Much of A Fresh Cup of Tolerance (see page 5) is about healing our communities. But, of course, the most basic community starts with the family. Today’s blog focuses on fathers. What does it mean to be a good father, even a great father? In my work as a counselor, it seems to be a fifty-fifty split between good and poor fathers. This affects so many children; we need to change this. Whether they deserve this power or not, fathers and mothers are the two most influential people in a child’s life. The solid or damaged foundation a parent provides will affect their daughter or son literally for the rest of their life. But how do we change this? If you are a dad or going to be a dad, how do you bring your best to the parenting table?
This is the first in a six-part blog series: Being the 21st Century Good Guy. Today and next week, I will focus on fathers, first poor fathering and, then, good fathering. In the next few weeks, I will look at husbands and life partners, and finish with dating partners following a similar format of poor vs. good partnering. Today’s thoughts are based upon my own experience as a son and Dad and five decades of listening to men and women confusedly discuss, cry about, yearn for, curse, and, yes, even love their fathers.
I am working with a thirty-year-old nurse who was raised in what I call a Holocaust childhood. She got it all: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; emotional abandonment by a father and mother; and emotional neglect. Consequently, she was on her own as a young teen and made all the wrong choices in her later teens, including becoming involved with a terribly abusive man. Finally, at twenty-one, she had a wake-up call and began to turn her life around. She escaped her abuser, met her future husband, and became an excellent nurse and Mom. Looking at the previous generations of bitter, abusive mothers and weak, abandoning men in her family, she has a powerful mantra, “This shit stops here.” She refuses to raise her child like they did and refuses to have a marriage like they did. This could be an excellent mantra for all of us, especially if we were raised in dysfunctional families. We can choose the kind of man and father we wish to be regardless of cultural, societal, patriarchal, and familial pressures.
This week I will use some real-life case examples to illustrate poor fathering. Then, next week, we will look at good fathering.
Some of the most painful cases involve children whose fathers abandoned them. One day Daddy is present, and the next, he’s gone or only sporadically involved. Ruth’s mother and father divorced when she was five. When her father occasionally picked her up for visitation, she clearly felt he was doing it more out of obligation than any genuine desire to see her or her brother. Often, he dropped the children off with his parents or girlfriend and left for the day. Alejandro’s father remarried, and it was clear that his new family and children were more important. When Alejandro visited, he was left to sleep on the couch and felt unwanted. Ruth and Alejandro grew up with trust and abandonment issues, gravely affecting their love life and friendships.
Donald had a cold, angry, critical mother and a perfectionist, critical father. He always felt he had to prove himself, despite being an excellent student and becoming an engineer. Maria was a very bright, creative child who struggled in school. It was not until the fourth grade that she was diagnosed with a severe learning disability. Despite this, her father was critical throughout her childhood and verbally and physically abusive. Both Donald and Maria wondered why their fathers could not see the amazing child they had, a child any parent would be proud to raise. Both grew up feeling no matter what they did; it was never good enough. They believed people and partners would not accept them or understand them.
Erika came out to her parents when she was seventeen. However, afterward, her Hispanic father did not speak to her for a month and told her no child of his could possibly be gay or bisexual. He refused to speak to her about it, loudly proclaiming there was nothing to discuss every time she tried to address it. Several times he called her mentally ill and a slut. He declared she was destroying the family. Needless to say, Erika was devastated by her father’s stubbornness and felt shame for her “unacceptable” sexual feelings.
Richard was a workaholic and was always at the office or traveling for work. He loved his children, but when they grew up, their most significant memory of Daddy was that he was gone all the time. Richard thought he was doing a good job of providing for his family but did not understand that his children needed more than that. He followed in his father’s footsteps and never considered how that affected him.
Joaquin wondered why he kept picking partners who cheated on him. Each time he felt heartbroken and was losing faith in relationships. Finally, in counseling, he realized how his father’s behavior affected him. Dad was a womanizer, cheated on Mom several times, and always commented to Joaquin about women’s bodies and that he needed to prove he was a man by the number of women he could seduce. Joaquin was twelve at the time. Although he was disgusted by his father’s behavior, that was his role model for relationships. Cheating parents probably do not realize how they have lowered the bar for honesty and fidelity in their family. As a result, their children often grow up to be cheaters or pick cheaters for their partners.
Two types of dads drive their kids particularly crazy. One is the angry bear. This Dad yells a lot, and the kids are afraid when he gives them “the look.” Dad is always angry. The other is the nitpicky Dad. Regina’s Dad yells at her if she does the dishes and misses one dish, accidentally puts a game piece in the wrong box, leaves her socks on her bed, or doesn’t hit the tennis ball the way she was supposed to. It is random and inconsistent, so she never quite knows what he will get upset about next.
The most frequent complaint from children and adults is that they can’t communicate with Dad. He doesn’t know how to talk to them, so they can never go to him to discuss important life issues such as boys, girls, relationships, friends, career choices, or feelings. He also does not initiate communication, so they feel unimportant. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a grown son or daughter crying in my office about an absent or emotionally unavailable father.
So, today’s blog has provided real-life examples of poor to terrible fathering. Children are a burden. Children are not valued. Children are ignored or rejected. Children are disrespected. Children are not protected. Children are not accepted for who they are, as they are. Next week we will emphasize a more positive approach by giving examples of good to great fathering. The research is clear. If you have a consistently loving parent, you will be able to have those types of trusting relationships when you grow up. If you have a parent who is inconsistent, alternatively loving and rejecting or ignoring, you will grow up having ambivalent relationships. If you have a rejecting parent, you will have difficulty forming relationships as an adult. [See page 28 of A Fresh Cup of Counseling.]