Reflections on Fatherhood

Father’s Day is an occasion for me to reflect on how I’m doing as a father and how my relationship with my own father influenced the relationship I have with my sons.  In a recent New York Times article, My Father, Out to Sea, author, Jaed Coffin, wrestles with growing up with an absent father:

For my father, going “out to sea” carried a mystical connotation, charged with rebellion and renunciation. Men (always men) seemed to reach a point in their lives when the burdens of domestic life — spouse, kids, job, community, whatever — grew too heavy, and the only path to spiritual freedom required that we drift into the mists of existence, never to be seen again. 

Coffin goes on to focus on his process of coming to terms with the impact of his father’s absence.  

For many of us, our fathers were not as involved in our upbringing as we would have liked.  My own father, a small-town physician, was seldom around.   And when he was around, he was not available emotionally.   Like most men of his generation, he believed that his primary role was that of the provider.   There was not an expectation for him to be a partner on the domestic front much less show up as a nurturing presence in his children’s lives.  

Gender roles were narrowly defined. Of course, today all that is different.  What we expected of a father/husband has changed dramatically but the knowledge and skills needed for the change are lagging.  In a recent interview with Krista Tippet, Richard Rohr offers his thoughts on Growing Up Men:

And the rage in the young male who never had a dad or had an alcoholic father or an emotionally unavailable father or abusive father is bottomless… when positive masculine energy is not modeled from father to son, it creates a vacuum in the  souls of men, and into that vacuum demons pour.

One thing that brings men to therapy is their feeling of failure at home. While we may be hitting home runs at work, we are striking out at home. When our partner/spouse gives us feedback that we are coming up short or complains that living with us is like having an additional child, it’s humiliating and we become angry.   Under attack, we tend to regress to the familiar.  It’s hard to give what you did not get or have not experienced.    Developing the skills to be successful on the home front takes work but its work most men can do!    

  1. What prevents you from showing up?  Be curious about your childhood influences and how they have affected you.  This usually means looking at your defenses.   What is it you learned to do to be safe when you feel criticized or hurt?  Are you more likely to withdraw or fight?   What are the things that trigger you in your relationship?   Ask yourself, are these things more about you than your partner?  Paradoxically the things you do to defend are the very things that invite your partner to do more of what you don’t like.   For example, if you tend to withdraw, your challenge is to stay present.  Lead with vulnerability, show up, be present, practice empathy.  
  2. Examine your negative beliefs about marriage/women? Many of us grew up hearing cynical jokes such as “don’t give the institution (of marriage) another hostage,” “marriage is the best form of birth control,” “women are just a black hole of need.”   Do these negative attitudes toward marriage/women affect how you show up?   Lead with vulnerability, practice showing up with positive expectations and empathy.  
  3. Practice being a good listener.  This will help you become more attuned with your wife and children and better able to understand and address their needs.   Show up, listen, practice empathy.   
  4. Take responsibility for the physical and emotional environment we create for our family.   We all react to the environment we are in, especially our children.   Practice creating a loving safe environment.   And of course, show up and practice empathy!   

Some of this work you can do on your own, it can also help to have a therapist coach you on this journey of self-discovery and change. Men’s therapy groups are a great place to learn about our issues, see parts of ourselves we need to grow to meet challenges, find support, and have accountability around staying on that path.  

Finally, there are two great international organizations whose mission is to help and mentor men that you should know about:  The Mankind Project and Illuman. Both organizations have local chapters and provide rites of passage retreats and intensive training opportunities.   You can learn the skills you want to be the partner you choose to be in your relationship, today.  

Note: The Mankind Project tends to focus more on men’s emotional and psychological health whereas Iluman tends more toward men’s spiritual health.