Thursday, June 18, 2009


On the birth of My Son

Families, when a child is born

Want it to be intelligent.

I, through intelligence,

Have wrecked my whole life,

Only hope the baby will prove ignorant and stupid.

Then he will crown a tranquil life,

By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

I apologize to the Cabinet Ministers. I hope you are laughing. For it is such a funny poem. I translate it through the oft quoted phrase: The best laid plans of mice and men. Indeed, it ain't easy. It being plural as noted by Sigmund Freud and recently in the New York Times – parenting, like psychotherapy and politics may often be considered impossible. So, I'm voting for a humble father's day.

I encountered the piece by poet Su Tung P'o in a lovely little book entitled Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung? written by Ajahn Brahm. The title itself serves as an apt reminder that despite our best plans, we often encounter the unexpected. Such encounters are not always pleasant. As Su Tung P'o observes, sometimes the unexpected occurs directly because of our best planning. That a monk would choose to include such a poem in a book whose title shifts our attention to Dung is a gentle reminder that in accepting Dung when it arrives in an unquestioning fashion allows working out what to do with the Dung as opposed to questioning how it came to be there.

With every intent to play on associations of dirty diapers, such an attitude is captured well in Wordsworth's line, " The child is father to the man." Although, the line has been read by some as provocative, there is something quite simple about parenting affording a chance for one to find a path to maturity. Fathers' day is about that. Certainly, most children are in possession of more than enough toys. Evidence for such an opinion may be found in that an organization attempting to reduce the commercial onslaught that co-occurs with contemporary childhood exists. So, I am not going to suggest that the gifts should go to the kids on Fathers' day. However, I am suggesting that we take Wordsworth seriously, that there would be no man without the child. To that end, I am reminded of something that I have come to note in my psychotherapy practice: Some consider Fathers' day to be a day in which Dad gets a break; others consider it a day in which Dad is embedded with his family. Such a split between family and self may be considered a variant of the hard independent man on the one hand or the soft dependent man on the other. Such a split may also be found in conceptions of fathering – the hard disciplinarian or the softy. Guys, do we really have to choose such a dichotomy? I think not. There is certainly something to be said about a masculinity that can give and take – simply one that is strong enough not to be brittle. This matters in regard to fathering. An ability to join with family without forgoing strength, but situating strength in a respectful fashion may be considered a central component of mindful parenting. To that end, I am advocating a Fathers' Day in which the gift of fathering is shared. Wordsworth's idea may be considered to have manifested itself in a literal fashion for some fathers, and there is good science suggesting that such relational involvement literally changes one's brain. Supporting the idea that such changes may be beneficial, I find a recent email from a colleague alerting me to a press release indicating that yes, men who are fathers are more inclined to take care of themselves.

It was about 1,000 years ago that Su Tung P'o noted the difficulties and limits found in parenting. I'm not certain that living was any easier then, but folks might not have been confronted with the same level of concern as to what constitutes the boundaries of gender roles such as fathering. Today, living in a world in which not all fathers identify as straight, underscores Wordsworth in an interesting manner. He refers to children not women or other men as being the source of making a man. If being a dad makes a man, just what sort of parent and child interactions are necessary for this to work? Conservative ideas have long been a part of twentieth century theory. Taking such theory seriously seems important at a historical moment in which hate crime based on sexuality is on the rise while simultaneously a movie about the difficulty of being straight is being released. Sociologists Peter Hennen and Susan Ferguson have addressed such gendered anxiety in a recent review of books on men and children. There they note that the concept of naturally derived clear gender roles has been challenged in contemporary culture, and that presently there is good evidence for the existence of a backlash attempting to restore gender to a simpler past. What of good science? Hennen and Ferguson suggest that anxiety regarding a structural change in which power sharing and masculinity need not be mutually exclusive makes sense and hope that we might find work that helps one negotiate tendencies toward backlash. Recently, I had the good fortune to have an essay on Fathering as depicted in the film Finding Nemo included in a book entitled Heterosexual Masculinities. I would like to suggest that not only does this book (yes, I am biased!) afford movement away from backlash tendencies, but also that Pixar has given us much in the way of affording divergent portraits of fathering. As for my take on the loss of Nemo's mom, well that's in the book!

I do think that in regard to themes of fathering, Pixar has been hitting it out of the park. Nemo is not the only film to showcase the need for an engaged understanding between father and son. In the movie Cars, the protagonist Lightin' begins to mature under the tutelage of a mentor – Doc. Currently, the movie UP is occupying center stage. Here as in Cars, the father is a surrogate father – and as in Cars – the father is substantially older and a single parent. In each case, the father character is reluctant to parent, but is unable to say no – that a loving attitude breaks the father's heart open and he relents. In UP the viewer is shown in multiple ways that desire for one's own quiet adventure simply does not work. To that end, I am reminded of the oft quoted John Lennon – life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans – from the song Beautiful Boy.

Lennon and Su Tung P'o are in harmony on this one. A wise parent knows that intelligent plans can be troublesome. Yet, we have to risk trouble and let life happen. This is what engaged parents do every day. As the English pediatrician DW Winnicott noted about mothers – there can be no child without a mother – let us hold the same standard for fathers. Further, let us on Fathers' day pause and remember all fathers with us and not who are separated from their children due to war. May we know peace.