call him “Bill Fisher” here) related a story of his first encounter with sex. (Yes, I hear it all…). According to him, it was in his 17th summer. His parents ran a campground where folks passing through could hook up their RV’s. It was in a resort area of our state, so some of the visitors would be there weeks in the summer, enjoying the nearby lakes and other attractions. Bill had a summer job mowing and such in the campground. This made for interesting summer romances, one of which appears to have “blossomed,” as it were…
One day in the fall, Bill was called into the office by his father. It seems that father had received a phone call from another father about his pregnant daughter. Bill had been named. And, when confronted by his father, Bill had to admit that he could, indeed, be this baby’s father.
Bill then said, “My life began crashing down over my head.” Bill’s father told him these things:
“Well, Son, if this is your baby, your life has just changed. You may want to think about quitting school, because you will soon be married and in charge of seeing to this baby and a new wife. You will need a full time job, and I don’t know how you’re going to manage—we’ll help, but when a man starts a family, it is primarily his responsibility.”
Bill recalls protesting, “But, Dad! What about college? Where am I going to get that kind of job? I need to finish school! And, besides, I don’t think I really love this girl! I hardly know her!”
“You’re right, Son.” Dad continued. “You do need to finish school; you do need college, and maybe you can manage that somehow while bringing this baby up. Others have managed. And, as for you not loving this girl, well it’s no longer about you, is it? It is about a baby to raise, and I’ll say this: This is a Fisher baby. No Fisher baby is going to be brought into this world without the Fisher name and without the family he or she deserves to get a start on life. As for you and it’s mama, well you’ll just have to learn to get along.”
Bill knew his father meant this. And he knew the die was cast. He had already transgressed, having to confess his moral failure. To refuse to accept responsibility for a baby he had created would be to incur his entire family’s deep disappointment and disapproval.
He knew he would have to accept this responsibility; it was how he had been raised. He said it was a sobering moment to think that his entire life course was now altered—and he could see that it was going to be difficult. His father’s conversation put the responsibility squarely where it belonged: on him.
Bill’s dad was circling the wagons, putting the innocent babe at the center, insisting that Bill take his place on the protective outer rim, where he belonged, to fend off the world’s woes from his unborn child. To them, this is how families behave. Bill, now moving into fatherhood, had to move from the center to the difficult edge.
By his decisions, Bill had given up his place in the center of the circle. As a soon-t0-be father, his own father was insisting that he come out of that shelter and be responsible. Instinctively, Bill’s father knew that the baby was not the only person disserved by Bill’s evading responsibility—it would not serve Bill well, either, to allow that evasion.
And Bill’s dad knew that his son might have to take an arrow or two out on that perimeter, such as putting off college and having to work. But that’s what parents do for their young. Chances are the arrows would not be fatal; Bill had his family there with him, watching his back, shoulder-to-shoulder with him—not doing it for him—but helping stand guard over the most defenseless of their members. It was, definitely, Bill’s place to be there.
Word soon came that this pregnancy ended in early miscarriage. There would be no baby. His life could go on as planned. Very bittersweet news.
Bill talked to me about the impact that this episode played on the rest of his life. For one thing, sex was never again treated cavalierly. Second, it had caused him to ponder his own moral fiber and standards. And he found them strengthened by this experience.
I could see what kind of man this kind of raising had forged: one who could sort through his own son’s trouble, two generations removed from his stalwart father, and—once again—put first the children of the family, in spite of the difficulties their parents found themselves in.
This grandfather could clearly see where he needed to focus—on those children. His goal was to spend time with these grandkids, make the most of their parents’ situation, to see that these kids have everything they need and all the support they could have in order to better face the world from a broken home.
I have to credit Bill’s father with shaping a man who can maintain that kind of focus through the emotion which surrounded the painful breakup of his Son’s marriage. So, I’ve thought about that story a lot in the context of the usual advice given today:
I’ve not been a big fan of “shotgun weddings.” “Don’t get married just for the child.” I’ve given this advice, and I hold to it in most cases. Many is the time expectant mama is pregnant by a bum, with whom a legal union would spell doom, not only for her but also for her baby. I have ranted against this situation in a recent post, and still say (can I say it enough?) women have a responsibility to prepare a safe nest for their young, and I see that failing all the time.
But don’t think I haven’t considered the view of, “Why not? Why not be required to stand up for providing this child with two parents? Why tolerate anything short of that?” I know that there is no formulaic, “one size fits all” answer to this situation, but I sure am taking notice of Bill’s father’s attitude.
And all around me I see the travesty of not letting our children grow up; of not backing off and saying to them, “This is your responsibility, and it’s time you were an adult.” I see grown “children” all the time whose parents are there still shouldering responsibility that should have long ago shifted. It does no good for either the parent or the “child” to refuse to move the fledglings from the nest and let them fly on their own.
To Bill’s father, ignoring the responsibility to put an unborn child first was unthinkable. To Bill it was unthinkable not to follow through on that responsibility all those many years ago. And, while he had hinted at not marrying because “I don’t love her….” his father never let him rest on that “Me-ism,” but just said, truthfully, “It’s no longer about you and what you want. You have made a choice in life which relegates your desires to a position much lower than the needs of this innocent child. Own it.”
Where has that attitude gone? Can we get it back? The US is facing nearly a 40% unwed birth rate. This places these children at risk—cold statistics prove it. So much about our society’s attitude would have to change for us to get to the place where Bill’s father was. Is it possible? C