Thinking About Fathers

This Father’s Day I have been thinking about my own father.  He died at a young age when I was 19 and I have missed him all my life since.  It is sad that he never knew my  husband and children – even more sad that they never knew him.  Everyone who did know him remembers him as a special person with many talents and a great sense of humor.

I am thinking about him particularly because the world is so different for fathers these days than they were in his time.  We expect more of men in their role as fathers than in years past.  Dads are expected to participate more fully in the physical care of their children, changing diapers and feeding infants, supervising routines as children get older, taking them to school and coming to know their friends.  This kind of caregiving is what nurturing is all about and is the basis of close bonds between children and their fathers.

Of course, playtime with dad is a major source of pleasure for children.  Father as play partner is a consistent finding in research on the role of fathers in child development.  Fathers like to “stir children up” (to use many mothers’ description) as a way of interacting with them.  They tend to make less use of toys in their play but rather use their own bodies – as well as their children’s – in rough and tumble play, much to children’s delight and at times, mom’s consternation.  

Fathers’ play seems to rely less on traditional games and more on activity and exploration.  Studies suggest that fathers tend to encourage their children, both sons and daughters, to explore the world around them in a freer way than do mothers.  You can see this if you watch parents and children in the playground.  Fathers often seem less apprehensive about children climbing higher, swinging faster, attempting to use new equipment, and will encourage them to attempt things they may not yet have mastered.  Along with this they may be more comfortable with children moving out away from them in new situations.  Many strong, successful women have been known to credit their fathers for their achievements.   Of course, these are just observed patterns of behavior from which there are always exceptions.

Participating in the rearing of children as many fathers do today is as rewarding an experience for men as it is for their children.  Many fathers say they wish they had had such a relationship with their own fathers, and that they want to provide for their children what they did not have themselves.  At the same time, a man’s actual relationship with his own father, whatever it is or was, plays a big role in his own fathering, just as a woman’s relationship with her own mother does in her mothering.

In my experience, both fathers and mothers express a feeling of wanting to be different kinds of parents than their own were.  But the opposite is also true, and a tendency to idealize one’s mother or father can also have a big impact on one’s parenting.  Trying to be like, or unlike, our parents can interfere with our ability to come to know our own children, who are not replicas of us, just as our present family is not a replica of the one in which we grew up.

These days this may be a particular challenge for parents who face a different world than their parents did, with changed expectations for both men and women.  In particular, men as fathers are being asked to develop a whole new aspect of their personalities, to become more empathic and to focus more on relationships with wives and children.  Yet, even as more men than ever have become primary caretakers of their children, their own natural style has not always been appreciated and they have too often encountered the expectation that they be more like mothers in the way they nurture.

The profound change in the role of men as husbands and fathers has been unsettling for many.  Both economic and social changes have reduced their roles as primary breadwinners and as the dominant members of the family, no longer the sun (or son) around which the earth revolves.  Men are still learning to be new kinds of fathers and, like mothers, to assume multiple roles. 

 Working with parents, I have been struck by the attention they need to pay to their relationship with each other – a major challenge while meeting the needs of young children.   Some years ago, a father told me that when he watched his son finish nursing, his expression looked to the dad as though he was ready for a cigarette.  Of course in today’s world of no smoking there may not be the same association between sex and smoking.  The point, though, is that mom’s attachment to her children can sometimes make dad feel excluded.

As I think of my own father, I hope that this Father’s Day will bring a new appreciation of fathers and their meaning in their children’s lives.   

Readers, I will be on vacation for two weeks.  Next post on July 1.  See the archive to find any posts you may have missed.

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