5 Attributes of a Good Dad

Father's Day 2021

Today is a long one. But Father's Day is this coming Sunday, and it is very very important to me. For reasons I hope are more clear after this week's essay.

In June of 1953, my father Robert was born in Dublin, Texas. He was born in the same small rural hospital where I would be born not quite 19 years later.

My father was born into a loving family. His grandparents had come to Dublin years before. His grandfather, Carl L. Hall Sr., had been a contractor. His grandmother - Effie - had worked as a kindergarten teacher in the Dublin schools for 35 years before retiring in a house around the corner from Robert's family. 

Robert was born to Rose and Carl L. Hall, Jr. Carl L. was a pharmacist, initially for the Rexall drugs downtown, but eventually as the owner of his own independent pharmacy across the street from the hospital. Carl L. was a well loved figure in town, serving as a little league baseball coach, active member of the Shriners, and the fire chief of the Dublin Volunteer Fire Department. Rose was a stay-at-home mom, community volunteer, and PTA treasurer. Robert had a big brother, Carl L. Hall III, who was two years older.

The one thing that everyone agreed on is that they were a very close and loving family. Several people I talked to decades later said that the Halls were like the template for Leave it to Beaver. They were all gregarious and outgoing. All four were smart and funny. The boys were athletic and got good grades. Both boys were Eagle Scouts. Their dad - my grandfather - was their troop leader. One friend of the family told me that the Hall house was "that house" in the neighborhood - where everyone gravitated because of the joy and love that overflowed its walls.

I have no way of knowing for sure how my grandpa Carl and grandma Rose felt about my father falling in love with my mother when they were both 17, and then deciding to marry as soon as they turned 18. I do know that it was important to his parents that Robert continue his studies. His older brother Carl had followed in his dad's footsteps and was close to graduating pharmacy school, and my dad had been accepted at the University of Texas.

My mom and dad moved to Austin, but within a year they were back home. My mom had gotten pregnant. With me. She would eventually drop out of school to work and my dad would spend a semester at a community college before the family headed back to Austin. Through it all - pregnancy and parenthood and school - my father's family was the same loving, caring, gregarious group they had always been. They would support and encourage my mom and dad, even as things got complicated with the birth of my brother a couple of years later.

My dad struggled through pharmacy school. Having two small kids at home probably didn't help his studies. But the young family was making it. People who knew us then said that my father was engaged and excited to be a dad.

Until the summer of 1975.

First my great grandmother Effie passed. She died of natural causes at nearly 80. The family was deeply affected. A couple of months later my grandfather had a massive heart attack while working at his pharmacy. Despite the fact that the hospital was next door, there was nothing that could be done. He died almost instantly.

My grandfather's death changed everything. 4 months later my grandmother Rose died of her own heart attack. The doctors would say that it was like her heart just gave up. She died still in deep and unrecoverable mourning for her husband.

Within the span of a year this close, loving, vibrant family shattered into a million pieces. My dad's grades dropped, and he was facing expulsion from the University of Texas. He needed something to help make it through the fog of loss and struggle. He turned to drugs. Speed to stay up and study. Barbiturates to come down. Eventually cocaine. Eventually heroin. Eventually meth.

He would still manage to graduate from pharmacy school, and almost immediately begin using his pharmacy license to steal prescription drugs. At one point he stole from an Eckerd's pharmacy he worked for in Dallas and then set fire to the store to cover his tracks. He spent time in prison. His addiction deepened. His brother tried to help for a while, but eventually focused on his own life. My uncle never had kids of his own, but he did use his natural charm and good looks to marry (and divorce) a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, date an NRA lobbyist, and eventually marry one of the richest widows in east Texas. 

I never saw much of either of them. I only saw my dad once after I turned 8. And he was so far gone into addiction that I didn't recognize him. My dad died in 2006, a few months after I returned from Iraq. He never met any of his grandkids.

My mom moved on and would eventually marry a very talented artist. With her ability to sell and his ability to create, they created a thriving business. We went from living on government assistance to being millionaires in a few short years. I was driven to the first day of school in 7th grade in a hired limo. We had a lakehouse, and a sprawling ranch in central Texas. 

All the money couldn't paper over the fact that my mom's second husband (step dad number 1) was an abusive alcoholic. And while the abuse started with verbal insults, it eventually grew physical. And was directed at me. I took it on. On purpose. To protect my little brother. I would take the beating. And eventually, so much more.

We had a basketball court near our house at the ranch. I would play for hours at a time. It was my escape. My sanity. One day I happened to look up at the house while I was shooting and saw my step dad standing in the window of his bathroom. He was naked and had his penis in his hand. I immediately looked away, embarrassed and confused. My face was hot. I felt sick at my stomach. Unsure of what was happening. So scared.

Over the next two years he would move from watching me while naked to touching himself, then me, then making me touch him. When he got drunk I wouldn't know if he would fly into a rage and beat me or try to touch me. Or both. The abuse got so bad that my mom (who was constantly gone) would eventually be forced to leave, even while she never acknowledged the abuse was happening.

Eventually mom would find love and marry again. This time, she did it right. Her third husband (step dad #2) was a good man. He was kind and generous. Loving and warm. He cared about us, gave great advice, and worked hard. He was humble and could cook his ass off. I still pine for that man's cooking. He was the first real dependable father figure I had, and was a doting grandfather who would do anything for the grandkids he was lucky enough to meet. Unfortunately, in 2002 (a year I spent in Korea), he was riding his motorcycle and was struck by a dump truck that ran a red light. He was killed almost instantly.

I share all of this so that I can make the following statement and you will understand the depth of its truth: I had no template for how to be a good father. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing when my kids were born. Every single part of having and raising kids has been discovery learning.

My dad was an addict whose own father had been taken too soon. When my grandfather died, I lost that connection to a man that I have been told more than once by people who knew him was just like me. My dad was just gone. Or high. Or both. He was never a factor in my life. Just a cautionary tale.

My first stepfather abused and molested me. And when he wasn't drunk, he was so focused on his art that my brother and I may as well been furniture. And my mom was focused almost completely on living her life. She had to party, she told me. Giving birth to me had robbed her of her 20s. I owed her the space to have her college years, she said. I had taken hers. I was 10 when she told me that.

My second stepfather was a good man, but I had been through a lot by the time he came on the scene. And I wasn't really in the mood to pay attention to him or any other adult man that said much of anything to me. By the time I realized who he was and what he could be, he died. Stupid fucking motorcycle.

What do you do when you have no idea what you are doing when your kids are born? How do you piece together anything like a coherent approach to being a dad? How do you undo the mistakes that made YOU such a mess and hopefully break the cycle?

I looked to pop culture. It was mostly a vast and barren wasteland of incompetent or uncaring dads. Dads who were distant, who worked. Dads who couldn't cook or said "boys don't cry." Dads who fucked up the laundry and couldn't be counted on to do anything. Most dads in popular culture suck.

I did see a few lights in the darkness. I was mesmerized by Fred Rogers and Bob Ross. Men who were gentle, and kind, and caring and seemed to hint at the possibility that there was another way to be a man that didn't involve anger and bluster and meanness. 

When I joined the Army I had leaders (disproportionately black men) who taught me all the things I didn't have a dad to teach. Things like choosing the hard right over the easy wrong. Things like character being what you do when no one is looking. Things like trust but verify. There is no amount of thanks I can give to men like 1SG Kirkland and SFC Washington and SFC Lewis and LTC Cantelou that will ever be enough. Ever.

But these lights were like stars in the night sky. It was still mostly darkness. It was still mostly stuff I didn't know. Not having a template for what "right" looked like as a dad, I was left piecing things together. Learning by trial and error. Trying desperately to make sense of it all.

Because I wanted to be a good dad more than anything else in the world. It is all I ever wanted. 

And so I worked. I read. I watched. I tried, I failed. I was sometimes good, sometimes terrible, mostly okay. 

I thought - a LOT - about what worked for me and what didn't. What it meant to be a good man and a good dad. And I created my own template. My own list of what makes a good dad.

And so. Here it is. MY list of the 5 most important attributes of a good dad.

Attribute #1

Honesty

This is where it all starts. Honesty. Honesty with your kids. Honesty with yourself. Honesty with others.

I don't intentionally lie to my kids. 

Now, let's be clear. Honesty doesn't necessarily mean being blunt or insensitive (although I have been both). Honesty should be age and situationally appropriate. I am not gonna tell my 5 year old things in the same way I will tell my 24 year old. And I am not going to tell my kids about things that happen that don't involve or affect them, especially when those things could hurt. Honesty doesn't always mean telling someone everything about everything.

However I won't duck questions or prevaricate or be fearful of openness. 

Here is an example. We decided early on to talk about sex with our kids when and if they were ready to talk. If they were old enough to ask questions, they were old enough to get an honest answer. So by the time she was 7 or 8 Alex probably could have taught a sex ed class. I don't know that Elizabeth has asked a question yet. Yes, we still talked to her, but it wasn't nearly as comfortable or natural. 

Kids want the truth. And it is my job as their dad to give it to them. We have talked about my mental health challenges. We talked about my suicide attempt. We talk about hard things. We talk about race and climate change and war. We talk about sexuality and loneliness and pain. We talk about everything. And I tell the truth to the best of my understanding and ability to know the truth. It is the foundation for everything else. 

Without honesty there is no trust. And if there is no trust, you aren't really being a dad. You are doing fatherhood performance art.

Attribute #2

Authenticity

The single greatest gift you can give anyone in your life (and especially your kids) is to know who you are and be that. The worst struggles I have had in my life have come when I tried to be something I wasn't.

Being a parent can be all consuming. Your kids will demand your attention, dedication, and focus. And they deserve all those things. After all, they didn't ask you to be born. That was your choice. When we make that choice, though, it can be easy to focus on trying to be something that society / friends / other parents tell you that you need to be. Most times, it is well intentioned. And. It doesn't help make you a good dad.

Some dads are effortlessly cool. They skateboard with their kids, or play music. Some dads are nerds and collect stamps and play D&D. Some dads are comfortable being best friends with their kids, while others focus on rules and expectations. There is no one right way to do this. Let me say that again, it's important. 

There is no one right way to be a dad.

Just like there isn't one way to be a person, or a couple, or a family. There are all kinds of ways to make your way through the world, and make your way through the maze of parenthood. 

What is essential, however, is that you are yourself. If you are the cool dad, be the cool dad. If you are the hunt-and-fish dad, hunt and fish. If you are the handy dad or the boat dad or the beach dad or the indoor dad or the goofball dad. If you do all of them or none of them, the most important thing you can do is just be YOU.

In the end your kids want YOU. Not some manic dream pixie version of you. Just you. Mussled hair (or no hair). Bad fashion choices. Clueless about trends. Whatever. 

You want to give your kids a real gift? Be you.

Attribute #3

Empathy

At midnight on March 23, 2012, I stood in line for 45 minutes at the multiplex in Southpoint with two very very excited teenage girls, both of whom were talking so fast that they were interrupting each other and making it hard for me to keep up. We were there for the very first showing of the movie adaptation of their favorite book, The Hunger Games.

There were a dozen other things I would have rather been doing. I had read the book (and its sequels) too, mainly to have some frame of reference for what they were talking about. But standing in lines for big premiere movies isn't my usual jam. I was there because it WAS my daughters jam. And because she asked. It meant a lot to her. And so I was there. 

And so it goes with a million other things, big and small, for all my kids, for decades now. I am there to hold space for them when things get hard. Whether that is because of something really big (like a mental health crisis, or life struggle) or whether it is something small (like a stubbed toe). Because what you realize as a parent - and hopefully as a person - is that to them there are no small things. That stubbed toe may seem like no big deal, but to them it is the most pain they have ever felt and it is happening right now.

Empathy is the most challenging thing that humans can do, and is simultaneously the most important. There is no experience you have ever had (even hearing the stories of others) that is not filtered through your own perceptions, assumptions, and experiences. Being able to set literally everything aside and focus yourself on the needs of another is completely unnatural.

And yet, if you want to have a real and meaningful connection with your kids (or anyone else) you have to be able to be there for THEM, in the way THEY need, when they need it. You have to be able to set down your own ego and meet your kids where they are. 

Attribute #4

Loyalty

Loyalty is frequently misunderstood these days.

There is this perception that comes from somewhere in the ether that loyalty means that you constantly move in lockstep with someone. That you are always in agreement with someone's ideas and thoughts. If you don't agree enthusiastically, the reasoning goes, then you aren't sufficiently loyal.

One need only look at the descent of the Republican Party into a Trump cult to see this understanding of loyalty for what it is: bullshit.

I am fiercely loyal to my family and children. This does not mean that I am okay with everything they do. It doesn't mean that we always agree, or see things the same way. It doesn't mean that I will blindly support every choice they make.

What it does mean is that I will always be there, no matter what. There is nothing my kids could ever do, say, or be that would make me love them any less fiercely or be less on their side.

Matthew and I once watched a documentary about the Unabomber. We had a conversation about Ted Kaczynski's brother turning him in. Matt asked if I would turn him in. "Yes, absolutely" I said. "Wow, dad. That's rough." Yes. I would turn you in, I explained. And I would be there in court every day. And I would give you whatever support you needed. There is nothing that would make me abandon you. Even if you did something terrible.

Loyalty is about being there for your kids in ways large and small every single day. Even when they do dumb stuff. Even when they are hard to love. The truth is, we are ALL hard to love sometimes. We all make mistakes. We all hurt people we care about and say and do dumb shit. We all have challenges and issues. 

Loyalty means being there anyway.

Attribute #5

Passion

More than anything else, fatherhood is about passion. It is about passion for life, passion for family, passion for your kids. It is a boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for these incredible humans that God lets you borrow for a few years while they figure out their own unique way of navigating the universe. It is about excitement for the process of helping your kids see and become who they are.

I am passionate about being a dad.

All those terrible experiences as a kid made me want one thing more than anything else in the world - to be a dad and to be as good at it as I was capable of being. It has been my life's work.

And I have failed. So many times. I have failed to be honest, authentic, and empathetic. As important as loyalty is, there were times that I wasn't there physically or emotionally for my kids. I will fail again. We make mistakes. We are imperfect. We are, after all, only human.

But I will get up every day and I will try. I will be enthusiastic. I may be heading in the completely wrong direction, but I can promise you that I will be running in that direction as fast as I can.

Getting to do this, getting to be a dad, is a gift. It is a joy. It is all I have ever wanted. I will be passionate about this as long as I have the capacity to be passionate about anything. Being a good husband and father is not just something I do. It is who I am. It is my calling.

Passion papers over a lot of mistakes. Mistakes of execution, mistakes of judgment, mistakes of priorities. Just care. Wake up every day and get better.

Try. Every day. TRY.

That's it. That's the secret. 

Sometimes even the hardest things are really simple.

And don't get it twisted. Parenting is hard as fuck. My story may be unique in the number of fathering failures I experienced as a kid, but the truth is we all have something in our past that prevents us from coming to this parenting thing fully prepared. One of the big truths I have realized as a late middle aged adult is that NO ONE has any of this shit figured out. We all come to adulthood confused, bewildered and wondering. My story may be unique, but my experience is not. We have all had to deal with some version of it.

What is important is not the baggage we bring to our challenges, but our willingness to do the hard stuff anyway. That we climb the mountain, even when we slip. Even when we carry burdens. That we wake up every day ready to see beauty and feel joy.

Because beauty and joy are there. They are there in a child's smile. Your family's laughter. The small ways you can be there for others.

There is light that shines brighter than darkness. Because yes, there is a lot of black in the night sky.

But look at the stars sparkle.

The stars are winning.