Who Was Your Father…Who Are You?
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 men today.
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
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!
If you enjoyed this article you may want to look at my book “Becoming a Dad, How Fatherhood Changes Men.”
A few Questions for refection:
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
3. If you were to write a letter to your father about how you feel
about him, what would it say?