A Gift Fathers Can Give Their Children: Know and Be Known
By John Badalament
I walked into my father's office to settle a score; he thought we were going out for lunch. Until that day, nobody in our small family had found the courage to speak honestly and directly with my father. That would change in 10 short minutes.
I told my father that we weren't actually going out, that he should stay seated and listen to what I had to say. Barely able to breathe because of my pounding heart, I said, "You've done a lot of great things for me as a dad." After describing how he supported my love of baseball and patiently taught me how to drive, I told him, "I want you to know that growing up with you was also very difficult. You were irresponsible, alcoholic, and abusive."
He opened his mouth to speak and for the first time in my life I motioned for him to stay silent. I knew that if I allowed him to deny what I was saying, I would back down from speaking my truth. "Today, I struggle with many of the same battles I imagine you also struggled with at my age," I continued. "But I am responsible for my own life, and I don't want to continue blaming you."
He began to weep, and so did I. "I never meant to hurt you," he murmured. Our relationship had entered into very new territory; anything was possible.
Sorting through your father's legacy
On that day, at the age of 25, I began the essential developmental task of sorting through my father's legacy—figuring out what I should carry forward and what I should do differently; taking responsibility for my own life despite past problems; and accepting what my father had to offer while grieving about what I would never get from him.
Doing the emotional work of sorting through a father's legacy, whether he is present or absent, necessitates facing difficult feelings of love, pain, and loss. In short, it requires the very thing many of us—cutting across racial, ethnic, and class lines—are taught as boys and men to rid ourselves of: vulnerability.
By standing before my father and telling him how I experienced our relationship, I essentially threw away everything I was taught as a boy. I was taught that vulnerability got you nothing but trouble, and thus learned to hate it. The currency of my suburban boyhood was as follows: being tough, "getting" the girls, and holding your own in sports competitions. If you had no currency, you were at risk of verbal or physical reprisals. As a boy, my sole purpose in life was to avoid situations where I could be taken advantage of, be proved wrong, or look like a "wimp." Author and therapist Terrence Real describes a similar homophobic, anti-feminine environment in his book How Can I Get Through to You? Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. "In the world of boys and men, you are either a winner or a loser, in control or controlled, man enough or a girl," he writes. The great irony is that by making myself vulnerable and risking what little connection my father and I had by speaking up, I made our relationship grow stronger and a whole lot more realistic.
I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to sit face-to-face with my father. Many boys and men have fathers who have passed on or fathers they've never had the chance to meet. Yet I believe that coming to terms with oneself and one's father can begin with an imagined confrontation; a letter to a living, unknown, inaccessible, or deceased parent; or a conversation with an empty chair. This process of sorting through a legacy is about owning how you feel about that relationship, what you got and didn't get, what you want to do differently, and, most importantly, how you plan to make those changes for the next generation.
For some men, coming to terms with their father may mean finding the courage to say (not just show) how much they appreciate and love him for all he's done. As men, finding the language to speak about love can be as difficult as speaking about pain or fear. Showing love through action is important; but if there is no language to confirm that love, oftentimes the other person is left wondering. This is especially true for children.
Being the father your child needs you to be
Fathers are important to their children—boys and girls—throughout the life cycle. In a recent study of fathers and sons, part of a dissertation by Ricky Pelach-Galil for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem titled The Re-Creation of the Father by His Adolescent Son, the 17- and 18-year-old young men who were surveyed indicated that early adolescence, in particular, was a crucial turning point in the father-son relationship. The young men described how at age 13 to 14—an age well documented as a critical stage of identity development—their fathers suddenly took center stage in their lives. In an effort to forge this new, more adult relationship, these young men began to observe their fathers closely, watching their routines, their habits, how they related to women, how they handled success and failure, and so forth.
They also paid close attention to how their fathers treated their relationships, essentially asking the questions "Does he care about me? Does he like who I am?" Although the young men in the study said they rarely initiated such conversations, almost all of them indicated a strong desire to talk with their fathers about feelings and real-life issues.
They wanted what I refer to as fathers who can know and be known. All children need a father—in some cases this may be a stepfather, the mother's boyfriend, an uncle, a grandparent, or a man in the community—who knows their interests, what they are doing in school, who their friends are, what is important to them, what scares them, and so forth. They need a father who asks questions, listens, and gets involved. They also need a father who can be known.
Being known means letting down the walls and sharing your story. It means having the courage to show your flaws, fears, and joys. This is not to say one should overburden a child with inappropriate revelations; rather, it's about giving your child the gift of knowing who you are and what you feel. Being known requires vulnerability. As men, many of us carry around those fears from boyhood that we will be taken advantage of, attacked, or put down for showing our vulnerabilities. As adults, we need to remember that vulnerability is what breeds intimacy in all of our relationships. Your being known by your children helps them develop a healthy sense of self and feel safe.
Confronting the elephant in the living room
As an educational consultant to schools and director of a public television documentary about fatherhood, All Men Are Sons, I speak to young people (and parents) throughout the country about their relationships with their fathers. At the end of each presentation, I ask the students to write down two things they've always wanted to ask their fathers but never have. Consistently, the top two responses have been "What was your [the father's] relationship like with your father?" and "What was your childhood like?" Though they may not ask, children want and need their fathers' stories. There is an elephant in the living room of child development: the missing stories of men's lives, particularly men's emotional lives.
If my father had told me the story of how he was sent away to military school and how his father repeatedly called him "stupid," it may have made a difference. If he had had the courage to tell me how hopeful he was when I was born or how scared he was when his relationship with my mother began to fall apart, it may have made a difference. If he had had the courage to share himself, I may not have repeated some of his mistakes. I may have learned more about connecting than disconnecting, more about love than fear. Instead of my having to confront him in his office, maybe we would have gone out to lunch that day.
John Badalament, Ed.M., is director of the acclaimed public television documentary All Men Are Sons: Exploring the Legacy of Fatherhood. A Harvard-trained counselor and human development specialist, he is a national lecturer, trainer, and educational consultant to schools, parent groups, mental health professionals, corrections departments, and universities. His work focuses most directly on the development of the emotional lives of men and boys and their relationships with others.