The Kind Father
This article first appeared in the Island Word in June, 2009.
It was a child’s birthday party, with parents and pre-schoolers mingling, sticky cake bits and juice accumulating on the floor, a cheerful video playing in one corner. Nobody noticed that an older child had left the baby gate open, until a large man launched himself sideways across the room, successfully blocking a toddling baby just before it toppled down the stairs. The move had the unconscious, no-time-to-premeditate efficiency of a football tackle, but the laminate tile didn’t “spring” like outdoor turf, and Serena winced in sympathy as a two-hundred pound dad hit the unforgiving floor.
What is it that makes a man into a father? The act of becoming a biological father is so fleeting and low-risk that evolutionary theorists all-but-dismiss it’s importance in bonding animal fathers to their offspring. The list of mammalian species (or any species) where fathers actively nurture, protect and provide for offspring is short. Some human mothers would argue that the list of men who do so reliably is heartbreakingly short, as nearly one in five Canadian children will likely have no contact with their biological dads this Father’s Day. Yet the beauty of a man’s protective love propelling him like an awkward rocket across a crowded room to block a baby’s fall is beyond words. “It’s a wise child who recognizes its father”, goes the old saying, but we always thought that was a lucky child, and luckier still if the father is recognized with joy and comfort rather than shame or disappointment.
It is, we think, difficult to be a good father. We have to be somewhat hypothetical on this point, since we are mothers, daughters and sisters of men, but spectators when it comes to the art of manhood. Serena feels a kind of camaraderie with primary family wageearners, and Monika knows the feeling of accomplishment that comes from helping with house remodeling (not paint and wallpaper, but actual walls and floors!). But these are forays into limited areas of masculinity, and we approach them from the foundation of our upbringing as girls. We were neither encouraged to be powerful nor shamed and brutalized into being “tough”. We don’t have to live up to, or to live down, the reputations or the expectations of our own dads. When we do “fatherly “ things, we make it up from scratch, and that is different from following in the footsteps of someone who may, or may not have, managed the “provide, protect, teach and lead” mandate well.
But our work as counselors requires us to walk in the shoes of our brothers. And we have our own experiences with husbands (both of the ex-variety for many years now), brothers, and fathers (our own, and those of our children). The men we know have an overwhelming desire to be the “good father” in the birthday party story: a Superman figure in comfortable clothes, able to leap tall buildings as their children require.
When the wood was stacked for the winter, the larder was full, and the children were snug behind strong walls that kept out both storms and predators, our fatherly ancestors must have felt pretty good about themselves. There was time to dispense wise advice, teach a craft, play a fiddle or tell bedtime stories. But today’s fathers have a more complicated job. A wolf at the door was one thing, but climate change, economic turmoil, political corruption, war and changing technologies are the modern man’s version of weather: things that can wipe out everything we’ve built over the years, and that are beyond our power to control. The old recipe of “provide, protect, teach and lead” is not only difficult, but obsolete in the wake of the declining male wage, a collapsed resource economy, and women who feel, and who are, capable of co-leadership. Without a road map, some fathers have fallen into despair, shame, addictions, or anger—lashing out at themselves or their loved ones in place of an enemy that is too pervasive, too diffuse to just go out and shoot. Others have left parenting to mothers, burying their own grief somewhere out-of-earshot from that of their children, who needed them to deliver what they believed they didn’t have to give.
Calvin Sandborn has been walking the walk of father and son for a long time. His book, “Becoming the Kind Father: A Son’s Journey” chronicles his struggle to find within himself the tools to heal to wounds of a failing, 1950’s model of fatherhood. Sandborn’s book seeks understand his disappointed and angry father as a product of his time, his chances and his choices. But Sandborn goes further: he outlines a step-by-step path for healing and becoming the sort of father that he needed for himself, and that perhaps all of us—sons and daughters—need.
Our cultural road to manhood, according to Sandborn, requires boys to turn off their emotions (except anger), and put on “the father’s armour” of duty and aggression. This robotic version of manhood, like the toy action-figures that our kids want to play with, is a poor place to start when it comes to holding a baby, much less comforting and teaching a child. Getting from Robot-Man to Kind Father requires a great deal of courage and patience. Uncovering and naming emotions, re-discovering empathy, forgiving oneself and others who have fallen short of ideals, and, ultimately, learning to be a kind father to oneself are Sandborn’s steps toward fathering for a post-Patriarchal world.
In our house, Father’s Day has always been difficult. Missing fathers loom large and the gap between the sentimentalized Hallmark-version of fatherhood and the lived experience of day to day family life is wide. By inviting Calvin Sandborn to the Comox Valley, we are attempting to embrace Father’s Day in a way that fits for us: a day to connect with the “fathering” parts of ourselves, to encourage the development of our beautiful and kind son, and to dream of what a renewal of the father’s role could mean for children.
These days, the mandate protect, provide for, teach and lead children is too much to place on one man without support from other men. But we can imagine fathers working together to change the world into a safer place, where the “wolves” of poverty, illiteracy, and pollution, and the “storms” of war and economic crashes would no longer threaten anybody’s children. And it starts at home, in the heart.
Calvin Sandborn’s book, Becoming the Kind Father, is available from New Society Publishers (www.newsocietybooks.com/books/becomingthekindfather.), by order from Laughing Oyster Bookstore (or your neighborhood bookstore), or from Amazon.