Fathers, sons, and girlfriends

Parents don’t play the formal role in their children’s love life they once did—arranged marriages are the exception in most industrialized nations, not the rule—although followers of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would argue that parents still exercise “symbolic violence” in making their wishes known about their children’s romances through unspoken cues or body language. (Trust a French intellectual to discover the complex in something that’s actually quite simple.)

Compared to historical practice, parents have little sway, especially when many couples delay marriage until the mid-to-late 20s. Fully independent adults make up their own minds, thank you. That has been a reality since “love matches” became more socially acceptable: 18th century novelist Jane Austen (in Persuasion) observed that the older lovers “…with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them” could hardly “fail of bearing down every opposition.” That’s the 21st century reality, as well.

“Asked and answered”

A common assumption is that a mother will be more critical of her son’s romantic choices than a father. That seems generally true. Along with the obvious Freudian implications, a mother may have more emotionally invested in her son, and more to lose if he makes a bad choice. As the poet Robert Frost once ruefully noted: “A mother takes twenty years to make a man of her boy, and another woman makes a fool of him in twenty minutes.”

Fathers generally aren’t as emotionally invested—at least in my experience, and what I’ve seen with my friends.

I give my grown sons the same answer whenever I’m asked to express an opinion on their latest girlfriend: “If she makes you happy, then I’m happy.”

They’ll laugh and accuse me of ducking the question, and when they ask again I either respond “asked and answered” (borrowing from the customary dodge of the British Prime Minister in Commons) or offer a few flattering observations about their girl. That proves I’m paying some attention, that I can also see those qualities which have attracted them.

But I am telling them the truth: in matters of the heart the only real validation should how you feel about your lover—whether he or she makes you happy. It’s tricky, though. What works on paper (similar backgrounds, common values, initial attraction, etc.) may not work in practice—the spark may be missing, or perhaps even worse, what may be lacking is a shared sense of humor.

Of course, I’ve been lucky so far. I have not had to answer the “what do you think of her?” question when there are signs that the relationship may not be a healthy one. I hope I never face that challenge. I’ve debated that one with some of my contemporaries—at what point do you speak up? How certain must you be? Do you risk alienating your child (to say nothing of his or her intended? Is silence the best policy?

There’s a telling scene in the recent film Invincible, where a father blurts out what he really thinks of his daughter-in-law—“I never liked her”—but this admission comes only after the marriage has collapsed.

“In a Father’s Place”

What about a father who cannot stand his son’s choice of girlfriend/fiancee? What then? An intriguing short story by Christopher Tilghman, “In a Father’s Place,” considers this very situation.

A young graduate student, Nick Williams, brings his serious girlfriend, Patty, home to meet his father and his sister, Rachel. The family is traditional, Old American, and the father, Dan, a widower, lives in an historic home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The visit does not go well. Tilghman stacks the deck against Patty (“this Patty Keith”); she is a bit too controlling, too snoopy, too angry, to be completely believable. That part of Patty’s hold over Nick is sexual is made clear in the story, but the reasons for her emotional dominance, and why Nick is so vulnerable, are only hinted at by Tilghman. It’s clear that the Dan’s relationship with his son has been troubled by questions of control and independence; he muses about the tension between parents and their grown-up children:

It seemed so many of the people he knew were just now learning that their children would never forgive things, momentary failures of affection and pride, mistakes made in the barren ground between trying to keep hands off and the sin of intruding too much, things that seemed so trivial compared to a parent’s embracing love.

Rachel, Nick’s sister, can’t stand Patty (“I think she’s a witch”) and argues for an intervention of some sort—“I believe she’s programming him. I mean it. I think she’s dangerous to him and to us.” Despite Dan’s protestations (“I’m not going to give him reason to hate me by butting into his relationships”), he finds himself agreeing with Rachel, increasingly disturbed by what he sees of Nick and Patty’s relationship. He struggles to accept the situation until finally, he cannot keep his opinions to himself.

At one level, the story seems to suggest that it is “a father’s place” to speak up, but as the story closes the cost of Dan’s uninvited involvement in his son’s personal life isn’t yet know.

Father figures

Even if Tilghman’s protagonist has read the situation correctly—that his son’s lover is dangerously possessive and controlling—Dan isn’t a particularly appealing character: too overbearing and quick to judge in his own way.

A better literary character as model father figure would be Ron Hansen’s hard-bitten rancher, Atticus Cody, the center of Hansen’s 1996 novel Atticus.

Atticus, also a widower, tempers his toughness with an unconditional love for his wayward son, Scott. Atticus doesn’t care for of his son’s messy love life or his flirtation with New Age beliefs and he doesn’t remain silent about his feelings (“Why’s everything you do have to be so different? Wouldn’t it be easier to just do things like they have been done and not fuss so much inventing?”), but he also knows when to back off.

Atticus recognizes that his adult son must make his own way; while disapproving of many of Scott’s choices, he loves his son unconditionally— despite ample reasons not to—and by the close of Atticus we have seen how far he is willing to go to demonstrate that love.

Of course there is no recipe for perfect fathering, or perfect parenting. The best we can do is offer what Tilghman calls “a parent’s embracing love” (without that embrace becoming too tight) and hope for the best.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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