Over the Christmas break I had a great opportunity to talk with my dad-in-law about being a father. With our own baby expected in July or August, I’ve gone through a lot of feeling and thinking in just a couple of months, and I wanted to tell another man.

I’d already told another man, actually, one of the group I’m ridiculously choosing to call ‘Young Dads’ at work, regardless of the fact that they are all (including myself) more than five years older than my own father when I was born.

But my wife’s dad is a man I admire, a man I love very much and admire a great deal, and a man who I still haven’t succeeded in being totally relaxed around. And in thinking about talking to him, I realised that he’s the very father figure I most want to emulate.

In the end, I didn’t get much of a chance to really talk to him about how I felt. I did tell him, and he did listen, and it was obvious that it meant a lot to him, but the situation wasn’t quite right and I couldn’t open up entirely as I wanted to. But why did I want to?

It’s vital to me that I break my discomfort with my father-in-law. This comes from a few places. My yearning to follow my creativity, my heart, and to be A Writer Beyond All Else, and my struggle to grasp how to dedicate myself without losing myself at the same time.

He’ll often say he was a ‘crap dad’, that he wasn’t there, but my wife doesn’t have negative memories like this. She remembers him being at gigs, on tours, and away a lot, but crucially she says that when he was there, he was all there. Nothing left behind.

This is the principal I most love and admire in him. My father-in-law has achieved great things, followed his heart and his talent, but he is utterly dedicated to his family. When you sit with him, he is there with you. When he was with his kids, they had the whole of him.

I am guilty, often, of being separated. I’ll drift off into thinking about writing, or an idea I’ve just had or a thought process I’m going through. And, regularly, I’ll then need to talk about it with my wife or anyone around me, without much awareness of their interest.

At the same time, should my wife not respond immediately or stay quiet or find what I’ve abstractly sketched out a little difficult to understand, I get upset, frustrated, distressed. No one is listening to me! No one is understanding me!

I simply can’t image my father-in-law doing this, just as I have never experienced my wife doing this. It’s terrifically self-involved and I hate myself for doing it. Because I am doing it, I’m making the choice, as much as I might want to complain that I’m just talking.

What my father-in-law does is listen. Perhaps that’s what makes me uncomfortable, sometimes. He is intent, he sees you and he’s interested, and you have the whole of his attention. He would do anything for the people he loves, and he has.

I wonder if I would have been able to stay so open, so honest and available in his situation. Should I become a success, should my passion become my career, I worry that I’ll find myself exploring it as an individual, and that this will impact on my family relationships.

Could I do what he does, live in two different worlds, go away for long periods of expressing my own indivduality, my inner talent and passion, before returning to my family and still be as utterly open and available in both environments?

Sometimes I can barely do this between the office job I loathe (not because of what it is, but because of what it isn’t) and the home I adore. Sometimes I come back listless and dithering because I’m lost in my head. Sometimes I rage at work because I can’t stand not spending my time pursuing my passion. Sometimes I just drift through both.

When I am a father myself I want to be there, active and aware, available and engaged for my sons and daughters. I want them to know they can interrupt me, know that my first thought is of them, and know that nothing they ask of me is too much.

My father-in-law does this, in my eyes and in the eyes of my wife. Is there anything more fundamental to being a parent? Can I aspire to anything more wonderful as a father?

The only thing that still troubles me is why I’m not open and honest with my father-in-law. I sometimes treat him like an old man. I don’t know how to relate to him. I only know how to look up to him. How can I become a man like him if I can’t talk to him?

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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