The Importance of Being Dad

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A complete stranger sent me an email yesterday. In it she told me the story of how she was disowned by her father. She shared her grief and her pain, as well as her fears of how her father’s rejection might impact her daughter. She wrote to me because she had just read the blog post I wrote in 2014 about being disowned by my dad and felt I was someone who would understand her story.

I get similar emails several times a year from people who in desperation decide to search the internet for answers on dealing with the pain and sorrow of parental rejection. My post “The Day my Dad Disowned Me” is somehow at the top of the page when people enter “disowned by my father” on Google, and as a result over 13000 people have read the post. It still gets 300 hits a month 4 years after it was published.

Last month I received an email from a nurse in Los Angeles, asking me if I could call her about her struggles with her father’s rejection. She said she was looking for guidance and advice, but when I called her it was clear that she was looking more for validation and support. She needed someone to tell her she was okay.

With each message received I ask myself, “Why are people writing me, someone they have never met?” Is it that the post resonates with their own experience or does the fact that I am a doctor causes them to trust my expertise?Whatever the reason, the messages continue to come. Each one reminds me of the importance of fatherhood. Dads have the power to encourage and heal, as well as the power to tear down and destroy. This power does not seem to fade over time, as the messages I receive are from people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Many are dealing with the pain of being disowned years earlier.

This is a sobering reality, one every father needs to take seriously throughout their life. My children are now adults but my call to fatherhood has not gone away. It is evolving and changing, and I often struggle to understand what it means to be a dad of grown ups, but there is one thing of which I a certain. Being a dad will always be important. I need to love my kids, be there for them, and encourage them.

As I get older I am adding another task. It is my goal to encourage other men to step up to the plate and to excel at fatherhood. It is one of the main reasons I lead two men’s groups. If we are to solve the fatherhood crisis in our nation it must begin with dads encouraging dads. As so many emails have taught me, the cost of failure is simply too high.

  • Bart

The Value of My Father's Life

How should a life be measured?

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I have reflected on the question for the last few days as I ponder the passing of my father. It is easy to focus only on the end of his life and the decisions that led to his isolation and estrangement from his family but I do not think that is fair. My father was a mean and angry man who did mean and angry things, but he did not do only mean and angry things. Like all of us, he was much more complicated than that.

He was a violent man who beat my mother while they were married. When she took their three young children (we were all under 5 years old), he could have abandoned us. He could have ignored his responsibilities and refused to pay child support. He could have, but he didn’t. The checks always came.

When my mother divorced her second husband and became a single mom to three teenage boys she found herself in dire financial straits. She asked my father for more child support. He didn’t have to pay her more as there was no court order compelling him to increase the payments, but he did. As seemingly incapable as he was of giving emotional support he never wavered in his financial support.

As a father, he was often impossible to please. I have vivid memories of being a small child and him harshly criticizing me for the way I pulled on my socks, took off my shirts and even my choice of spoon when I ate my morning cereal. I was a pigeon-toed and awkward child and his biting “humor” found in me an easy target.  He called me "spastic" and when someone else was clumsy he said they had "pulled a Bart." His words were incredibly hurtful and damaging. To this day the memories of his words still bring a sense of fear and anxiety.

As mean as he was this angry man found the time to play with us. He taught us card games, played board games with us and organized football and basketball games with the kids in the neighborhood. He took us to San Diego Padres baseball games and Chargers football games and took us to the beach and taught us how to ride the waves on an inflatable raft. These moments were not idyllic, he was often impatient and critical and some initially pleasant times  degenerated into tears, but he gave us attention. He was inconsistent and unpredictable but there were times when he tried to be a dad.

His struggles with being a parent did not end when I reached adulthood. He struggled with my independence and career choices. He wanted more from me than I did for myself. He appropriately questioned my decision to drop out of college and forcefully encouraged me to re-enroll. When I did, he paid my tuition all the way through medical school. In spite of his financial support he did not have much faith in me. I will never forget his response when I told him of my perfect GPA at the end of my first year at the University of California, Irvine. He said, “I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.”

He was not a man of encouragement. He seldom gave praise and never gave hugs. Growing up I never thought he was proud of me or that he loved me for who I was. He seemed to see every flaw and catch every mistake while missing or minimizing every success. And yet, when I looked into the audience as I walked off the stage with my Medical Diploma in my hands I saw my father head and shoulders above the crowd, standing on his chair and proudly pumping his fist in the air.

For the three years I was in my Family Practice residency he was incredibly supportive of me and my family. Each month a check for $500 came in the mail, (almost $1000 in today's dollars.) He knew my resident’s salary was not enough to support a family and he did not want Lisa to have to work. It is because of him that she was able to stay home with our son.

His generosity had a profound impact on our lives, which made his decision to disown me shortly after graduation so difficult to process. I knew he was angry and had fits of temper, but I had always hoped there was some measure of good underneath. I had heard the horrible stories told by my step-brother and mother, of physical and verbal abuse, but thought that he had softened with age, and that love, especially for his grandson, would win out. It didn't.  His choice to cut off all contact with me and my family for the remaining 24 years of his life proved that anger ultimately won.

So how do I measure his life?

There is no question that his anger and inability to love left marks on me. My battles with anxiety, insecurity and anger are part of his cursed heritage. I struggle every day to overcome the damage he wrought. It is only by the grace of God that I have learned what it means to be a loving husband and father. Although I had no role model in my own family, God blessed me with a father-in-law who modeled goodness and kindness. 

In spite of the damage my father did it does not seem fair to ignore the support he gave me earlier in life. His gifts were tainted and had strings attached but they made a difference nonetheless. They had value. While the good he did is dwarfed by the harm, his warped generosity did help my family through difficult times. He was not a good man, but he was more than just a bad man.

I think this is the reality for all of us. None of us are totally good or totally evil. We are all broken people who fail and succeed to varying degrees. This truth of universal brokenness begs the question- How do we measure a life? Do we pull out a set of scales and divide up a man’s deeds and see where the balance lies? If so, do we give greater weight to more recent harms or blessings?  Many people have done terrible deeds believing in the moment that they were doing the right thing. How do we decide where to draw the line?

I do not believe that I am in a position to answer this question for others. It is not my place to decide. As I think about my father I realize there are pieces of his puzzle that are hidden from me. I have no knowledge of his childhood or of his relationship with his father. I do not know if he was abused or scorned, loved or hated. I do not know his mental history. As an experienced physician I see in his behavior hints of mental illness that were not visible to me when I was young. I do not know if he battled his demons or embraced them. I do not know if he was even capable of love. 

What I do know is that he paid a price for his sins in this life. I have wonderful children who fill the world with love, joy and laughter. My father never knew them. Theirs is a joy he never shared. In my relationship with my father-in-law I experienced the incredibly rich blessing of shared respect between two grown men. I received the wisdom of his years of life experience and he received the joy of seeing his wisdom shape me into a better person. My father never experienced this blessing, the joy of adult friendship with a son. My father lived the pain of loneliness.

Sadly for my father, the pain of this life pales in comparison to the pain that may await. My father rejected faith many years ago. To my knowledge he never turned to God. For the rest of eternity he will give account to His creator for his choice. It is God who will judge.

As it is God who will ultimately judge there is little to be gained expending energy judging my father. My time is better spent judging my own heart. When I turn my gaze inward I see incredible room for improvement. I have more bad in me than can be expunged in one lifetime. While true goodness eludes me I nevertheless intend to spend the rest of my life striving to be a better man.

The success of my self improvement efforts will be measured after I am gone. I often tell others that I have two goals in life, both to be fulfilled when I die. The first is that when I stand before my God I will hear Him say, “Well done.” The second is that my children will tell others on my passing that I was the greatest man they ever knew. I do not know if I will ever achieve these goals but I am certain that they will not be achieved without continuous intentional effort on my part.

I am also certain that the pursuit of these goals will bring peace and joy in this lifetime, and confident hope for the next.

- Bart

 

When Marriage is About Winning, Everyone Loses

His marriage was in trouble. He and his wife had not spoken for over a month. He left the house early and come home late in order to avoid any interaction. I asked him what the cause of the problem was and he told me a story of his wife’s unreasonableness, vindictiveness and spite. He had made a small mistake, broken a small promise and his wife had labeled him as a terrible person. He was not considering divorce but he did not see any way forward. His wife was immovable in her anger.

What he did not know was that his wife had been in to see me a few weeks earlier and she had told me an entirely different story. As he described it he had intentionally deceived her, not broken a small promise. She told a story of incredible deceit and malice which culminated in terrible heartbreak.

As I listened to him relate his version of the story I found myself wondering what the truth was. The stories were so directly contradictory that reconciling them into one consistent narrative was impossible. As I did not know who to believe I struggled to give him advice. I ended up giving him generic advice to pursue counseling and to love his wife as best as he could.

Our conversation lingered in my mind after he left the office. I had known the family for years and was the doctor who delivered their youngest daughter. They had always seemed like nice people, she was the sweet wife and mom and he was the hard working business man. They both had talked of church and faith and a happy home life. I wondered how much of what I had been told in the past was true and what was false.

I thought of how in each of their stories there was clearly an effort to paint the other in a negative light. In the areas where their stories aligned they had each emphasized the parts that made themselves look good and the other look bad. It was as if they were more concerned with looking good in my eyes than they were about resolving their differences and solving the problem. I was certain that they had both made serious mistakes, had both been vindictive and both needed professional help, but neither of them were interested in dealing with these issues. They wanted the other person to change.

It seemed that the one thing neither of them was thinking about was how their actions were impacting their daughter. I wondered how she was doing, what damaging lessons she was learning about love and marriage. I wondered if, like me, she was hearing partial truths and and partial lies from each of her parents, if she was being asked to take a side in the dysfunction. She was the only innocent party in the dispute yet she was the one who was going to be harmed the most.

I wonder how many of the families I see are similarly damaged. We live in a world where few people are willing to first look at themselves when conflict arises. Sacrificial love, which should be the foundation of every marriage, is becoming increasingly rare. Winning has become the essential marital value in America.

Sadly, when winning is the value, everyone loses, especially the children.

Bart

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You will Never be Cool. Deal with it.

“You are my son. You will never be cool. Deal with it.”

I said these words to my son when he was 9 years old. He was showing me the new school clothes he had just bought with his mom. Included in the new wardrobe was a pair of extremely baggy jeans, the kind intended to be worn well below the waistline. His mother had told him she did not think they were appropriate and would likely be rejected in the court of dad but he was determined to make an appeal to the judge. The pants were “cool” and he wanted them. Unfortunately for the future lawyer, in the court of dad any objection based on coolness was always overruled.

He was disappointed and not too happy about my verdict. What was the harm in wearing baggy pants? I explained to him that like it or not people judge other people based on appearance, that what we wear sends a message about us. Being cool was not important, but being godly and excellent was. While there may not be any harm in wearing edgy clothes, there is a higher objective.

I also considered a secondary long term goal in rendering my decision. The desire to be accepted, to fit it and be loved, is incredibly powerful and often increases over time. I knew that if I was going to raise a child who was driven by values that I would need to encourage values-driven thought at an early age. One of the most important values is that right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, are not determined by culture but by God. Following God inevitably leads to conflict with the culture. I could not expect him to stand up for his values in the future if I did not train him to do so in the present. Standing against the crowd is almost never cool or popular.

This is a crucial matter for people of faith. Christian beliefs are often at odds with the values of the society in which we live. Simply stating one's beliefs can lead to significant cultural backlash, to accusations of bigotry and hate. People who have not been taught from a young age how to stand up for and defend their faith, people who do not value faith over cultural acceptance, are unlikely to be able withstand the pressure. They may cave.

A few months ago my son interviewed for a position with an attorney’s office in Southern California. During the interview he was asked about his upbringing and values. He told them that as a child his father taught him to do the right thing no matter what. He told them that he learned that doing right was more important than being popular or cool. He shared what he had been told as a little boy, that he was my son and therefore would never be “cool”. The interviewers laughed at the story but were also impressed. They realized that before them was a young man of character.

My son learned the lesson. He also got the job.

- bart

Home Births, Hospital Deaths

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By the time she arrived at the Emergency Room she had already lost a lot of blood. She was rapidly transferred from the ambulance to an ER bed and within a matter of minutes the life-saving transfusion was started. Had she waited just minutes longer to call for help she may not have survived. Her new baby would have been motherless.

For the doctors in the emergency room the treatment was common, a matter of routine. The reason for her brush with death was not. Post-partum hemorrhages are usually handled on the maternity floor, not in the emergency room. If her baby had been delivered in the maternity floor the bleeding would have been handled faster and the transfusion averted. Unfortunately she had chosen to avoid the maternity floor and have her baby at home. Her decision almost cost her life.

It was a decision that I had repeatedly and strongly argued against. I was her doctor for the first 4 months of her pregnancy. She had made it clear that she wanted a “natural” experience and I had promised her that this could be done in the hospital. I understood that many women preferred a natural delivery and had extensive experience managing natural childbirth. I was confident that her wishes could be honored and promised her they would. When she made the decision to deliver at home I had to resist and released her from my care. From my perspective as a doctor and as a father choosing home birth was and is one of the most selfish choices a woman can make.

Home birth goes against the two values that define obstetrical practice- Protect the health of the mom. Protect the health of the baby. These values guide all obstetrical care. The maternity unit is the only place in the hospital where the health care team begins with healthy patients and then works to keep them that way, so bad outcomes are especially tragic. Everything done by the nurses and doctors is directed at early identification of problems and preventing complications. The only acceptable outcome is a healthy mom and a healthy baby and no action or decision that makes that outcome less likely is tolerated.

While the goal of healthy mom and healthy baby is non-negotiable there is plenty of room for maternal choice during the course of labor and delivery. Birth positions (sitting, squatting, lying down), analgesia choices (epidural, narcotic or none at all), eating during labor, avoidance of IV lines and episiotomies, early nursing and skin to skin contact were all a part of births I attended. I often bent over backwards to meet the mother’s needs even if it meant spending extra hours in the hospital. My willingness to honor maternal wishes had one limit- I would not do anything that put the baby at risk. This is why I opposed home delivery.

In spite of opposition from the medical profession home birth seems to be making a comeback. While there are many possible explanations for the trend the facts support the conclusion that the choice to deliver at home is less about love and health and more about personal feelings and selfishness.

The patient who nearly died of a hemorrhage gave reasons for desiring a home delivery that were typical. She wanted a natural delivery and the experience of delivering at home in a supportive and comfortable environment. These desires seem worthy but they are not, for both place the feelings of the mother ahead of the health of the baby. Babies have no recollection of the room in which they are born, do not grow up feeling more loved and desired because the lights were low and the bed was soft. The baby does not care. Home deliveries are all about what the mother wants and not about what is best for the child. Is this not the very definition of selfishness?

The argument against home delivery is simple. It needlessly places the baby’s life at risk. While the risk is not massive (life threatening complications are rare in most pregnancies) the risk is always present. The American College of Ob-Gyn estimates that newborn mortality in home births is triple that of babies born in a hospital. Why would a loving mother make a choice that needlessly increased the chance that harm would come to her child? What warm feeling or joyous experience can justify that risk?

Current research suggests that as many of one in three women attempting home delivery will need urgent transport to a hospital due to a complication in labor. The transfer rate is lower for women who have previously delivered vaginally but it is still significant. Like every physician who has practiced obstetrics for any length of time I can share a number of stories where being in a hospital delivery room saved the life of a mom or baby.

Consider this analogy- If a young mom announced that she was foregoing the use of an infant car seat because she wanted the child to be in her lap while she drove she would be reported to the authorities. Her arguments that it made her feel close to her child, that bonding was important and that the risk of accident was low would fall on deaf ears. It would not matter that she was a safe driver and that because of cell phones medical help was never more than a few minutes away. Everyone would agree that it was irresponsible and selfish to risk the life of her child in such a way. How is this different than choosing to deliver a baby at home?

I have heard that home birth is gaining in popularity, part of the recycled fad of interest in all things “natural.” I doubt this post will change the minds of those who do not trust the knowledge or intentions of the medical profession but there is one thing of which I am certain. When it comes to the place of birth the baby does not care about the experience. No one remembers their birth experience.

Everyone remembers when a baby dies.

-          Bart

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