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Who Was Your Father…Who Are You?

by Bruce Linton, Founder of the Fathers’ Forum

What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found in the son the unveiled secret of the father. Friedrich Nietzsche

When men become fathers, they are confronted with a profound challenge to understand what “father” means to them. Most men are perplexed by this. In both my personal and professional lives, I have searched to understand why becoming a father is such an uncertain experience for today’s men.

In the fathers’ groups I have led, most men look to their own fathers as examples of how to be parents. Reflecting on their own fathers’ behavior often leaves them feeling sad, lonely, frustrated, angry and ambivalent. In our group, together, we struggle to understand and make peace with our fathers. Many of the men in my groups feel very limited by having a father who was either physically or emotionally absent from their lives. We try to understand how we can be more available and more emotionally connected with our families. Some of the men who had abusive fathers become fearful and wonder if they might hurt their own children. If we must rely on our own personal fathers as teachers or mentors on parenting, we may feel limited. To understand himself as a man, each of us must come to an understanding of his own father and his father’s influence on his life, both positive and negative.

However, I question the limitation of understanding one’s own father as a path to becoming a more nurturing parent. We have to look beyond our fathers. Where must we look to gain a broader perspective about what it means to be a father?

The idea of an original model after which similar things are patterned—a kind of prototype—is what the depth-psychologist Carl Jung called an archetype. I thought there would have to be a prototype for what it means to be a father, but I was surprised by what I discovered. There is an archetype for motherhood. The “Madonna and Child” image appears in some form throughout the world. The biological basis of pregnancy and giving birth sets up a relationship between mother and child that is, to varying degrees, stable in all parts of the world. This is not the case for fatherhood. Images of fathers and their relationships with their children and families are not stable, and vary widely from culture to culture.

If this is true, what does it tell us about the meaning of fatherhood? To begin with, it seems to indicate that fatherhood is socially constructed. Depending upon the culture, the historical time and the needs of the society, fathers may play a variety of roles. It is both a frightening and liberating thought that fathers have no prototypic model for how to be parents. This means that men can stop looking towards (and perhaps blaming) their own fathers for instruction (or lack thereof ) on how to be fathers. They can begin to explore within themselves and in the world at large for the kinds of behavior and family life they would like to provide for their own children. They must turn to each other, father to father, and learn together how to develop positive nurturing relationships with their children.

Understanding what it means to be a father is a very personal journey for each and every one of us. Each father, in his own way, must search out and discover what kind of father he wants to be for his children. It is a difficult journey and many men shy away from questioning what it means to be a father. For those who are willing to take the journey, however, it is surely a path filled with heartfelt expectations. Hopefully it is a path shared with fellow fathers where, at this time in history, we can help each other along the way. Perhaps never before have we fathers had such an opportunity to consciously participate in the lives of our children.

It’s a great time to be a father. Seize the moment!

For Further self-reflection and discussion:

  1. What was most difficult for your father in his life?
  2. How did your father fail you in your life, and how was he there for you?
  3. If you were to write a letter to your father about how you feel about him, what would it say?