Reclaiming Male Role Models

How I Learned to Love My Father


By Sam Hershberger

From ages 6-8 I was obsessed with the color purple.

No exaggeration. I was so obsessed, in fact, that I put my mom to the task of dying my tighty-whitey underwear purple. She’ll confirm.

I rarely remember that act of self-expression, but when I do, I recognize how fortunate I was to grow up in a household who embodied acceptance. It wasn’t promoted. It wasn’t necessarily talked about. It just happened. And it was uncompromising. Did my brother, sister, and I get in trouble at times? Of course. We were disciplined. We just weren’t shamed.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church: Sunday school, youth groups, confirmation. The Methodist church was pretty lax. I used to hear that Lutherans were lazy Catholics. If that’s true, then Methodists are Lazy Lutherans. Communion once per month. No extra services. Weddings were simple.

The first time my parents found porn in the browser history, I figured I was in deep trouble. Grounded for sure. A week? No, probably a month. So I thought. My dad sat me down for a talk when he got home from work. You know what he said? “Sam, do you know that those people don’t care about each other?” That was it.

A couple years later I was caught masturbating in our neighbor’s pool. Surely that was the end of me. They told my parents. And again, my dad sat me down again for a talk. “Sam, it’s nothing to be ashamed about. But it isn’t something to be doing in public… let alone in our neighbor’s pool.” He was stern… but amused.

My parents signed me up for a sex education course at church. At church.

Remember how I said Methodists were pretty lax? This is the clincher. We talked about everything. Oral sex, anal sex, homosexuality. It was nothing like I imagined it would be. The teachers answered all of our questions. And most importantly, even they had a ton of fun with it. I remember one of my friends asking: “How do you know when it’s time to have sex with someone?”

I’ll never forget our teacher’s response. Half jokingly, “When you can poop in front of your boyfriend or girlfriend without being embarrassed, you’ll know.” I still haven’t pooped in front of my girlfriend. Maybe some day.

Looking back I feel like I hit the lottery as a child. In fact, my childhood was so positive that I’ve often felt guilty at times, thinking my life should be harder than it is. In a society that promotes guilt and shame through word and action, I’ve often found myself wondering why my parents and family chose to love me the way they did. “What makes me so special?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

Well, nothing. And that’s perfectly okay.

It’s in moments of reflection — like this one right now while writing — that it truly hits me how different life could have been had a few particular moments in time gone differently.

Instead of: “Do you know that those people don’t care about each other?” it could have been: “What the fuck were you thinking doing that in my house?”

Instead of: “It’s nothing to be ashamed about,” it could have been: “Are you kidding me? Masturbating? I’m disgusted. How am I supposed to look them in the eye?!”

And after all of this, you’d likely venture to believe that I have a beautifully open relationship with my parents. I do, to some extent. Except as I journeyed into personal development, I started to create walls and boundaries around me and my heart.

Late in 2010 I’d gotten my heart broken by my girlfriend of 3 1/2 years. It destroyed me. I started trying to rebuild myself through personal development. Which was great. Mindsets shifted. Belief systems fell away. But in their place new mindsets and beliefs were born. Most notably an elitist attitude toward “normal” people. You know “the type”. The people who don’t do personal development work.

As I dove deeper I started to feel more and more disconnected from my family and friends from home. My mom is a born talker. When I’d call home from college or my internships she was the easiest to have conversations with. (mainly because she’d ask me so many questions)

My dad and I, on the other hand, well, our conversations would only last around five minutes. I had a thought once: “I just can’t connect with him.” By itself it was harmless. Then I started believing it. I built the story and found proof of its validity. I had another thought: “Why can’t he just ask me more questions?” Then I started believing it. It’s his job to connect with me. Hell, am the one off doing all this cool stuff. “Why doesn’t he ask me questions like mom does?”

I felt myself drifting away from him. Really though, I wasn’t drifting away. I was walking away. I wrote the stories as to why we couldn’t connect. I gathered the “evidence”. I put together my case study. I could have convinced everyone. Even myself.

Several months ago now, I randomly called my dad. I remember telling my girlfriend that I’d just be on the phone with him for a few minutes because: “that’s how it always goes with him.” I’d pretty much given up on the idea that I could really connect with him. I’d known that too for some time, which is why I’d been trying to “let go” of the idea.

45 minutes later, we’re laughing and having an amazing conversation. I couldn’t tell you what we were talking about. I only remember the feeling of connection we had.

As I stepped back and looked at the big picture, I saw something I hadn’t seen before.

I saw the picture I created of what I thought my dad should be. I saw the evidence in which I’d used to convict him. But what I saw was a wrongful conviction. I was the snake-oil lawyer crafting something out of nothing, trying to keep my client out of jail.

I’d tried to force everything with him. Something. Anything. Everything was transactional. It’s like the guys who take a girl out to dinner expecting to get laid at the end of the night for being a ‘nice guy’. Or the men and women who are so caught up in what their picture-perfect partner looks like that they miss the entire point of relationships: love. And love is born out of connection. More importantly, connection doesn’t happen in the space of a transaction.

It happens in a moment. When space is created for a moment to actually happen. That moment for me was when I’d forgotten about the expectations I had of him. In that moment I stopped wanting him to be different than he was so that I could connect with him in the way I wanted to. And I met him where he was. Where I was.

Perhaps the secret to life isn’t in trying to let go of ideas and stories that don’t serve us. Maybe it’s just in not holding on so tightly… and creating space for new ideas and stories to happen.

Might that be a bit simpler…


By Sam Hershberger |

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