An article by David Cornfield

Weather forecasters issue a winter storm warning and for once they get it right. The temperature hovers around the freezing point all day, while rain mixed with wet snow turns city streets to a sloppy gumbo. Driving is a nightmare. You are either crawling through clogged streets behind a slow-moving salt spreader, or leaving a trail of cursing, slush-splattered pedestrians.

Later The Same Day

I am sorely tempted to skip the men’s meeting planned for this evening. Wet snow continues to fall and I am dealing with the aftermath of a burst pipe that flooded the basement. Most of the water is gone, but the carpet is still squishy and needs at least one more pass with the wet vac. I am bone weary and just want to veg out.

That Evening

I find myself sitting in a meeting room with about twenty men. The youngest man in the room is probably in his mid thirties. More than a few of us are well into our fifties. All of us have busy lives. All of us were faced with the same rotten weather. So why did we drag ourselves from our cozy homes on such a lousy night to be with a group of men we hardly know? Clearly, we all want something from being with other men, but none of us are clear on what it is, or how to go about making it happen.

One man suggests a canoe trip and a wave of excitement ripples around the room. In my mind’s eye, I replay the barn raising scene from the movie Witness and taste a yearning to be part of a crew of men building something. Some men want to drum, or sing or just hang out. We talk about helping one another, telling our stories, sharing our expertise, getting advice when we need it, building relationships of trust and caring.

Why Bother?

Each of the suggestions, by itself, sounds appealing, but I am still asking myself, why bother? Why make a new commitment to a bunch of strangers when I already have trouble finding enough time for existing commitments to family, friends and colleagues. I then have one of those ‘aha’ experiences. All of the activities we have been talking about are the kind of thing that a father would do with a son. It begins to make sense. All of us are hungry for fathering and we are hoping to get that fathering by being with other men.


What do I mean by fathering? Joseph Campbell goes to the core of fathering in The Power of Myth when he points out that every generation has to die so that the next generation can live. When you are a child, you are the new life, and your father protects you. When you become a father, you die as the child and are reborn as the parent. It is now your job to create a safe container for your children, teach them the ways of the world, support them to grow and develop to the fullest extent of their potential as contributing human beings, until they in turn mature into the parents of your grandchildren.

By its roots, the word ‘patriarchy’ means rule by fathers. When the women’s movement blamed the patriarchy for women’s oppression, it did us all a disservice. To suggest that it is fathers who oppress women is to debase the concept of the father. Fathering is about giving, not about taking. Men who oppress women are not men who have accepted the implications of fatherhood. The essence of being a father is that you no longer put yourself first. You are a supporter, a benefactor, a protector. Your first concern is for those who look to you for fathering. Oppression, abuse, and neglect are not fatherly. They are behaviors of men who have not yet matured into fathers.

Growing Up

This is not a realization I came to easily. I was a fully paid up card-carrying member of the me generation. When my first marriage got into difficulty, I walked. What I told myself was that I was dying in my marriage and that I needed to look after myself. What I was ignoring was my duty to my two year old daughter. Twenty-one years later, the chickens came home to roost. My daughter let me know in no uncertain terms how angry she was that I wasn’t there for her. She made me face up to the harsh reality that when I became a father, I was thinking about me, not about her. I had a child because I thought being a father would make me happy. I had some awareness of my obligation, but that obligation was secondary to my happiness. So when the marriage was in trouble, the paramount consideration was still my happiness. I looked after me first, her second.

As painful as it was for me to take the hit for my failure as a father, that confrontation with my daughter was a turning point in my personal journey. It gave me a brand new perspective on parenting in particular, and on service and obligation in general. From always acting selfishly, doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, I started thinking in terms of my obligation to others. I don’t want to suggest that this transition was easy, or even that it is over and done with. It has been and continues to be a slow and sometimes painful process. As my wife is quick to point out, I am not always in the father place. However the more I am in that place, the more I discover the incredible satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from acting as a father, from being the giver, the teacher, the protector, the one who takes charge. And experiencing how much satisfaction I derive from giving more to my family, I find myself taking the same attitude into the world, stepping into the place of the elder who sees his obligation as extending to his community.

Giving and Taking

A boy who doesn’t feel the protection of his father grows up believing that in this world, it’s every man for himself. He becomes an opportunist, protecting what he has, taking what he can get. What this child man has no experience of is how giving promotes receiving. To ask what is the world asking of me? instead of what is in it for me? would be totally foreign to him. But think about it for a moment. If you are hiring someone to fix your car, to whom are you going to give your business - the man you feel just wants to make money or the man who is clearly there to serve? If a woman is going to pick a mate, to whom is she going to be attracted - a giver or a taker? The examples can be multiplied endlessly. If you want to prosper, forget about prospering and devote yourself to service. Prosperity will seek you out. The world is desperate for men who have left behind their childish selfishness and want to give. When we find men who truly stand in the place of the father, we give them our business, our love and our loyalty. One word of caution: it is not enough to pretend to be generous. Reluctant giving, giving because you feel you have to give, is not experienced as a gift.

The Cycle of Reluctance

Unfortunately, there is a scarcity of men mature enough to take on the role of the elder. Instead of elders, we see a lot of men stuck in the place of the child, men who are reluctant fathers, absent fathers, even abusive fathers. While they probably would deny it, the message is clear: they didn’t get what they needed as children, they aren’t getting it now, and by George, they aren’t about to give it to someone else, even their own children. Of course, their sons grow up not receiving the fathering they need, and the cycle of reluctant fathers is perpetuated.

Are You a Reluctant Father?

Now we come to the crunch. If I am right, a lot of men reading this article are, to some degree, reluctant fathers. The questions is, will the reluctant father admit to his reluctance or will he pretend to himself that we are talking about some other father, not him? If he denies his reluctance, the reluctant father’s relationship with his children and with the world is not likely to change. On the other hand, owning up to childish selfishness is not something that any of us really wants to do. When I first sat down to write this article, my first thought was to talk about the ways that my father let me down. It was much harder to look at myself and admit to my own failures as a Dad.

How about you? Are you willing to take a hard look at your fathering? Is there someone you trust who knows the kind of father you are? It might be your spouse. It might be a friend. It might even be your child. What about asking how they see you as a father? Asking is probably the best way to find out how you are doing. It is hard to see yourself. It is easy to stay in denial, to run away from difficult issues. And if there is no-one you feel safe enough to ask, try writing about your fathering - the fathering you received and the fathering you give. Stand back and look at the whole picture. Ask yourself the difficult questions. Give voice to the doubts that you may be having. See where it takes you.

The Women in Your Life

Suppose you recognize yourself as a reluctant father. How do you break the cycle? Well, the first thing you need to know is that when the issue is fathering, you need help from other men. Women can help you stay on track by pointing out your reluctance, as my daughter and my wife have demonstrated so well, but they can’t give you what you need to go beyond your reluctance. Mostly what women have for reluctant fathers is their anger and hurt about their own reluctant fathers. To step into the father place, you need the fathering attention that only a man can provide.

The Men in Your Life

The question then becomes - where do you find the fathering you need when there are so few fathers? Think about the men in your life: friends, men you work with, any man who might feel like a father, a mentor, a teacher, a coach. Is there any chance that one of these men might have some fathering for you? Check it out. Ask them for their help. Turn to them when you need advice, or someone to listen. Remember that men who are fathers are also elders who extend their fathering beyond their families.

Your Dad

Don’t forget about your birth father. Consider the possibility that Dad might come through for you if you open up to receiving his loving attention. For a very long time I didn’t give my father a chance. I was angry with him, not really letting in what he had for me. When I gave him more respect and started listening to him, he began to soften. He softened to the point where I felt him to be approachable enough to have a hug. Starting with bear hugs that almost felt like we were wrestling, we slowly progressed to more gentle hugs. On a day that I will never forget, we hugged and he said to me "I owe you a lot of these, don’t I". I can’t begin to tell you how good that felt.

A Male Therapist

Casting the net a bit wider, you might want to think about entering therapy with a male therapist. Of course it would be important to find a man who has done his own work around fathering, and who comes from the father place. But therapy is definitely one of the places to look for men who might be willing and able to provide the fathering you need to get on with your development as a father, along with the skills needed to help you deal with the feelings that come up in the process.

A Men’s Group

Another way to get the fathering you never got is to look to your peers, to other men who are searching for fathering and who might be willing to participate in fathering each other. Which brings me back to the men’s meeting. It seems clear to me that all of those men, myself included, were looking for fathering. It is not so clear how many of us were interested in offering fathering. We would have to be ready to be on both sides of the equation, both giving and receiving, but coming together on a regular basis to do what fathers and sons do with each other, is to do the work of breaking the cycle that deprives the world of fathers. I know from first hand experience. While my readiness to hear my daughter was in part attributable to finding a therapist who acted as a good father to me, I would have to say that another big piece of my development as a father came out of six years of regular attendance in a weekly men’s group.

In Conclusion

Get all the fathering you can, wherever it is appropriate to get it, but don’t expect your reluctance to melt away just because you got some fathering. Getting the fathering you missed almost inevitably stirs up mixed emotions. You will have some grieving to do for all those years when you didn’t get what you needed. Some part of you will be angry and want to push away. What you are getting will seem too little, too late. It may be hard to trust that the caring coming your way is real. And then, when you start letting the fathering in, you may find yourself staying stuck in the son place, making sure your tank is full before you move on to giving in the father place. Allow yourself some time to receive, but do get on with it. The world needs every father it can get.

David Cornfield

Fathering was first published in Eye for the Future Magazine

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