The more we talked about his father, the more the loss of this close, important relationship seemed to dominate his life. He had found it difficult after his father's death to develop close relationships. Not until he met his wife and experienced her steadfast commitment to him could he trust that people could be depended on. He began to recognize that the loss he felt from his father's unexpected suicide had undermined his confidence and trust in people. If he couldn't count on his father, whom could he trust? And as the therapy progressed he recognized with sadness and tears that he was keeping a distance from his own son to protect him. He was trying to protect his son from what had hurt him the the loss of his father. He realized that if his son was not close or attached to him, he would need not suffer the pain of losing someone so dear, so important.
When he could understand that he was projecting his pain and loss onto his relationship with his son, another wave of sadness came over him. He realized how much his son needed him. He became aware of how he was holding himself back from giving his son what he needed, his alive and interested father. He said it was as if he was treating his son as though he had already died! The therapy continued, and as he experienced the depth and grief of his feelings for his own father, he became able to enjoy and parent his own son. He began to separate out his feelings of himself as a father from his feelings about his relationship with his own father. Although this may be a dramatic example, the pattern is clear with every man I have spoken with over the years. When they became fathers, the need to understand the relationship with their own dad was psychological step that led to their own autonomy.
The second transition that occurs through parenthood and adds dimension to men's character is when they confront the change and disorganization a child brings into their life. As I mentioned earlier, to be masculine is to be in control. We have been socialized as boys to feel that control of our emotions is what makes us strong and desirable. In order to maintain that sense of control we need to cut ourselves off from about half of our emotional life -- the fears and worries we all encounter.
Childbirth and parenting brings with it such uncertainty. It has often been referred to as the "crisis" stage in the couple's relationship. I think this term "crisis" misrepresents what is really happening. The connotation of "crisis" is that something has occurred that shouldn't have, and now we need to make things normal again by returning to the situation before the crisis.
In my research I called this transition to parenthood phase for men the "emergent" phase. It seems that rather than a "crisis" occurring, a new definition of the man as a father is "emerging." He cannot go back to the way he was before, and must attain new potential in himself as a father. This new potential asks him to give up a degree of self-centeredness.
Before they have children, both men and women often don't realize how much flexibility and free time they have. After the baby is born, this is so severely reduced that it is probably the most difficult transition the couple has to understanding that their life now involves a third person, who, particularly in the early years, needs one-on-one care. Responding to this transition can humanize us. Being independent, focusing on their own needs, not being "committed," is often depicted in the media as a romantic and attractive lifestyle. Hollywood worships the "eternal adolescent.". The man who becomes a parent is usually dealt with in a comic fashion. We don't have a positive and life-affirming image as men as young or new fathers. We don't see fatherhood being pursued as a life choice for men. Finding value, fulfillment and creativity in parenthood is not an image Hollywood has found a way to cash in.
The confusion and uncertainty brought about by birth and the early years of parenting ask a man whether he can value and love others outside of himself. It challenges a man to feel himself as part of a group, his family, whose survival and emotional well-being he is part of.