On Fatherhood (written to mark International Father’s Mental Health Day 2020.)
No sooner has Fathers’ Day come and gone (June 21st) then we turn, the very next day, to marking International Fathers’ Mental Health Day (IFMHD). This day has now been up and running for the last few years. Like so many of these celebratory days I fear it may get overlooked amid the daily blizzard of social media memes and sensationalist news. It would be a shame if this happened to IFMHD. But any neglect might also be due to the nature of the day itself. For it asks us to go beyond the abstract and into the particular and the personal: to look compassionately and objectively at how we were treated by our fathers and how we’re fairing as fathers. The impetus behind the initiative appears to fall on the dramatic wrenching event which occurs when a man suddenly shifts from being just a regular bloke to becoming a father. The new-born days and months can indeed be most bewildering and, not least in terms of importance, profoundly sleep-deprived. Using this narrow lens for examing fatherhood is understandable. 'Fatherhooding' - the verb is accurate if not elegant - never stays still for long. All is marked by constant evolution and change. Therefore the choice to draw the net over a manageable and relatable portion of it is a pragmatic one; the subject is just too big.
But what IFMHD can do, whatever its limitations, is to open up a space for potentially difficult conversations. By doing so we prepare ourselves, we men I mean, to begin to confront the sort of searching, self-directed questions hinted at above. If we’ve been well-cared for and fathered ourselves then we’re not likely to stumble in giving our answers. But if we weren’t then our words might fail us – we’d much rather just change the topic, if it’s all the same to you. For these questions like Was I loved by my Pa? Am I truly able to give and receive love to my children? are not, after all, everyday questions. They are more like questions that only a therapist or the closest of friends get to ask. But shouldn’t we all be more able to ask these questions of the men in our lives? I guess this is partly why IFMHD was created in the first place – and I applaud the two men, Andrew Mayers and Mark Williams, who set it up.
Before I come back to fathers and fathering, I think we need to lay down a few ideas about that other vexing subject which stands behind our subject: the nature of masculinity, of maleness, itself. The highly complex admixture of nature and nurture is where the truth of who we really are – as men and women – lies. Both sexes, everyday fleeting observations would suggest, share most things in common – we’re all capable of feeling that vast range of affect capacities and moods: of being passionate and intellectual, reflective and instinctive, quiet and talkative. And yet we are also aware of a small, nagging voice at the back of our minds that says we, men and women, are not just copies of each other all the way down, with only different bodies to tell us apart. Sameness does not rule after all. And we find these differences strongly emerging around family life experiences and the roles we play within our families. The mother-baby bond, to take the most obvious of examples, is one that men cannot enter into or really understand. Biology and its bending through vast tracts of evolutionary time has surely kept us men barely in touch with certain emotional and intuitive responses that women have got the measure of long, long ago. To put this more plainly: in my time as a counsellor I see again and again the playing out of shadowy evolutionary legacies – and their continuance through social conformity and stereotyping: the barely restrainable anger that men can feel – frequently brushed away through euphemisms of the ‘short fuse’ and the ‘fiery temperament’; the manner in which some men (but in sufficient numbers to make it feel more than just statistical blips), often break off and shut down their relationships and then retreat into some form of self-punishing and self-destructive behaviour. Writing about such things isn’t easy, but if we are to have something approaching a new start for men and therefore for fathers in our age – not least because we walk in the wake #MeToo and all other manifestations of ‘toxic masculinity’ – then we must look at the whole truth of who we men are and how we got to be this way. (If this vast, and vastly complex, area interests you I would suggest reading Mel Konner's book Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, New York: W.W. Norton, 2015)
When working with clients who also happen to be fathers, and when it might benefit them and their process, I share some of my experiences of fatherhood. I share with them something of my own tough days: the brittle patience all too easily broken when child-rearing is challenging, the struggles to separate out my own childhood issues from those of my children, the times when I felt little other than boredom and distraction and horribly boxed in by my self-created role as house servant (not that the doing of domestic tasks is unimportant: the many, many jobs of family life must be done by someone after all). Sometimes I go deeper still: I reveal my inability to stick for long with my children’s highly repetitive play. Overall: having to live with my ever-wandering mind which only desires to take me further and further away from the immediate concerns of my children. I don’t imagine for one second that these struggles, these many hours of near complete zoning-out, are owned or known by men alone. In many ways it is much harder for mothers to admit to all of the above weaknesses, if weaknesses they are.
Though rooted in a fragment of the truth, and too often waved around as a full-proof opt-out card, fathering is often spoken about with accompanying grins and laughter. On my shelf is a book from 1928: On Being a Father, by A.M. and K.E. Walker. It is a most light-hearted guide to what is perhaps the most important of all human endeavours: the care, nurture and education of children. Here’s a brief taster:
‘If the care of children were to be entrusted to men, most babies would go hungry and dirty and any feeling of paternity that existed would be stifled by the tedium and irritation of looking after them. It is as fortunate for children as it is for the men that the duties of paternity are restricted. If it were not so one might tremble for the safety of the human race.’
We may laugh and yet … fatherhood has a shadow over it. We just don’t always know what we’re doing or supposed to be doing. And our minds – and bodies – so often wish to be elsewhere. And yes, uncertainty and frustration are valid as feelings because they do what feelings always do: simply rise up, unbidden. But we not obliged to take the next step - a case of translating the sentence ‘I find this really hard’ into ‘I’ll disappear now so I don’t have to keep doing this’. The economic fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic will hit women harder than men – which also goes for the three months of the actual lockdown. Plenty of stuck-at-home fathers have been reluctant, so female friends tell me, to sharing out equally the daily domestic round. In the midst of the pandemic has returned, or so it would seem, that old chestnut that we men are just not very good at multitasking. That 1928 view of fathering suddenly looks less out-of-date than at first glance.
But to go on at length about the pressures and the pains of parenting is to tell a most one-sided story. The profound bonds and connections we experience with our children matter enormously to most men, though I for one routinely overlook them and instead keep myself a-wallowing in my irritated moods and curbed freedoms. When I’m not with my sons I worry about them all the time; part of me just wants to be around them, trying - though in vain, mostly - to keep them happy and safe all of the time. But I don’t necessarily want to be with them all the time (nor they with me). Fathering, and mothering, is a task of such enormous subtlety: we aim to provide the right amount of freedom for our children to grow in but not so much that it starts to slide into indifference, or worse, unconscious neglect. We passionately hold them close when distress and fear wash over them, but at the same time we know we must also create for them an opening out onto the world from which they may, of course, never return. Fathering, just like mothering, is often a most thankless task.
My hope, at the end of the day, is to be the ‘good enough’ parent. And for someone at my level of self-doubting, even this feels like a bit of a grand claim at times! But I may need to let go of my striving and my disappointments a bit more often for the repeated parental pattern of falling down and getting back up again may well be amongst the most valuable lessons I can perform for my children. For they, more than likely, will in due course go through the same falling down and getting up cycles with their children. And at this point they will start to ask themselves: What did I really get handed to me by my father? What in it was truly good and what, perhaps, less-than-good? Dear old Dad, I know he tried and did his best! I can give him that now and forgive him his moments of losing it.