What Does a Father Do?
Assertions of the importance of fathers are easy to find in psychiatry and developmental psychology. What's harder to find is just what it is a father is supposed to do. For each man, it seems, it comes down to on-the-job training -- such was the case for me, at least, and I can claim no special experience.
The fact that thoughtful people are unable to spell out fully and exactly what it is to be a good person does not stop them from trying to be good people. It is the same with trying to be a good father. One day at a time a man invents himself. Common sense, intuition, imagination, love, and a certain amount of courage come into play as he attempts to embody the concept of a good father that has existed up till then only as a vision in his mind and that he may or may not make real. Common sense will tell him, for instance, to do no harm to his child even in the name of doing good. Intuition will help him understand the child at a level deeper than language. Imagination will help him see the world as a child sees it. Love will make him pay attention. Courage will help him try to become the father that his child begins to show him is needed, and to face the fact that he will be needed in ways he has never been needed before.
Fatherhood is a constantly changing dynamic, one hour at a time, which in the end calls out everything in him there is to call out. Stretched over decades, it leaves no part of a man untouched. It goes without saying that pain, also, is involved. But that should surprise no one.
Yes, much changed in the 24 years between the birth of my first child and my last. Society shifted and concepts of fatherhood along with it. Economic realities have forced a re-examination of the fatherhood role, and that is a matter of importance. But the human experience, the deep discoveries inherent in fatherhood, the essence of paternity -- these probably have not changed. At bottom the question of roles is secondary. Who lies under the roles is primary. A man doesn't take on the role of father, he becomes a father. He grows into it.
Here is something worth considering. The child is completely dependent on the mother, so much so that it takes years to recognize her as an independent entity. The father, on the other hand, can be the first freely chosen loving friend, the first outsider, as it were, to receive the trust of the innocent child. The good father, then, is the man who can rise to that occasion, and stick with it.