My dad in Banff, Alberta, as a recent single parent
Is it enough to only have a father?
I have a mother, of course, but she died more than a decade ago. And since my undergraduate university years, my dad has fronted the parent fort, watching my sister and I go through years of tuition fees and multiple boyfriends. And as much as I felt the gap left by the absence of a parental figure, I never thought I lacked a looming force of authority in the family. A feminine one.
But I often rethink this when certain people react to the fact that my sister were still relatively young when our mother passed, and we are guided by only our father at the helm. For example, when I was working full-time in Toronto I worked with “Tom” who was nearing his retirement, an older gentleman in his 70’s. This was at a financial firm and the recession of 2008 hit us big, meaning Tom had too much nervous energy and time to wring his hands, filling his days with multiple coffee breaks and some times intrusive chatter. Tom often barged into the office I shared with two other co-workers, all female, and we would all politely listen to Tom’s banter while multitasking on Excel sheets. He was an interesting character, an old-fashioned but a vehement feminist, shaking his head with emotion as he talked (yelled?) about how “Women are going to rule the world!” and “Children are nothing without women!” The latter statement being not really a feminist one … but Tom meant well.
I had to graciously interrupt him, however, when Tom minimized the role of fathers, to phrase it nicely.
“Well, I only have a dad and I think I turned out OK,” I chirped in, smiling.
Tom did not expect that, and he became flustered, repositioning his head back inwards after stretching it out and wide for his rants. And then it became awkward at the office between me and Tom, that is, until I soon packed my bags and moved to Montréal.
I knew Tom was only trying to extol the place of women in society, but he was falling into that belief that women are better parents than men. And such perspectives embrace women as “natural” caretakers, caregivers, and parents unlike men, whose natural space is elsewhere, usually at an office where he can bring home the bacon. This belief is very hardwired in Korea, where I was born, but as I was raised in Toronto I was not aware that Korean culture perceives children without mothers with a critical eye. So when my mom died my dad warned me that other Koreans may see me differently, that they would think that my character and foundation was lacking because I did not have a mom. And this meant, to some Koreans, that I was not marriage material. (Not that I really care about my grading on the marriage-worthiness scale. Plus I was never meant to marry a guy straight from Korea and not raised in this culture.)
But my dad has been everything that I want in a parent, and our relationship is so warm and loving, it surprises me. But we did not start out this way as my dad worked a lot with long periods overseas when I was a child, so our memories together during that time are fuzzy. And by the time my dad had a greater presence in the household, I was a highly nervous and private teenager that camped in with room door shut, blasting the radio while obsessively devoting myself to homework. However, when I reached my late teens I started embarking on road trips with my father to the U.S. where many of his relatives resided, and these long drives to Chicago, Boston, and Connecticut meant that we discovered we actually liked talking to each other beyond such phrases as “Can you pass the kimchi” across the dining room table. I liked learning about his opinions, his recollections of his youth in Seoul, and finding that he likes my biting and cheesy sense of humour.
Did my dad take the role of both mother and father when he became a single father? I am not sure if I have an answer to that. But this question was one I only considered when it came to my attention that somehow, there may be something wrong with me because I only had my dad. That, without maternal guidance, my growth into an adult would become stunted and myself unfit for society. And I grew up with several friends from single parent households, but they were all raised by their mothers and I knew no one who was raised by a single dad. Sure, society worries about single-parent households and the impact of these children growing up without father figures, but single-father families remain ignored in the media. And when I do have new acquaintances or colleagues learn that it is only my dad on the parent front, I perceive a subtle awkward or confused response, and usually a change of subject.
But I thought about how a motherless household was never a new concept. I mean, one of the first “adult” books I read was Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights — given as a gift for me by my parents when I was a young teen. Nevermind the boring and tortured love between Heathcliff and Catherine, the book is a good example of classic English literature on the portrayal of men and their families when the wife and mother dies young. Two important instances of a wife and mother’s death are noted in the novel: Catherine’s mother dies shortly after her father, Mr. Earnshaw, adopts the orphan Heathcliff, and her brother Hindley’s wife dies soon after child birth.
First, in the case of Mr. Earnshaw, he grows frail and weak, and dies from an unidentified illness four years after the death of his wife. Mr. Earnshaw had become close to Heathcliff, preferring him to his biological son Hindley, who develops lifelong hatred for his adopted brother. Second, in the case of Hindley, who takes over the property of Wuthering Heights after the death of his father, he loses his wife from consumption after which he becomes “tyrannical and evil.” Hence, Brontë’s men lose their strength and health with the loss of their wives — and their children, now motherless, develop cruel personalities such as in the case of Hindley, or are at risk of being killed by their lonely, delirious father when Hindley attempt at killing his son Hareton. Hindley later drinks himself to death alone in his room. Catherine herself leaves her family motherless and wifeless after weakening herself and developing a “brain fever”, and finally dying from childbirth.
So a family without a wife and mother loses direction and its raison d’etre; the father goes mad, the children sprout twisted. However, female widows are made of a different cloth with the strength to carry on for the sake of raising their families. Many become highly self-sufficient and quizzically become the basis of many female detectives in literatures — this Wikipedia entry lists nine female detective protagonists. Seems that the upside of losing your husband is becoming a great sleuth.
Where does this leave my father and I? In real life, my dad never fell into a permanent spell of despair, though his health did weaken resulting in major surgeries and treatments. And he did not try to fill the empty shoes my mom left, but remained his role as a parent in the way that was comfortable to him. Not that he really necessarily feels he is an expert — when my dad’s young cousin met with us for dinner with her infant daughter in tow, my dad refused to handle the baby. He remarked, “I do not know how to raise children, it was their mother that raised mine.”
But I disagree. Even as my sister and I grew into adults, and very independent ones, we still needed and wanted a parent. And my dad guided us as a parent, friend, role model, comic relief, and driving buddy. I hope this remains so for many years to come.