“I should no longer define myself as the son of a father
who couldn’t or hasn’t or wouldn’t or wasn’t.” ― Cameron Conaway
JUST AS MOTHERS have been stereotyped and idealized so have fathers. Movies and TV programs have always displayed some core ideas of what we think fathers are all about, as well as how the role of father has shifted over time.
I grew up with TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, in which fathers worked all day while mothers cleaned the house and took care of the kids. When these fathers arrived home, they expected their dressed up and pearl-decorated wives to have dinner and a cocktail ready. They expected the children to be quiet and well-behaved. They ruled the home and their word had final say in any domestic disagreements. This type of father was strong (didn’t like to fight, but wouldn’t be pushed around), steady, wise, and just.
Did you have a father like that?
In the 80s and 90s this stereotype began to shift as more women made careers for themselves and fathers began to share more of the parenting and household tasks. In the TV shows of this era, bewildered (and mostly incompetent) men dangled babies over changing tables during a diaper change, walked strollers to the park, and met other dads for play dates with kids. Children and housework were still women’s work, though, and men who enjoyed being a more active part of their home and children’s lives were congratulated for how wonderful they were.
These types of father stereotypes alternated were either aggressive, athletic and strong, or sensitive and messy bumblers.
Was your father like that?
Today, though gendered stereotypes remain firmly entrenched in society as well as on TV, we’re more apt to see fathers who take parenting in stride, changing diapers as deftly as mothers, involved in helping with the kids’ homework, and even staying home while the mom works and brings home the bacon.
How about your dad?
While none of these dads probably describe your father very well, stereotypes usually do have some truth in them and reflect general attitudes and expectations of the time.
But fathers are men and, like anyone else, unique and complicated. Some are strong, some are weak, and some are both at different times. They succeed and fail, are teetotalers and alcoholics, present and absent. Some of us never knew our fathers while, for others, our fathers were the strongest positive influences in our lives.
However fathers have been and are viewed, we are coming to understand that they can be as important as mothers when it comes to the emotional well-being of their children (us).
Women tend to unconsciously look for men who are like their fathers. If their fathers were kind, loving, and understanding, they will look for those characteristics in men. The same is true for controlling and abusive characteristics, And men tend to model themselves after their fathers, copying behaviors that will win their father’s approval — including their father’s attitude toward women.
Whether we like it or not, our relationships with our fathers, just as with our mothers, affect all our subsequent relationships.
- Was your father present or not present for most of your life? How did his presence or lack thereof affect you?
- What role did your father have in your childhood home?
- In what ways did/does your father fit and not fit into any of the stereotypical ideas of a father?
- How would you describe your relationship with your father when you were young (under ten)? How did your relationship shift as you entered your teens?
- What is your best memory of your father from your childhood?
- What is your worst memory of your father from your childhood?
- If you could change one thing about your relationship with your father, what would that be?
- In what ways are you most like and unlike your father?
- What was the biggest lesson about life that your father taught you?
- How has your relationship with your father affected your intimate relationships as an adult?
- In what ways did your father support your growth and development as an individual? (If your father was not present or did not support your growth, in what ways did his lack of support force you to find other means of support?)
- Finish the following sentence: “When I think of my father, I think of . . .”
- Write a letter to your father telling him everything you wish you’d said to him earlier in life.
- In your view, what were the biggest successes and failures of your father as a parent?
- What is the one thing you are most grateful for about your father?
Take it a Step Further
Take time to consider and write your way through your selected prompts. When you have worked your way through the prompts you want to use, review your writing and ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the recurring images and themes in what I’ve written?
- What have I learned about myself through writing about my father?
- What behaviors and ways of interacting began with my relationship to my father?
- In what ways do those behaviors still serve me today?
- In what ways do those behaviors not serve me today or hinder me from having healthy relationships?
- What of my own attitudes and behaviors toward my father would I like to change?
- If my father is still living, what actions can I take to find compassion, heal, and improve my current relationship with him? What does “improvement” look like?