As a young boy, I desperately needed a hero. My dad wasn’t one of them. He left the family the first time when I was 6 and left the second time for good when I was 9. Not having a dad crushed me, yet it pushed me on a journey to wake up, grow up, and show up.
I recently shared my journey in a TEDx talk about waking up from the pain of being a fatherless son, growing up to be the dad I always wanted, and showing up with a superpower—the power of fathering.
When my dad lived at home, I felt anxious and scared of him. One of the scariest moments of my life was when my father threatened my mother with a knife. Eventually, he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. When he was gone, I felt a wave of relief. But I also felt emotionally scarred. I survived by shutting down and retreating to superhero comics where I imagined myself with a superpower, steeling myself against feeling anxious, scared, or sad.
Emotionally, I was screwed up—so I became a therapist. There’s an old saying that those of us who become therapists do so because we need 40 hours of therapy a week. Those 40 hours have turned into 40 years as a therapist.
Strangely, my clients helped me wake up. When I heard stories about fathers abandoning, neglecting, or abusing them, I related to their pain, since I was a fatherless son of father who, himself, was fatherless, having lost his dad when he was 4. Like my clients, I longed for a father who told me, “I’m here for you. I believe in you. I love you.”
Passionate about breaking the cycle of absent fathers, I became a stay-at-home dad when my son Nate, and daughter Melissa were then 4 and 6. I had to alter my story about men since I had fueled my self-esteem and sense of manhood by achieving and performing at work. That brought money, accolades, and outward success, whereas caring for kids required long hours, no pay, and no job promotion.
I discovered that parenting wasn’t based on performance but on building relationships. That meant growing up, along with my kids, and changing the way I related to them. Strangely, that often made me feel incompetent because as soon as I mastered one stage of development, like raising toddlers, my kids would pop into the next stage. I’d have to learn how to relate to preschoolers and, down the road, with teenagers!
I must confess that as a stay-at-home dad, I missed being like other men, furthering my career, achieving goals, and getting paid for a job well done. However, when I thought of giving up, I remembered the words of Frederick Douglass. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And I thought of my clients who missed out on fathering.
I didn’t want that to happen to Melissa and Nate. I wanted them to know, “I’m here for you. I believe in you. I love you.” That meant taking them to school, helping with homework, having fun adventures, going with them to the doctors, discussing problems, and setting limits.
However, I didn’t fully realize the importance of fathering until I joined a men’s group. There I discovered that many of the men, like me, missed out on time with a loving father. When we gave each other time in our weekly meetings, we created a safe place to talk honestly and share our feelings. When I opened up and talked about my dad, those men showed up for me and said,
“We’re here for you. We believe in you. We love you.” Those healing words that I longed to hear from my father helped me experience, firsthand, the potent force of fathering. It created safety, healed wounds, built confidence, and promoted love.
While it’s easy to take fathering for granted, it’s critical that we wake up and realize dads play a crucial role in the lives of children. As fathers, we’re called to build relationships with our kids, grow up along with them, and show up in the world as loving active, parents. Doing so demonstrates the superpower of fathering. It shows our children, “We’re here for you, we believe in you, and we love you.”
Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood
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