On Being a Father

By Hugh Arthurs who is a practising Psychotherapist

It takes time to be a father and it involves continuing change. Yet Fatherhood demands stability and the capacity to hold the centre. When my first child was born, almost fourteen years ago, I had only the vaguest notion of what that would involve for me. As I watched her lie with cord still attached, naked and bloody against her mother’s breast, I was filled with a wave of protectiveness and warmth. I was conscious also of being, in a way, at the edge; of being the onlooker. Perhaps this is the place of the father, creating a kind of boundary between the child and the world.

Protecting, leading and letting go

As I walked down the corridor in the hospital I wondered had they towed away my car. But it was still there on the clearway, a ticket on the wind­screen. I telephoned people and did what I thought were fatherly things. In my mind I carried the image of my daughter. Nothing I had ever seen was more beautiful.

Three years later my son was born at home. I telephoned the midwife when his time was near, but she had broken her wrist and couldn’t come. For a moment I thought: ‘we will do this together, you will bear him and I will be father and midwife’. But the doctor arrived then and an hour later my son was born. My daughter looked with wonder at her brother, his skin still wrinkled and ancient in his new life. That night there was a thunder­storm. We watched from an upstairs window the lightning strike the ground in the distance. We were all safe. That night I was a hero. I remember these times with great fondness.

I think sometimes that I straddle two worlds. The world of my family, my children and my wife and that world outside, beyond the family. I demand of myself a willingness and an ability to move between these worlds. Some­times I find this difficult; 1 can become stuck on one side, often in that outside world. Then I am not available to my children even when I am at home. I become distant, perhaps even unapproachable. At other times I am too present, too much part of their demands. Then I cannot open the world to them. I become too close to their needs.

But there are no perfect fathers. I negotiate a constantly changing relation­ship with two children for whom the world is always new. I have learned that, at times, I will let them down. I will not always be there for my children. Disappointment is part of this relationship as it is part of all life. I will inevitably be judged by my children. I hope I can sometimes hear their judgment without defensiveness, for in their honesty they also give their love.

It is often in the ordinary things that a relationship has its worth. Father­hood does not differ in this. It is in the everyday sharing of life with my children that I find most enjoyment. Listening to their stories gives me pleasure. They draw pictures in words of their world. I am infected by their vitality and their energy. I like to do the routine things, such as driving them to football or athletics, to music lessons or to the myriad other activities that are so important to them. Sometimes I find all this too much and I long to be free of this constant caring, to have the time I give to them for myself. I imagine how much I could do. All those world changing ideas that children seem to get in the way of could at last be put into practice. But then my son will ask me to help make a new go-cart, or my daughter will want help with her homework, and changing the world is postponed again.

I have no doubt that what I give to my children I get back a hundredfold. When my daughter was younger I made her a dolls’ house. It became her most prized toy and the envy of her friends. I basked in her pride in me that I had made it for her. To my son I am still expert in all things, I am his hero. There is danger in this, but the heroic also has a place in fathering, though sometimes it can end in betrayal: my abilities do not always meet his expectations. In time I will grow smaller in his eyes. There is a narrow path that I can see between being too ordinary and being tempted by our child­ren’s hope into the role of the hero. Heroes sometimes lose their children but it is important at times to step beyond the mundane.

When my daughter was seven she fell from a wall. I could see it coming before it happened but I could do nothing about it. I felt that awful helpless­ness that I imagine every parent knows. She split her lip, the cut was clean, as though snipped through with a scissors. I helped to hold her while she was stitched. I want always to be there to save my children and this is impossible. I want them to learn to find their own way also.

I learn from my children. My son played football for a local club. He was the substitute on the team. On Saturdays I would go with him to his match and wait with him for his chance of ten minutes’ play at the end of the game. He would wait in hope and usually in vain. I still feel angry that he should have had to wait week after week only to be disappointed. I could have had a word with the team manager and on the next Saturday my son would get to play part of the match, but I reckoned that if there was a place on the team, he would have to find it for himself. I needed to step back and leave him the space to do this. In the end he found a place in a different game. He could let go of his disappointment and move on. This is a difficult thing to do, and I am proud of him for it. Sometimes there just won’t be a place for him where he most wants to be. I can’t protect him from this though I wish I could.

Children’s energy is explosive. My children explode in joy, in enthusiasm for life and also in anger. I want to leave space for their anger and not meet it with an even more powerful and destructive parental wrath. Neither do I want to avoid their anger or be pushed away by it. When my children are angry they will often blow up and then flee. Sometimes they will rush off to their room, banging doors as they go. If we have had a row I will be angry also, and maybe feeling guilty that I have led things get out of hand. Some­times it can be hard to find a way back in these situations. We all need the space to be angry, but it’s important not to leave children stuck in their anger and feeling abandoned. In the end, it is my place as their father to make the first move, to reach out. It’s up to me to bring them back, to help them to feel included and cared for. Sometimes we need to forgive each other.

Being a father to my children inevitably brings back feelings and memor­ies of my own childhood. This can be painful at times, especially when I seem to see in my children some look or action that reminds me of myself. Then it can be difficult to know what to do. I wonder then if I am repeating patterns of behaviour that I have experienced in the past. I’m sure that, to some extent at least, this must be the case. But I hope that in response to my children I will pass on the better parenting I received, and not the worse.

Like most people, the greater part of the care I received was at least adequate. But there are gaps and these do emerge in my relationship with my own children. The hurt that my children sometimes feel with me can touch upon a similar hurt that I have felt with my own father. In reaching out to my children I am also, in a way, reaching out to myself. But in caring for my children I also regain the care I was given by my father. In the ordinary things I do for them I remember the ordinary things my father did for me. It was hard for me to talk to him, but he cut logs with his rough hands and warmed our house. I like to get up early and get the breakfast ready. And sometimes in the evenings I build a fire in the hearth as my father used to do. But our house now is warmed by children’s stories, by all our voices heard and answered. There is joy in being a father.

Hugh Arthurs is a psychotherapist in private practice in Dublin. He has a particular interest in Men’s issues and may be contacted at 830 2187.