Father’s Day: The ups and downs of being a dad
When he was a young father of four, Dr. Brett Parkinson remembers being something of an absent dad. He was busy in medical school, then working through internship and residency on his way to becoming a breast cancer expert. His wife, Kelly, also worked. But she was a very hands-on mom to Clifford, Gretta, George and Millie.
“Fatherhood is a joy almost undeserved. The joy it has brought me exceeds the amount of work I put in,” Parkinson, semiretired from a clinical practice in Salt Lake City and now a medical consultant to two health care companies, told the Deseret News. “When my kids were little — I am now a grandfather to three — I was gone for a lot of what fathers get to enjoy and, more importantly, when I should have been helping.”
He has been given grace, he says, to make up for lost time and applies himself happily to that task. He’s a roll-in-the-kiddie-pool grandfather, a dad who’ll drive or fly any distance to spend time with his children. But the change came in part through near-debilitating sorrow after George unexpectedly died in his sleep at age 27, the result of heart failure.
Polls show fatherhood is an almost universal goal for males. ChildTrends and the Marriage Strengthening Research & Dissemination Center just issued a brief timed to coincide with Father’s Day 2023 showing more than 86% of teenage boys say they intend to become fathers and 62% of U.S. males 15 and older already are.
Research details the benefits children get from engaged, caring fathers — the kind of dad Brigham Young University sociology professor Kevin Shafer has described using words like “warm” and “affectionate” and dedicated to spending time with their kids. He said good dads support children emotionally and discipline appropriately.
Studies say kids who have a good dad are more likely to stay in school and less likely to go to jail. They tend to grow up and get good jobs and form healthy relationships. Girls with involved dads are less likely to become pregnant as teens, the boys less likely to have behavior problems. That’s all compared to children who have absent or unengaged fathers.
Fatherhood is not a static calling, since life veers in lots of directions. Good dads come in a variety pack that includes stepdads, older dads, younger dads, single dads and noncustodial dads, among others. It’s a matter of choosing to interact well and then doing it with love.
Parkinson will tell you that being a father is a job with plenty of opportunities to up your game.
How dads benefit
While a lot has been written about how kids benefit from having good dads, those dads don’t require science to tell you that they’ve benefitted from having kids.
“Fatherhood has given me the gift of being able to mold and assist another individual on this Earth into becoming a loving, giving, compassionate human being,” David Bakke of Norcross, Georgia, said by email. “I think the world needs more of those. The kind of father I’ve tried to be is genuinely honest, objectively critical without being negative — and loving, no matter what.”
Bakke, a personal finance content specialist at DollarSanity, has been divorced for 13 years and is a noncustodial but involved father. His son is 16 and they have a great relationship, he said. But he’s strategic in his parenting, too.
“I offer him clever support,” he wrote. For example, “he plays travel baseball. If I notice something that needs improvement, I go through his coaches because he doesn’t like listening to me. ... It works and it’s effective.”
While his son doesn’t necessarily want his dad to tell him how to play ball, Bakke said the teen knows his dad’s efforts to build his confidence are sincere. And that’s something he tries to do every chance he gets, he adds. “When he gets it from me, it makes a difference because he knows it’s true.”
“Fatherhood gave me a sense of purpose,” says Scott Thompson, a 61-year-old trial consultant and software designer in Riverside, California. “I was pretty much a crazy kid.”
Restless and adventurous when young, he backpacked for nine months in Australia and Indonesia and was “beaten up by barefoot waterskiing.” When he married and they had Zach and Emma, “I settled down. Fatherhood is a grounding experience. It gave me something that was larger than me. Kids are usually pretty selfish and one day I woke up and that wasn’t me any more. They were totally and completely dependent on me to make a living and I’ve never stopped taking care of them.”
Thompson and his wife divorced when Emma and Zach were young and he was for several years a single dad. That shifted over time, his ex-wife now a frequent visitor, a coparent who has for years now been actively involved in her children’s lives.
The kids blossomed from having both parents involved, he said. It just took time for the adults’ feelings to settle.
Zach lives in Provo and plans to go to law school. Emma, now 23, married a couple of years ago. It’s a fun fact, her dad says, that she married a fellow she’d known since she was in eighth grade — and who had the same last name as hers. Thompson says his job as their dad will extend to their further schooling, including Zach’s legal education and Emma’s plan to become a nurse practitioner.
Dads have their own styles and as long as they’re high on warmth and responsiveness, kids benefit, according to parenting experts. Thompson describes his own style as “very mellow. I talked to them, made things a learning experience. They taught me patience.”
It’s a point of pride that he somehow managed to go on all but one field trip for both of his kids, kindergarten through sixth grade.
“I’ve always taken a real role in my kids’ lives,” he says.
A stepfather who mentors
Russell Stevenson, 41, has four stepchildren — the gift of a marriage that’s just a couple of years old. The kids were older; they are ages 17 to 23. “For that reason, we took some time beforehand to make sure all the stakeholders bought in,” said Stevenson, who describes his role in the lives of wife Sherilyn’s sons and daughters as a “sacred trust.”
“From my perspective, we can never receive too much fatherly support, can never receive too much nurturing,” said Stevenson, deputy director of the Academic Research Division and a faculty member at West Point. When you’re a stepfather, he notes, “life has permitted you to extend the bonds of your affection in ways that many don’t get to enjoy.”
He says he seeks to be a source of goodness, “knowing I am far from alone in this. They have fathers already. Those fathers enjoy bonds that aren’t mine to enjoy. But I do get to enjoy my own distinctive role.”
At the moment, because of work, he and his wife live miles apart, shuttling back and forth. He’s in New York, she’s in Utah. At Christmas, they were all together, taking in a Broadway show, visiting a Christmas market. A stepfather can offer gestures a bit like that of a grandparent, he adds.
Because the kids were older when the Stevensons wed, the “in-the-weeds” parenting is done. So he sees his role as being “a source of love and support and facilitation of positive experiences to the maximum degree,” Stevenson says.
Good relationships are not guaranteed with stepchildren, according to Stevenson, who notes that literature and life are both filled with examples of fraught step relationships. If you invest and care, he says, you can be a valued mentor, someone who matters individually in the young person’s life. “Otherwise, you’re just the dude that mom married,” he says.
“The stepparenting relationship ultimately is going to be what you invest in it,” says Stevenson. “When you invest properly, you see the fruits of those relationships.”
Never less than a family
The Parkinson family has changed — but not grown weaker.
They speak these days of George with deep affection and joy, the sorrow of his unexpected death less sharp, though they’ll always miss him. George cut an imposing figure at 6-foot-2. He was a gifted singer and a creative person who painted and made jewelry, a playful man who was a “kid magnet.” He’d earned an advanced degree from a fashion and design institute. Brett Parkinson said he likely got his artistry and creativity from his mother, who is a professional violinist. George was, in the words of his dad, funny and delightful, though he sometimes wrestled with depression.
The last thing George ever said to his parents — separately — was “I love you, Dad” and “I love you, Mom.”
The other Parkinson kids have each found work that brings them joy. Clifford is a lawyer at Utah State University who serves on the board of the Utah Tribal Relief Foundation. Gretta Whalen works as an internal communications manager for Rand Corporation. Millie is a graphic designer for Madewell.
They are scattered, but closer than ever, says their dad. Sometimes the family has FaceTime dinners together. He and Kelly visit their kids a lot. The grandchildren visit them. “The kids let me know I am a good dad now. I think I was a decent dad before. I let a lot of things get in the way,” Parkinson says.
“George’s death was a huge wake-up call. I realized how ephemeral everything is. When you’re in the trenches, you don’t think of time passing. Parenthood is fleeting,” he adds.
It’s easy, in grief, to be focused on self, Parkinson notes, and he’s not sure he was the dad Cliff, Gretta and Millie needed as they first grieved the loss of their brother. But Kelly and Brett soon pulled together and shifted focus to their other children, letting them know that “you are enough. You fill our lives,” Parkinson says. “We have memories of George and keep him in our hearts, but our focus is you. We are going to turn in our grief the focus toward you and all the things in your life that make life meaningful.”
These days, Parkinson feels deep gratitude for the gifts of fatherhood. “Even being the father of a child who passed away continues to be a blessing. I am still his father. And I am a much better father to my other kids.”