Shortly after we moved to Dallas in 1988, where I had accepted a position at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, my wife and I were invited by friends to attend a presentation by a prominent Marriage and Family Therapist entitled “New Fathers” at a local church. Turns out the speaker had coined the phrase as a means of describing what social scientists and researchers had only recently identified as an emerging group of mostly Baby Boomer men, who, in contrast to their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, had begun to appreciate the fact that being a complete dad requires at least as much loving as doing. As I sat fully engaged in that talk, it occurred to me that I desperately wanted to be one of those dads and that this “life coach” was someone who might be able to help me achieve that goal. I made it a point to talk to the presenter after her talk and, before I knew it, my wife and I were sitting in her office as clients and, once a week, I was separately meeting with a hand-picked group of men in – you guessed it – a “New Fathers” group.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that, while we came from different parts of the country and had chosen to pursue very different careers, we had much in common. All of us were Type A personalities with a strong, some might even suggest, unhealthy work ethic. We also had an almost Pavlovian response to tasks: 1. See (or find!) a task; 2. Evaluate what needed to be done and map out a strategy for doing it; 3. Complete the task thoroughly and efficiently; 4. Wait (long for) some form of recognition (but don’t expect it); 5. Find another task; and 6. Repeat steps 1 through 5! In addition, with very few exceptions, all of us grew up in “family of origin” homes that were plagued by a lack of true intimacy. Simply put, while our parents tended to stay in their marriages, regardless of how incredibly dysfunctional they may have become, there was very little in the way of public displays of affection between them and/or between them and their children, let alone among the siblings. Hugs, particularly with dad, were in short supply and, when given, were awkward and devoid of true warmth.
In defense of our dads, they likely didn’t know any other way. They were very much a by-product of their own Depression era upbringings and, as a result, were taught or, more likely, learned by observation that a man’s love for his family was best communicated by hard work, by being a good provider, both financially and in handling all things “practical.” They lived mostly in fear – fear of losing their jobs, fear of taking risks, fear of being perceived (in the workplace or at home) as weak, vulnerable or, perhaps worst of all, incompetent, fear of making mistakes, fear of being abandoned and fear of failure – to name a few. At least in our home, those fears often translated into anxiety, which, at times, was almost palpable, and a sense of feeling overwhelmed. The prospect of adding a shared sense of parenting to that load was unimaginable and foreign to them, which, I suspect, more often than not led to their abdicating those responsibilities to “stay at home moms,” who were assumed (rightly or wrongly) to have the skills required to do all things parenting.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long after each of us got married and started having children of our own, that we began seeing the patterns of our own fathers and families of origin re-surfacing – and, at least in my case, I saw them as cause for concern. Unlike our fathers, however, we not only were aware of our shortcomings, as husbands and as fathers, we were sensitive, as a result of our own experiences, to the impact they would have on our children if we failed or refused to take immediate steps to address. Most importantly, we were willing to set our considerable pride aside to see if we could break the cycle of a life devoid of intimacy. We were eager to explore our own weaknesses in the hope that by becoming more vulnerable we could enjoy a deeper, more meaningful relationship with our children and, in turn, cultivate fertile soil which would allow them to grow confidently into more secure and emotionally healthy young men (and woman).
Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, with my children grown and seeking to find their places and their own way in the world, I am left to hope (and pray) that my commitment to being a “New Father” has made (and will continue to make) a positive difference in their lives and, perhaps, someday in the lives of their own children. For my part, this Father’s Day, I am eternally grateful to that young therapist in Dallas for convincing me that their was a healthier way to parent and for all that she did to challenge and encourage me to embrace it.