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When Father’s Day Stings

Written by Bruce Dolin, Psy.D.   
Saturday, 01 June 2013 00:00

With Father’s Day having its 103rd anniversary in June, it seems a good opportunity to both honor dads, but also to send extra love to kids who don’t have dads, or who have been wounded by dads (and to the moms who parent them). What is the emotional and psychological effect of not having a dad, or of having one who is hurtful? And what is a “father,” anyway? Is it a biological identity? Is it an archetypal role (i.e. Zeus, Moses, the Male Ruler)? Can men be good mothers? Can women “father” their children?

A lot of dads are chipped right off the old block, complete with chip still on shoulder. Other, “modern,” fathers are very involved and nurturing, but not entirely sure if they are being their full selves as men. The old archetypes of patriarchy and control remain, and haunt us; movies like The Hangover make us laugh, but also make us wonder if men couldn’t bond without hating women. Many of the fathers we grew up with are a lot like the God we grew up with; we were told that they love us, but they didn’t show up all that often (and when they did, we were well-advised to fear them as much as love them).


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The American archetype of the negative “father” is rather like Willie Lohman in Death of a Salesman: narcissistic, destructive and tragic. The counterpoint is Atticus Finch, the heroic father in To Kill a Mockingbird, who stands for courage, service and fairness, as a parent and as a professional, even in the face of having lost his wife.

As a psychologist, I find that accurate and compassionate understanding, patiently applied, often frees people from their old patterns—including their unconscious relationships with their fathers. Thus it serves us, and our children, to contemplate a few of the potential implications of not having a father. It’s not always this way, but often enough.

Boys without a dad tend to be somewhat inhibited from expressing their full power in a pro-social manner. Often they develop an inflated sense of self. Like a balloon, this self-image is easily burst, leading to rage responses. An extreme, although sadly common, example I encountered with kids in the system was a boy whose dad was in prison; he would act out and be oppositional as an unconscious way of keeping a bond with his father. If we cannot be consciously related, we are often unconsciously fused, and thus entwined with our parent’s tragic destiny. Other versions of this pattern include becoming a workaholic, or an alcoholic, just like dad—all the while thinking that we are nothing like him.

With women, absent fathers often set the pattern for precocious sexuality and a ceaseless search for the very father who inflicted the primary wound. Kids are pretty psychic, and I’ve seen many times where a woman whose dad left very early was later serially attracted to problematic men who oddly resemble, in looks and behaviors, the dad they supposedly never knew. Sadly, the pattern tends to repeat: Men that the father-abandoned woman later falls for are unable to tolerate intimacy, just like dear old dad, and relationship after relationship ends in bitter disappointment.

The pain that unconscious, tragic and wounded fathers bring (via their absence as well as their outbursts) underscores the liberating value in forgiving father—whether he’s dead or alive, whether he apologizes or not. Most people resist this very fiercely, both because it is so unfair to forgive without validation (even though it frees us), but also because of the unconscious love for the father that is denied in a cloud of “I’m past that,” and “he doesn’t mean anything to me.” Fathers are important to every child—that can be in a negative or a positive way (or, more accurately, both)—but even if he left before we were born, he’s significant in our development and that is important.

This issue is both parental and political. In a paper by my orthodox, Israeli, feminist, psychologist cousin, Dr. Malka Enker, she says, “The political consequences of today’s debates about war and peace require that we stop using what Audre Lorde calls ‘the master’s tools’—in this context, our understanding of what power is and how it works—because these ‘will never dismantle the master’s house.’”

Patriarchy is built with “the master’s tools,” but we men keep getting injured with our own tools; we end up depressed and isolated. A more nurturing world must be constructed with different tools: perhaps with a balance of feminine Wisdom to counterpoint masculine Knowledge; perhaps with an “it’s cool to be kind” ethic of serving the group, rather than proving our superiority over it. The Tao Te Ching suggests that those who nurture the world are the ones fit to rule it.

Dr. Enker goes on to say, “Many of our social relations are win/lose relations of domination and subordination, of control or ‘power over,’ of disempowering others by getting them to do what one wants by force or by manipulation. We see examples of this in many marriages, and of course in fighting and winning wars. However, there are also relationships that are mutually supportive and enabling; they are empowering in the sense of ‘power with.’ Fostering such relationships demands the acquisition of communication skills.”

The father is a complicated kettle of fish, and we invite the sensitive and the tough, the wounded and the healed, the yoga and the football dads to participate in this sangha— to find voice and the courage to feel, and to rethink what it means to be a man. As children of fathers, we all carry our wounds as well as our blessings; as fathers of children we can strive to be the dads we wished we had, honor the dads we did have (or both).

One thing that is always an excellent Father’s Day gift is for us fathers to offer apology to our kids for anything we may have done, realized or not, that may have hurt them. If we are sincere, not defensive, and do not make our kid’s hurt about our badness, but rather about their separate and valid emotional experience (and thus emotional truth), then they are freer to forgive us. Validating and apologizing allows us to achieve what we want deeply in our hearts—to be our best selves as parents, to be close to our kids, and to enjoy them—free of shame and guilt.

So let’s dedicate today to fathers— within us (moms included) and around us, Atticus and Willie, living and dead—and let’s do it in honor of all our children, kindly fathering all those who cross our paths.


Pathways Issue 37 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #38.

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