Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Fathers Day, Part Three: A Few More Perspectives

My father died when I was 13, so this is the 30th Fathers Day I have not had a father to honor or spend the day with. It's been in recent years that I have become aware of how deeply I was wounded by growing up without a father. Not that my father was all that great, but he was the only father I knew.

Many other men have grown up without fathers - and many of them had fathers who walked or were never present. One of my co-workers, a decade or more younger than me, grew up NEVER knowing his father - and now he has a new daughter to join his wonderful young son. He has done everything he can to be an active father - I admire him for that.

If You Don't Have a Father Today...

Maybe you don't have a dad to meet with today. It's your day too...

Maybe you don't have a father anymore, or feel like you never did. Maybe you never knew him, or maybe he was never around enough to know - emotionally, mentally, or spiritually - even if he was often physically in the same room. Maybe you, yourself, are also a father, or will be soon, would like to be one someday, are married to one, have a child with one, or already have a fatherly role toward others as a teacher, advisor, mentor or boss. While we celebrate and honor the great fathers who are here with us today, many millions of us don't have one, and this day is for you too.

What can you do today, and how is it that you have made it this far without a dad to reach out to through the years?

Volumes of research on human resilience exist that explain your current success and healthy adjustment. Whether you are a man or woman, taking note of the fact that you do have a good life right now at this very moment is proof that you have everything in you that you ever needed to survive the loss of a father, the absence of a father, the need for a father, and thrive anyway. As someone who lost a father at a young age - and for over a decade has specialized in helping men and women overcome the effects of that absence on their dating, relationship, and career lives - I'd like to share a bit of that research, and some things I've learned along the way.

Fathers not only make us more resilient people, but our own natural resilience also assists us in finding the fathering we need. Human resilience has been defined as:

a. a positive outcome despite the experience of adversity;
b. continued positive or effective functioning in adverse circumstances; or
c. recovery after a significant trauma (Masten et al., 1999).

My own dad died when I was twenty-two, in the midst of medical school, and had just broken up with a fiancée. My little brothers were eighteen and about to enter college, and twelve and about to enter puberty. I could safely say that the particular week my dad died was also probably the week I had most needed him, ever. And while my brothers and I dealt with the loss at different developmental stages, with different challenges and gifts, and in unique ways amongst us, there were most certainly universal effects to overcome and actions to take to adapt and heal.

I called my brothers today to ask what they are doing. One informed me that he is going to connect with his former rugby coaches, his former priest, and our father's best friend from childhood. The second is going to church with his new wife and her parents. I am going to spend time writing about fathers, assisting some of my clients on the matter, and then will meet with some good male friends whose fathers aren't going to be in the city for the weekend.

I'm also thinking about personal heroes such as an old friend and journalist who passed on many years ago - Starr Wright. He was one of many fatherly people who stepped in to help me along when I needed it. He saw a glimmer of passion for writing in me long ago, encouraged it and nurtured it. With a chuckle thumbing through my earliest clumsy attempts at writing, Starr would put out his cigarette, cough, clear his throat, and regardless of my lack of inborn talent, stoke the pure interest and passion for it, saying, "You're doing good, kid. Keep at it and don't let anyone tell you what it's worth but you. Get to work."

In all of these personal examples, there is a common thread about resilient humans - men and women both. When we can't get what we need from a single source, we adapt and get it anyway from diverse sources past, present, and future. We find fathering in our mentors and coaches, our spiritual leaders or the spiritual experience itself, from looking at our father's life and his past, those who shaped him, indirectly from the fathers of our friends and loved ones, and even from our makeshift families called "circles of friends" - what have also been called "urban tribes" that can substitute for nontraditional or broken families.

We can even look to the future with guidance from men we have never even met, and will never likely meet - our heroes. Feeling fathered, the gifts fathers bestow, life skills they teach, and guidance they provide from a masculine worldview do not have to come from a single source. They can be collected and refined from our life's experience in the social arena itself, the "school of hard knocks," and the kind and competent men we meet along the way.

I'm particularly proud of my brothers' abilities to have graduated college, found excellence in careers, and a solid role in marriage and family with no resources or guidance to begin with.

The absence of a dad is certainly known to affect the young in different ways depending on what their level of psychological development is, but it's not just what's in you that matters - how you will do with your life is also dependent on what you surround yourself with, and what you do with the circumstances you are in, to adapt. To take your "lemons and make lemonade."

Glen Elder in Children of the Great Depression (1974), identified the profound effects of historical change on human development. By comparing the experiences of children born in Berkeley and parts of Oakland, California, in the early and late 1920s, he could show that children born at the beginning of the 1920s were not as susceptible to the effects of family disruption and hardship caused by the Great Depression as children born in the late 1920s (Elder, 1974/1999). The findings illustrate that developmental processes should be viewed not only in relation to individually lived time, but also in relation to the socio-historical context in which they take place.

We live in a time of history right now that has been compared to the Great Depression. And while many of the statistics show job losses taking a heavy toll on men's health and welfare even more than on women currently, we have different resources at our disposal in the form of social networking and technology, behavioral science and education. The need men and women have for a father hasn't changed, but the pressures on fathers, and our means of accessing their gifts, have.

It's a different and more challenging social world for men to contend with than it was a generation ago.

For about a decade I have contributed to teaching an online community of men who - on the surface - seek out information with which to better their dating, relationship, social and romantic lives in general. What I found in that time was something deeper than just a public need for more accessible dating tips for men. I met men of all ages, some single, some divorced, some fathers themselves and all struggling to find a role, a place, and social satisfaction in our changing society. The universal need underneath their diversity ends up clearly being a need for a father - they all identify an absent father, a neglectful one, an abusive one, a father confused over his own role in a marriage, community, or society, or at the very least, the absence of enough practical, genuine, fatherly advice from our media to the degree and breadth of social and romantic guidance that women have enjoyed for decades in that same media.

For the past several years, men haven't been flocking to the internet "men's dating community" to learn how to date. They're looking for a father.

Fathers teach us "how to use our bodies" - which is to say, how to take action out there in the world - to take our resources and use them, face our challenges with courage, adapt, innovate, and solve our problems with our own two hands.

They teach their sons about women, and competition with other men. They don't just lecture, but literally show their sons how to play sports or fix cars, or get a job that's meaningful. By example they show sons how to grow a character maturity which will lead to someday having a satisfying marriage, career, and a legacy to give back to the world (as he will have done for us.)

Fathers teach their daughters about men, both through their stories, and through personal example - being the very first man she has ever encountered and "fallen in love with." Fathers show their daughters they are valuable and precious, and will always, always be protected and safe, but that they have guts and strength and resolve no less than a man. If he can see to it, he will always be there for you to help, to remind you of who you are when you are confused or stressed, and that you are not just any girl or woman, a statistic in today's confusing social and romantic arenas, or a cog in a corporate wheel, but his daughter.

No matter who you are, a man or woman, or whether your father is alive or available to meet today, you come from a long line of fathers - generation after generation over centuries and ages have led up to making you who you are right now. You are a resilient person from a long line of resilient people. You have the right to celebrate today with all the joy you can muster, honoring those who have fathered you - mentors, advisors, teachers, spiritual leaders, friends, bosses and partners - whether they had one minute to spare which would impact you for a lifetime, or years of devoted concern to give.

It is a day to do - to take action the way fathers are so good at helping us with, rather than just to think or ponder our lives. Here, then, are some actions you can take:

• Contact those mentors, teachers, spiritual leaders, advisors, coaches, and elder friends from your past - to thank them for their impact.

• Be with the friends, supporters, and confidantes of your present life who are your examples of good fathering, and with whom you are striving to go out into the world to make an impact.

• Remember who your heroes have been and who they are now, noticing that their own best features are always aspects of yourself - perhaps qualities you haven't yet cultivated, matured, and brought to bear in the world around you. Join one new activity that your heroes are gifted at.

• Look to the future and enjoy it now instead of waiting for it to be provided to you. The actions you will take while being your own best counsel - fathering yourself - will lead there.

• Look to the future and wonder who you will provide fathering to, the impact you will make, and the legacy you will leave behind when you're gone. Start now, and offer to help someone less skilled than you, today.

Regardless of the reasons your father is not around - whether there is unfinished business, anger at him, remorse over what went unsaid or undone , loneliness and missing him, or in a time of stress for which you really wish he was around to provide the answer - you are still here and there are real things that need to get done. You don't have to impress his memory because you never could get his attention, or vow to be his opposite because he let you down. You are resilient, and can forgive his failings while enjoying the skills for building a life you inherited anyway, if only in his DNA.

Get to work.

Father's Day is your day too, and in every courageous act in which you do what is right, even if it is difficult or uncomfortable, every ambition in which you fail and pick yourself up anyway for another go at it, you're living a genuine Father's Day. Every time you pass on what you know, assisting someone with less competence, less experience or skill than your own, you are honoring yourself, and fathers everywhere. You're honoring fatherhood itself.

You're doing good, kid. Keep at it, and don't let anyone tell you what you're worth but you.

One of the reasons those of us who didn't have fathers feel that loss is that we missed a lot of the crucial things fathers teach their sons (not sure I would have gotten these things from my father, which makes me long for a REAL father even more).

My father really didn't have a lot of male friends - usually one or two and no more - and somehow I have picked that bad trait up from him. I am trying to change that, but it's harder to make friends with men, and more so to know men with interests similar to my own. I continue to work at it.

Do men learn about friendships from their fathers?

Do men think their fathers had male friends?
by Geoffrey Greif

Did your father have friendships with other men? Did you learn about how to make friends friends from him? We interviewed 386 men for Buddy System: Understanding male friendships and asked them specifically if their fathers had friends and what they learned from their fathers about friendships. The men we interviewed were diverse in terms of age, face, and religion.

Growing up, sons constantly observe and monitor their fathers' actions - the way they slouch, talk, act around others. Sometimes they try and speak in their father's deep voice or treat others the way he does. One of my closest friends from childhood often was admonished by his own father with the words, "little man, come here." I was amazed when he referred to his own son with the same words and in the same tone of voice. Sons also observe if their fathers have friends and what they do with them. Do they come over to the house, hang out together at the basketball court, or in the corner bar? If a man was raised by a father who felt comfortable around other men friends, he is likely to adopt that same perspective with his friends.

Naturally, many men were not raised by men either because the fathers were physically absent or emotionally absent from the family. They had to rely on other men (uncles, coaches, male mentors) or women to raise them. They may have grown up longing for more contact with a man and may have become even keener observers of older men because they were short a role model in their own home. One man I interviewed for the book said that he tried to excel in sports to please other fathers, because he could not please his own absent father.

We asked men if their father had friends and learned that 45% of the men thought their father had many friends when they were growing up, 25% had few friends, and 30% believed their father had no friends! (Men who did not know their fathers did not answer the question.) Thus, over half thought their father had few or no friends. As can be imagined, some men, especially those whose father had friends, learned the importance of friendships from their father. They relayed stories of men helping out their fathers and even tending to fathers who were terminally ill. Others grew up seeing their fathers isolated from or unkind to other men. They swore they would do the opposite of what their father had done - they would make friends and not live what they perceived to be a lonely life or a life too focused on work.

Bottom line - men need to have friends both for themselves and to serve as role models for their children. People with friends live longer, healthier lives. Men can compensate for what they did not get from their own father by reaching out to others and can pass down good models of friendship to the next generation.

Finally, a poem from William Matthews (more Fathers Day poems here).

Men at My Father’s Funeral

by William Matthews

The ones his age who shook my hand
on their way out sent fear along
my arm like heroin. These weren’t
men mute about their feelings,
or what’s a body language for?

And I, the glib one, who’d stood
with my back to my father’s body
and praised the heart that attacked him?
I’d made my stab at elegy,
the flesh made word: the very spit

in my mouth was sour with ruth
and eloquence. What could be worse?
Silence, the anthem of my father’s
new country. And thus this babble,
like a dial tone, from our bodies.

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