This past Sunday was Father’s Day, though in contrast to previous years, this year’s celebrations were rather muted as a result of the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Being the father of three fine children, I have been the beneficiary of many fine feasts and presents in the past in return for a lifetime’s worth of acting in this critical familial role.
Being a good father is no easy task. There are no prerequisite schools, institutes or courses that you must take that provide you with all the theoretical as well as practical knowledge required to successfully rear irrepressible and demanding infants into responsible adults. This is a skill you learn on the fly, usually by trial and error, as well as the advice of your own elders as well as peers that may have blazed the trail before you.
Over the past century, starting with Dr. Spock, there have been numerous books published on the art of raising children. I have learned that these should be approached with some caution and skepticism, since there is no consensus on what is the “right” approach, and there are as many methods and doctrines on this subject as there are shades of political and religious belief.
If you are the son of Ukrainian immigrants, there is an additional challenge, as the role of the father in raising children has been rather limited and restricted to mostly being the disciplinarian. Child rearing in Ukrainian culture has been almost the exclusive domain of the mother. I do not mean to imply that there is anything negative or wrong in this, as this is the inevitable end product of many centuries of historical circumstances and traditional conditioning.
Ukrainians for most of their existence have been an oppressed people, subjected to constant conflict and servitude. Men would often be absent from home for long periods of time, fighting off ever-present enemies, and many never returned from combat. Because Ukrainians have always rebelled against invaders and oppressors, many were also often imprisoned or exiled, separating them from the families for prolonged periods of time. It was the women who were forced by these circumstances to not only raise children on their own, but look after the homestead as well. Even when the men were at home, the demands of providing a subsistence living left little time for them to engage with their children in any meaningful way.
The end result of many centuries of this kind of living, was that parenting became the primary domain of the mothers, with the fathers only playing a peripheral role. This became ingrained into the traditions and perceptions of most Ukrainians that lasted even into my parents’ generation.
My father, having immigrated to Canada at the age of eighteen, and having been exposed to the more liberal western social roles and values, was not as stern and rigid in his thoughts about parenting as most of the first generations of immigrants that came to Canada. Nonetheless, even by the age of eighteen, many aspects of the traditional Ukrainian father role had already been imprinted on his psyche. He believed that his primary role was that of the provider, and secondly, the disciplinarian, setting down the rules and enforcing them, including the use of corporal punishment. He worked hard at providing the necessities of life, and the job of looking after the kids was viewed as the responsibility of the mother. Such contemporary paternal practices as hugs, kisses and the showing of emotions, was not something he was either familiar or comfortable with. Being the youngest of eight kids in an impoverished family back in Ukraine, I am sure he saw little if any of these traits from his father. Nonetheless, despite his limitations, even as kids we sensed his dedication to us and the family, and what was unmistakeable was his strong desire to ensure that we kids would have a better life than he had been blessed with.
Although I may have thought at the time that he was too remote and prone to physical discipline, I have subsequently found out from many of my peers, that their fathers were far more problematic in this respect, which would lead to far more dysfunctional family dynamics, and life-long psychological traumas. I have come to realize that my father may not have been perfect, but that deep down, he cared very much for us, and that though my childhood may have had some old-world influences and constraints imposed on it, my father did the best he could to ensure that we had what we needed in terms of the necessities, and enough freedom and opportunity to enjoy our youth. My regret is that I did not make the effort earlier in my life to understand him and his life history better, and to know him as a person, rather than just as a father. It is a sad lesson in life, that often we do not appreciate our fathers until they are gone.