Month: November 2006

Angry fathers, part two: nurturing mothers

I’m responding to myself quickly, because a reader, Abigail (see the comment at the bottom of the last piece), provided a wise and caring corrective. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge her insight.

When a father carries the anger in him of which I spoke, it is the mother who can and must be the healer. It is always better when both parents bring their unique kinds of warmth to the child-rearing task. But if it is not that way, the protective nurturing falls upon the mother. It is she who can keep the child from being overwhelmed by the cold seas of the father’s hidden anger.

A case could be made, and has been in literature and myth throughout history, that a child benefits from the dual reality of a father’s distant “sky god” righteousness and the warm nurturing of a close and caring mother’s earth embrace.

But that is too far from my own understanding and expertise. It is as a father, not as a psychologist, that I speak. And I know from my own successes and failures, and those of men around me, that the father who loves before judging, who leads rather than ordering, who shares before demanding, is badly needed in the world today.

After a short cultural dalliance with a kind of “soft” male identity, we have come back with a vengeance in our cultural assertion of strong, aggressive, competitive maleness. I do not believe it will serve us well.

Until we master our desire for mastery, on both a cultural and a personal level, it will fall upon the women — traditional bearers of the power of the feminine — to correct and heal the excesses a misshapen maleness produces.

Those who are lucky enough to have a mother strong enough in her powers of embrace and nurture to counteract the effects of father anger, are lucky, indeed. Perhaps they have the best of both worlds. At a minimum, they have a place to go to grow freely and with hope.

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Angry Fathers and Bonsai Children

Recently I’ve had to deal with two angry men. There was nothing unusual about that; angry men are everywhere, and every man I know is angry at one time or another. But these two bothered me, because both are about to become fathers. What was disconcerting was that both are good men and both, by all appearances, are calm and measured people. But under scrutiny, that apparent calmness is not calmness at all; it is a sublimation of a deep anger into order, rigidity, and tight emotional control.

This does not serve a potential father well. Life is messy and children are messy. They are beings unto themselves, not projections of our own ideas and expectations. A person who asserts order and rigidity in daily affairs, even in the name of morality and righteousness, takes the joy and mystery out of life and binds a child emotionally. What results is a “bonsai child” — it may look perfect, and it may be a work of art. But, at heart, it is stunted. It has been forced to grow into a form, not encouraged to reach for the light.

There are many ways to father, and there are many kinds of children who respond to different kinds of fathering. But any way of fathering that has at its heart a severe righteousness, even if it is wrapped in an outward mantle of love, is essentially a fatherhood of anger. And it produces a child who is angry or fearful or stunted or ashamed.

The challenge of fatherhood is to raise a hopeful and caring child. and to do so in a world of which we do not always approve. Our task is to establish standards without being rigid; to guide rather than command; to encourage forgiveness rather than judgment; to show love without abandoning expectations.

And there is much more. But this is a start.

I don’t know how the two angry men will do as fathers. I can only hope that the birth of their children works that special magic that so many fathers have experienced: there is the world before the birth of your child, and there is the world that began the moment you looked into your child’s wonder-filled eyes. That is the moment of transformation; that is the moment of revelation.

It is at that moment that we realize that the world is far different than we expected it to be, no matter what rules and expectations we have put in place. It is a moment that calls us to abandon our belief in rigid control and to celebrate the mystery of a universe too vast for our paltry human understanding.

I hope these men experience that moment. It will free their hearts and turn them from angry men into thankful men.

In the process, it will free their children from the bondage of rigid expectation, and offer them the chance to grow and flower in the sunlight of possibility.

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