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The Father Challenge

Copyright © 1995 by Kent Cumbo

This article appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of Mentor logoMentor Magazine

Sam Keen challenges us to recognize that "there is no way for recover wholeheartedness, to become passionate and truly free, without rediscovering the central importance of the family." To rediscover the family, we, as men, must rediscover ourselves as fathers and parents, and place this role of the many roles we play at the center of our lives. It is within the context of the family that we live our lives, and it is here that we receive our deepest wounds and most profound joys.

As Keen and many others have observed, we men tend to view ourselves as independent actors. As warriors, controllers, providers, protectors, and occasionally as lovers. We peg our self-worth on our tax brackets or how much we've published or how many women we've been with. We constantly look to the outside world for our valuation. Within the "men's movement" there is a tendency to talk about how I was treated by my father, about the lacks I had in my life, about my own confusion and pain and grief, about initiation (without any idea of what we want to initiate our children into). These are legitimate experiences that afflict our lives, but there comes a time when we men have to look beyond our own suffering and recognize that we are also causing suffering.

About a year ago I attended a symposium on fathering in Eugene, Oregon. One of the things that I learned, deeply, was how I was continuing to wound my own children in the way I was wounded. I was foisting the expectations and demands that my father laid on me onto my sons and daughter. It was a painful realization, but confirmed what I already knew intellectually about the "sins of the fathers," and how I needed to honestly and directly deal with what I was doing. I can't say that I've done as well as I'd like to on this or most accounts in my life. But one thing I have realized is that in as much as I consciously work to avoid wounding my children, and in loving them for exactly who they are, I am healed of my wounds. We receive our deepest and subtlest wounds within a family context, and it seems that here is the best place to heal them. This is not easy, as it requires a level of emotional courage, honesty, and sheer perseverance that few of us ever learn. Beginning what often seems to be a sisyphean task is a gift in itself, for it opens the door to our own hero's journey.

As fathers, we give our children many gifts along with many wounds. Paradoxically, the wounds and the gifts are two sides of the same coin. When we give time and attention, we heal the wound of abandonment. When we acknowledge a child's accomplishments, we give the gift of confidence. When we support the free expression of feelings, we give the gift of self esteem. In essence, if we show with our time, love, attention, nurturing, touch that we truly value our children, they will come to value themselves and us.

We have to be willing to be available to our children as often as we can, and to be with them as often as practicable. There is no substitute for time with children. They know it and so do we. As fathers, we can no longer afford to use such excuses as "college funds," "personal growth," "bigger houses," " more cars, gadgets, or other toys" to justify our abandonment of our children. For at a deep and profound level all men are the fathers of all children whether they are biological or not. We have to go beyond the personal to the communal, and work to heal all of the damage our forefathers still perpetrate through us.

Where to begin is the question I usually get asked when I talk about these issues. Where do we begin? The trite answer is still true - where we are. The process of change begins with the awareness that change is needed, then what needs to be changed, and , lastly, what options are available. As a movement, we're still back at step one, having realized changes in how we fathers are needed; however, we haven't begun to examine the options. I believe it is past time that we join together as we can to support and assist other men in re-creating what a father is and does.


you were the golden child

framed by the sun that was your hair

my phaestos to grab the reins of my chariot

and be the child

and young man

my father wanted me to be

and still to be as you (me) are

i bind you in chains

teach you to fight your dream

witness the rising of your anger

and grief

i have held you

and held you apart

i have wondered at your neediness

and not seen

that it is not yours

but mine

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