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Father figure found in a father-in-law

THIS IS FOR young guys who are newly married and facing their first Father's Day with an official father-in-law, middle-aged guys who've been married for a while, and old guys who've survived their parents and in-laws and even remember their names. Divorced guys can play along, too.

Which of the following best describes you?

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1. My father was (is) the greatest guy who ever lived, followed immediately by my father-in-law, the second-greatest guy who ever lived.

2. My relationship with my father was terrible, but when I married I married well and got the greatest father-in-law a fellow could imagine.

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3. My father and I have always had a great relationship, but my father-in-law is a pain and the less time I spend with him the better.

4. I get along with neither my father nor father-in-law very well. I'm a two-time loser when it comes to the father figures.

Of course, we hasten to add another option: "None of the above." I tried this survey on some friends and got responses that didn't fit any of these choices.

"I barely knew my old man," said one. "I did not know my father-in-law very well, either. I grew up without a father image. My notion of fatherhood is a composite of men I knew, not necessarily well."

Another said: "My father ran out on us when I was a kid, and my wife's father did the same to her family. From what I've heard, both of us are lucky, and we have created a whole happy life together without those losers."

Obviously, this discussion is for those in a position to compare, though the subject might be a little too touchy for Father's Day. In my experience, this is one of the most sensitive subjects of all, something I could not even acknowledge, never mind discuss, while my father was alive, or even for several years after his death.

This is tricky social science -- trying to measure, categorize or describe the relationships between fathers and sons in comparison with fathers-in-law and sons-in-law. These are complex subjects, and everyone's situation is different. Plus, in some respects, the comparison is wholly unfair because the relationships are wholly unequal. Most of us have known (or knew) our fathers since we were toddlers and didn't know our fathers-in-law until we were adults; one relationship is loaded with emotional baggage while the other is comparatively new and psychologically clean.

But I'm not a psychologist. I'm just a guy practicing a little Pops Psychology -- pun fully intended -- on Father's Day. I find the father/father-in-law question challenging.

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This all comes to mind because I've spent a lot of time, more than usual, with my father-in-law as he and his wife packed their belongings to move from their first retirement home, a country retreat, to a planned adult community. It has been a difficult period for all, leaving a place filled with happy memories. As my father-in-law and I recently prepared things for the move -- his tools, hardware, furniture, photographs, bocce balls -- we tripped through a lot of back-story that made me keenly aware that I've had a special relationship with this man.

Not that I needed a melancholy experience to appreciate him.

I've felt blessed from the beginning. Louie is one of the greatest guys I know -- fun, jolly, considerate, talented, generous, wise and strong. According to Geoffrey Greif, associate dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of books on fatherhood, it was no accident I came into this. "It's not random," Greif pointed out the other day. "Men are sometimes attracted to a woman because of the woman's father, especially if there's a father void in the man's life, and he's looking to fill it."

If I had to answer my own Pops Quiz, I'd take answer No. 2. Difficult to admit, it comes closest to the way I'd describe my own experience.

I mean no disrespect to my father, Joe, who had a tough life long before he became a parent, and long after, and who lived too much of it angrily, and who died before we could finish fixing the broken bridges between us. But I've had a much more pleasing and rewarding relationship with my father-in-law. There's no getting around that.

This is -- or used to be -- a hypersensitive subject I never discussed. My father was acutely aware of, and jealous of, my good relationship with Louie, to the point where I couldn't comfortably talk about Louie in Joe's presence. I've always been careful to avoid comparing the men, at least openly. My kids have come to appreciate the grandfather they never knew as a hard-working immigrant who suffered a lot of setbacks. I've never compared Joe to Louie, the man my kids know as a playful grandfather who sticks 10-dollar bills in their pockets.

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Still, in my mind, the comparison is irresistible. I own up to it. My father-in-law is not the perfect man, but in my mind he comes as close to the ideal father as any man I know, and I would tell him that on Father's Day. I know that if I'd grown up in Louie's house -- and not joined his life in progress when I was already a young adult and he was a middle-aged one -- things might have been different. But I doubt it.

I don't worry about that might-have-been anyway. I take what was handed to me, and I consider it a blessing.

And here's why all of this is important: While I loved my father despite our problems and learned some life lessons from him, I would have been a different parent today if it had not been for the example of my father-in-law. A father makes a difference. So can a father-in-law, and mine did.

Go to baltimoresun.com/fathersday and read two notable Father's Day columns by Dan Rodricks -- one from 1990 about the importance of remembering mentors and another from 2001 about fishing a Pennsylvania trout stream.


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