Father’s Day Everyday–Helping Men Become Better Men
Holidays are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they provide opportunities to celebrate, and express love and appreciation for the people and events that are the subject of them. On the other, they project a one-sided and often distorted picture, compel us to ignore the parts that are harder to celebrate, and insist on a kind of fantasy version of our lives. One of the holidays where this is very palpable is Father’s Day.
Every year when Father’s Day comes around (and many other days too), people around me — therapy clients, friends and family, women and men — experience some turmoil and challenge with the holiday, whether it is has to do with their conflicting and often painful experiences with their own father, or other men in their lives. Or, for many men, it is about their own struggle with being the men, lovers or fathers that they are, or aren’t.
They often talk about the men they’ve loved and how much; about how wonderful they could be, and detail beautiful and heartfelt memories of the time they spent together. They also talk about how many of those relationships were fraught with conflict, disappointment and pain (and often physical, emotional or sexual abuse); about how difficult it was to be close to them, and of the difficulty these men had, and have, being close to others in ways that are genuine, decent and caring and intimate.
Almost without exception, the men in their lives loom large – whether positively or negatively.
When I was a kid, Father’s Day was difficult, because my brother and I were the few, if any kids in our neighborhood with divorced parents (it was the 60s and 70s). We didn’t see our father regularly, and often felt rejected and deeply disappointed by him. We didn’t know if we would see him, or how, exactly, to celebrate him on Father’s Day. Dad didn’t have the easiest time being a father. He was a child refugee of the holocaust, who came to the US as a young teen via Ecuador, and was abused by his own father throughout his early childhood. He was an upwardly mobile, charismatic and macho man with tremendous smarts and talents (He spoke only German and Spanish when he arrived, and the story goes that he became fluent in English after a few weeks of sitting in the movie theater from morning to night).
He had a big heart, and not all of the tools he needed to be successful and fully assimilate, as he tried so very hard to do. He was a passionate and loving person – when you could connect with him – and often a bit scary, as he, too, had a pretty big temper. We craved his love and affection, which he gave, quite inconsistently, along with an array of judgements and failed promises.
One of the gifts that he did give me, was the ability to be direct, and to have a good fight in the name of our relationship. And that we did. We loved each other dearly, and I took him to task regularly for the ways that he was hurtful to my brother and me, my step-brothers and the women in his life. The funny thing is, he taught me how to interact that way, and to his credit, he got in there with me, and we hashed it out, on paper, in person, in anger and in tears, and thankfully, lots of laughter.
Around my 17th birthday, after an extended period during which I had stopped speaking to him, we had a reconciliatory dinner at the Red Lobster Restaurant where we would meet. He became emotional and said that he knew he wasn’t a very good father and apologized, and said how much he appreciated my hanging in there with him and helping him. It was one of the first times he had been open and vulnerable with me, and it changed the course of our relationship. While he continued to make decisions that were very painful and disappointing, we continued to engage each other in serious and very messy ways, and we both grew from it. When I reached adulthood, we’d built a good, fun and loving, though still tumultuous and conflicted relationship, that we both valued greatly.
My father had a deep capacity to love, and an equal capacity to be hurtful. He had a limited ability to connect on an intimate level, and, he was also deeply sensitive and connected. All at the same time. He was (and we were) often at the mercy of his intense emotional responses and his lack of emotional development. He hadn’t a clue about how to use them to build relationships that would sustain him and the people around him. Our very conflicted relationship, it turns out, set the stage for work that I would be doing throughout my life.
While I started out engaging the men in my life as a way to be closer to them myself, it became apparent through my work that men needed help in this regard, and that I could help them. A little over ten years ago, many of the men in my practice were asking for help with who they were as men. So, I conducted a series of workshops designed to help men to become better men, and to do it with the help of the women in their lives. I did them in small venues with a hundred or so participants, and at a big Fatherhood conference. I continue to do this work everyday, in therapy, and in coaching.
Almost without exception, the biggest source of difficulty for men is their inability to embrace the totality of who they are: deeply conflicted humans with privileges and power, and impact, and with emotions, sensitivities and vulnerabilities. They, and we, are often more comfortable acknowledging one part, but not the other.
Men’s limited capacity to connect emotionally to themselves and to others is a source of pain for them and for the people in their lives, personally and professionally. While the social movements of the 60’s and 70’s, and the rise of self-help communities has created a consciousness about it, and many men are more politically correct in their thinking and awareness, it persists today in many forms, in men from all walks of life.
People (men and women) who relate to men – in families, in communities, in work – experience these limitations and frustrations as a matter of routine. Just pick up any women’s or men’s magazine, or read the news, or listen to the conversations of people in your life, or at the table next to you, and you’ll read or hear about how painful and standard this experience of men is. Most people, and certainly most women, take this experience as a given. Yet, we (and they) often insist that they are only the Father’s Day version, glorifying either its pure masculine, emotionally removed, impenetrable and distant form, or as progressive and enlightened, and “not like other men.”
Men Are at a Disadvantage by Virtue of Their Privilege
Men are, and this may seem surprising given the privileges that most men have, at a disadvantage by virtue of their privilege. They often find themselves unhappy, unfulfilled or stuck, and unable to succeed at work and in relationships, and do not understand why. They are often unable to deepen and leverage the relationships in their lives. The rest of us are at a disadvantage too, as we are unprepared to be in relationship with men in ways that take into account the totality of who they are.
Being in the world and in relationships with men, whether they are lovers, fathers, brothers, co-workers, employees or employers, teachers and mentors, cousins or neighbors, means finding ways to navigate this very conflicted state of affairs.
Men and Women Learn How to Create an Environment to Address their Limitations
In our work together, men and women learn how to create an environment to look at and address their limitations emotionally and relationally speaking. We look closely and honestly at the deeply conflicted and often confusing experience it is to be a man, and is to relate to them. We develop ways of doing this without the anger and rage that is so easy to respond with when dealing with the impact men have on the people they relate to, or by making use of it to help everyone to grow. We work together to create new possibilities for what it means to men and women.
I believe it is important to do this because, in the world that we all live in together, even with all of the advances we have made, everyday, is still Father’s Day.
If you would like to have me lead a workshop at your organization, please contact The Possibility Practice.