Rob Okun and daughter Aviva 17 years ago

(WOMENSENEWS)–My daughter’s high-school graduation earlier this month found me shaking my head in disbelief. Could 18 years have passed since I first cradled Aviva, her head nestled in my outstretched palm, her tiny body relaxing into the crook of my arm?

In my mind’s eye I am gazing down–her pursed lips sucking, eyes twinkling, mouth exhalingsweet baby’s breath. I am still thinking, “So this is the secret fraternity and sorority all those fathers and mothers have been talking about.”

Since that lush summer morning 18 years ago, in some sense I have lived two lives, mine and hers. I have felt both vulnerable and fiercely protective, tenderly rocking her in a bedroom illuminated by moonlight and then, just a few years later, scooping her up from a street corner toward which she’d wandered too close.

Aviva, like all children, has been one of the great teachers in my life. From the get-go, she taught me about independence. She staged her birth for the early morning of June 28–just hours after my birthday. Lesson number one: “Dad, I’m my own person.” I’ve spent the last 18 years working to remember that, a useful interpretation of the Buddha’s entreaty: “Nothing is to be clung to as I or mine.”

Tapping the Tender Side of Male Nature

While parenting is not for everyone, for me becoming a father uncovered an unfulfilled part of myself, a missing piece in the puzzle of manhood. In the process, I have found an underappreciated fundamental truth about men: It is in our nature to be tender–to nurture, to care for babies and young children, to be reverent toward all life–to discover the sweet spot of selfless love essential to our humanity. Sure, society tries to drum all that out of us at an early age. Look at how many of us grew up hearing the old saw “Big Boys Don’t Cry” when we scraped our knees. Men know well the toll that message can take on any man who has stuffed down his hurt, gone numb to his feelings. Fatherhood may not be the only way to access men’s innate nurturing ability, but for many it alters for the better the course of their lives.

Happily, rather than passing on the “Big Boys Don’t Cry” legacy, more and more fathers are scooping up their tearful sons and comforting them, rather than admonishing them to “toughen up.” Those of us with daughters have been fortunate to be able to draw on insights from the women’s movement, and we’re encouraging strength and independence in the young women in our care, attributes once primarily reserved for boys.

As Aviva wended her way from the preschool art table and book corner to portraying environmental foremother Rachel Carson at an elementary school science fair, I stood by in loving witness, as a guide to the emerging young woman before me. I know some mothers and fathers feel conflicted or resentful about having to drop everything to tend to the more complicated emotional scrapes a 10-year-old, or a high school senior’s experiences. Somehow, I’ve never questioned that part of the job. Aviva’s role is to keep flapping her wings and soaring farther and farther away from the nest. Mine, I know, is to be home with the front light on, ready with an English muffin and a bowl of cereal on the kitchen table when she returns.

Last summer Aviva flew to Guatemala for several weeks to study in a Spanish language immersion program. We had to leave the house in the middle of the night for her to make the 6 a.m. flight from Boston. Once on the highway, I found myself glancing in her direction, noticing how the turnpike lights illuminated her face. Even in the dark I could still see her as I first had all those years ago–pursed lips sucking, eyes twinkling, mouth exhaling sweet baby’s breath. This was that baby, I said to myself in awe. My eyes glistened.

A few days before she was to return home, she e-mailed that “campesinos” had closed all the roads to the airport to protest unfulfilled government promises. She couldn’t predict when she’d be able to leave the country. I sprang into action. In no time I’d spoken to officials in the State Department in Washington and with their counterparts at the consulate in Guatemala City. I spoke to them not as a U.S. citizen, not as an activist critical of the government’s Central American policy; I spoke to them as a father. That was my role–to drop everything and come to my child’s aid. I appealed to the parent on the other end of the line, not the faceless bureaucrat. By the following day, as it happened, the “campesinos” had stopped blocking the roads and Aviva was soon able to come home. I breathed a sigh of relief.

With her departure for college imminent, I find myself re-reading a framed quotation on a wall in my house. It’s been up ever since a friend gave it to me soon after Aviva was born. “The only legacy one should leave their children,” it says, “is roots and wings.” I hope I have.

Commentator Rob Okun is a psychotherapist in Amherst, Mass., the associate director of the Men’s Resource Center of Western Massachusetts, a male-positive, pro-feminist, gay-affirmative, anti-racist community-based social organization offering a range of services for men, women and families.

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