The vocation of fatherhood

What is it exactly that we praise in fathers?  The answer, of course, very much depends on the culture. While there are traits (like being a good provider) that are universally admired, our notions of what constitutes ideal fatherhood will tend to vary not just across cultures but also across generations.

I grew up being able to balance a baby on one arm like a veteran nursemaid. But my father never learned how to hold an infant in his arms.  Indeed, he could not bear being near my mother as she gave birth to any of their children. He would leave the house, take a walk, or go to the movies.  At the moment of my birth, for instance, he was inside a movie house watching a Western starring Randolph Scott. I can only suppose that that’s where I got my name.

Yet my father was a most affectionate parent. As soon as we were big enough to be able to cling to him, he would carry us in his arms and shower us with kisses. He continued to kiss us on the face long after we began feeling embarrassed about it.

He was also a devoted provider. Throughout his professional life, he regularly turned over to my mother his entire pay slip, accepting only a meager allowance from her. Because he and my mother decided to have a big family, his earnings as a lawyer, and later as a public servant, were barely enough. And so he came home every day straight from the office, and never joined his colleagues for an occasional night out. His only mode of relaxation was playing card games with our neighbors, at which he would sometimes lose all the money he saved from his weekly allowance.

When he died in 1980, just a few weeks before he would have turned 60, I wondered how he would have spent the rest of his life once his obligations as a parent were finished. Illness had greatly diminished his body, and he looked tired. He worked all his life, with an enthusiasm that could only come to someone who regarded his job as a vocation. He never had a chance to travel abroad. The farthest we went for a vacation was Baguio.

I am sure that had he lived a little longer, he would have immensely enjoyed being with his grandchildren. He and my mother would have asked to bring our children home to the old house in Betis where, with an unfailing sense of mission, they had raised their own 13 children.

A number of us are now well beyond the age that my father reached. Having lived longer, we of course look older than the photos we have of him. Contemplating these pictures always gives me a strange sensation. He seems just like a brother to me now, but seeing myself in those photos also makes me a child all over again. Memories come unbidden. He was far from being a perfect father, but I think I understand him better now. I recognize many fragments of him in me. There are things I do instinctively that I know came from my father. I have moods I cannot explain except in reference to him.

I celebrate the fact that I can look back at my father’s memory with great affection, even as I strive to be a better version of him. I am aware that “better” is a relative term, and I can see that my son is a better father than me. Still, our most brilliant efforts at parenting would probably pale in comparison to what other fathers from the animal kingdom do in fulfillment of their roles. I recently came across an article titled “The 10 best dads in nature.” It is humbling to read it. Here are five examples of these great fathers.

The male sandgrouse, a pigeon-like bird that lives on very dry terrain, must sometimes fly several miles to fetch water for the young chicks. It sits on the water until its abdominal feathers get completely soaked. Flying back to its nest with great care, it gently opens its belly as it settles down so the young chicks can suck the water stored in its saturated feathers.

The male seahorse allows the female to deposit its eggs into his kangaroo-like pouch where he fertilizes them. After the eggs hatch, the young seahorses remain in their father’s pouch until they get used to the seawater. After two to three weeks, the father seahorse experiences contractions, the signal that it is time for the baby seahorses to emerge from the pouch.

In the absence of a pouch, the male Darwin’s frog, an endangered species found in South America, swallows the eggs of the female before they hatch. Instead of going down the stomach like food, the eggs are channeled into his vocal sac where they are incubated in a warm water pool until they become fully formed. After 60 days, the father frog disgorges the young ones into a clear stream to begin their lives in the world.

The male among the giant water bug, on the other hand, allows the female to deposit its eggs on its wings, where he keeps them safe until they hatch. During the waiting period, the father water bug may be seen shuffling its wings as if trying to dislodge the weight it carries. It is its way of cleaning and protecting the eggs from fungi and other insects.

And finally, there is the great hornbill, which thrives in the rainforests of Indochina, Thailand, Malaysia, and Sumatra. After the female lays her eggs, usually inside the cavity of a tree, she entombs herself inside the hole, sealing it with her own feces. It is then left to the father hornbill to feed the mother and later the chicks through a thin opening. The male brings them food five times a day, with each visit lasting around 20 minutes. The great hornbill father has been known to deliver up to 50 grape-sized fruits in just one feeding. Each one of these fruits is regurgitated in his gullet before he vomits it out as food. This he does faithfully throughout the nesting cycle that lasts anywhere between 102 and 144 days.

Happy Father’s Day!

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