I Learned to Be a Loving Mother … From My Father

I used to assume that as a mother, my every move would basically be me channeling my memories of my own mom. You could blame the brainwashing of gender norms — which she hated, though she was a stay-at-home mom for much of my childhood. But also, the strength of her personality, a strong, opinionated, strict-as-hell Dominican woman from a long line of strong, opinionated, strict-as-hell Dominican matriarchs, was such that I thought I’d be the same. How surprised I was to discover that a whole lot of my father has actually come through in my own mothering.

It’s hard for me to be objective about my dad, but I do think there’s a lot that’s unusual about him for a man of his generation. Or maybe he is exactly a product of his own upbringing. The son of Holocaust survivors who fled to Israel after the war, he was 11 when the family moved to Queens, New York. My grandfather was a macho former soldier and gambling addict who liked to brag about how playing cards helped him escape a labor camp in Romania. He was always running a new business or other, never quite getting one off the ground. It was my grandmother — a sweet-natured seamstress whose entire family, including her twin sister, died in a concentration camp while she was in hiding — who had the most influence on my father’s personality. Sure, my dad likes to tell me stories about being a track star in high school, but I know he’s always been a gentle nerd who loved physics and literature.

It is absolutely crazy to think that he was just 27 and my mother 23 when I was born. In my mind’s eye, he was always so dad-like, instantly middle-aged, though he couldn’t have been. There is so much bias that colors our memories of our parents, but here is how I feel he was.

When I was little, he was the warm cuddle I sought on the couch. He was the guy we could beg to take us to playgrounds on the weekend and to carry us on his shoulders when we went for walks. He was the one we could miss on weekdays, because he was away at work while my mom was always there.

This is unfair to her, I know. I often complain that I wish I could be a father instead of a mother. Because like in my family growing up, it’s up to the mom (me) to establish the rules and enforce them. I’m the one pushing broccoli and threatening no dessert, while my husband gets to be the fun guy serving up ice cream when my back is turned. My mom must have felt this too.

Sabrina's father and son
My father and my son, back when they looked identical. Image: Sabrina Rojas Weiss.

But here is what he gave me that I’m now trying to pass on to my son:

Unconditional love. (I mean, I got this from my mom too, but she also sort of implied that there were just a few conditions we’d need to meet.)

How to work hard, and then enjoy my leisure time fully. He would take an hour or more to listen to an entire album (prog rock or classical music only) in the living room on a Saturday morning — even if it was beautiful outside, even if there was housework and yardwork and errands he should have been doing. He has always been a champion napper, especially if there is a hammock in sight. While my husband wants to be up and DOING THINGS on weekend mornings, I refuse, and the kid is with me on this.

How to share a love of reading and writing. For some reason, he is a total Anglophile when it comes to literature, and his copies of Brontë sister and Jane Austen novels are what made me an English major. I also have every note and card my dad ever gave me, which I think are the most eloquent pieces ever penned by a civil engineer. If ever I make you cry, dear reader, you can blame him. I just took step 1 in continuing this tradition and watched Emma with my 7-year-old. He is hooked.

How to hug when words won’t do. When I left for college, my mother and I could talk for hours on the phone, so I barely missed her when we were apart. I felt the absence of my dad’s physical presence more strongly. We can have great talks, too, but they’re just better when we’re next to each other. And his hugs are epic. As much as I love the kind of conversations my kid and I can have, I feel much closer to him when he’s just woken up and he wordlessly throws his body at mine on the couch.

Most of all, I have learned that raising a gentle, literature-loving, big-hearted boy is possible. Gender norms be damned for yet another generation.

You can still get the dads in your life something special. Here’s a guide to Father’s Day gifts they’ll actually use.

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