Be Your Own Dad!

My relationship with my father is a source of deep sadness and not celebration. For a variety of reasons, some deep, others banal, we have never had a real relationship. The last time I saw him was when he came to meet my 2 week old daughter. I haven’t seen him since and she’ll be 11 in January.

I last spoke to him a year ago when I mistakenly called his number. The brief conversation suggested that there would be no reconciliation. He had become the most narcissistic (and depressed) person I have ever known and had no apparent interest in me or my family.

I mention this not to dwell or express self-pity or to dwell on his inner motivations. Instead I want to provide a context for explaining how I have worked  (and continue to work) to fill the hole that can appear when your dad isn’t the one in the Hallmark or Gillette commercial. If you are like me then you may be wondering what you can do to give yourself the upbringing you dream of.  My most important lessons on being my own dad have come from three places.

1. My experiences of being a dad to two amazing children (Jessica and Tom).

2. People who have provided “fatherly” help and support (not all of them are men).

3. Researching maneuver warfare, the US Marine Corp and one US Marine in particular.

1. Remember you have been loved unconditionally.

Perhaps the greatest gift most of us want from a parent is unconditional love. Sadly few of us feel this (even though a lot of us have it). Like any child from a troubled background, I found this difficult and I blamed myself for my father’s actions and prolonged absence. (I remember seeing him for literally a handful of times before the age of ten for no more than a week at a time). Like many people, I gained the incorrect belief that I wasn’t worthy of it.

However, holding both my children I have felt so much love that I felt my heart would literally burst. Every parent I have spoken to about this has shared the same experience.  If a child has been held by a parent or an adult with a modicum of emotional intelligence and capacity for empathy, almost everyone would have been held this way. That means you. So nearly all of us will have had this experience of being loved unconditionally. And most of us have parents who would have died for us if required.

Sadly, for some parents this connection with the most extraordinary feeling of love is only fleeting  and their children never remember it. Be clear though that this absence has nothing to do with you and most likely due to their hearts already being too damaged or broken to hold the love long enough to pass on to you. Most parents almost kill themselves trying though. They just have limited resources and don’t know how to hold onto and then express their undying, unconditional love – regardless of what they appear to be communicating to you.

By all means look for others to love you unconditionally. We can spend a lifetime chasing the wrong people.  I have found that the best way to do this is to focus on getting it from yourself – which brings me to my next insight.

2.       Be Your Own Dad.

As a dad, I quickly realised that if I was to continue loving my children unconditionally then I had to find a well (of love) for me to draw from. To do that, I had to be my own dad. I had to offer myself that wondrous combination of encouragement, support, (occasionally tough) love , honesty, practical advice, challenge and ferocious protection that dads strive to offer their children.


Drawing on the example of a great father, I set out to be the change I want my children to be. This was hard as shortly after the birth of my second child, I suffered a burn out, an 18 month depression and health problems associated with significant weight gain (70lb). If I wanted to be an example for my children I had to get myself sorted so I lost the weight and took up triathlon and ultra-endurance events.

Every time I face adversity and feel inclined to blame others for my situation such as criticise my father for not doing x or y, I refocus on the truth that I am my own parent and that the most important influence in this moment is not how I was treated 30 or 40 years ago but how I treat myself right now, in this moment.  I can be a great parent to myself and treat myself with love, compassion and fatherly support or I can use it to emulate the worst example I know and quit.

3.       Find Others to Help.

As a parent to my kids, I know I can’t give them everything they need. So one important part of being your own dad includes finding people who can offer the “fatherly” advice and support you can’t provide. These people don’t have to be men and they don’t have to be older than you. You just need to find a few people to help you face your dragons and demons or who will help you to keep your promises and fulfil your promise. These are the people who give you the advice and support you need especially the type that is hard to take. You know you have found a good person when they tell you the truth and then stick around to help you deal with it.

4.       Use Power Justly.

The last area of learning is perhaps the most unlikely- my study of maneuver warfare. When I was recovering from my stress-related burn out, I began studying people and organisations who could handle life and death levels of stress – surgeons, pilots, soldiers. This brought me to maneuver warfare.

Maneuver warfare is a dynamic, disruptive agile response to the actions of your opponent or environment. The deepest expression of the philosophy is to win without fighting. You win not by “defeating your enemy” but in collaborating so well and so fiercely that others have no desire to fight you.

This research brought me to the US Marine Corp and a truly great man, USMC Colonel (Ret) Mike Wyly. Mike was instrumental in getting the USMC to refocus itself on maneuverist principles and you can still see his work today when you read the USMC’s Warfighting doctrine.  I stumbled across Mike through Tom Peters, who wrote about one of Mike’s friends, philosopher John Boyd.. I contacted Mike, and with his characteristic generosity, he invited me to Maine and gave me what turned into a 5 hour interview.

Mike’s a great Marine and a great father. Shortly after leaving the Marines, Mike was looking for a ballet teacher for his daughters. The best one had returned to Russia. Undeterred, Mike persuaded the teacher to return to Maine. To do this, he had to agree to set up and then run the ballet company – which he did long after his daughters stopped dancing!

As well as offering a great example of what amazing fathers sometimes do for their kids, Mike’s stories have taught me about appropriate use of power and force.  A number of times he had to fight (non-violently) to create a safe, nurturing environment for his children.  How I apply that today is in working to create/ensure my children have the best possible environment for them to grow and develop. The most just use of power is always to protect. Unjust use is when it is self-serving and seeks to protect/benefit only the perpetrator. If they encounter people who use power in this way, then it’s my duty to protect them.

5. (Work to) Accept and Forgive those who Fail Lesson 4.

The final lesson from Mike was one of acceptance and forgiveness. People will misuse their power (either by acting selfishly or in not acting at all). The consequences of this may be great and you may need to retreat from the field. For example, Mike’s amazing work in the USMC drew Mike into a political fight and he was “retired” without ceremony from the Corp, something that was unheard of for a full colonel.

He was eventually able to accept this gracefully and he told me that this experience was both a price worth paying for the impact he did have (helped change the direction of the USMC) and one that he used to grow even closer to his children.

When I am encouraging my children I don’t try to hide this sad reality from them. I tell them that sometimes you can do the right thing and not be rewarded (and may even be punished) but that it’s important to do it anyway if it matters enough and there’s no other way. The just use of our power is to use it to serve a purpose greater than ourselves.  If the purpose is sufficiently meaningful, the consequences will be acceptable to us, regardless of the cost.

For my relationship with my father, I have worked hard to accept that he gave what he had. And the lack was due as much to his lack of a father (who died before he was born) as anything he did or didn’t do. If I want to break the cycle though I need to accept this could be me and work hard at being the best dad I can be to my children and myself.

So on Father’s Day be sure to thank those who have “fathered” you. And start with the person in the mirror. And in the spirit of the best challenge a dad can offer, I’m excited to see you do even better next year!


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