8 ways for men and their sons to heal

A pervasive problem today seems to be that American men have little or no connection with their fathers.  The reasons may be physical or structural – absentee fathers, divorced fathers who don’t share custody – or emotional, in that the fathers were around during their kids’ childhoods, but were emotional ghosts.  But what to do about it?

True, it may seem like many fathers today are more involved in their children’s lives than in the past.  But it depends on your situation.  This trend may be most evident in dual-earner marriages and certain racial / ethnic and income groups.  But as of 2010, about 27% of children lived apart from their fathers (Paul Taylor et al, Pew Research Center, “A Tale of Two Fathers” (2011), hat tip Eleanor Barkhorn at Vox).  And while I’ve had a hard time finding good data on emotionally-distant, physically-present fathers, for the time being here is a compelling common-sense summary of the problem by Frank Pittman, writing in Psychology Today in 1993:

“We know that being a father is life’s fullest expression of masculinity. So why did so many men forgo this for so long, and will the current crop of post-patriarchal fathers fare any better?

For a couple of hundred years now, each generation of fathers has passed on less and less to his sons–not just less power but less wisdom. And less love. We finally reached a point where many fathers were largely irrelevant in the lives of their sons. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater, and the pater dismissed with the patriarchy. Everyone seemed to be floundering around not knowing what to do with men or with their problematic and disoriented masculinity.”

From my personal experience – reflecting generally a cross-ethnic middle class and upper middle class experience – the majority of my guy friends feel estranged from their fathers.  On one side of the distribution, some only speak or write to their fathers once every few years.  On the other, the men see their fathers periodically but the real topics of life – engaging with life’s challenges, existential insecurities, and frankly just sharing good emotions we crave to feel with family – are left unspoken, and instead any shared time grinds away with superficial discussions of the weather, sports, money, work, women, and other factual updates.  I can think of only two or three guy friends who have reasonably close connections with their adult fathers.  In the middle, people languish disconnected from their fathers, or suffer through the family holidays and so forth when old tensions and behaviors flare up, and the adult children feel at a loss as to what to do other than soldier on.  Or maybe they ponder avoiding the father even more.

In some situations, divorce was the main cause of the estrangement.  In others, the fathers themselves suffered through difficult childhoods – filled with anxiety, fear, abuse, and/or depression – and without meaning to, they brought this energy into raising their own kids.  And, men with well-meaning intentions may have lacked the guidance from their peers or elders as to how to engage in a real way with their children – that is, to talk about emotions and as kids aged into adolescence, to increasingly discuss spirituality and meaning.  In short, they were unaware of what fuels human connection and thus unable to foster it.

My intention now is not to diagnose all the causes and manifestations of such disconnection with fathers – that alone would take quite a few more articles – but this theme underlies much of what we publish on this blog about family, so-called “masculinity”, and finding meaning in our lives.

To keep my scope narrow here, I wanted to share ways that adult children can try to heal with their fathers.  I am grateful to Robert Bly and Jack Petrash, who either directly provided these tips and quotations, or inspired me to create them.  Readers, I welcome any suggestions of other resources and approaches, and am glad to update this post with new information.

These tips generally require that you find some quiet, one-on-one time to talk with your father.  Perhaps after you’ve gone out for drinks (but I’d limit at just one or two drinks max!), or done something else enjoyable together like attended a baseball game.

  1. Ask your father, “How was fatherhood for you? ” (inspired by Jack Petrash in his book, “Covering Home: Lessons on the Art of Fathering from the Game of Baseball”)
  2. Ask your father, “How did you want to be fathered by your Dad?” (from Robert Bly, documentary with Bill Moyers)
  3. Ask your father, “How do you wish I had been as a son/daughter?” (from Robert Bly)
  4. Have a straight talk where you apologize for anything you may have done to hurt or further estrange your father (e.g., being overly critical, pushing him away, not thanking him for financial or other support).
    1. One inspiration for having these types of talks – which are never easy – is to check out Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The 1958 movie adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives is also quite good, though it does dilute the original play’s power.
    2. If your father jumps into shallow waters conversationally, but you feel it’s time for real talk, try this: “Look, I want to really talk – not about sports, money, the weather.  Let’s have a good talk.” (from Robert Bly)
  5. Consider a retreat – either father-son, or father-child. You can look up a nearby church or meditation center and see if they offer retreats to help adult children emotionally heal with their parents.
  6. Instead of engaging your father now, continue to work on yourself – your self-awareness, your cultivation of pursuits and relationships that genuinely interest you, your physical health – while not pushing your father away. Keep inviting him to gatherings and other chances to share life together and avoid unnecessarily criticizing him.  Over time, you may notice the bond gently strengthening, or unexpected new avenues may open between you and your father.  This reminds me of the way Ram Dass – a former American professor who found his calling in practicing and teaching about spiritual traditions – became closer to his father, as depicted in the documentary film, “Ram Dass, Fierce Grace”.
  7. Become a father yourself.  You’ll cultivate your own opinions about how you want to raise your kids, and can compare that to how you were raised.  You will also develop empathy for the struggles and compromises your own father made.  These in turn may open new doors of connection between you and your father. [Editor’s note: updated with audience feedback]
  8. You may benefit from attending family therapy with a skilled counselor.

If your father has already passed on, you may nonetheless find it therapeutic to have an imaginary conversation with him in your journal.  As with all journal writing, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, just shred or burn the paper afterwards.  But it can be cathartic to let it out of your mind and get it off your heart.  And it’s often easier to practice in a journal before talking in real life.

One caveat here is that, with all such advice, you need to read your own personal situation before trying any of these.  Perhaps now is not the time to chart into these waters.  You may derive the most benefit from tip #6 above.

Readers, let us hear from you (anonymous is fine):  women and men readers, do you agree or disagree with the problem of disconnected fathers?  Have you found any other strategies that have helped you to heal these broken relationships?

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