Sunday, April 27, 2008

Life Lessons for Men: Finding Our Fathers

In the 1990's, I worked as a counselor focusing on men's issues and men's relationships with women, children, and one another. At the time, a "men's movement" was alive and growing in America and around the world. Men were meeting in support groups and weekend gatherings to explore what it means to be a man and to redefine their masculine identity.

While the media and others made fun of "men drumming in the woods," the reality for men I worked with individually and in groups was a heartfelt experience of emotional healing and personal growth. The single most troubling relationship of these men, who ranged in age from their late 20's to early 70's, was with their father. Fathers who didn't have a clue about being a father and emotionally vulnerable with their loved ones.

Samuel Osherson's book, Finding Our Fathers, was a groundbreaking book on the subject and continues to be as relevant for men today as when it was first published. While many fathers now have closer ties to their children and greater emotional awareness, the demands of their work lives are often even greater than in previous generations of fathers. In our busy, cell phone-internet world, dads are distracted from day-to-day human contact with their children (who are busier than ever before themselves!). Being fully present with one another is a difficult challenge.

In his book, Osherson explores how men's early experiences (and ongoing relationship) with their fathers affects their male identity and subsequent relationships with their wives, children, friends, and bosses. In his extensive research and in-depth interviews, the author shows that "if a man is to be a good father to his son, or a good husband to his wife, he needs to know what he got, or wanted and didn't get, from his own father; how he was both strengthened and wounded by that relationship; how it has influenced his own fathering style and his own identity as a man."

In my childhood, my dad was absent much of the time, working as a traveling salesman in Minnesota and the Dakotas. When he came home on weekends, he was stoic and often angry and abusive. Mostly, I feared him and felt angry that he left me, his eldest son, to be the "man of the house" while he was gone. And be his surrogate husband for my mother and surrogate father for my brothers and sister when I was a child.

Both of my grandfathers presented a model of manhood that was the typical Minnesota male stoic (spiced with occasional bursts of anger). I felt some warmth from my dad's father (who always played a skinny Santa Claus at Christmas). But I had little emotional connection with my mother's farmer dad except when he offered us kids a very small glass of chilled Grain Belt beer (from long-neck bottles) on hot summer afternoons sitting around the dining table with the men.

Among my few positive male role models were teachers who encouraged my intellectual growth and rewarded me with good grades. Yet my worst model of manhood was a coach/phys-ed teacher -- a man who once hit me over the head (from behind) with a heavy book, knocking me to the floor for reasons still unknown. That quickly ended my participation in sports he coached (good judgment on my part!) and increased my fear of men.

Thankfully, I had good "buddies" as friends in my childhood. We did all the things boys did in western Minnesota in the 50's and 60's -- playing "peewee" baseball, exploring "snake hill" trails, bike riding all over town, bullhead and crappie fishing, and as teens, pheasant and duck hunting. Then came "girls" (dances, dates, and first kisses), cars!, drive-in movies, smoking, beer-drinking "out in the country," and much more (while being good students in school, of course).

We all went off to college and gradually drifted away from regular contact with one another as we graduated, got our first "real" jobs, moved away from Minnesota, got married, and became fathers. Fathering ... what an experience when you don't have a clue about what to do (and the books about it didn't "compute" with any inner experience from childhood!). I muddled through with lots of help from my wife, the mother of our two sons -- who were born when I was 25 and 29 years old.

As a father, I "showed up" for my sons but ultimately failed at being present and emotionally available to them. I wasn't emotionally intimate with myself in my late 20's and 30's so had a hard time being a father and husband. Like my dad, I did "work" very well, along with my intellectual pursuits, but relationships suffered mightily. I was still so angry with my dad that I didn't allow my sons any contact with him. It took depression and divorce to bring my feelings to life (but, too late for fathering my sons the way I wish I could have). Hard as it was, and with lots of counseling, I "woke up" and did the emotional work to heal (and forgive) my father before he died in 1997. And I had conversations with each of my sons to express my regrets about what kind of father I was to them when they were children.

I agree with Sam Osherson that "If things are imperfect with our children or our childhood (as they are bound to be) there are second, third, and fourth changes as we age and grow. It's never over between parents and children, no matter how old we are. Merely the effort to understand each other can be healing between the generations."

I suspect that as my sons reach mid-life, they may find even more "unfinished business" with me come to the surface as they deal with their own fathering (or not fathering). Not to mention their relationships with their wives or woman-friends, their male friendships (or lack of), men they deal with in their work lives, and their own masculine identity. I've let them know I'm always available to listen, to hear whatever they have to say to me, and to go to counseling together if they so desire.

My hope is that all the wounds from generations of fathers in my family will be healed before my death and not be passed on to my grandchildren and their children.

With hindsight, I can now see how my relationship with my father and my struggles with fathering led me into the men's movement, to building long-term relationships with male friends, and to working with other men as a counselor and men's group "mid-wife" for many years. And to being emotionally available in an intimate relationship with a dearly loved woman.

As I reflect on my personal experience and work with hundreds of men, the most important outcome of completing "unfinished business" with our fathers is an opening of our hearts -- allowing us to be emotionally vulnerable in relationships with women, children, and our fellow men.

Over the years, the best measure I found of a man's trustworthy masculinity is his valuing of relationships with other men, demonstrated by his willingness to devote time and energy to male friendships throughout his life. Trusted friendships with men who he feels safe and secure enough with to speak his feelings -- his sadness, his fears, his anger, and his joys. And to listen with caring and compassion to the emotions of other men (without advice-giving).

When a man can be a trusted friend, he is able to be a fully-engaged father, an intimate relationship partner, and ultimately, his own man.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a single mother of two sons, I am concerned about the effect of the absence of my sons' father on their development. It is encouraging to me when I see or hear of men who have managed to achieve manhood, in the positive sense, in spite of absent or destructive fathers. I am always on the lookout for good men to mentor my sons-- coaches, family friends, etc. Thanks for your thoughts, which tell me that with some awareness my sons can continue to find their way as men as they grow into adulthood, with or without their biological father.