From Man to Dad: How Fatherhood Changes Men

by Bruce Linton, Ph.D.

Dad holding his newbornUntil recently little work has been done on men and fatherhood. Historically, it has been assumed without much reflection that if a father was providing economically for the family, he was making his contribution. A successful economic provider was a "good father." Mothers were expected to provide the other essentials that their children needed.

All this has changed today. Research shows that the less fathers are involved emotionally in the day-to-day lives of their families, the lower self-esteem, sociability, and problem-solving capacities their children have.

Transitions to Fatherhood

There are four emotional transitions that men pass through as fathers that mark their character and define who they are as men.

  1. The first is the man's understanding and resolution of his relationship with his own father.
  2. The next involves the way confusion and emotional uncertainty, usually at pregnancy or birth (or through adoption or becoming a stepparent) present him with an opportunity to become more flexible or more rigid as a man.
  3. Third is the ability to be dependent and allow others to be dependent on him.
  4. The last is how is he able to form affiliations with other fathers and move from isolation into community.

All these transitions lead the man/father to a greater sense of purpose in his life -- what I like to call a deepening of his soul. Fatherhood can humanize a man like no other experience I can think of. The most profound contribution we have to give as men can be manifested through our parenting of the next generation. Ultimately, when we reflect on who we are as men we must ask how have we affected the lives of others.

Relating to Your Dad

Masculinity and fatherhood are socially constructed. As times change, our expectations and constructs for who we are as men adapt to the social and cultural needs of our families. This social flexibility is a positive quality for us as men. It liberates us from having to model ourselves after the past, and gives us the freedom to create what is most relevant for us and for our families today. This is not easy work.

Many dads fear that because their own father was not a "role model" for them that they don't know how to be a parent. The relationship a man has with his own father is one of the underlying themes he needs to resolve to become, not only the father he wants to be, but also the man he wants to be. Our own independent psychological life is not easy to achieve. The influence of our mothers and fathers runs deep. As men become fathers, their relationship with their own fathers seems to intensify. The working-through of the issues between father and son continues even after the father's death.

Recently, I was consulting with a father in my psychotherapy practice whose father had committed suicide. He came into therapy because his wife had been concerned about his seeming lack of interest in their young son. At first he complained about how much work demanded of him and how he was just tired, not uninterested in his son. He also remarked that when his son became more complex and -- interesting, -- maybe around five, he was sure he would have a closer relationship with him then. All of these insights seemed reasonable. When I asked him about his own father, he had a very strong reaction.

His father had been quite involved with him as a baby and a young child. He had very positive memories of his father and of the pride his father felt for him. His attachment with his father was quite strong. He said his father's suicide took him by complete surprise and he was depressed for a couple of years after his death.