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Miss Dad

A man was cleaning the house while his wife was in town shopping. Dressed in his cleaning apron, he was busy vacuuming when he heard the doorbell ring. Pulling the vacuum with him to the door, he was confronted by a burly man in faded jeans and worn boots.

“I was just cleaning the house for my wife,” the homeowner offered in a weak, apologetic voice.

Looking relieved, the man replied gruffly, “I understand completely. I'm delivering Avon!”

How times have changed since I was a boy. The thought of my father vacuuming or delivering Avon was incongruous with his perceived role as a man. Quite frankly, real men just did not do housework and certainly never delivered Avon; at least, they would never admit it to their peers if they did.

But we live in a different world today. Tony and Vicky left suburbia more than 30 years ago; their home has since been owned by a two-income family, a single parent with two children, and most recently by a working mother and unemployed father. Today's family configurations are challenging to the male who may have been brought up to view child rearing as a feminine responsibility.

The old saying that boys are a “chip off the old block” is often a perpetuated truism by the transfer of information and misinformation from one generation to the next. We learn how to be fathers from our fathers. (From them we learn the good, bad, and ugly, and we transfer that same information to our sons.)

Fathers are a paradox to their sons. Their sons both love them and hate them. They bond with them and form barriers to prevent intimacy. They share in both camaraderie and competition. Inevitably, a power struggle is brought on by feelings of inferiority in the son and emotional distance by the father. Most father-son relationships go through stages of reverence, revolt, and eventually reconciliation.

Fathers often are not all they appear to be at first glance by a child. To the small child a father is initially a hero; later he may be viewed as a hoax, then finally a healer.

Father-son relationships are a microcosm of how males often relate to each other. Men do not simply enter into manhood; they must earn it. There must be a rite of passage that separates men from their parents and from their fathers in particular. Only then can they join the brotherhood of men. The final rite of passage usually involves their relationship with their father.

Stages of Fatherhood

The first stage of fatherhood is that of a hero. To a young boy, his father is a giant from whose shoulders the world can be viewed, and he feels safe. One poet described the father-hero this way:

A dad is a mender of toys, A leader of boys. He's a changer of fuses, A healer of bruises. He's a mover of couches, A soother of ouches. He's a pounder of nails, A teller of tales. He's a dryer of dishes, A fulfiller of wishes.

To a young boy, father is superman. All-powerful! His interest in violent contact sports reinforces the emotionless, competitive, “traditional” male character that is handed down from generation to generation, from father to son. Fathers can move mountains.

The hero dad can solve any problem. One glance from the hero dad can heal or create a hurt. It is during this time of hero worship that fathers often absent themselves from fatherhood. Playing the roles of the greatest, biggest, and best is too heavy for some fathers to carry. Lost fathers withdraw into their work under the guise of doing it for their family. Some substitute gifts to make up for lost time with their family. Others withdraw emotionally and physically, and the son feels abandoned and betrayed. Sons expect the same from other men and learn to withdraw into their own unemotional shell, which will protect them as a man.

The hero dad may also be a stranger whom some sons never quite get to know. I cannot remember my father ever holding me, although I am told he did. One recent study indicates that 50 percent of men cannot recall being hugged by their fathers. My father didn't have time to play with me. I assume it was because he was a farmer and there was always too much work to do. As I got older, he taught me how to hunt by going with me three or four times. He taught me to never shoot anything I did not intend to eat. Later he taught me how to drive a car by going with me two or three times.

When I turned 14, he bought me a car. I know it was his way of saying he loved me and was proud of me, but I sure wish he could have told me in person or hugged me more as a child. Where was my hero dad when I was a little boy? Why didn't he have time to play with me? Where was he when I wanted to play at his feet or sit on his shoulders? I have a picture of me sitting on his shoulders once. It was mocking evidence of the only time I can recall. The role of hero was transferred to my grandfather and uncle. They shared with me the time my father never seemed to have.

Absent fathers leave permanent scars. Fathers who withdraw their emotions tend to foster the same patterns in their sons. Fathers who withdraw their physical presence may actually influence the social behavior of their sons. Studies indicate that sons of lost fathers are less assertive, more dependent, more submissive, and less secure in their role as a man. Gang culture is society's method of filling the void left by the absentee father. One study of 300 high school students asked them to keep a careful record of time they spent alone with their fathers during a two-week period. The average boy in the study spent 7.5 minutes alone with his father each week.

The second stage of fatherhood is usually to be enemy. Sons learn that the first duty of manhood is a declaration of independence. It is much easier to rebel against an enemy than a hero. Mark Twain summed it up quite well when he wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

A declaration of independence is especially important if the greatness of the father is overshadowing the son. In his shadow, the son may be not able to grow. When I turned 15 there was a tremendous power struggle between my father and me. We argued over the momentous issues of life, such as hair length, curfew, and my work habits (or lack of them).

By the time I turned 16 I was spending more time away from home than I was at home. The car my father gave me at 14 had given me mobility, and I fantasized about making it on my own. I did not want to follow in my father's footsteps. I wanted to create my own path. He felt I was degrading him and proclaiming that his life's work was not important.

Our relationship fractured badly. I needed my independence to become a man. Unfortunately, the fractured relationship never fully healed.

Even if a son decides to follow in his father's footsteps, he will usually attempt to pass him on his path to success. Beating dad at his own game is another form of rebellion and separation that is all part of becoming independent. For some, the process is never completed.

The third stage of fatherhood is friend. For many men the struggle to come out from under the shadow of their father takes a positive turn when they too become a father.

I worried that our son might find it intimidating to compete with me in the same college. Having started college at the age of 32, I knew my son would attend the same classes less than seven years later. How would he feel having to compete with my 4.0? Would he feel inferior? pressured? angry? As it turned out, he created his own path through college and even worked for one of my favorite professors as a reader. Ultimately he chose a different direction in both lifestyle and career.

No matter how old fathers become, their sons still feel like little boys in their presence. It's as though sons stop growing, in comparison to their fathers, at the age of 7. My best male friend on this earth is my son, Mitch. I can talk to him about my successes and failures, my dreams and aspirations, and anything else that comes to mind. We support each other in time of need. We share candidly. He has seen me at both my best and my worst. Through it all he still calls me Dad, even though we have a deep and meaningful friendship. I try very hard not to play the role of a power dad and interfere with his life, but I must confess that I really love it when he calls me Dad.

The final stage of fatherhood – and the final rite of passage - is the death of the father. Some men become angry when their father dies, because he is abandoning them once again. Others feel guilty by the realization of their repressed death wish in order to get out from under his domineering control. Others feel fearful, because they are now on their own and must prove themselves as men and fathers. No matter what the reaction to their father's death, most men feel they have now attained the full stature of a man. With the death of their father comes the responsibility to become family elder or patriarch. Sons must now show that they can indeed fill their father's shoes.

We can conceive of father as the cement that binds together the “family house.” It is the father's responsibility to provide intimacy, discipline, love, and worth. Failure of the “family house” provides opportunity for cults and gang cultures. It is not coincidental that the most successful rehabilitation centers for delinquent teens are those that most closely approximate family life in a family house. Fathers must make their children feel as though they belong to the family and are an important part of their everyday experience. It is not the father's responsibility to make all of his children's decisions for them, but rather to let them see him make his.

Fatherhood is the act of losing one's life and finding it, all at once. To be a father, to be a man, is to give your all to your children - all your energy, all your manhood, all your power; put everything to work to make them successful - and then, when it's time, to give still more by surrendering all and letting go. Jesus provided a working model for fathers in one succinct sentence: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”.

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