Being a father is truly awesome, yet it comes with a shit load of challenges. Being a man is one thing, fatherhood is a level up. We take on a whole new list of expectations and obligations as a father. Society has no shortage of people reproducing haphazardly, but there is a severe shortage of real fathers. We need more dads, and the job is not easy. Divorced fathers, stepfathers, and dads in general deal with a variety of challenges.
Simply reproducing is one thing, sticking around to fulfill the father role is the real deal. No easy task. I recently bumped into a guy from my old high-school days. He had a tear in his eye and was holding his two-year-old daughter while telling me about his wife’s recent affair. Another friend of mine lost his teenage daughter a couple years ago in an accident. A local guy shacking up with a single mom found out that his girlfriend is “accidentally” pregnant with his child, thus securing his provisioning services for the next eighteen years. Men have told me about finding their alcoholic spouse after she committed suicide, or a depressed adolescent son having done the same.
Even if circumstances are less dire, women and kids do have their own personalities, agendas, and neuroses that we must contend with. Females certainly shift focus from their mate towards their children after becoming mothers, and that is perfectly natural. The urgency to sexually connect with the father does diminish as new mothering priorities take precedence, perhaps permanently. The 2010 book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha cites anthropology studies indicating that in pre-agriculture hunter-gatherer societies (past and present) this was less a problem. Monogamy and the idea of nuclear family as a family unit are relatively recent cultural constructs. Our tribal ancestors of long ago took a more communal approach to food sharing, child rearing, and even casual open sexual relationships for 95% of human existence. In today’s industrial societies most of us wrestle those old so-called promiscuous instincts yet retain the nuclear family ideal that came about during the shift to agriculture around eleven thousand years ago (the most recent 5% of human time on earth). Agriculture quickly led to the concept of ownership and private property. Rather than the old swinging hunter-gatherer ways, a farmer needed to be assured of paternity so the product of his labors would provide only for “his” wife and “his” kids.
A new mother today may have a male mate, yet both will be lacking most of that communal support that our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors had. In our modern industrial age, the burden now falls primarily to the couple. New nurturing emotions within her may replace most of the erotic urges that led to the very conception of the kids in the first place. Negative body image, weight gain, and exhaustion will be blamed for some of this. She and the dad then get to participate in fights over division of household labor, childcare, and of course her pursuing her career. She may begin to loathe the man she is stuck with and begin to imagine life without him entirely. His own fatigue, frustration with her, and other stresses will likely have the father imagining the same. Being a father comes with real challenges; not the least of which is the mother of your children and sometimes the children themselves. I observe that oftentimes it has a lot to do with men as well. We fathers bear some level of responsibility too, even if we do not want to admit it. This newfangled nuclear family shit is not easy, and we can all use some help to get better at it (myself included).
During the time I was writing my first Ethos of Men book my wife and I, along with our teenage son, signed up to take a group “parenting of teens” class through a program created by the Center for Growth and Development. The class was offered by the local FYI (family youth initiative) and was operated by four of their social workers. I was initially suspicious, expecting it to be some male bashing psychobabble bullshit. It was not. Our household found that through earnest effort in those twelve weekly sessions, we all three greatly improved our communication and other skills, making for a better home life. Through the curriculum and classroom activities, we learned about the importance of boundary setting, active listening, and even appropriate punishment. The student makeup of the class consisted of parents, teens, stepparents, and even grandparents. Only a few father figures were in attendance.
In the final session, myself and the guys gathered, lamenting to one another how badass a strictly father’s program could be. The female counselors were quick to let us know that they possessed such a curriculum entitled The Nurturing Father’s program written by Mark Perlman. The program had been inactive locally for ten years due to lack of male interest in facilitating it. Would we be interested? The other fellas declined the opportunity to become facilitators, but they agreed to attend classes should they become a reality. I accepted the challenge, despite being a struggling father myself as well as my concerns about proving inadequate as a facilitator. In order to shift from a student of the mixed gender parents’ class to a leadership role for the father specific version of the program, I agreed to attend the grant funded training program. It would be taught by a male master trainer that had previously been a facilitator himself.
The fathers’ training program ended up being almost entirely attended by local female social workers (only myself and another man represented the male gender). We all studied the curriculum our future students would use as well as our own facilitator manuals. We persevered through the two-day training and in the process the ladies actually gained some appreciation for the importance of men and fathers. At some point in the second day, I could sense a shift. Whereas it was a few sour looks and comments about men from the females on the morning of day one, at the end of day two it was empathetic tears instead, and even several hugs for me. Good, some progress. We each received a certificate for passing and everyone was psyched to help men in the father role.
A couple weeks later a male co-facilitator and I, along with about a dozen attending fathers and stepfathers, were hard at work in class one. A local non-denominational church was kind enough to give us after-hours access to their kitchen/cafeteria and a private meeting room on Monday evenings to conduct the program. We were generously supported by some of the FYI female counselors in the form of classroom curriculum help and even an evening meal and childcare. They provided class materials, and other logistics including guest speakers.
Keep in mind we are talking about an attending group of grown badass men including welders, bikers, cooks, builders, mechanics, and law enforcement officers. We were all together in an intimate setting and going through some heavy topics. The topics can be discussed, the identities and specifics of our sessions are sworn to secrecy, not to mention the stack of confidentiality documents I had signed prior to class. Around a quarter of the guys were court ordered as well, so discretion was important.
The first class had some paperwork, ground rules of the program, and each man introducing himself to the group. Each father received his workbook for the class and some handouts. As for the facilitators, we each had our own specialized manual that helped us guide the structure and timing of the program’s discussions. Even in that humble first session it was evident that our intentional community was both a support group with a quality curriculum as well as a bonafide men’s group. The topics, exercises, and discussions tapped into some emotions men tend to repress. A couple men even broke down in tears, while the rest of us did our best to hold back our own.
When our session wrapped up it was time for the dreaded “group hug”. I had previously been warned by the females during the facilitator training that it would likely be a huge flop; “men would be uncomfortable”. I was told that the best we could expect was getting the men to stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle. When the time came, I shit canned the whole group hug.
What follows is still the stuff of legend among the social workers. I stood and told the fellas that a group hug was what the program called for. Their awkward expressions told me that indeed they did not care for the idea. I continued, rather than some goofy ass group hug, we would instead do as was done in my private men’s group as well as the martial arts gym I frequent: each man would individually shake my hand and we would “bro hug”. Every father was immediately receptive, and each of them shook my hand and gave almost a violent hug, they then turned to the other fathers and enthusiastically did the same until each of us had completed the cycle. The program’s lead female social worker had been sitting in (with the fathers’ permission). She confided later how astonished she was at the level of intimate macho physicality of the ritual as well as the level of trust and camaraderie we had built in class one.
Over the next twelve Mondays we worked through the curriculum, one chapter per week. Early in the program, we explored different cultural styles of fathering, our own unmet needs as boys, and learned how to father without fear and violence. Midway through, the focus was on thoughtful discipline, the importance of games and play, and fathering of sons versus fathering of daughters. Our final few classes explored the challenges of teamwork between fathers and mothers/Co-parent, conflict resolution skills, and our own work/life balance. Empathy, anger management, and working past our own emotional baggage were part of this excellent course as well. Each class had homework, heavy class discussion, and numerous breakthroughs in the realm that is fatherhood. Our final session was marked by a ceremony to celebrate each father and his completion of the program.
*Having now facilitated four seasons of Nurturing Fathers Program, I occasionally run into one of the guys that have attended and get the opportunity to chat. In every case there is something they can point to from the program that has helped them navigate fatherhood for the better. Society at this time doesn’t seem to offer much support for men and fathers; so, let’s lend one other a hand. As I told the female social workers: “Men are people too.”