“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their … children than the unlived life of the parent.” — C. G. Jung
Although I’m writing this before Father’s Day, this won’t be published until several days after June 20th. How seriously we think of fathering is something I wanted to consider.
Traditionally, our patriarchal culture has promoted men to be the head of their families, to be the strong protector, the dominant one in relationships. Yet, the outdated stereotype of fathers is not helpful to children and can often be damaging. The good news is that many more dads are now sharing the valuable role of raising their children. They continue to be important figures in their children’s lives, both in intact as well as divorced families.
Of course, not all father-child relationships are created equal. As much as many dads embrace their relationship with their children, there are indeed differences in how men view their role. Much of this depends on their family of origin, childhood trauma, and their ancestral patterns of fathering. Typically, boys learn very early to be strong rather than to feel. Between the ages of 4 and 6, they can easily be disconnected from their feelings, as they experience shame with emotional expression. As they mature, their need to fit in with peers becomes more important. Admitting vulnerability, sadness, or defeat can quickly bring rejection or the withdrawal of support from their peer group, compromising their self-confidence.
The pressure for boys to always be strong is demanding — as such a large part of life experience is about hurt, sadness, frustration, disappointment, and many other vulnerable feelings, boys miss out on developing their emotional intelligence. We can’t expect men to seamlessly transform into emotional partners or nurturing fathers if they haven’t been raised to be tender, open-hearted. As boys grow older, any “recovery” must happen in private, rather than risk shame. When they finally emerge from isolation, having suffered in silence, those feelings have been internalized. Thus, parents might only witness the withdrawal, without understanding the reasons or the distress signals. It’s important to change this pattern by responding differently to boys. Providing a safe environment in which they remain in touch with their feelings, we need to also be aware of our shaming reactions to our boys. The unconditional love and acceptance of them, regardless of their behavior, builds healthy self-esteem.
In thinking about how all this relates to fathers, boys ultimately grow into the men who become the next generation of husbands and dads. What expectations do we have? Women want soul mates, intimate friends/partners. We observe their interactions with our children through a critical lens, expecting emotional nourishment, close connection, warm engagement. Some dads can easily provide this, while others fall short of meeting those expectations, spending much of their parenting years being reminded of their shortcomings, retreating from any emotional connection. Yet fathers play such a valuable role in their children’s experience, offering a different lens on the world.