Fathers and daughters …… fathers and sons ….. how many thoughts and images (not to mention books) do those phrases evoke?
Ideally, a father is a daughter’s first safe admirer - the man who will honour her, appreciate her beauty and burgeoning sexuality and enable her to transfer her affections from him on to romantic attachments outside the family. Ideally, he has been her protector and supporter and, these days, encouraged her to set her sights beyond the home.
For a son, a good father can often be a hero, a role model, a confidante, someone to aspire to, someone to go to for solid trustworthy advice, someone who takes pride in his son’s steps into his own future. And, traditionally, for the father, his son is the key to carrying on the family line.
What happens, however, when a father’s own heritage and upbringing suffocate his ability to reach out to his children? When he struggles to cope with changing attitudes and values. When his idea of what a man should be and how a man should be has been overtaken by the thinking of subsequent generations?
When I think about my own father, I remember a man, well-known in his field, handsome, able, interested in many things, but emotionally rather remote. He liked nothing more than to lose himself in history, biography, spy films and police drama (Starsky and Hutch or The Persuaders). He was an inspirational speaker to audiences but struggled with the intensity of his teenage daughters’ (he had four) passions and needs. He was a liberal, an intellectual, applauded traditional academic achievement and took a while to understand and accept my interest in psychology (“Is that a science?”). When, eventually, he realised that I was determined to become a therapist, he bought me a book by Bruno Bettelheim and talked about being a “good enough parent”.
He was a man born in the early thirties, a child during the Second World War. His father was a doctor, his mother a nurse. His own career blossomed in the sixties and seventies - a time of immense change. He was part of that change - a major influence on a generation of young people. His path was to be part of the bigger picture. So part of him was interested and keen to break new ground and yet part of him remained emotionally restricted.
His remedy for most things from a headache to a heartache was a brisk walk in the fresh air. Romantic notions about life and relationships were regarded as “twaddle” and tears were often met with an invitation to “get a grip”. This was a man for whom talking about feelings had never been part of his own history and, therefore, he had been muted, resorting to rely on set phrases as with so many of that wartime generation. After all, their parents had often known the horrors of both World Wars, the senseless loss of life, the rationing, living life under threat. Tears over regrets and perceived slights must have seemed unimportant, there had been no loss of limb, loss of life, loss of home. And, today, as refugees arrive from war-torn parts of the world, I wonder if the cycle may be set to repeat within their families as they begin to live alongside those of us fortunate enough to have been born or living in the UK during the last half-century or so. How will it be for these families, living in a parallel universe?
It is almost impossible to completely break away from our heritage, our upbringing, our history. We may do in some ways but it may take another generation or two to move the whole process on. Moving away from the security of the status quo can be challenging, we may want to retreat into what we “know”. It is easy to idealise or denigrate our fathers; it is harder to open ourselves to their shades of grey.
Today, I come across more fathers in their thirties and forties who are emotionally intelligent, actively involved with both sons and daughters and able to engage with their children’s aspirations, their thoughts and their feelings. They seem to feel less restricted by an internalised sense of what is expected and what is ok, and, in turn, more accepting and enabling of their children.
Siobhan Tinker is a training supervisor at the Trust.
Siobhan and Brian Graham will be exploring the Father relationship in a workshop: The Wounds and Gifts of the Father at the Psychosynthesis Trust on Saturday, 7th October, 2017. For more information and a booking form, please contact Siobhan: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07939-152796