Weekend Reading: Ron Fournier on love, guilt, and fatherhood

Ron Fournier is editor-in-chief of the National Journal. He produced a simple and moving piece about his life with his son Tyler, a bright teenager who is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Several aspects of the piece are striking. One is the simple, but actually not-so-simple connection between a father and a son who love each other, but are also quite different from each other. As Andrew Solomon emphasizes in his encyclopedic, beautifully-written Far from the tree, parents can feel at-sea as they seek to parent a children who is markedly different from most other children and from themselves. Sometimes these differences are rooted in physical, intellectual, sensory, or behavioral disabilities. Sometimes a child has special abilities in mathematics or music. Sometimes a child differs in gender identity, sexual orientation, or in other ways.

Whatever the source of marked differences, parents can easily feel that they are parenting a stranger. A child doesn’t arrive with an instruction manual that explains the right way to nurture, embrace, accept, and love this stranger. No instruction manual explains the proper balance between the drive to treat, ameliorate, or cure specific disabilities and the need to simply accept children with their differences, to love them as they are.

Nor do children have their own instruction manual to show them how to navigate their own way with parents, and how to address the human concerns, disappointments, and ambivalence so many accurately recognize in their parents from an early age. Awkwardly navigating a White House reception, 13-year-old Tyler says, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.” Millions of children will hope the same thing today.

Although there’s no instruction manual, loving and committed families such as the Fourniers find their path in a quietly heroic way.
Two details especially struck me.

One is the way a father was deeply committed to involving his son in team sports, and how Ron Fournier’s overly-directive efforts to force Tyler’s participation actually forced this loving father to recognize the challenges his son faces. I suspect that many parents of kids with autism spectrum disorders have some related experience around team sports.

Young parents come to sports with great aspirations for their kids. This is especially true of dads and their boys. Soccer and basketball require a wide range of cognitive, social-emotional, motivational, and motor skills. Kids must exercise these skills, on public view, alongside 15 or 20 classmates and peers. I know several people who say something of the form: “Watching that scene, I couldn’t avoid seeing that something really wasn’t right.”

It’s also striking for the humanity of two former presidents: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It’s pretty darned funny to hear Tyler’s reaction to a bloviating President Clinton:

“Nice guy,” Tyler whispered to me during a break in the tour. “He talked a lot about himself and his stuff.”  

Then there’s George W. Bush, who displays an unfeigned compassion and simple feel for people that I admire. He bears responsibility for a disastrous presidency. Yet there’s more to the man, too.

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