Fathers Are an Essential Part of the Human Environment
I always knew I'd be a father. I don't know how I knew, but as far back as I can recall, I knew that I would grow up and have children. I remember the day that my wife told me that she was definitely pregnant. We were sitting outside on a hot August day. I remember the green grass, the leaves on the bushes, the breeze, and the agitation in my body. I remember sitting back-this I remember best of all-and feeling that the axis of the universe had shifted; I was almost dizzy from it.
From that moment on nothing was the same. I was a new man. The concerns of the old man were irrelevant -important in their day, but that day was done. Everything I would do I would now do as a father, as a man responsible for bringing a new world to birth. I felt a powerful need for some kind of purification ritual, something that symbolized the end of the old universe and the beginning of the new. But there is no such ritual. Being a father, being a parent, is considered a private act.
It's almost eleven years since then, and I am now a father three times. I was right that day. The universe did shift on its axis, everything was new, the old world was gone, and a new one born.
My experiences are what most fathers experience: the unparalleled joy of holding your new child; the terrible certainty that you will make mistakes; the longing to protect; the regret of missed opportunities; the shameful pain of admitting to failure-again; the desperate fear that your sick child might die; the wonder of realizing that your bond with your wife will not only last as long as you both live, but beyond.
Being a father has been the greatest, most challenging, most exciting experience of my life. It has transformed me and made me. I can think of no other calling that could be as deeply satisfying to a man.
But I fear for the generation growing up. I feel anxious for my own two sons. What will fatherhood mean to them? What messages are they hearing about being a father? Will they want to be fathers?
The answers are not reassuring, because fatherhood, indeed parenthood, is in crisis. although most fathers, Re me, are struggling to do their best in a society in which human connections and solidarity are increasingly tenuous and frayed, the public face of fatherhood has become sadly disfigured.
When was the last time that you read or heard of fathering discussed as a noble or valuable task? If you are a father, can you recall the last time that what you do was presented or talked about in a way that made you feel supported rather than undermined?
There seem to be two images of fathers today. The first is of a bumbling fool, a man less mature than his children, patronized by his wife, incompetent in anything that matters. This caricature can be found on television, in movies, on radio and in advertising The epitome of this father is Ed Bundy, from Married With Children, although his imitators are legion.
The second image is that of an indifferent, irresponsible, selfish brute, a virtual psychopath seeking with low cunning for the opportunity to abuse his wife and children. These are the fathers portrayed in countless newspaper and magazine articles, in popular movie-of-the-week television shows, in novels and films.
I know that some fathers abuse or abandon their wives and children; I know that some fathers are not mature or very responsible. But these are examples of fatherhood gone wrong. They reveal the pathology of fatherhood, not its nature. Yet the pathology is, I fear, fast becoming the norm in the public mind. Social policy debates either exclude fathers (mothers are not treated much better) or consider them a harmful influence. Women now seriously contemplate having a child without the child having a father, as though the only effect of this will be a slightly heavier burden of child care and domestic maintenance.
Humans live in families like fish live in water. It is the environment that surrounds and nourishes them. Acid rain, untreated sewage, human carelessness and indifference all pollute lakes and rivers and make them unfit for fish to live in. Yet no one would suggest that we should breed fish that can live in garbage or that we should remove fish from water and treat them as though they were mammals.
In the last half of the 20th century families have also become polluted; from the untreated sewage of a social and political system that treats people callously and cruelly; from the acid rain of cynicism and despair; and from human indifference and carelessness. Why do we then undermine and degrade further the world we are born into and must we live in if we are to thrive? Why do we not support this primary social nexus as it attempts its necessary task against overpowering odds?
Ironically, we seem to have awakened to the mysteriousness and fragility of the living habitats of animal species--except for one. Fathers are an essential part of the human environment. Without the charisma of fathering in our lives, all of us-men, women, and children are diminished. We will be incomplete.
Yet, I remain, if not optimistic, at least hopeful. Social forces are powerful, but not quite as powerful as a loving individual. I look around and see lots of men attempting sometimes successfully, sometimes not, sometimes with ease, sometimes with difficulty, to be good fathers. They are, for the most part, invisible, their efforts validated only by the response of their children, to whom the future belongs