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Am I Destined To Become My Emotionally Unavailable Father?

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When I sit at my desk to write, I look just like my father.

This is bizarre to me for several reasons, mostly because he wrote computer code while I write political pieces and creative works. But it is uncanny how our coffee mugs are placed in the same spot, the way we rest our left hand on our hip as we think of what to type next, and the way we clasp our chin in between our extended stretches of striking the keys with velocity and purpose.

man desk coffee
(Photo: Filippo Bacci via Getty Images)

Because in reality we had very little in common. When he passed away we were estranged, but since he's been gone I have noticed countless examples of similar posturing and peculiarly identical mannerisms. We even swear and cheer the same during hockey games.

Obviously I understand how influence works, so it is hardly surprising to notice me having these traits in common with my father. But along with the physical similarities, I am noticing a new, somewhat troubling facet of my personality, one that I swore would never manifest. I sometimes feel like I am going through the motions when at home, as if the pretending I do with my son when we play is seeping into moments where I should still be genuinely present.

I should state a modest yet important disclaimer: I do not feel like I am faking the love I feel for my two children. It is not a chore for me to be around them, caring for them and teaching them how to navigate life's waters. Being a dad is the most enriching life decision I have ever made, and it probably saved my life, given my choices when I was single and without profound responsibilities.

father watches children
(Photo: Allison Marino via Getty Images)

No, I love spending time with my children. My fear is that, in time, an instinct will kick in, like the hand on the hip or the full body stretch while sitting at my desk, that will make me fulfill a tragic destiny -- familial estrangement.

See, I come from a fairly well established line of relatives who do not value the bonds of family. My father did not speak with his siblings, rarely spoke to his mother and he did not speak to his kids for close to two decades, aside from once or twice a year with my oldest sister. He seemed almost conditioned to be communicatively inept, as if his capacity to care was overridden by a biological substructure that repelled meaningful bonds.

My father wasn't like that when we were kids. He even joked around here and there, and sometimes went out of his way to teach us how to cook, or how to hit a hanging curve ball, or how to deal with teachers we didn't like. But as we grew older he faded away, and we were left to pick up the pieces of our shattered confidence, unsure how to process our newest challenges without the steady hand of our father helping us along.

boy holding baseball
(Photo: Noel Besuzzi via Getty Images)

What happened to him, and to countless fathers who experience this about-face as their kids get older? I've read a dozen articles on the subject, and the theories behind the emotionally unavailable father range from undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome to contempt to the life choices of their children.

But one theory seems to pop up more than others -- the idea that becoming emotionally unavailable is hardwired genetically. This is the theory that keeps me up at night. Songs have been written about this phenomenon, the classic tale of estranged fathers and sons incrementally growing farther and farther apart. Right now I am in the honeymoon stage of fatherhood, with both kids under the age of three and a seemingly endless supply of laughter, adventure and discovery.

So, do I have any control over the possible outcome of estrangement, and if it is genetic can I do something to fight against these natural-but-heartbreaking forces? Will I one day wake up void of emotions for my children and have to choose between being distant or faking my love up close?

I've seen what it does to their kids. Hell, I am one of those kids.

I know I sound ridiculous, and I am certain that it would take an apocalyptic shift in my emotional foundation to one day find myself unable or unwilling to spend time with my kids. Still, there is a worry that it could happen outside my control, and it frightens me. I've seen fathers go from being authentically overjoyed in the presence of their kids to becoming these sad, defeated men who can't even muster a hello, much less a toast at a family function. Worse, I've seen what it does to their kids. Hell, I am one of those kids.

I use an old adage a lot when I think of possible genetic hand-me-downs: that we can either add a link to the ancestral chain or break the chain and start anew. My father, without even trying, taught me that. His dad was a fierce alcoholic, but Dad never drank, probably because he had an endless supply of horrible memories attached to his drunken old man. Hell, maybe that relationship was the seed that sprouted a father unable to maintain connections with people. It's all a guessing game at the end of the day.

father walking away from son
(Photo: Darrya via Getty Images)

And so, if the worst-case scenario does manifest and I somehow become this shell of a father who instinctively fades away from his children and the lives I helped build, I hereby advise them to provide me no pittance or remorse, and certainly no excuses. I won't deserve any of that.

I would fake it, if I woke up a defeated, emotionless man.

But the best-case scenario, the one I believe is more in tune with who I am, is to remain this flawed individual with the everyday challenges of having two kids and a partner who tolerates me. I can navigate those waters, and perhaps just talking this out with myself and my readers can give me an edge in this quest to elude this most unfortunate of family traditions.

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