Our culture often provides a romantic image of fathers enjoying time with their children, but many men say it makes them lonely.
Being a father is a complicated human experience. Father’s Day celebrates the men who by accident or design live within the muddle of being a dad, stepfather, grandfather, or father figure. Father’s Day often promotes an innocent or romantic view of fatherhood by approaching this tangled role with the belief that being a dad is it’s own reward. Don’t we all wish it were that simple!
Certainly, fathers often experience deep attachment, love, gratitude, pride, and joy. I know that these intimate moments fed my soul in inexplicable ways and welded me to the care and protection of my son. For many men these moments are the payoff and the essence of fatherhood. But men frequently dismiss, negate, or avoid talking about one of the most frequent emotional experiences embedded within the role of fatherhood. That emotion is loneliness. Men discover that fatherhood does not take loneliness away. Sadly, sometimes it exacerbates the experience of loneliness.
Other words for lonely include isolated, alone, solitary, and without friends or companions. These words paint a picture of the darker side of the male experience that can become amplified with fatherhood. Gary Brooks (2010) wrote, “Men’s loneliness is one of their most closely guarded secrets because it often hides behind the façade of social connectedness and public camaraderie among men.” This appears especially true of men who live within a stereotypical view of what being a man is all about.
Ask your dad, step-dad, husband or grandfather when he last spoke about his fathering experience in a deep and dimensional way. I will guess that he would say, “never,” “it doesn’t matter,” “it’s not important,” or “I don’t need or want to.” In short, fathers get used to feeling loneliness.
Fortunately, there may be change brewing. Andrew Smiler reported that “since the 1970s: young men’s emotional expression scores have slowly gone up.” I can only be cautiously optimistic that as these boys mature that they will find it more natural to express pleasant and difficult emotions. If that happens, it will also make fathering an even more rewarding experience–and be a gift to pass on to all children.
Nick (all names have been changed), a husband and father of two reluctantly chose to “try” psychotherapy because he couldn’t shake feeling “depressed and irritable so much of the time.” Nick told me that he was married to a wonderful woman and that he was devoted to his two girls. Despite being able to create a world of good for those he loved, Nick felt disconnected and lonely inside his loving world.
Bruce was divorced and remarried. Bruce and his son were on a typical schedule of seeing each other every other weekend plus any soccer games and school visits he could attend. Bruce both loved and dreaded the time spent with his son. He loved the being together but the pain of always leaving his son evoked strong feelings of shame, loneliness, and loss. Bruce never identified these feelings until we talked about them in session. Bruce said, “What kind of father feels anxious being with his own son?” Eventually, Bruce learned to separate his own feelings from his relationship with his son.
Tom’s kids were grown up and provided him with the opportunity to be a proud grandfather of five. Tom was a very active and involved grandpop. He loved to teach and experience the laughter and play his grandkids provide. In his quiet moments, Tom knew that his connection with his grandchildren was the very thing that he did not provide for his children when they were young. “When I think about that,” Tom said, “it makes me sad and alone.” Tom talked about his experience in the safety of a men’s group where other men respected, acknowledged, and related having the similar feelings.
Of course, loneliness is inevitable in life. How could loneliness not be present in fathers who travel or commute long distances? What loneliness do men feel when they spend each day working long hours to support and educate their children? Imagine the loneliness of the fathers deployed by the military to distant and hostile lands? What loneliness does a father housed within our prisons hold inside or a man too ill to actively father their children feel? What loneliness is held locked in the hearts of fathers who have buried their own child and sons burying their own dads?
Fathers want to matter to their children. Every man and the groups of men mentioned above would thrive if they received love, affection, and connection. Perhaps the best way to celebrate fathers is truly connect and “see” the man you honor by encouraging him to share his thoughts and feeling with you.
I once asked my WWII Guadalcanal survivor dad, “What did you feel when I drew a low draft number and I was likely to be drafted into the Viet Nam War?” Dad said, “I remember telling you that a man’s got to do what he needs to do.” I pushed him on and asked, “I know that’s what you said but what did you feel?” He stared at me. A tear broke out of his eye and he said, ”I was scared. I had hoped the shit we had to do in the war would have prevented this nightmare.” Then, we held each other in an uncommon hug.
This Father’s day, the courage to feel and express emotion provides a way toward deeper intimacy with your guest of honor. See the character of the man you celebrate. Ask meaningful and soulful questions. Let him know what he feels matters to you. Father’s Day is the time to experience intimacy because it is the most effective antidote to loneliness.
Edward M. Adams, Psy.D. is Founder and Past President of Men Mentoring Men, a not-for-profit designed to support men to live happier and deeper lives. He has been in private practice in Somerville, NJ for over 25 years and was awarded the 2013 Practitioner of the Year Award by the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity.