Nurturant Fathers

As a boy, I learned to interact in the world through engaging my father. He was my liaison outside the home. I learned how to play, work, gather information about the natural world, its rules, laws, conflicts, competition. I learned how to build, create, value and appraise the overwhelming experiences that lay outside the relative safety of home.

When my father was patient and encouraging, it was okay for me to take risks, make mistakes, test my environment, become an active participant in my life. I loved the thrill of being tossed up in the air and caught in his strong hands. I remember losing my breath underwater while learning to swim, then feeling his arms pick me up, coughing and crying. I became intoxicated with the smell of oiled leather when he gave me my first baseball glove. I tingled with fear and excitement when he invited me to slide behind the wheel of our ’60 Plymouth Fury. So many wonderful memories, yet it has taken many years, many tears, to be able to feel and taste that sweetness again.

Until recently, the predominant image of father was someone who built the bridge to the external world … for boys and for girls. Any nurturance that occurred inside the home was usually provided by mother. Certainly, men are capable of being tender, loving fathers, yet men shy away from the role. Not inside the traditional manbox, inadequacy regarding emotions, latent homophobia, too much work, fear of vulnerability … all shutting down the emotional body.

For too long, I could only feel anger, sadness, pain, grief. I would remember the arguments, the screaming, the violence. I would recall the anguish and abandonment, the cold, tired numbness in his eyes, all the times he just wasn’t there. Yet with time and hard work, a genuine healing has occurred. For many men in our circles, we are healing our father wounds, and subsequently, our emotional bodies.

My 2 sons are now in their mid-twenties, independent, creative, relational, good work ethic. I see how and where I have wounded them, an unavoidable process. For no matter how loving or emotionally present I may have been, there were times when their mom and I were in our shit, where I said something harsh that sent an arrow into their open little hearts, where I was just too fucked up to be there for them. And here is where this men’s work has been transformational.

I have often considered the differences between me and my father. An apple does not fall far, I certainly have qualities and behaviors similar to him. However, the essential difference is this: rather than turning away from pain, ignoring or pretending not to notice, feeling too guilty or ashamed of creating it, just like my father … I turn towards the pain.

This is something that women are so good at … they move in, bathing the pain in warmth, moisture, tender care. Actually, this was always part of my nature, I realized it that night in my fight with Billy. Men have a feminine side, too often ignored or covered over. It is from our inner feminine that men learn to be gentle and tender, vulnerable and supportive, compassionate. Allowing ourselves to cultivate our softer side, we sometimes fear that we will lose our hardness. This is the great paradox: to be tough AND tender, fierce AND gentle. Both archetypal energies are available and alive in us.

Most men come into our circles stuck on the horns of this dilemma: either too hard or too soft. With genders upside down and further apart, we are hard pressed to find the language for a dialogue. With this increased polarization, it is imperative that men learn the language of relatedness, as well as the ability to set clear boundaries. Integration is always a product of learning the dance of paradox. We eventually learn … through great struggle, failure, discomfort, and pain … how to be in the both/and. Only then do we experience our full humanity.