Monday, January 10, 2011

Fathering in the 21st Century

By Kate Carraway, Globe and Mail, January 6, 2011
Tom Matlack co-founded the Good Men Project, ( which includes a book, a magazine and a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to at-risk boys. Mr. Matlack says: “One of the core problems with manhood in America is that so many children grow up without fathers.” He felt that no one was really talking to boys about issues such as death, divorce, war and sex, and when he speaks to audiences in places ranging from private schools to prisons, “jaws drop.” Mr. Matlack wants to make being an engaged and active dad appealing. “What a mother gives a child is obviously essential, [but] I think what a father gives a child is equally essential and different,” he says. “Every boy is asking themselves a question, ‘How do I be a man?’ and they’re looking for role models, mentors, clues.”
(Good Men Media Inc. Mailing Address: 83 Beech Street #3, Belmont, MA 02478 617.513.5806 )
This paragraph is taken from a larger piece about the portrayal of absentee fathers in movies. Ms Carraway points out three cliche models of this "character": a bumbling but lovable idiot, a distant workaholic or a nutcase. And that’s if he’s even around.
There are so many absentee fathers, and so many ways for a parent (of both genders) to be "absent" from his/her children, whether those absentee parents actually live in the same residence as the children. As in so many situations, we prefer to stereotype the absent father in a negative manner, while preferring not to use a similar approach to an absent female parent. (Perhaps this is an unconscious balance to the sexually wayward female who is cast in very negative terms in the stereotype, as compared with the philandering male.)
I grew up in a neighbourhood where fathers, including my own, were emotionally absent from everyone, not only his one son; he was also emotionally absent from his spouse, and his daughter. In many ways, it would appear, at least to me, that he was also absent from himself, in the sense that he was not "in touch" with his deepest feelings, and certainly not in touch with the emotional realities of the members of his family.The fathers of other children in the neighbourhood were distant, somewhat cold emotionally and, from the limited exposure that I gained, not very engaged in the "inner life" of  the members of their families.
Hunting, fishing, repairing the car, painting the house and occasionally gardening and shovelling snow were among the primary activities that one could observe fathers in our neighbourhood doing.
They did not read, and they certainly did not read to their boys; if that happened at all, it was the mother who did the reading, and that was not all that frequent, even at an early stage. They did not talk about anything, especially about such "hot" topics as sex, death, marriage, (no one even thought of divorce), ambition, or even money or the other "taboos" God, religion and politics.
I have a vague notion that my father probably voted Liberal, although he never told me that; my maternal grandfather would likely have voted Progressive Conservative.
So 'connected' to my father really meant not displeasing him; so long as I continued to pass at school and pass the piano examinations, I could count on his silent support.
But let's look, too, at the fathers in my generation, many of whom (us) having defaulted on our roles as fathers/spouses/grandfathers differently from our fathers.
We did some reading, and made a little progress in uncovering our emotional realities, we nevertheless were not as able or willing to enter into the emotional intimacies of exposing ourselves and our feelings to our partners, nor were we open to the vulnerability that such activity includes. We worked very hard, trying with all the ambition and energy we could muster to seek and fill employment and business roles that demanded our best, and all of it. Consequently, we were "absent" because we were working "too hard" and for me, that meant working for the "applause" that accompanies public display of ambition, the kind of affirmation that was not available in the home. I coached basketball teams for two decades, and wrote news and editorials for at least a decade for radio while also serving as a free-lance reporter for television, all the while functioning as a full-time English teacher. I literally vacated the premises from September through June, and was really only available during the summer vacations.
I suspect that after the marriage broke, after twenty three years, the three daughters barely missed my absence, except perhaps in the summer vacations, which they filled with summer jobs themselves, through their teens. That is not to excuse my absence, nor really to justify it. It is merely to acknowledge reality, however unpleasant it may be.
Now, I have become passionate about the silences, and the absences and the unequivocal rejection by many adult males of our capacity to impact the next generations of both young men and young women. Perhaps, I want to make up for lost time, both my own and my father's, (not to mention my grandfathers whom I never knew because their deaths occurred either before my birth or shortly after). Perhaps I want to engage with other males who, like me, are living a life of silence and absence and a kind of vague uncertainty because of both the absences and the silences.
Ironically, it is not my passion that is most needed, or desired. In fact, it is my passion that serves as my worst attribute, in the search for healthy connection with young male "students" in both the formal and the informal sense.
Institutions, like corporations, also lack strong male leadership, not the bullying kind, but the evolved, confident, assertive, collaborative and collegial variety. Schools, especially elementary schools, are virtually empty of male teachers and administrators, while high schools do not have even close to a 50-50 ratio of male to female teachers, providing the necessary guidance, leadership and mentoring of our young men.
And school boards are resisting the challenge to engage in "incentives" to hire male teachers, although some are coming to that position slowly. We have gone way too far in our social bigotry against maleness, and this bigotry can, for the most part, be laid directly at the feet of other males, certainly not females.
And one of the results is that there is a cloud of suspicion around a male teacher who seeks employment in the elementary schools. Is he gay? And, is he going to negatively influence my child with his gayness?
And, for the most part, straight men are not doing much to de-bunk that mythology!
Males are both capable of engaging with other males, in pursuit of the inner life, their own, their children's and their partners. And, to argue as one family physician did not so long ago, "Women do it so much better" to avoid the human responsibilty of learning the language and the confidence that accompanies that learning...of the emotions, and the fears and the hopes and dreams....and to go there is not exclusively the purview of either women or gay men. It is the responsibility and opportunity for all human beings....and the sooner we open to that reality, the better fathers, parents, partners and role models we will all be.
There are thousands of young boys and young men eagerly waiting for our engagement with them!

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