With Father’s Day swiftly approaching, I can’t help but think about what it might mean to be a father. Being a woman, I can only imagine, and then of course I have to think, well there are so many different types of fathers out there.
Some run for the hills and don’t even claim their children. Others fall in love with their kids and then have unfortunate divorces where their relationships change forever. Many of my patients have talked about losing their fathers through a divorce and wishing, actually longing, to be close to them. In these situations, the father often remarries and unless everything is handled really well, delicately integrating and blending new members, then dad can be perceived as having a new family and the kids are left out.
Our divorce rates are high here in the U.S. About half of all marriages end in divorce. But there are those fortunate families who stay together, work out conflicts and a father really gets to be a father. He is involved with his children, there are family vacations and everyone feels a part of their family.
This lucky family actually takes hard work, not just luck. One of the reasons that the divorce rate is so high has to do with becoming a parent, or for our purposes here, becoming a father.
It’s one thing to fall in love and have romance and long talks, to share dreams, walk hand in hand along the beach, and drink chianti together. Everyone knows the intoxicating feeling of falling in love. When this moves to something more serious it can be exciting but also threatening at some level. The commitment being undertaken can feel overwhelming to a man. In fact, the C-word — commitment — is also the R-word — responsibility — for the men who move toward marriage and plan to have families. They usually are the primary breadwinners and are responsible for the family’s basic needs.
While marriage is exciting and so is being pregnant for the first time, many psychological changes occur that for many go unnoticed until they have actually taken hold.
When we marry, our internalized images of the family begin to bubble up and take over. This means we start to have expectations of what our marriage and family should look like and expectations regarding what it means to be a good wife/mother and good husband/father. If we are not really clear about what these are and also really good about communicating them to each other, it can spell big trouble for a couple.
When a man is about to become a father, there is a whole host of mixed emotions. It is so exciting to announce to one’s family and friends, and to feel it oneself, “we are pregnant.” But as the arrival approaches and certainly after the baby is born, other feelings can emerge. Now this once wonderful romantic dyad is becoming a triangle and triangles are difficult to negotiate in the best of circumstances, but an infant cannot be negotiated.
It is not infrequent that fathers feel left out, abandoned, neglected or even worse, used to support this new relationship.
“I am nothing more than a paycheck so that she can fix up the baby’s room and buy him fancy clothes,” one new father told me. He was very embarrassed about his feelings but was also feeling very hurt. He was already talking about divorce. He wasn’t treating his wife very well and she, not understanding any of it, was reacting defensively and sarcastically. They were off and running, fighting without knowing why or what they were really fighting over. Fortunately, he had me (or someone like me) to talk to.
He began to understand how normal and common his feelings were and was able to start opening up with his wife. And lucky for him, she loved him and was receptive. They worked it out and moved on, had another child a few years later and are now one of those happy families.
Lots of things can interfere with family life and being a good father. So to all of those fathers who have worked through their fears, normal family conflicts, and dedicated themselves to being a father to their children, we must salute them. I have great sympathy for those who tried their best but didn’t have the opportunity to be a family or to be close with their children.
I hope we all take a moment to think about our fathers and be grateful for what we have or had and perhaps to have sympathy for those fathers who simply didn’t know how or couldn’t do it. It is their loss as well, not just their children’s.
Happy Father’s Day to all those fathers who are proud of and in love with their kids but should be proud of themselves too.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Visit her at www.drbarge.com. Send your anonymous questions and replies to firstname.lastname@example.org. Got something on your mind? Let us help you with your life matters.