My father was always the strong, silent type. When I was a child, I used to think that he was unusual, and I imagined that other kid’s fathers must be different, more talkative, more open with their emotions, less silent and controlled than my dad. Of course, I was wrong. The more I saw how other fathers acted, the more I realized that fathers and mothers are just different.
I remember thinking once that perhaps fathers and mothers are secretly given different job descriptions by someone before they have kids, and that’s why they always seem to be so different. Mothers get this piece of paper outlining their responsibilities as making meals, dressing kids, taking care of them when they are sick, helping them with their homework, shlepping them all over town, telling them constantly what they are doing wrong, throwing up their hands in despair at every report card, yelling at kids when they don’t do what they are supposed to, crying when necessary, laughing when possible, smiling, patting them on the head or hugging them when they are all dressed up, and kissing them at embarrassing moments.
Fathers, on the other hand, have a much shorter job description. Their piece of paper simply says, “Earn an income, don’t talk much at home, learn how to stare silently when kids make noise, sit in the den and read the newspaper, watch sports on television, and keep your feelings to yourself. Some dad’s who are interested in earning extra credit from whoever the parent monitor is, also volunteer to coach little league or soccer, or perhaps participate in the Boy Scouts as well.
So I guess with such different job descriptions, it’s little wonder that mothers and fathers seem so different. They seem different because the are different. Yet when I think of many of the fathers I know (including my own), my overwhelming feeling is one of real sadness. For so many men have been victimized from the time they were young children by social forces far beyond their own control. They suffer from what I like to call “omnipotence anxiety.” It is the singular condition of being raised with expectations as a man that are usually far beyond what any man can deliver.
Men grow up with expectations for who they will be, what they will accomplish, how much money they will make, the kind of car that they will drive, the clubs to which they will belong and the company they will keep that are inherently totally disconnected from reality. Is it any wonder that so many men are emotionally crippled as a result? They grow up feeling uneasy and slightly anxious much of the time knowing that there is little likelihood that they will ever truly quite measure up to the ideal male standards.
Omnipotence anxiety is a direct result of growing up male in a culture that rewards “toughing it out ” while discouraging the expression of real feelings and the showing of real emotions, especially tears, sadness or grief. Little boys are still told not to cry more often than not. They are still subjected to taunts and jeers and the disapproval or ridicule of their peers (and often teachers as well) when they show emotional weakness (which after all is seen as the proper role for girls not boys) or a lack of ability to be stoic and grit their teeth and “take it like a man,” regardless of the circumstances.
This phenomenon is so widespread, that most men simply take it for granted that such constant low-level anxiety and dis-ease is merely a part of life as a male in America. After over a quarter of a century of an active, vocal Women’s Movement in this country, you would think that gender-based roles would be a thing of the past by now. For some, maybe, for most, never. So where does that leave us as parents as we approach this year’s Father’s Day celebrations? It gives us an opportunity to remember who we really are inside – or at least who we really would like to be, and then to act upon that vision so that the next generation of boys and men will have different, more empathetic and emotional male role models to follow in their own lives.
Why is this column called, “The Father Behind the Mask?” Because too many men live their entire lives hidden behind masks they are afraid to put down. Masks of male aggressiveness and dominance. Masks of complete confidence and fearlessness. Masks behind which men’s emotions lie hidden from those they love and cherish most.
Putting away these masks is never easy. It takes real courage. It takes a remarkable amount of real guts to lay down the mask of male omnipotence and open oneself to possible derision, ridicule and rejection. The sad reality is that boys and men are rarely given positive reinforcement for being vulnerable, open, affective, and emotive. And yet there is absolutely no question in my mind, after over twenty years counseling couples in the fundamentals of marriage and relationships, that there is truly only one way to develop intimacy in a relationship, and that is by willing to be vulnerable in the eyes of your partner.
Successful relationships are partnerships – where each feels that the other is fully present, caring, giving of him or herself and emotionally available to the other. Intimacy in relationships, in marriage and between children and parents is the direct result of allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to truly let another into your emotional life.
This is the great challenge for fathers as it is for husbands, lovers and male partners in general. One of the greatest gifts you can give to your children, especially your sons, is to role model an adult male who puts the mask of omnipotence down and has enough faith in the love and nurturing others to truly let them into your heart.