Have a Happy (and Whole) Father's Day
My marriage to my first wife ended in 1996. We had married young, children ourselves really, and after two miscarriages, had two beautiful children, Jacob and Emma. While growing up, I had not consciously anticipated fatherhood, but my wife was eager and I subsequently fell in love with our children. It was not love at first sight, maybe because I never thought of being a father growing up. But as my children grew, my love for them grew too.
I had just started a post-master’s doctoral degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and began to question many things that had previously been unexamined for me. A divergence of thought led to a division in our marriage and I made the choice to leave with the hope of happiness. Needless to say, I was to learn that the answer to happiness wasn’t found merely in the decision to separate or divorce but would be a life-long journey for me.
Somewhat self-absorbed and lacking insight into life’s challenges, my ideas about the role and importance of fatherhood also lacked maturity. I grew up in a home with divorce and an absent father. I surmised “I turned out okay (many might argue), so my kids could survive divorce with the same fate.” And most importantly, I was not going to expose my children (3 and 1 at the time of the separation) to the same kind of the acrimony that my parents openly displayed.”
It was in the first week of our separation that I was awakened to a realization that I think about since almost daily. It was about 6 days into our separation when I called my mother to talk about how I was doing. She asked, “How are the children?”
“I am not sure,” I responded, “I will see them next weekend.” My mother then asked if I had talked with them or seen them since leaving the house to which I told her, “No.”
“You need to try to talk to them every day. Call them and ask how they are doing. Anything. Find an excuse to talk with them. It doesn’t matter if you talk about what they ate for lunch; you need to be a constant presence in their lives.”
Her advice so foreign to me as I had never considered myself necessary to anyone. I told her, “I didn’t think that would be important. I didn’t consider the significance of my presence in their lives. I loved them but I thought every other weekend and one night during the week would be about the same.” While living with them, I was working two jobs and going to graduate school, after all, and so I didn’t consider the separation to be substantially different from the way things were prior to the divorce. My mother assured me that I mattered in their lives and that my daily presence would be important to them. So from that day forward, I made an attempt to call or see them every day. I missed some days due to travel and work, but I made it a priority to talk and see them as often as possible.
My story illustrates a few important principles in the role of fathers. First, many fathers today, perhaps due to their own childhood experience with fathers or due to the cultural messages of the emphasis on mothers’ roles don’t know or consider their importance in a child’s development. This is not an excuse but rather my attempt to shed a compassionate light on the challenges of fatherhood. We don’t know our value and often don’t have role models for nurturing, involved fathers. Many men still see their primary role in the family as that of a provider. Or at least many fathers fail to explore the wholeness of being a parent, embracing both the traditional masculine and famine roles. If they are succeeding in the provider role (which is an ever increasing challenge), they may leave the nurturing up to the mother. I run personal therapeutic intensives for parents and adults and in these experiences we do family of origin experiential work where participants set up “sculpts” and role plays and have conversations with their family members. Most commonly, clients set up sculptures where dad is off in the corner, in the office working, or drinking and staring at the T.V. Through tears, participants express grief and deep loss due to their fathers absence. I often find myself crying with them as they tell their fathers, “Dad, I missed you. I understand you did the best that you could, but I needed you to be there for me more. I wish you could have held me, played with me, and told me everything would be okay.”
Many men don’t know how to show up for their children and find much more meaning in the workplace. I often connect to fathers by sharing, “Work is much easier than home and at work you get praise and rewarded for your successes.”
My therapist once observed, “When you go to work and you ask someone for a pencil, they give it to you. You ask for a pencil at home and someone throws-up on your shoes.” Work becomes the escape for many men from a feeling of ineptness or powerlessness. I have many men that I work with who are extremely successful and accomplished in their professional careers. They often try to employ the same kind of leadership they found to be successful at work in the home only to learn from their children that it doesn’t work that way. Children act out and even self-sabotage just to prove to dad that they are not “employees” and that in the home, feelings, mistakes, and the development of self is more important that efficiency.
There has been a lot of deserved attention given to the portrayal of women in the media over the past few years. Body image ideals, limited roles in film, and inequality of pay have all begun to receive the consideration they deserve. Yet, take a look in popular T.V. and children’s films for the way fathers are often portrayed. What you often find is aloof, bungling, or dictatorial images of fathers. The sad thing is that I don’t disagree with these depictions. I see myself in many aspects. Yet the point I want to make here is that fathers deserve our compassionate attention. Men are often not socialized to consider their role as nurturers. Men are not valued for their capacity to feel or empathize, rather they are encouraged to think, compete and accomplish things. We need a revolution where men are encouraged to develop their capacity to feel and to empathize. We need men who can connect to and see children. We need fathers who value the set back and struggles as much as the successes. This is how children learn. And it is only in the context of this kind of paternal resonance that children experience the kind of fathering that contributes to a happy and healthy sense of self.