Everybody loves my posts about my father. The relationship I had with him was profound and made me who I am. But why do people perceive it as unique? Why don’t more men have profound relationships with their children?
When a child is born, the mother bonds to it immediately and powerfully on a physical level. At the same time, for many women, the birth of a child is the first opportunity in their lives to feel like the authority and the expert on something important. Both first-time parents are absolutely clueless about how to handle a newborn but the woman has an edge because the infant’s food comes out of her and her presence is immediately soothing. From the start, the father learns to look to the mother for guidance as to how to handle the baby. It flatters the mother’s ego, so she exaggerates her competence. Soon enough, this relationship – the expert / the kid / the expert’s occasional helper – solidifies.
The father never starts to build his own relationship with his child because he has no idea that’s an option. At best, he carries out the mother’s orders regarding the child. But the father and the child don’t have a relationship in which the mother doesn’t play a role as an instigator, planner, reminder, and a hovercraft.
The father starts noticing that something exists between his wife and his child that doesn’t exist between him and either of them. It’s his child, he’s supposed to be feeling it but he clearly sees that his wife is getting something out of being a parent that he’s not. Within his own family he feels excluded, and that’s a pretty uncomfortable feeling.
To get rid of this unpleasant feeling, the father often attaches himself to the mother-child dyad in the capacity of the child’s older brother. This way, he can at least love his child in some way. The problem is that the child never gets a Dad, the Dad never experiences the father’s role, and the wife invariably loses some of her respect for the husband who acts like her older son. This is one of the most frequent complaints one hears from mothers. “I feel like a mom of three, with my husband being the eldest kid.” Or not even the eldest.
In other cases, the father withdraws from the family into his work, his hobby, his male peer group – or, if he’s particularly dense – into a new relationship where he’ll recreate the same pattern.
People recreate this pattern because that’s what they see growing up. And everybody ends up being robbed. In order to break the pattern in a healthy way, you need a mother whose ego is so well-fed that she doesn’t try to compete with the father for authority over the child and the father who’s either a bit on the autistic side and doesn’t know how other people do things or has a very strong personality and great emotional competence. Have you noticed that many of the best dads are somewhat autistic? Mine was.
Of course, there are situations where the mother has mental issues, doesn’t bond to the child and the father has to step in. But that creates the exact same problem with the excluded, resentful mother.
6 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Father?”
Something that has really helped me as a father is reading to my kids at night. It involves a practical skill with something I am honestly passionate about along with plenty of hugs. My eight-year-old is an excellent reader and he still likes reading with me even though it is now mostly him reading to me.
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My older kids are 8 and 10, and if we even suggest that my husband will not read to them before bed (like, if he has laryngitis, or has been awake for 36 hours already), they act like you’ve killed their puppy. This is still a really big deal in our house, and the highlight of the kids’ day. Each one, as he started learning to read independently, had to be reassured that we would still read to them, even if they learned to do it themselves.
Right now it looks like we’ll just have to keep going until they move out.
My dad’s problem was that he quit liking us once we were no longer little and cute. He admitted as much when his first grandchild came along, and he promptly went all goofy over him. I was laughing at my normally emotionally distant and non-demonstrative father cuddling his cute little grandson with obvious enjoyment and talking baby talk to him, and my sister chastised me for laughing at him. She said, “Poor Dad can’t even enjoy his grandson without you laughing at him.” I said, “It’s just that I’ve never seen him like anyone so much.” And Dad said, “Oh, come on — I liked all of you when you were this little.”
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This is actually traditional in VN culture: Dad’s favorite kid is whichever one is still tiny and cute. After that… no use for them until they’re old enough to work for the family business.
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Once you create a shared emotional space with a child, it’s the most powerful and pleasurable emotion I can think of. But once the child starts growing up and hits puberty, the child kicks the parent out of that shared emotional space because that’s what the child needs to grow up and become her own person. The shared emotional space will reopen again if the parent manages to sit it out calmly and not freak out. It’s very hard but it’s the only way.
My father also found it very hard to deal with that closing off of our inner lives during our puberty and early adulthood. Thankfully, he managed to find a way back.
This is to say that I totally get what you are talking about.
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Huh. I don’t really understand the patterns you lay out here. But then… I’m not sure my mother ever liked us. So it’s really fortunate that Dad did.