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The labor of love that resulted in The Measure of a Man began with my wife’s first pregnancy and the birth of our daughter in 1981. It continued and magnified with our son’s birth in 1988. Fatherhood has been the single most powerful event in my life. It colors everything I do. My dreams, hopes, and aspirations have been transformed with the existence of my children. As a father I am more connected to mankind, to my own father, and to the future.
As the fascination with these changes took over much of my mental and emotional life, I felt pushed to share my feelings and ideas with other men who were in the same situation and with those who were my seniors.
This book has a very personal basis. However, my personal experience of fatherhood is probably far more fascinating to me than to anyone else. What is important is how my personal understanding matches the way men in general experience this core component of masculine identity. The power of my personal experience led me to explore fathering in scientific and personal ways. This book is an attempt to share that learning.
You will find in this book the combined input and knowledge of hundreds of men. As much as possible, I have provided examples and quotations from the men I interviewed. I am exceptionally grateful to everyone who shared so openly their hopes, dreams, and fears as fathers. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds.
The information came from several sources: scientific surveys, men’s groups, psychotherapy, electronic media, lectures and workshops, literature, and personal experience.
SURVEYS. There was an initial comprehensive survey of 227 expectant and recent fathers. The men in that survey roughly matched U.S. census population groups. A second survey followed, in which another eighty men who had been fathers for at least a year were interviewed. The third survey involved 203 couples. These couples had been parents for at least a year. Ten percent had children who had grown and left home. Finally a survey of 90 experienced fathers was completed. These men each had at least one child and had been fathering for at least four years. Each of these survey studies involved a taped, structured interview and completion of questionnaires.
CLINICAL SOURCES. Data for the book also came from clinical sources. As a leader of men’s groups since the mid 1960s, I have been privy to the rawest expression of the delights and pains of maleness and fatherhood. It was in such groups that I began to understand the fact that fatherhood was a core of masculinity, and the influence of a man’s children in his life.
In addition to the men’s groups I have been in the private practice of individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy for over twenty years. In that time I have been able to get to know in very intimate ways scores of single and married men, fathers who were present for their families and those who were absent, single fathers and stepfathers, older fathers and new fathers. In this process I have become aware of the influence of these men in their families and the centrality of their families to their personal lives. Over three hundred of my clients’ lives are represented in the work in this book.
ELECTRONIC MEDIA. Information on fathering has also come through my computer conversations with hundreds of men and women on electronic bulletin boards. These BBS’s offer people a forum to air their concerns and grievances in a semi-anonymous way. Among the BBS’s that I have regularly used to communicate with others and to be able to observe conversations among men and women are Prodigy, America Online, and Shrinktank. I have been the host of the men’s conference on the last for over two years.
Telecommunication has played another role in helping me better understand fathers. Since the initial publication of my book When Men Are Pregnant, in 1987, I have appeared on over one hundred radio and television programs. Many of these were call-in shows. These forums allowed me an opportunity to talk to scores of people across the country whom I otherwise would not have met.
LECTURES AND WORKSHOPS. In the past several years I have been giving talks and conducting workshops on male psychology, fatherhood, and family issues. At these talks I have been able to hear the concerns and questions of a great number of fathers and mothers and potential parents. I am sure that they have given me as much as I have given them. Ideas, questions, pragmatic solutions to everyday problems, and their life stories have all sharpened my understanding of fathering as it exists in North America today.
THE LITERATURE ON FATHERHOOD. Finally there is a small but growing literature on fathering. I have attempted to give a reasonable summary of my colleagues’ work here and to build on it. Their perceptions, research, and conclusions have added immeasurably to my personal understanding of myself, of men, and of fathers.
I feel honored to be privy to the most central aspects of men’s lives and feelings about fatherhood. I have endeavored to treat their conversations with the respect and admiration with which I hold them. Because of that, unless men specifically requested that I quote them directly or agreed to be quoted when I asked, no personal identification of any individual is provided. Personal information is disguised to protect confidentiality. Names were changed, and any specific correspondence with an individual is purely coincidental.
WHAT IS A FATHER?
“If you build it, he [Daddy] will come.”
I hope you have the opportunity to read this. I am waiting at the hospital for the surgeon with news of your bypass operation. My mind and emotions are so jumbled with fear, great sadness, and anger. Memories flood my consciousness seemingly of their own accord. We have been connected for the entire forty-four years of my life; more than sixty percent of your lifetime.
I don’t think I ever cried as hard or felt such helplessness or despair as I did a few hours ago when they wheeled you away from me, into the operating room where your life now hangs in the balance.
It was so gratifying to see you enjoy the party Linda and I threw to celebrate your seventieth birthday, just a week ago. I’m glad you liked the keyboard. It has never been easy buying you a gift, you never seemed to need or want much for yourself. I guess that’s one of the frustrating things about our relationship. So much of what you taught me by your actions was to delay gratification. I’m afraid I got too good at that. It’s been a struggle for me to let myself want in the here-and-now. I wonder if you’ve had to grapple with that also, or whether it’s just part of your being that remains unquestioned.
As scared and unhappy as this crisis has made me, I’m pleased that I could be present: not three thousand or six thousand miles away, as it has been for so many years. I’m glad that I could drive you to the hospital—some kind of repayment for the thousands of times you drove me to one place or another. Have I appreciated that enough? I doubt I did as a kid or at least doubt that I told you. The truth is I would have preferred a trip to the Coliseum or Candlestick. Hopefully we’ll go to Fenway Park or the Garden again someday. As I sit here and wait, I can recall the first baseball game you took me to in old Braves Field with exquisite detail: the pavilion, Sam Jethroe stealing home, Bob Elliott, Sibby Sisti, Tommy Holmes, Sid Gordon, Earl Torgeson, Walker Cooper, and that incredible home run Ralph Kiner hit off Bickford. I don’t think that ball ever came back to the ground. You began to teach me how to score the game that night.
There’s a frustrating part to that memory too. In recent years you have been so reticent about doing anything much with me, begging off at the last minute from baseball games and other places where we could have shared. I know you do that to avoid conflict with Mom, but it has always bothered me that you were more tuned in to her desires than to your own. I also worry that I share that tendency to hear my wife’s spoken and unspoken wishes as commands.
I’m angry at you for not taking better care of yourself. The smoking is particularly irritating, especially after all the heart and circulation problems. I worry a lot about my own self-destructive tendencies. I, too, delay pleasures far too long, I feel responsible for others’ happiness far more than I should, I am too eager to please. I have taken as my mission in life that I must bring excitement and happiness to yours. Somehow I understood at a very deep level that I was your protector as much as you were mine.
Dad, I really need you to live. Your first grandson will be born in less than two months. Knowing how much you love your granddaughters, I know this will be important for you as well. Is this another example of my taking care of you—taking care of me as well?
I am not ready to let you go. There is so much I want to say to you. So much I want to ask you. I can’t write it here because I have no words to express it, no way of probing and unearthing my innermost thoughts. It is like when my daughter begins to ask me a question, mostly to connect, and gets lost in her content. Tongue-tied, emotionally overwrought, I sit here feeling my love for you, my yearning for more of you, my unknown and unasked questions.
What can you teach me about this job of fathering that you have done? What can you help me do better as a father and as a son? Where is the piece of absolute wisdom that will silence the questions and satisfy my longing for true understanding and peace? I know there is precious little time left.
This letter remains unfinished. Although I have shared most of the content with my father, I have not sent the letter. He survived his bypass operation and several other life-threatening scares. Like this letter, our relationship remains unfinished. I cannot think of anything particular that I have left unsaid, yet know down deep that there is much more. Most of all I do not know if my father has said everything to me that he wants to say. Sometimes I hang on to those rare moments when we converse at length, hoping for whatever message a father gives his son.
This book is about my dad and yours. It is about our impact on our children. Mostly it is about you and me, the fathers we are, the fathers we want to become. As you become increasingly open to, and involved with, your children, you may rediscover your own childhood sense of father hunger.1 This may be very important. Those of us who remain unaware of the personal hurts and rejections of our boyhoods will tend unconsciously to pass them on to our children. Introspection and awareness of our personal motivations and history are prerequisites to good fathering.