I walked into my father's office to settle a score; he thought we were going out for lunch. For the 25 years prior to that day, no one in our family had found the courage to speak honestly and directly with my father. All that would change in 10 minutes.
I told my father to stay seated and not respond to anything he was about to hear. He had been given plenty of time to speak over the years; this was my time. In short, what I said was: "Growing up with you was very difficult. You were alcoholic and irresponsible. Your behavior has damaged my sense of self-worth. Today, I struggle with many of the same battles I imagine you also struggled with at my age. Most of all, I simply want you to hear what I'm saying. I hate you for what you've done, and you're still my dad so I love you. I'm finished blaming you; I am responsible for my own life." I rejected his attempts at rebuttal, knowing that a part of me would want to believe him or even take care of him. This was my time, I reminded myself. I stood up and walked out.
Half an hour later, my father arrived at the hotel where I was staying. I heard the knock on the door and wondered if he would be standing there with a pistol. Though my father didn't own one, and wasn't the murdering kind, our relationship had entered into very strange and new territory; anything seemed possible.
The door opened and my father motioned for me to step outside. As if watching myself on a movie screen, I followed and sat next to him on the hotel floor's back steps. He began to weep and so did I. Through the tears, he managed to say, "I never meant to hurt you."
That was as much of an apology as I would ever get. He never went into the details of his life with me. He never asked for forgiveness. He never held himself fully accountable. Ultimately, none of that mattered. It wasn't until a few years later that I realized what did matter.
On that day, at the age of 25, I began healing my relationship with myself and truly becoming an adult. On that day I began the essential task of sorting through my father's legacy-figuring out what I should carry forward and what I should do differently, taking responsibility for my own life and accepting what my father had to offer while grieving what I would never get from him. I was fortunate to have begun this process relatively early in life, as so many men don't get around to it until their father is on his deathbed-if ever.
As a boy--like most boys even today--I was taught to steer clear of vulnerability. I was taught that my sole purpose in life was to avoid situations where I could be taken advantage of, proved wrong, or made to look like a "wimp" or a "pussy." Doing the emotional work of sorting through a father's legacy, whether he is alive or not, requires facing the difficult feelings of love, pain, and loss. In short, it requires the very thing we're taught as boys and men to rid ourselves of: vulnerability.
By standing before my father-the "manliest" of men in my eyes-and telling him how I experienced our relationship, I threw away everything I was taught as a boy. The great irony is that by making myself vulnerable, risking what little connection we had, I actually made our relationship somewhat stronger-and a whole lot more real.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit face to face with my father; some boys and men don't even know who their father is. The process of sorting through a father's legacy is as much about a man's relationship with himself as it is about his relationship with his father. It's about owning how you feel about that relationship, what you got and didn't get, what you want to do differently, and most important, how you plan to make those changes for the next generation.
For some men, coming to terms with their father may mean finding the courage to say (not just show) how much they appreciate and love him for all he's done. As men, finding the language to speak about love can be as difficult as speaking about pain or fear. Showing love through action is important; but if there is no language to confirm that love, often the other person is left wondering. This is especially true for children.
I hope that my children will never have to walk into my office and fear my reaction when they speak their own truth about our relationship. Just as I did, they will have to sort through my legacy; I hope they will begin that process much earlier than I did-and that they'll do it partly by talking with me.
Israeli researcher Ricky Pelach-Galil found that fathers become central figures in boys' lives at around age 13 or 14. "They observe him closely: his routines, his habits, his values, his accomplishments and his failures," she wrote. Boys measured the quality of their relationship with their father by their ability to talk with him about their feelings, about real things they struggle with. Pelach-Galil also found that at this critical developmental juncture, the majority of boys in her study became very aware of their fathers' distance from them.
Long before the teenage years, children-boys and girls-need fathers who can know and be known. They need fathers who know their interests, who their friends are, what they're doing in school. They need fathers who ask questions, listen, and get involved. They also need dads who can be known.
"Being known" means sharing who you are and how you feel. It means being able to show your strengths and weaknesses, fears and joys. It means being vulnerable. As men, many of us carry around those fears from boyhood-that we will be taken advantage of, attacked, or put down for showing our vulnerabilities. As adults we need to remember that vulnerability cultivates intimacy.
In my work I speak to young people and their parents around the country about their relationships with their fathers. At the end of each presentation I ask them to write down two things they've always wanted to ask their fathers but never have. Consistently, the top two responses are: "What was your relationship like with your father?" and "What was your childhood like?" Children want and need their fathers' stories. I call it the "elephant in the living room" of child development: the missing stories of men's lives-particularly men's emotional lives.
If my father had told me how he was sent away to military school and how his father always called him "stupid," it might have made a difference. If he had had the courage to tell me how hopeful he was when I was born or how scared he was when his relationship with my mother began to fall apart, it might have made a difference. If he had had the courage to share himself, to let down the walls between us, I might not have repeated some of his mistakes. Instead of having to confront him in his office, maybe we would have gone out to lunch that day.
John Badalament, Ed.M., directed the acclaimed PBS documentary film All Men Are Sons: Exploring the Legacy of Fatherhood. A Harvard-trained counselor and human development specialist, he is a national lecturer, trainer, and educational consultant to schools, parent groups, mental health professionals, corrections departments, and universities. His work focuses on developing the emotional lives of men and boys and their relationships with others.