Irecently stumbled upon an old story book of mine, which contained an entry written for Father’s Day. As I read the scrawl and the copious amounts of red ink from the teacher’s pen, I remembered it was around this time that Dad became my hero.
Erich Fromm writes that generally, children up to the point of 8 years old, are concerned with ‘being loved for what one is’, from this age on, for the first time, the impulse of giving something to the mother or father arises. The child suddenly becomes conscious of ‘creating love’, as another of it’s mediums of relating to the outer world. This phase is invaluable in the creation of big-hearted adults, who know ‘the potency of producing love by loving’, because, the more you love, the more you become a magnet for love in your world.
People never seem to ask dads how they cope with the stresses of fatherhood, careers and marriage. This strikes me as a little unfair, although I do not doubt that women have a more draining time with lack of sleep, a loss of identity for several years and the hormonal and physical changes which go with the territory. However, fathers are expected to ‘cope’ with not being vital to the child for the first few years. The bond to the mother is incredibly strong and the newborn learns her every movement: she is survival.
My Dad taught me that a man’s job is to make a safe environment for the woman, for the first couple of years, to protect her from as many of the strains of life (bills, cleaning, mortgages), as possible, that she can fully be there with the child. It is only when the child ‘learns to walk, talk and explore the world on his own; the relationship to mother loses some of its vital significance and the relationship to father becomes more and more important’. Many relationships do not make it through the first few of years of childrearing and I wonder how much of this is due to a lack of education on the subject? I think any man would be happy and proud in his role as home protector, if he understood that his partner’s sudden shift of attention would soon come full-circle, as the child begins to look from ‘the home’ which is mother, to father; ‘who teaches the child’ and ‘shows him the road into the world’ (Fromm).
My Dad’s qualities as I saw them then were: muscles, kindness, strictness, a sense of fun and being silly (a highly attuned sense of the ridiculous is one of things I appreciate most about my Dad to this day). ‘He plays with Mummy’; a vital component of harmonious family life – everyone ought to cultivate their playfulness; not just the children. I distinctly remember there being talk of money problems and I could not understand it; I thought Dad along with all men, went to a factory where he made the money himself at a machine. If anyone needed more, I thought they could simply stay at the machine longer! I am sure Dad appreciated my humour when I proudly read him the story on Father’s Day – the description of his eating with his mouth open must have been softened by the qualifying statement: ‘I like his eating habits’! There were fantastic yachting trips, explorations of Florida and brilliant expeditions to the ‘Sweet Factory’ for enormous ‘gob stoppers’ and bags brimming with ‘pick n’ mix’! My five-year-old self’s conclusion on the subject of Daddy is that ‘He loves me and he loves Mummy too’, which summed it up for five-year-old Zosia and for twenty-five year old Zosia!
The missing part of the story is the essence of the paternal presence later in your life, manifesting in guidance and wisdom. ‘Anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad’ (Anon); never have those words been truer, in our times of bizarre ‘arrangements’ at sperm banks and IVF clinics. Amongst my friends, family is a subject which always seems to present itself after a few drinks. I used to think it was such a misunderstanding in my teenage years, when my friends and I were arguing with the parents, that they imagined we left the house and forgot about the situation by having fun. This is not the case – when someone had a bad time at home, they were always burdened with troubles – not joy riding or kissing in the cinema! Similarly, if we think that because we are adults; we have dealt with our family issues, it is usually a misconception. We never ‘get over it’ all completely, because the early years colour our character fundamentally.
When I look back, I can see the wisdom in the message my Dad imparted to me: “Live your truth without unnecessarily hurting another” and his prescience, in trusting that I would learn my lessons myself. As many a parent of John Ciardi’s ‘unreturned prodigal’, Dad kept ‘his house open to hope’ without judgement. Of course, I could not have lived without my Mama, but Dad helped me to sculpt myself into the person I wanted to become. One of the most important lessons, reinforced by both my parents, (from observation), was a healthy dose of rebellion and how to use it to stand my own ground. Naturally, through adolescence, neither of my them believed that I was expressing something from our system – I had a genetic double dose!
I phoned around my friends, intrigued, with the question: ‘How important has your father’s presence been in your life?’. Invariably, answers started slowly, people said things like, “It’s difficult to say…”, before delivering reports which were profound in their depth of implication. Even if, as Nietzsche writes, “one has not had a good father, one must create one’, whether this is in the shape of one person in your life, or an amalgamation of many. Alice Walker touched my heart when I read this: “It no longer bothers me that I may be constantly searching for father figures; by this time, I have found several and dearly enjoyed knowing them all”, for me, this encapsulates the experience of being a child with several step-parents!
It is clear that a staple lesson taught at ‘parental school’ is that of disappointment – it must be highlighted as the bonus of living through the terrible twos and the rough waters of adolescence – ‘Once an adult stands in front of you; you can play this hand!’. Parental disapproval is somehow more effective when delivered from fathers. Good old dads have few emotional foibles and leave the teary issues to their female counterparts, while they dish out the components of our consciences!
Almost every woman must have experienced something of the over-protective father or brother who is indifferent, bordering on disapproving of her choice of boyfriend. This causes a severe conflict in the psyche. I can imagine Freud sitting on the proverbial couch, pronouncing the verdict: ‘Oedipus never sleeps!’. We all know the theory, but somehow, we do not register that it is natural for a five-year-old to find that no-one is as amazing as their Daddy! He is the strongest, bravest and most magnificent person in the world. If you are a little boy, you want to become him and win someone as lovely as your Mummy, and as a little girl, you wish to meet someone just like Daddy. As we grow, our eyes (hopefully) flutter open and we begin to hit maturity when we can see our parents as people in their own right, without idolizing or vilifying them. In short, we have grown up when we treat our parents like children!
The mother and father within are important motions within our psyche. Do not fret if your biological parents leave much to be desired, or simply have never been there – we assimilate the energies we need from other people in our lives and from those, we fashion our own internal guidance systems. The question really is – What is your frame of reference? What are the paradigms of character and worth you value? We can glean much about our internal motivations and often unconscious belief systems through these questions.
Blesséd be the uncles, grandfathers, older brothers, teachers, social workers and friends who provide us with the guidance so necessary for our development. I once read that it would take nine fully enlightened individuals to meet a child’s needs; for those of us who have not been so lucky, we can be grateful for the patchwork of paternal faces who people our world. Without them, we would sorely struggle to function in the world of: ‘thought, of man-made things, law and order, of discipline, of travel and adventure’ (Fromm). I can happily go forward in life, safe in the knowledge that ‘He (my Daddy) loves me’! A heartfelt ‘Thank-you’ to my fantastic Dad and all those who take seriously the task of guiding youth into flowering as morally autonomous human beings.