Chapter OneThe Journey Toward Dad
Fathers. Everyone has one-for better or for worse. And
everyone needs a daddy.
What was your father like? When you think about your
father do you remember warm and happy times? Wrestling on
the living room floor, listening to his fanciful stories at bedtime,
sneaking off for an ice cream treat, talking about your
day at school?
Or do you have darker memories? Being yelled at for
spilling your milk, smacked on the side of the head for asking
a question during his favorite TV program, humiliated in
front of your friends because you struck out in the crucial
Do you perhaps have few or no memories of Father, because
he was seldom or never present in your life?
Whether your memories are positive or negative, whether
your father was present or absent, he has shaped and continues
to shape who you are today. Every year many clients
come to our clinic for counseling about a variety of issues.
Often we find that these clients need to discuss and resolve
some very painful father issues before we can deal with what
appears to be the "real" problem.
As we shall see in this book, fathers play a crucial role in
child development. To put it more pointedly: Our fathers,
yours and mine, have played a major role in making us who
we are today. Their successes have strengthened us, their failures
have weakened us.
Making peace with Father-it's a journey as well as a destination.
When you picked up this book, you began the journey.
The book may not take long to read; the journey can last a lifetime.
As you make the journey, you will have moments of excruciating
pain. You will also feel more joy than you ever dreamed
You will open old wounds, but you will also find healing.
At times you will wonder if you will ever find what or whom
you are seeking. Then hope will break through and you will be
filled with the courage to continue.
The journey toward Dad is a perilous but necessary voyage.
We all must take it, if we want to be whole.
It is a journey I have made and am still making. I would like
to invite you to make this journey with me.
My own journey goes back fifty years.
Life with Father
When I was a boy, about all we expected of Dad was that he
simply be there. He was physically present, at least most of the
time. That was supposed to be enough.
Dad worked in a manufacturing plant as a spot welder.
I remember him coming home from work at the end of the
day, physically exhausted. He'd say hello to my mother, then
wash up for dinner. Conversation around the table was pretty
minimal, but it always included the question, "How was school
today?" My sister and I would say, "Fine," and that was that.
After dinner, Dad would retreat to the living room, plop down
in "his" chair, and read the newspaper until he dozed off.
Sometimes we'd all gather around and listen to a program
on the radio. This was in the days before television. But families
could get glued to the radio just as they get glued to the
TV today. Those were times of togetherness for our family, and
I remember them warmly. I also remember that they didn't
happen all that often.
Our house ran according to a fairly tight regimen. Dad was
a strict disciplinarian who didn't like a lot of variance from the
routine. As children we were expected to go about our business-chores,
homework, even playtime-quietly and unobtrusively.
And we usually did, having learned from unpleasant
experience what happened when we awakened Dad's Irish
Weekends likewise had a routine of their own. Dad spent
most of Saturday working around the house, fixing things or
just tinkering in the garage. He didn't involve us kids much in
Sunday was reserved for church. We went to church every
week, morning and evening, without fail. On rare occasions,
Sunday afternoons were special. We would go out to eat after
morning service, then to the local art museum. It was in a lovely
setting, with trees and a lake. When we were little, we got to
run around the lake. As we got older, we spent more time
inside the museum. I can still remember wandering through
the musty old building, all by myself, entranced by the artifacts
from Europe and Egypt and the Orient. I had a hunger to
know more about what was going on beyond the horizons of
my little world, about what had happened in the past. But
most Sunday afternoons involved reading or taking a nap.
Dad did little to satisfy my hunger for knowledge. He didn't
talk much, either about current events or, especially, about his
own past. I knew he had grown up in Ireland, which sounded
terribly exotic to me. But it was almost impossible to get him
to talk about it. Sometimes we'd visit with Dad's brother, my
uncle Tom. The women would congregate in the kitchen, and
the men would gather in the living room, and the children
were expected to stay out of the way. Sometimes I'd overhear
bits and pieces of their conversations. I knew it wasn't my place
to join in.
The fact was that we were all together as a family a lot of the
time-at least physically. For all our togetherness, though, we
maintained a definite emotional distance. Life in my family
wasn't exactly like growing up on "Father Knows Best." But I
think it was pretty typical for families in those days.
What exactly was Dad supposed to do for us, anyway?
The traditional view of fathers and mothers was that Mom's
work took place primarily within the home, while Dad's job
was mostly outside the home-working to provide for the family's
needs. Inside the home, he was little more than a supplemental
mother, supporting Mom and backing her up when
she was ill or otherwise absent from the scene.
Even today, to many people, "parenting" is pretty much synonymous
with "mothering." According to this view, both parents
need to build a bonded relationship with the children,
provide nurturing care, allow the child to gradually move away
from the parents so as to establish his or her individuality, etc.
But this is simply to apply to both parents the job description
That job description, in turn, derives from the view that the
mother-child bond is essentially biologically determined.
Mother and child begin the bonding process while the child
is still in the womb. The unborn child hears her mother's
voice, tastes her mother's food, even feels her mother's emotions.
All this forms the basis for a close, symbiotic relationship
after birth. The needs of the newborn and the mother are
seen as complementary. Baby needs mothering, and Mom
needs to mother. Everything fits together.
Mom seems to know what the baby wants or needs, without
knowing how she knows it. She just knows whether the baby is
hungry or sleepy or lonely-or just needs a new diaper. Dad
may be mystified by this uncanny sixth sense. The baby's cries
all sound pretty much the same to him. He marvels at his
wife's ability to discern what is really going on.
Dad probably tries to be helpful in whatever ways he can.
But in the early months, not many opportunities are open to
him. Especially if Mom is nursing, Dad's ability to help out
is pretty much limited to changing diapers or holding the
baby for a few minutes while Mom attends to something else.
Playing with the baby-especially the kind of roughhousing
associated with the male role-is limited during the first few
months. Most of what the baby needs can come only from the
mother. Thus, at this stage, parenting really is more or less
equivalent to mothering.
Unfortunately, too many fathers never seem to notice that
infants turn into toddlers and schoolchildren and adolescents.
They continue to think that caring for children is
My father engaged exclusively in "men's work"-meaning
he went to work and brought home a paycheck. He also
worked outside the house. He mowed the lawn, fixed the car,
painted the house. Mom cooked the meals, washed the
floors, and took care of the kids. The only time Mom and Dad
broke out of their roles was when we kids broke out of our
accepted behavioral patterns; then we faced Dad and his belt.
Mothers were to be loved; fathers were to be respected-and
Back then, many people saw the traditional roles of men
and women as being almost sacred. Daughters were taught to
cook, sew, clean the house, and look forward to marrying
a man who would provide for them. Boys were expected to
help with the heavy chores and look forward to getting a job
that would provide for their families. A college education was
seen as essential for sons, but only as an optional extra for
Sometime between when my father raised me and when I
started raising my own children, things started to change.
Dr. Spock came along-soon followed by a host of other
parenting experts whose books had an enormous impact on
my generation. These experts argued vigorously for an
expanded role for fathers. Dad was now urged to talk to the
infant while it was still in the womb-trying, in some small
measure, to compensate for the mother's innate advantage in
A generation later Dad, instead of pacing in the hospital
waiting room during childbirth, would be invited into the
delivery room itself, having learned how to coach his wife
through labor and delivery (a role also once performed by
women serving as midwives).
But while the father's role was expanded, it was still seen
essentially as an extension of the mother's role. There was still
no concept of a uniquely male role in childrearing. A conscientious
father functioned as an assistant mother, though his
major function was still to provide financial support and handle
discipline-presumably from a more emotionally bonded
position in the child's life.
In reality, most fathers faced a continuing conflict between
work and home. Many found ways to be somewhat involved
with their families and to father their children in positive,
healthy ways. Many would have liked to do more with their families,
but the demands of their jobs were too great-they left
home early, came back late, and were too tired to do much
more than collapse (in front of the television set, if they were
fathers during the fifties or later). Some found more destructive
ways to unwind, drinking themselves into relaxation or
venting their pent-up anger on their wives and children.
I became a father in the midst of this transitional phase. I
did far more with my children than my father ever did with
me, and more than my friends' fathers ever did with them. But
during the first years of my children's lives, I would have been
hard-pressed to describe any unique role that I filled specifically
as a father. Parenting was still just mothering, and in the
end, mothering was what I did. I just did more of it than had
been traditional for fathers in the past.
Desperately Seeking Daddy
Some researchers, like anthropologist Margaret Mead, suggest
that fathering as we usually think of it is a purely human invention-that
in fact fathers serve no function beyond what we
see in animals. But if that is true-if fathers are so peripheral
to healthy human development-then why do so many of us
whose fathers were either physically absent or emotionally
detached feel such an empty longing for Daddy?
If you have felt that longing, you are probably asking many
of the same questions that family researchers have begun asking
about fathers, fathering, and fatherhood.
The focus on fathers is a remarkably recent development.
Until the last few years, Dad's role was not only downplayed, it
was largely ignored by child development studies. Even today,
with the new stirring of interest in the father's role, research
remains scarce compared with the mountains of data and theoretical
work devoted to the role of the mother. But enough
research has been done and enough data assembled to allow
me to say with confidence: Our fathers, whether they were present
or absent, have played a major role in shaping our lives.
This is a fertile time for those who do research on the
effects of absent fathers. Back in the 1940s, when I was growing
up, most families were "together." I don't recall having a
single childhood friend who came from a divorced home. As
far as we were concerned, getting divorced was something that
only the rich and irresponsible did. The very word divorce was
seldom spoken out loud.
Things have certainly changed since then. It is now estimated
that as many as one-third of today's children will experience
their parents' divorce at some point in their lives. Of
these, half will spend considerable time in a single-parent family.
And the vast majority of these families will be headed by
In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania,
researchers estimated that one out of four American children
is being raised in a home without a father present. That works
out to more than 15 million children growing up without a
father. More than half these children, the researchers found,
have never visited their father's new home. About 40 percent
never even see their fathers during a typical year. These statistics
cross racial, social, and even international boundaries. In
France, almost two million children live in fatherless homes.
In Canada the number is over 1.2 million.
Dr. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of Health and Human Services
in the Bush Administration, has noted that parents today
spend 40 percent less time with their children than did parents
in 1965. And that says nothing about the skyrocketing
number of divorces: There are more than twice as many
divorces now as there were just twenty-five years ago.
According to Sullivan, the absence of fathers is "the greatest
family challenge of our era."
Only time will tell for sure what will happen to today's generation
of fatherless or inadequately fathered children. But
by studying the effects of father absence, we are beginning to
learn more about the effects of father presence. More than
ever before, we know how our own fathers' behavior affected
the persons we have become. Behavioral scientists are learning
what roles our fathers played in our development as children
and adolescents. They are learning that Dad was not the
same as Mom and that one parent, no matter how conscientious,
was not the same as two.
The good news is that we are beginning to learn more about
the significance of the father in the family. The bad news is that
we are learning it by discovering how much damage has been
wrought by absent, emotionally disconnected, or downright
destructive fathers in the past.
There is no question that the absence of a father in the
home brings serious consequences. For example, about half
of all single-mother families live below the poverty line. The
income of mothers who divorce typically drops by almost one-third.