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Fatherhood the new “Men’s Movement”

Parenting is hard. Balancing work and family is hard. Kids are kids. Our families are
not accessories to our lives or objects we can control completely. And if we want to be the sort of parents to raise children of character and integrity, we have to unselfishly give a great deal of ourselves to the project.
—Author Unknown

One of the lasting changes that came out of the 1960’s was the Women’s Movement. What women began as a revolution, however, has become an evolution. Both women and men are continuing to move away from traditionally defined gender roles. While these role changes have perhaps been more visible for women, men are moving at their own pace towards new possibilities. The changes in role expectations are opening up a new world for men who want to be fathers. The egalitarianism that is now possible among couples allows men to express their deep desire and ability to nurture and care that was previously the object of social disapproval. Men are beginning to feel that they have a choice between spending time at work and taking time to be with their children while they grow up. Men who were able to take advantage of this possibility began to report a very deep feeling of satisfaction as well as personal growth, which they experienced by being with and caring for their babies. As other men viewed this new role-making behavior and began to hear men recount the peak experience of being present at their children’s birth, the notion of becoming a father began to take on new meaning.

In the new potentials of being fathers, men see the possibility to express themselves through nurturing; there appears to be something very attractive about this for many men. Maybe this nurturing quality has been dormant within men for decades. Perhaps watching their children being born triggers some ancient biological process. As men spend more time with their children, new images of what it means to be a “real man” are being created. What is going on in the men’s movement?  (Do they really need a movement?)

Since most of the institutions in our society are designed and controlled by men, what do we really want to change?  War, poverty, racism and the relationship between men and women are not separate and independent issues but interconnected and part of our social value system. Any men’s movement that does exist owes a great debt to the women’s movement and the development of feminist philosophy/ psychology in the United States. Since the 1960’s women have been championing the causes of equality and equity both in the work world and in family life. Thus, for 53 years they have led the struggle to improve education and childcare.

Today’s media-driven men’s movement has ignored fatherhood. This has been my personal experience as I have participated in groups and workshops over the past twenty-five years, and it was one of the reasons for my starting the Father’s Forum in 1986. In groups with Robert Bly and Michael Mead, and in my own men’s groups and activities here in Northern California, I found a wonderful community of men.

I discovered that the competitiveness and isolation I was taught to value was keeping me from being part of a community. The losses I carried within and never expressed were slowly eating me up from the inside. I began to understand how the unconscious devaluing of women had cut me off from a more nurturing part of myself. Through myth and stories, but mostly in the care of men—some older, some younger—I found a place to tell my stories. I became aware of how little opportunity I had had to talk about life, and the struggles of my own experiences, with other men.

This is the greatest gift of the men’s movement—to have the opportunity to safely talk with other men about the inner experiences of day-to-day living. This is the most healing and politically radical change the men’s movement has created. It was not until I had children myself that I began to realize that the issues of being a father and having a family were not being addressed by my “men’s work.” Talking about what it means to be a man is important, but if it does not connect us to the greater issues of our lives, then the men’s movement is a failure. If the men’s movement causes a greater schism between men and women than already exists, then it has failed doubly.

I think the most vital aspect of today’s men’s movement—and the least publicized and understood—is fatherhood. A fundamental shift is taking place in our society. We are aspiring to transition from a hierarchical to a partnership culture. Here we find that work and home life, making money and raising children, are becoming cooperative ventures by men and women.

What today’s fathers are doing all over the country is a grass-roots political movement. When men become fathers, an opportunity for a profound and fundamental emotional shift in consciousness arises. The vulnerability of their children can touch their own fears and vulnerabilities, and an emotional awakening can occur. This awakening is not just to the world of feelings. It is a connection to the world of greater political realities that they must now struggle with. It is the experience of “generativity” that carries the father from his own concerns about his identity as a man to the greater concerns for his family and community. For years the men’s movement has attempted to help men develop from the narcissistic stage of manhood to more dynamic involvement in our society. Today’s fathers are fulfilling this aspiration. Our sense of manhood, what kind of person we want to be—beyond gender definition—is what today dads struggle is with. I see it over and over again in my fathers’ groups. Men are reintegrating the nurturing and generative aspects of their emotional lives, and are coming to terms with a new definition of what it means to be a man, a definition which includes how to contribute to a society worthy of bringing children into.

Understanding what it takes to be a parent—the sleepless nights and endless patience, feeling the fears and vulnerabilities of having young children, worrying about education and childcare, figuring out how to provide guidance, setting limits without injuring your child’s spirit, living equitably with your partner, being a parent and a husband, crafting a loving marriage and a family with values, morals and ethics—these are the challenges for today’s dads. Sharing these struggles with other men/fathers helps create a community of men who are not only raising their consciousness about being men but about the society we live in.

It is my hope that as the respective men and women’s movements continue to develop, we will see that our similarities outweigh our differences. We can live together as allies and raise children who will reflect all the best of what it means to be not just men or women, but truly caring human beings.

Bruce Linton, Ph.D  (c)                                                                                                                                  For more information on how men as dad’s are changing visit the Fathers’ Forum Online.