On Being A Father
I began the self-discovery journey called ‘being a father’ about forty years ago with Eric, added my post graduate training thirty years ago with John-Michael and nine months ago I was born again under the firm mentorship of Carly Elizabeth. The general view is that parenting is a one way street. Parents demonstrate how everything is and should be by introducing various forms of rewards, threats and punishments to insure lasting conformity. And yes, of course, it is important to help Carly discover that climbing up the stairs implies the risk of falling down. On the other hand, what is it that I am discovering, learning and developing while assisting Carly Elizabeth with her discoveries? Unconditional love? Patience? Quiet listening? Being firmly grounded in my body? Sensitive attention? Nonverbal communication? Appreciating that the resonate meaning, the nature and quality of my state of being, is shared and creates the context for the dance this moment and the next? There is an implied sacred responsibility to model with that state the highest expressions of kindness, compassion, care and play. Wow! I thought parenting was all about kids.
Being on my hands and knees a lot these days, racing around trying to keep up with Carly, I watch with wonder how completely attentive she is to everything! Making a left, sliding into the kitchen, tile being a completely different surface than carpet, she spots a tiny speck, stops, touches, examines and of course places it in her extremely sensitive mouth for further investigation. No, not to eat, to discover, as Joseph Chilton Pearce would say; to build an inner structure of knowledge-experience that corresponds to this speck. I hate to admit it, but I don’t usually invest that quality of attention in every speck I meet. No, I’m usually off in some vague daydream wondering what color knee pads would go nicely with my new crawling outfit.
Being a father is much broader than tasting specks. I have said for years that women are changelings; they morph into different creatures at different ages and stages, while guys are more like golden retrievers. Toss the ball and they chase it. Becoming a mother is one of these dramatic morphing events and the role of a father is to adapt and adapt again, like a fireman with a net ready to catch, hold, applaud and encourage. You can’t do that clinging to whatever it was you thought you needed. Pass me another Bud. That is what parenting is all about, being forced to put another’s needs before your own, to grow our capacity for responsive empathy, to see that most of what we ‘think’ is important isn’t in the larger scheme, and to realize, embrace and practice what Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, called ‘the art of giving.’ This is what being a parent, and especially a father, is all about, an inner journey of self-discovery, broadening and becoming who we really which is so much more than our social labels.
Conflict in the dramatic arts is the crucible that reveals our true character. Parenting can be seen as the ultimate conflict between selfish needs and altruism with our capacity to experience and express real love as the tipping point. When Carly is screaming and my wife is at her end, can I be that fireman with a net or do I scream the loudest? Can you imagine a greater spiritual practice, meditation or Samurai training? In our real life drama it is the way we respond to conflict - my needs, my schedule, my sleep, me, me, me - or being the caring, attentive fireman with net – that’s the true measure of who we are as men.
Oh, many will say and I among them, what about me? I have needs too! Does becoming a father mean that we males become a Sherpa, you know, the guy that carries all that stuff to the top of Everest so some dilettante can say that he or she made it? Of course, we all have important needs. Becoming a parent implies that we learn to master our needs like a pro ball player masters his glove or club. Not whining because someone took away our binkie. The way we respond to our very young children and to a large extent that means how we respond to our wives, now morphed into mothers, sets the template for the way our children and that implies all children will treat the world. Getting our priorities straight for guys is Parenting 101.
Becoming a father, and a mother, is a developmental stage of for adults every bit as challenging as childhood is for our children. If we think parenting is all about our kids, we are missing the point. Might as well slouch on the couch and push a few more buttons on the remote.
What does being a ‘real’ man mean? The ultimate test is how we adapt to the role called father. It means first protecting the sanctity of the mother-infant bond. It means mastering the fireman’s net, putting your life on the line because you love and care so much. It means being safe enough to play when everyone else is screaming. It means being available and stress free the moment we pick up our children. The lucky ones try to master their inner life by locking themselves in a cave and staring at the wall. Our job as fathers is not as easy. Our challenge is to become masters of our inner journey while navigating, late at night, when the lights are out, all those toys on the floor.