The word “opposite” is a term of comparison that may be used in a variety of ways. It can refer to two things that are the reverse of each other, such as up-down, on-off, in-out. It can distinguish between the presence or absence of a particular condition or state of being, such as light-dark, wet-dry, hard-soft. It describes things that oppose each other, such as two walls, the banks of a river, two teams, or armies. And finally, opposite may be used to differentiate between two qualities or characteristics, such as active-passive, tall-short, easy-difficult. So basically, opposite means that the two things being compared are not alike. They have nothing in common. They are the opposite of each other.
While contemplating what to write for Father’s Day, an image popped into my head transporting me back to elementary school in the mid-1960s. There were these workbooks to supplement the concepts being taught with illustrations reminiscent of those found in Dick and Jane readers. When we were learning to distinguish between things that are opposite, exactly the same, or similar, there were two columns of images on the page. We were to use different colors of crayon to connect the images that were opposite, the same, or similar.
A blue line connecting the picture of fire with the caption underneath reading “hot” and an ice cube with the caption “cold:” opposites — correct. A red line connecting the two identical pictures of a ball: same — correct. A yellow line connecting the picture of a man in a suit and hat carrying a briefcase labeled “father” and a woman in high heels and an apron feeding a baby labeled “mother”: similar — wrong! The line was supposed to be blue for opposite. WHAT?
The teacher’s attempt to explain why father and mother are opposite created nothing but confusion. Fathers work, mothers do not. Fathers are tough, mothers are gentle. Fathers are strong, mothers are weak. Her struggle to justify marking “similar” as wrong led to increasingly absurd reasoning. There were exceptions for every example she provided, just from my own limited experience (not the least of which was the fact that she was a mother working as a teacher).
First of all, my father didn’t wear a suit and hat to work, and neither did most of my friends’ fathers. And our mothers worked — some at home, some in offices, some in their own businesses, some on farms. They didn’t walk around the house in high heels, but they definitely worked.
If “tough” meant not putting up with misbehavior, then my parents were pretty well tied in that category. On the other hand, each of them could also be gentle and were capable of great tenderness.
As for “strength,” my mother may not have been as strong as my father, but she was certainly not weak. Nevertheless, disagreeing with a teacher would surely lead to trouble. If it wasn’t clear then, it surely is now, the reason the teacher could not provide a satisfactory explanation was because there wasn’t one.
Father is not the opposite of mother.
Upon closer inspection of those two images supposedly depicting the iconic father and mother, another troubling observation became apparent — the conspicuous absence of children in the picture of the father. Based on those pictures, one could mistakenly conclude that the presence of a child makes a woman a mother, but the presence of a briefcase makes a man a father. The not-so-subtle message being that the role of mother requires the presence of children, but the role of father can be satisfactorily dispatched devoid of any involvement with children. However convenient such a fallacy might appear to be for fathers, the consequences for children can be devastating. If there is such a thing as the opposite of father, perhaps the closest thing to it, as far as children are concerned, is the absence of father.
Protect your children from experiencing this absence by becoming fully present in their lives:
• Share your recollections of becoming a father with them.
• Find models or mentors who will support you in becoming the father you want to be.
• Learn about child development. But remember to parent by the child, not by the book, because no matter how much we know or how much experience we have, every child is unique. Our parenting must be adjusted accordingly.
• Stay informed and involved in all aspects of their lives.
• Be both physically and emotionally available to them. When you cannot be with them, find ways to stay connected.
• Tell them you love them. And show them by what you are willing to do with them, not what you can give them. There are no pause buttons, instant replays, rewinds, or do-overs for childhood. Childhood cannot be delayed until a more opportune time.
There are as many ways to be an excellent father as there are fathers. Your children are learning just as much about how to become a person from you as they are from their mother. What they learn may be different, but not opposite, especially if the common source is love. Happy Father’s Day!
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail paren