With Father’s Day swiftly approaching, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be a father and considering my relationship with my father as a cis-gendered White male.
My dad was often stolen away by his work as he sought to provide a certain level of comfort and freedom to me, his son. Despite the absence, my dad was the one that would be caring and thoughtful — a sort of landing strip I could rely upon when I was struggling emotionally.
Each of us have contradictory natures— me as well. I find pointing this out to a fellow father friend helps keep things in perspective and disarms the sneaky shame skulking in my psyche. The eternal question is: do I want to be like my father or not? Do I even have a choice? I, and my father before him, and his father before him, are influenced knowingly and unknowingly by a sea of forces driven culturally, historically, and by the family itself.
We each have our inheritance to accept as fully as we are able; by doing so, we may leave just enough space to be aware and redefine ourselves, which I think is particularly important in regards to gender. (More on that later.)
I like to use affirmations from Bert Hellinger, who developed family constellations, when considering my own family of origin. He found people are subject to unconscious drives and behave in a certain way because of those drives. He suggests people say symbolically to their dad:
- “You were the right father for me with all that it cost you and all that it cost me.”
- “Father, now I bow to you and agree to your fate.”
I want to get fatherhood right, and, admittedly, I will not most of the time. Remembering Hellinger’s affirmations, I can recognize my father has his own fate, and much of how my father is in response to my dad’s fate. I want to be both the dad he was and was not. I strive to be present in my children’s day-to-day life. I want to be attentive, patient, compassionate, creative, sensitive, boundaried, and more.
Each moment with my children is often a delightful, sometimes contracted invitation into the here and now. When I am fully present, we inhabit a lively, curious, deeply felt, and playful world that passes seamlessly and timelessly in this extraordinary dance of life. Even amidst the painful screams of an injury, physical or emotional, the demands for this or that, the utter devastation of a “no,” or just not getting it right (for instance, handing my daughter the blue sippy cup when she really wanted the pink one), there is an earnestness/solemness about being a dad. The role is responsive, boundaried, sensitive, caring, and fallible.
There are moments, not as often, when I am disconnected, lost, out of the sweet spot. I am taken away from my kids with some worry, work demand, vulnerability, or distraction by which I might feel unmoored and unattuned. I do my best to be forthright about my stumbles and make repairs wholeheartedly. As a man attempting to be more conscious and related, I strive to identify my vulnerabilities, feel them, and express them in my communications with my children, my partner, and my friends. It is a means of disarming the tendency to avoid, become defensive, or be quick-tempered. Seeking a sounding board and support among other like-minded men helps hone my capacity to truly show up in ways that have me leading from my heart versus my history and defenses.
I would be remiss if I did not thank my partner who is there for me, supports me, and maintains a kind reflection that I can grow and learn through by both her example and thoughtful challenge. My partner and my kids inspire me to think more deeply about gender roles, patriarchy, and feminism.
Feminism and fatherhood
First off, feminism is for us all. Feminism has played an important role in society during the 20th and 21st centuries by changing societal expectations from repressive patriarchal dictates to ones that offer choice and equality.
Singular notions of masculinity have been disrupted, creating space for fluidity and potentially leading us toward equality across the gender spectrum. Many reject the gender binary and instead encourage a shift in perspective that allows men and women to take up whatever roles they feel will fit with their subjective experience.
One such person is celebrity and self-proclaimed feminist Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He said in a Time interview in August 2014:
“[Y]ou don’t let your gender define who you are -- you can be who you want to be, whether you’re a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, whatever. However, you want to define yourself, you can do that and should be able to do that, and no category ever really describes a person because every person is unique. That, to me, is what ‘feminism’ means …. I’m a believer that if everyone has a fair chance to be what they want to be and do what they want to do, it’s better for everyone. It benefits society as a whole.”
The feminist message of equal rights and freedoms for women also applies to men. Just as women fight for the freedom to express themselves and hold space within society according to their subjective experiences, men must be able to do the same despite prescribed norms.
We must allow ourselves as men to occupy space and still be considered masculine in whatever way we perform the role as man and father. This freedom is both a liberty and a challenge because letting go means navigating a sea of choice that takes a person out of the bay of historically gendered expectations. That inheritance may be a comfort, but it can also be a prison.
More and more, we see challenges put to the existing norms of what it means to be masculine and a father, in contrast to doctrines defining a universal and objective truth that limits the existence of diverse rights, roles, and obligations available to the modern man.
Just as women have been fighting the feminist battle for generations, so too are men taking up proverbial arms in the name of re-storying the gendered discourse that no longer reflects their lived experiences of masculinity.
We are not men wearing different “man hats.” We are not strong, assured, independent, and tough at work while gentle, caring, fair, compassionate, emotionally available, and silly at home. We may embody all these complex qualities at once on an intricate spectrum of masculinity. By acknowledging and speaking about our efforts to break traditionally held patterns in both our family and society, we learn how to communicate in a way that makes the unconscious conscious. These ripples of awareness may extend to professional colleagues, friends, and family. These ripples may empower our children to further challenge stereotypes.
I see my role as a therapist and a father as one in which I support men in shifting existing perspectives. Together we create space for the man to speak, be heard regarding his subjective experiences, and shift the cultural discourse on gendered masculinity. It is a duty that I hold sacred.