Have you gone shopping for a Father’s Day card? If so, you’ve undoubtedly seen dozens of greetings that state, in essence, I am who I am today because of you, Dad. The verse inside may use words like love, acceptance, guidance, caring, kindness, role model, and hero.
But, what if one of those sentiments isn’t quite right for your dad? Odds are you can’t find a card inscribed with the words: You’re my father so I feel obliged to get you a card, but you really were (are) an asshole!
Fathers are indeed imperfect human beings. Some are far more imperfect than others. Yes, they are the patriarchs of their families and, according to long-held cultural beliefs, the heads of their households.
Some men make meaningful sacrifices for the good of their families. They put the needs of their children and/or wife ahead of their own. These are the kind of dads who may want a new set of golf clubs, but his son or daughter needs braces, a phone, laptop computer, or something as basic as food and clothing. So, this dad does the right thing. The clubs will have to wait.
Other dads are imbued with entitlement. He’s the man of the house, the king of the castle. Those dads are getting the damn golf clubs, come hell or high water! I work my ass off to put food on the table and I sure as hell deserve a new set of clubs!
During my 3 ½ years in a men’s psychotherapeutic group, maybe twenty different guys came and went, or stayed. Of those twenty men, I think only one or two had fathers who deserve one of the warm and fuzzy cards. If the sons of the other 18 dads were being honest, they would admit the asshole card is more appropriate.
On the more benign end of the spectrum of father issues is simple emotional detachment. Some dads are so busy with their professional careers and lives, they’re tired and have nothing left for their families. Maybe they don’t mean for it to happen but it does. Maybe it’s not their intent for their children to play second fiddle to jobs, activities, and friends; but the road to psychotherapy is paved with good intentions.
Then there are the dads who have trouble processing their own anger, self-doubt, loneliness, guilt, and shame. So, what to do they do? They transfer their own pain onto someone weaker using intimidation, shame, and slights. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be as good as the neighbor kid? You’re just a screw-up. You’re never going to amount to anything.
At the far end of the continuum are rage and violence. These fathers are the screamers, the defamers, the humiliators, the shamers, the aggressors, and the harmers. Sadly, a number of guys in my group had fathers who fit into this category. Ever hear of the phrase quick fuse? That’s what some of these dads had. The slightest little thing could set them off on a destructive tear, hurdling lethal verbal daggers. Sometimes the anger escalates into physicality.
One of the guys in my group thought he had a satisfactory relationship with his father. Maybe he was just kidding himself, but the more he talked about his dad he began to realize the narrative he had in his head just wasn’t true. He eventually admitted to us his father had attempted suicide many years ago by shooting himself. He lived, and as his family nursed him back to health, slowly began to come to terms with his despair, fear, and loneliness. But that realization certainly didn’t mitigate the damage done to his son and the rest of their family.
And there are stories that are worse. Much worse. There is unimaginable tragedy.
Now, all these years later, the sons of these fathers are in therapy trying to sort through the damage and heal their wounds.
“In my line of work, I counsel a lot of young men through porn addiction,” writes Benjamin Sledge, a highly decorated soldier turned counselor and writer. “They always come in thinking porn is the issue, but it’s always symptomatic of something much deeper. Out of each man I’ve counseled, I’ve discovered that they all lacked emotional intimacy with their dad growing up.”
In his book, Safe House, Dr. Joshua Straub takes it a step farther, citing a 30-year Johns Hopkins Medical School study that set out to see if they could find a single cause for mental illness, suicide, coronary heart disease, malignant tumors, and hypertension. What the study discovered is that “the most significant predictor of these maladies was a lack of closeness to the parents, especially the father.”
So, why are some fathers, some men, so reluctant to be human? Why are they afraid of empathy, vulnerability, nurturing, closeness, and love — even with their own children?
So many men get caught up in the cycle of toxic masculinity. That’s what our culture has taught us for as long as I can remember. Societal expectations of men involve strength, invulnerability, stoicism, detachment, competitiveness, power. Men who follow this credo are reticent to hug, kiss, touch, or otherwise be tender and show affection to their kids. They’re uncomfortable saying those magic words, I love you. That’s what mothers are for.
Bullshit! That kind of thinking is dead wrong. It’s harmful to society and perpetuates a myth that just isn’t true.
And, yes. Our dads have their own baggage; unresolved hurts, slights, disappointments, failures, even trauma. They believe in the old military adage, Loose Lips Sink Ships. Well, I hate to disappoint you, but it doesn’t take one iota of strength and courage to keep your mouth shut. However, it does summon those very same (manly) qualities to venture into the scary, big, black abyss to examine our lives, discover our story, talk about it, and set forth a strategy to heal.
But, all too often it takes a precipitating event to get men into therapy — a crisis of some sort; breakup, job loss, arrest, death. Sometimes a gentle, or not-so-gentle urging of a partner, parent, sibling, or friend can coax us to seek professional help. And, there are even guys who enter therapy voluntarily, because they feel stuck, depressed, anxious, hopeless, and they want to feel better.
The wise Greek philosopher, Socrates, uttered the words, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” at his trial in 399 BC. I think he was on to something all those years ago.
It’s never too late to begin our own examination. Ask yourself if you deserve an asshole card this Father’s Day. You probably won’t get one even if you do deserve it because everybody just sweeps your assholiness under the table. But, be honest with yourself. You know the truth. And if the truth hurts, get to work creating real change in your life.
“Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself,” writes Viktor Frankel in Man’s Search for Meaning. “He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”
Who knows? If you find the courage to examine your life, make amends where necessary, and develop a strategy to effect change, maybe next year your children won’t even think about that Happy Father’s Day Assholecard.