In this excerpt from his new book, The Remade Parent, author Brett Hetherington talks about the typical cold, distant father. And their impressionable children.
[Excerpt from The Remade Parent, 2013)]
“The American author and father Paul Theroux once said that the expression “Be a man!” strikes him as insulting and abusive. That it actually means: “Be stupid, be unfeeling, obedient and soldierly, and stop thinking. Manliness…is a hideous and crippling lie [and] is also by its very nature destructive – emotionally damaging and socially harmful.”
I agree with Theroux about this. Men have been given this unmistakable idea, for as long as they have been warriors and breadwinners, and have acted as if their very identity springs from a well of cold-heartedness. Men are clinical, dispassionate and ruthless – this is what you must be to live as a man, we are still being told, though sometimes this is subtly done. If you are not a bloodless kind of man then you are weak – powerless and impotent. You are in fact, not a man.
On top of this, men and women alike are being led to believe that it is in the public domain where the ‘real power’ is – in the battlefield, the office or the stock market. Some men though – particularly those with children – are at last waking up to this historical lie and are now coming to learn that the deepest personal satisfaction comes from close, enduring and loving relationships with our partners and children in the private realm, not with those temporary alliances that too often come and go in workplaces.
For a long time though, it has suited the powerful in society to keep men from becoming fully involved with their children (and also for men to see their ‘womenfolk’ as mere breeders, lesser than them, and not deserving of an equal relationship.)
If a man is brave and unconventional enough to have grown emotionally ‘attached’ to his family in an intimately loving way, he will be reluctant to leave them for lengthy periods of time. This means that he could not be an effective soldier, or in today’s world, a ‘committed’ businessman or worker, because his loyalties and his energies are divided.
A man with a rich vein of feelings for his loved ones is a man who will not ‘put his body on the line’ for his country or his corporation. This kind of man deserts his regiment or abandons his workplace if he suffers a long, drawn-out ache for the familiar, affectionate warmth of those in his home.
So, if historically men have not developed the strongest kind of love, what of the other emotions that also make a man human? Have men, and therefore fathers, truly known fear, joy, anger and sadness?
I’m certain many have done. I’m also equally certain that our society as a whole has not encouraged the male to do this because – with the significant exception of anger – our culture firmly discourages boys and men from openly showing their emotions in public. This restriction has in turn worked directly against the best possible ‘moral’ parenting because it has not allowed children all the benefits of receiving continuous care, concern and (particularly) affection from fathers who are free of social inhibitions.
Most of our fathers have belonged to generations of emotional pygmies. This has meant that boys and young males (especially) do not grow up being able to develop their temperaments without unappealing consequences from their peers and even their parents.
The male’s deepest feelings – their exploration and growth – have largely been a guarded, private affair for the average man, and for this reason they have been marked by confusion. This has created close to half of humanity with emotions that are stunted and hard-boiled. It gives us one of the major reasons why fathers are still losing their children. Even if they are living in the same house they are ‘together’ in a technical sense only.
Firstly, I ask you to think of how each emotion might ‘come out’ or be expressed when done so without reservations, restraint or self-censorship. Secondly, what automatically happens to the body when we experience each emotion? And thirdly, what are the effects that any liberated display of each emotion might have on those around them, including their superiors or ‘rulers,’ in the following situations:
- A soldier openly displays his fear before a battle
- A farmer (in a pub) openly displays his sadness over the death of a friend
- An office-worker openly displays his extreme happiness when resigning from his job
- A father openly displays his love of another male
- A 20 year-old openly displays his anger towards a man in a nightclub
In the last scenario above, the man venting his anger (most commonly and instinctively done by swearing and hitting) will almost certainly have his actions approved of by other males around him. Some of them will in fact encourage him to attack.
Despite laws against assault, one man ‘taking on’ another in a brawl is generally regarded in mainstream society as acceptable. A significant amount of male violence is fueled by alcohol, and this is seen as just a standard way of ‘letting off steam’ in many sections of male society. It is given varying degrees of female approval, but is certainly not universally condemned by women.
Male-on-male fighting continues with society’s implicit approval, which means for children that when their fathers are put under pressure they are apt to keep relying on physical aggression to sort-out their disputes – including those with their own flesh and blood. It also suggests that when men parent there is a definite possibility of violence close to the surface.
How often this turns into actual violence will depend on the individual and his response to allowing his anger to be triggered off. Some men will never hit their kids of course, even when strongly provoked. But practically all fathers (and plenty of mothers too) will feel like it at some point – this is certain.
The difference in the resulting action depends on a particular father’s attitude to using force when in conflict with another. Those who have the best chance of resisting the urge to lash out will have a strong ethic against uncontrolled anger.
The simple fact is though, that a large number of men at least unconsciously believe that ‘might is right’ and they will bring this attitude into their fathering. Why wouldn’t they when wider society turns a blind eye to male-against-male violence?
Brett Hetherington is a father, journalist and former high-school teacher. His new non-fiction book The Remade Parent looks at ways that parents can be more involved in their children’s lives and the reasons why this is so essential. He lives in Catalonia, northern Spain with his partner Paula and young son, Hugo.
Photo: Brett Hetherington