Reflections on Fatherhood

I found this piece I wrote a day before G. was born on a long discarded and unpublished website recently. It’s interesting to reflect on how I felt then and how I feel now. I am definitely a better father, but the irony is that for my son, his experience with me is one of absence; work; trips; early conference calls.


AUGUST 2, 2010

As I face the imminent birth of a new child, a son, I can’t help reflect on the nature of fatherhood. In doing so I need to reflect on my own father, who is in rehab right now, recovering from a neurological condition. As a son and grandson is born, my own father is facing his own mortality.

To say that the father is an important archetype in our society is too obvious. The all-knowing powerful father is a narrative trope as old as the first stories. Freud built a fantasy of the human psyche from Oedipus, another powerful myth. The father is powerful and at the same time vulnerable from the desire of his own children. The high concepts do not really interest me in this matter. What’s important is the real stories, the real emotion I feel when my daughter yells out, “Daddy!” in the middle of the night.

Mothers evolve over the nine month gestation period. Fathers on the other hand develop through accident as they stumble through the fecundity of infant-hood to develop a relationship with their children. Their relationship is forged from culture rather than biology. If this seems a little too neat, like a nice binary opposition wrapped in a nice bow, then it probably is. When trying to understand something binaries are useful, if only to reach an understanding that they are too nice and neat and should be exploded in a mellifluous ecstasy of meanings.

My own father was characterised by absence. He was at the office, on business trips, he was away. When he was present he was characterised by being what my mother wasn’t. He was funny, generous, engaging. As Mum did the parenting stuff day-in-day-out, Dad was able to be other to the important work of parenting – having fun.

My real understanding of fatherhood came from observing school friends who did not have loving fathers. They were angry at the world, their Dad and themselves for not being good enough to be loved. Later, as they grew to be men, they would learn to hate their fathers with a red hot primal anger.

J.M. Coetzee says that all sons hate their fathers, that the Oedipal myth is right. I believe he is a bitter man who is the product of bitter times. My father was warm and loving, as well as being contrary.

Sons, and daughters, hate the merciless disciplinarian, the angry general, the pompous ass. That many fathers become a figure of hate is more a reflection of how they are created in culture and as a consequence how they create themselves rather than an intrinsic aspect of fatherhood. The core of being a parent is after all teaching your child how to love, how to respect and how to give selflessly.

With the liberalisation of traditional familial roles after second wave feminism men were placed in a conflicting and unique position. Forced to question how they would be in the world and in their own families, they were presented with a blank sheet, the possibility of being different to their dads, or fighting against the current to resurrect a vestige of the traditional father. For me it has been a voyage of discovery. My relationship with my daughter is one that I treasure even though I don’t see her as much as her mother does. She crys out for me and often after a weekend with the family whilst commuting to work on a Monday I grieve for the loss of our time together.

Is this what being a father is? Lamenting the time lost due to unequal parenting roles? My impression is that without shared parenting, shared income generation and shared home making nobody wins. The man is left with a sense of alienation from the family and the woman is left with a sense of alienation from the world.

I haven’t yet discovered a way to transform this situation or at least I haven’t had the guts to do what’s required to allow for a complete transformation.

Still, my son will know me as someone who is compassionate and who values the generosity of human spirit over any of the selfish human urges. If I can pass on a greed for knowledge and a thirst for being in the world totally, then I will be a good father.

Little fella, I may not know you as intimately as your mother, who is sleeping through labour contractions, but I will learn to love your mind, your spirit and your being in the world.