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The Crisis in Fathering
My father was a very serious man. I used to make up all kinds of explanations, excuses really, for why he was the way he was. The truth is I don't care about the reasons anymore. He died without ever telling me he loved me, without ever hugging me, without ever saying he was proud of me. I still don't understand it. It's like there is this giant hole inside of me that can never be filled.
Fathering. It's not a word we're comfortable with. It feels awkward and sounds funny. It isn't even in most dictionaries. While the concept exists as a logical counterpoint to mothering, we as a society seem at a loss for any sense of what it really represents. That fact is at the heart of a profoundly devastating wound for many men: We have lost our fathers, and far too many of us who are fathers are in serious danger of losing our children.
To cite just one of myriad statistics indicating the problem, a recent study found that only 20 percent of the fathers surveyed felt that they had a close emotional relationship with either their fathers or their sons. That is a remarkable piece of information. In this statistically saturated world, it is easy to let the flood of numbers simply roll on. But we as men, as fathers, must force ourselves to stop for a moment and look beyond the numbers to see the very real human suffering—ours and that of those we love—that this particular statistic suggests: The vast majority of men in this country are emotionally distant, disconnected from their closest male relatives.
In general, men tend to be very good at controlling their feelings. We are particularly good at "getting on with things" in the face of hardship, danger, pain, and turmoil. It is our training, our history, and even our mythology, weaned as we were on larger-than-life heroes stoically pushing forward to overcome enormous difficulties and crippling losses.
This skill, this ability to function effectively in the face of emotional pressure, has served us well, but it has also exacted a very dear price. It has allowed us to create and accomplish out in the world with single-minded focus; but, largely unnoticed, it has also forced many of us to lose track of what is most important and precious, the reasons why we work so hard and what we are working for—our loved ones. In homes all across the country, men are "getting on" with the business of living. But, as the statistics painfully demonstrate, in four out of five of those homes, they are doing it without the reassuringly deep comfort of a close emotional relationship with either their father or their children.
My Dad worked himself to death. He dropped out of school when he was fourteen to get a job to put food on his mother's table, and he just never stopped. It was like he was afraid that if he ever slowed down, everything would fall apart. He had never known how to be a kid and he sure didn't know how to be with a kid; it was like living with an alien. I didn't know him well but I loved him. It still makes me sad to think about him. Sometimes I would catch him looking at me or my brother with this incredibly sad look on his face, like he knew something was missing, but it was beyond his ability to deal with it.
This book is about something that is difficult to describe—the close and powerful emotional connection that flows like a current of electricity between a father and his children. It is a most powerful thing and a most fragile one. It can be lost or interrupted abruptly, or it can persist over vast distances and time. It can make the difference between a life that is rich and full and one that is empty and meaningless. It is one of our deepest desires as men yet, for so many of us, it has proven to be painfully elusive.
For too long we have been silent about our love for our children, about the happiness and sorrow that being a father brings. Fathering: Strengthening Connection with Your Children No Matter Where You Are seeks to break the silence by weaving together men's stories about the joy and pain of being a father. These stories, told by fathers whose collective wisdom and experience is represented on these pages, appear as italicized sections. They are anonymous because the cloak of anonymity gave men the freedom to fully explore these deeply emotional issues. These stories—heart-wrenching, impassioned, and honest—represent the collective voice of today's father. The narrative that flows from their stories is my attempt to record what I have learned from these men, from their efforts and their anguish.
I don't remember very much about my childhood—there are so many reasons to forget. My father was never home. Sometimes when I was already in bed and supposed to be asleep, I'd stay awake just to hear his voice when he came in. Even on weekends, I hardly ever saw him, except for when we would all dress up and go to church on Sunday. My parents broke up when I was twelve, and he just sort of faded away. My mother still tells me he is a good man, but how would I know?
The emotional distance that has increasingly come to characterize men's lives has begun to reverberate out into the world. A second set of statistics tells us that nearly 49.8 percent of our children live outside traditional two-parent homes; that fathers in the United States spend less time with their children than in any other country; and that among those fathers who do live with their children, the average amount of time spent with them is twelve minutes per day.
These are frightening signposts proclaiming a crisis of monumental proportions. We have allowed ourselves and our children to drift, like untethered astronauts, farther and farther away from the heartbeat of our humanity. We have sentenced our children to the bewildering experience of growing up with a desperate need to feel loved by a father who all too often is simply not there, either physically or emotionally.
There are even more statistics—ones that reveal the devastating ripple effects on society of absent fathers who fail to forge strong emotional ties to their children. These statistics are the most frightening of all, because they are, by definition, so impersonal and, tragically, so irrevocable: Nearly 80 percent of those who end up in our juvenile justice system lived in homes without a father; the overwhelming majority of our adult prison population grew up without fathers; the single strongest predictor of violent juvenile crime, specifically robbery and murder, is that the child grew up without a close relationship to his father.
The statistics don't lie. We are in a crisis of major proportions, and the casualties—both parents and children—are increasing at an alarming rate. We find ourselves at a juncture in time, where a staggering proportion of men feel distant and alone, each of us, like the boy in the hermetically sealed bubble, moving through life separated from everyone else by some inexplicable, invisible barrier. It begins when we are just boys, too often boys without the fathers we need, and it persists when we grow up, becoming fathers ourselves and, out of ignorance, re-creating the cycle of distance with our own children. And we've reached this place despite the fact that none of us ever wanted to be here.
My children are all grown and have families of their own. I rarely see them and when I do, it is usually strained and awkward. I know that it is mostly my fault because I was never there when they were young, but that doesn't make it any easier.
I just wish I knew back when I was a young father what I know now. When I finally realized what was really important to me—my kids—I had to face the reality that I had done this to myself.
It is the absence of the father—physically and, much more important, emotionally—that is at the heart of the crisis. Paradoxically, however, it is the miracle of becoming a father that opens up for us the most inviting, most surprising, and most promising avenue for finding our way back to our hearts and souls. Fatherhood is a precious opportunity, and we know it, even if we cannot comprehend or articulate why. It is something we feel in our bones. We want to understand it, to face the challenge and be found worthy; we know that there is something to it that can transform us if only we do it right, but often we don't even know how to begin.
Out of fear, out of ignorance, it is easiest to gravitate toward the patterns of fathering in which we were raised. From the birth of our first child, we tend to concede the role of comforter and nurturer to our wives and find ourselves removed from our child. The family dynamic becomes established, and we find ourselves somehow inexplicably "outside." For most of us it is not a good place to be, but we feel powerless to change it; we don't even have a vocabulary for how to talk about it. It is just a feeling, a very deep and painful feeling, but talking about our feelings is not something with which men are terribly comfortable.
This distance, which has been created slowly and silently, can no longer be tolerated. Somehow now, not tomorrow, not next year, we need to begin to forge a path back to ourselves and our children, to discover how to create and maintain deep and strong emotional connections with them.
Inretrospect, it is astounding that we could have allowed things to deteriorate so dramatically without noticing. As painful as it might be to admit, sometimes life must deliver us a solid blow to the solar plexus before we get the point. For many men that blow comes with divorce, when distance becomes an inescapable result, and they are suddenly faced with the bleak probability that the strength of their connection to their children will be severely tested.
The pain I was feeling and that of my ex-wife, I reckoned, were our just desserts for the situation we had conspired to land ourselves in. But the boys, then just three and five, could scarcely be expected to understand what was going on. I wept loudly each evening as I drove to a strange apartment with the grief and bewilderment of these two innocents fore-most in my mind. I had no idea what to do—no road map, little guidance, and precious few positive stories to tell myself about what was happening. Instead I could count on only an act of faith, a fool's promise perhaps. I could hear the song going round in my head, "Everything's gonna be all right, everything's gonna be all right."
For many men, divorce is a defining moment. Standing amid the rubble of shattered illusions, broken promises, and best intentions gone awry, it can be a time of painful clarity if faced courageously and honestly. Over and over in these pages, the one issue that surfaces with overwhelming power for men is the absolute terror at the prospect of losing their children through divorce. It is from this battered emotional outpost that the crisis looms clear and threatening, and it is largely from these men, struggling to come to grips with how to maintain and nurture a connection to their children, and from the growing ranks of full-time fathers, often treated as an oddity rather than the pioneers they are, that the alarm is being sounded.
This book is a report from men on the front line. The original inspiration came from Denys Candy, a friend and father who has grappled with maintaining strong bonds with his children despite the distance imposed by divorce. Since this has been my experience also-I was divorced when my children were very young and, for the past sixteen years, I too have searched for ways to remain connected-Denys's idea struck a cord. I began to search out other fathers—eventually interviewing more than a hundred—young, old, and in between, and in all kinds of circumstances: still married and living with their children, divorced, single, remarried with stepchildren, even some grandfathers. I wanted to find out what they had learned about how to be a good father. More important and somewhat surprising, I also learned how they felt about their own fathers and the process of fathering itself.
What I found initially was alarming. Although one of the most important goals of almost every father I spoke with was to have a close relationship with his children, when it came to knowing how to get there, far too many men admitted being at a painful loss. But I also found something quite hopeful that makes up the heart of this book: a depth of feeling and openness that was powerful and consistent. The answers may not always be clear, but the commitment to finding them was unwavering.
I've also come to see that when discussing fathering there are no experts. There are only men who have tried to do their best and are willing to share their experience-their accomplishments and their failures, their heartaches and their joys, their confusion and their clarity.
There are no secret answers. Building and nurturing a father-child relationship requires the knowledge that it can be done, the commitment that it will be done, the persistence to keep on trying, and the courage to do whatever is necessary to make sure it does get done.
The next two chapters explore how we got here, first from a social and then a more personal level, with the belief that this understanding is important only in that it can help us ease our way back out. This is not a time or a place to assess fault–and it would a heartless and futile undertaking. What we need is not the paralysis of guilt or the distraction of assigning blame, but rather the commitment to not let ourselves and our children continue to drift apart, encouragement and support from those who are finding their way back, and bold signposts to help us on our way.
With this book, the one hundred of us hope to at least make a start: to explore the problems that fathers face, and to identify the things we need to do, the feelings we need to become more comfortable with, the parts of our role as fathers that we need to have a deeper understanding of, and the mistakes we need to avoid in order to nurture our relationship with our children.
We can make fathering a word that is as comfortable as mothering, one that evokes warmth, strength, security, and a deep unbreakable bond of love. But it will take understanding and courage.
Caught in the Currents of Change
I was working out of town for nearly two full months last year, living at a hotel where a lot of other men working on the same project were staying. It was kind of an unusual situation because we were all strangers, from very different backgrounds, but we would work together all day and then see each other at the hotel restaurant and bar each night. For the most part, they were men that normally I would probably never say more than a few words to, but because of the circumstances I ended up getting to know quite a few of them pretty well.
When the conversations finally got around to their children—which was only long after we had exhausted all the sports conversations we could come up with, and usually after a fair number of drinks-I can't tell you how many of these guy were just baffled, almost shell-shocked. They loved their kids, they would swell up with pride just talking about them, but at the same time there was this huge empty space. They'd joke about not being able to understand babies or teenagers, or about not knowing how to play with little kids. They'd tell me how "good" the wife was with their daughter, or their son, or their kids. They'd complain about not having more time to take the kid out to the ballpark. But underneath it all was this very sad sense of loss. It's like they knew something was missing but couldn't put their finger on just what it was or how to find it.
Something unusual has been going on recently—people are starting to talk about fathers. Unfortunately, as is so often the case when the bright lights of attention are suddenly turned on, much of the commentary is decisively negative. As noted in chapter 1, a flood of studies have been released, documenting in stark detail the absence of fathers, physically and emotionally, and bringing into sharp focus the increasingly long list of ugly consequences.
Mothers, who have traditionally taken the rap for screwing up the kids because, after all, they were there, are suddenly being afforded a little relief. The focus of blame is shifting to fathers because so often they are not there. Even the politicians are jumping into the debate, decrying "dead-beat dads" as the root of virtually all social ills, and calling for a "return" to family values.
Unfortunately, our first instinct when confronted with a problem—particularly one of the magnitude and with the implications as this—is to rush to assign blame. But if we look with our hearts instead of our fear, if we seek a path out of the suffering instead of simply a scapegoat, what we must face is that the absent father—both the one who is not physically there as well as the one who is not present emotionally—is a tragic consequence of the times we live in.
Excerpted from THE COLLECTED WISDOM OF FATHERS by Will Glennon. Copyright © 1995 Will Glennon. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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FOREWORD, Joe Kelly
1 THE CRISIS IN FATHERING
2 CAUGHT IN THE CURRENTS OF CHANGE
3 OUTSIDE FROM THE BEGINNING
4 THE HEART OF FATHERING
5 ACCEPTING THE POWERFUL RESPONSIBILITY OF FATHERING
6 THE THRILL OF KNOWING YOUR CHILDREN DEEPLY
7 FATHERING WITH RESPECT & HONESTY
8 THE PARADOX OF CHALLENGE & ACCEPTANCE
9 FATHERING ACROSS DISTANCE
10 BEING THERE FOR THE LONG HAUL
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