Listen to this story from Paul Kivel, from his book Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart:
It’s Sunday night and my son, Ariel, is supposed to be finishing his week’s homework assignment, due tomorrow. He sits down at the table, looks at the last page and says, “I can’t do this.”
“Why not?” I ask in disbelief.
“I don’t have an encyclopedia.”
“But we went through this last week. You are supposed to check your homework ahead of time to see if you need an encyclopedia. I’ve told you before that’s not an acceptable excuse.” I can feel my anger rise.
“I looked at it. It’s a crossword puzzle on domestic cats. I didn’t think I needed an encyclopedia.”
[At this, Paul Kivel says] I know I’m stuck. There’s no way he can do the assignment. Once again he has managed to postpone some of his work so that when the final hour comes he can’t finish it.
“Can I watch television now?” he asks in all innocence.
“No, you can’t. I told you that you couldn’t watch television until your homework was done; I said that forgetting to bring home the right books isn’t an excuse.”
“That’s it. You can just sit there and figure out a way to do your assignment.”
I leave and he starts to cry. We both feel terrible.
That’s the story, from Paul Kivel. A snapshot of a difficult fathering moment, on this day that we honor fathering even as we brave difficult territory and go deeper into what it all means.
As I shared this story, how many of you felt yourself tensing up? You’ve been there, done that. You know what it is like to be that kid, on the receiving end of an authority figure saying angrily, “You can just sit there and figure out a way to do your assignment.” Resenting their power over you, in the face of your own seeming powerlessness. You’ve been there, done that. And perhaps you’ve been the authority figure as well. Your parents said such words to you, and now you say them. You say them, feeling responsible for the wellbeing of your children. You say them, feeling the heavy burden on your shoulders.
Fathers can feel this in a unique way. As a father myself, I can honestly testify to an underlying desperation, linked to a sense of ultimate and absolute responsibility. Behind it is an anxious thought process, running like a broken record, which sounds like this: If you don’t teach your kids now, immediately, they will grow up to be failures. Let them off the hook—cut them some slack—and you are neglecting your responsibility. Make them do what’s best, right now—it’s ridiculous to give them a say in the matter. What do they know? But you know the discipline they need, and they need it if they are going to succeed in this world. Drill it into them. When I say “jump,” they better respond with “how high.”
That’s the anxious thought process. That’s the kind of desperation fathers can carry into their fathering. “You can just sit there and figure out a way to do your assignment.” Desperation separating fathers from children and disempowering children even as the fathers are trying to connect with them and care for them. Desperation that even causes some to absent themselves entirely from the process. Too intense. Too overwhelming.
Listen to this dream I had maybe 20 years ago. “I’m in a strange and dark classroom, stuffed into a desk that’s way too small and hurts. My Dad is teaching me how to analyze images. He assigns homework. But I don’t think I need any of this, because I love my Dad. I love him. I tell him how I feel, but he doesn’t believe me. I try my best to prove it, but nothing works. He just continues lecturing, relentlessly.”
Something like this is precisely what happened to Paul Kivel, at the death bed of his own father. “He had few words for anyone during his illness,” he says. “But one week, when the doctors told him his heart was working at only 25 percent capacity, he suddenly wanted to tell me a great deal about what he thought I should know. With sadness, self-pity, and anger … he not only explained to me what he thought was important financially, he also made a final attempt to get me to value the things he had—security, stability, family, and civic responsibility. On his deathbed he was trying to get me to shoulder that role while conveying his anger and despair that he would be unable to do it himself. In his eyes he had failed on two counts. [For myself,] I had romanticized his death and though, Aha, there will yet be a final scene when he confesses his love for me. Then we will cry in each other’s arms and forgive each other. Instead, after unloading all the family business onto my shoulders and criticizing me, he lay back on his bed. My mother said, ‘Why don’t you tell Paul you love him and appreciate what he’s doing?’ My father simply said, ‘No, he doesn’t need that ego-boosting stuff.’”
What tragic, painful irony. And I know that this does not do justice to all the varieties of fathering out there, or experiences of our Dads. I admit this up front. Yet there is enough frustration around fathering to suggest that we are on to something significant. In the hearts of too many of our Dads: strangeness and darkness. Love, felt as desperation, felt as a sense of overwhelming and ultimate responsibility, held anxiously, conveyed through harshness, leading to the tragic, painful irony. “On the days I am not my father,” writes poet Scott Owens,
I don’t yell. I don’t hold inside
the day’s supply of frustrations.
My hands stay open all day.
I don’t wake tired and sore,
dazed from senseless, panicking
On the days I am not my father …
I listen well.
I let things go unfinished,
in an order I didn’t plan.
My mouth is relaxed. My teeth
don’t hurt. My face stays
a healthy shade of pink all day.
On the days I am not my father
I don’t fill the silence with my own
irrational rants. I don’t resent
the voices of others. I don’t make fun
of you to make myself feel better.
On the days I am not my father…. What’s going on here? The clenched fist, the fatigue, the tense mouth, the gritted teeth, the red face, the irrational rants, the cruelty?
I go back to my dream of the dark classroom. The desk that I am sitting in, that squeezes me with its smallness, that makes my body hurt. Dad drilling his lesson into me, relentlessly. I believe that there are times when dreams communicate a poetry of the soul, and perhaps my soul, 20 or so years ago, was telling me something about my training as a man. How it’s like a Procrustean bed—an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is enforced. If a part is too big, it gets cut off. Too small, and it is stretched. That’s where the clenched fist comes from, and the fatigue, the tense mouth, the gritted teeth, the red face, the irrational rants, the cruelty. All of it inescapably carried into one’s fathering, to some degree or another, for fathers are men first.
“Be a man,” the entire world says to a boy. The message coming not just from fathers, but mothers too, the media, teachers, and peers. Also from the only kinds of initiation rites that are generally available to men today, centering primarily around team sports, military life, gang life, and prison. All of them, sources of a surprisingly consistent message, which the following scenario tries to convey. (It comes from The Oakland Men’s Project, with which Paul Kivel is associated.) Here it is: imagine a ten-year-old-boy in a chair at home watching television. His Dad walks through the door holding a piece of paper:
DAD: Turn off that set.
SON: Aw Dad….
DAD: Turn it off. Now! This place is a mess; why isn’t it cleaned up?
SON: I was going to do it after this show.
DAD: Excuses. You always have excuses. Do you have an excuse for this? What is this?
SON: My report card.
DAD: Look at this right here: math, D.
SON: I did the best I could.
DAD: Sure you did. You’re just stupid. You know what D stands for? It stands for Dummy.
SON: (Starting to get up) That’s not fair.
DAD: Sit down. I didn’t say you could go anyplace.
SON: (looks down, near tears)
DAD: What’s the matter, you gonna cry about it? Poor little mamma’s boy. You’re just a wimp. (Pushes him off the chair onto floor) When are you gonna grow up and act like a man around here? (Storms off)
SON: (Picks himself off the floor. He’s angry, confused, hurt, says to himself:) “He’s always coming in here yelling, pushing me around, shouting at me to be a man. I hate it! It’s not fair!”
And that’s the scenario. A dark classroom. In other words: numb yourself to your feelings. Stay sitting down when you want to stand up. Be suspicious towards your tears. Ridicule yourself whenever an emotion emerges that registers vulnerability.
“Be a man.” Kill the instinct you have to take your confusion to other people, so you can get clarity about what you are feeling. Kill your need for real friendship and intimacy. Learn to be lonely.
“Be a man.” Of course you can have male friends, but these will only be people you will measure yourself against in competition. Never ever anything else. You can’t turn to them for support—that’s for sure. That’s what a wife is for. You can dump all your intimacy needs on her, and she’ll be your lifeline. You really only need one source of emotional sustenance in life, and that’s her.
“Be a man.” Take responsibility for your success. Control and conquer. There can be no excuses, ever.
That’s the overt training on how to be a man. That’s what it looks like on the outside, if not at home, then on the streets, in the playground, on the Internet and TV, at work, at war. “Be a man.” Success is the goal, but the problem is that what we have here is a perfect recipe for failure. One cannot possibly be strong unless one is whole in oneself and connected to others, but “be a man” means having your feelings cut off and being cut off from others—doubly so if you happen to be gay. “Be a man” is all about power and control, but this makes men (gay and straight) only feel worse about their lives and not better, makes them do desperate things to prove their manhood. Men all their lives wondering, Am I a man yet? Have I finally made the grade? Paul Kivel’s father on his deathbed, conveying his anger and despair at not having lived up to his responsibilities, and not even death can be an excuse. There can be no excuses, ever.
It’s a recipe for failure. It’s why, as Paul Kivel says, “the fabric of men’s lives is interwoven with violence.” When you’ve been bullied, you bully others, you pass the hurt around to counter the feelings of powerlessness. Some aspects of this are clearly visible, as in the case of physical violence. Rape. Gay bashing. Husbands beating up wives, even killing them—no doubt when the wife failed, for one reason or another, to live up to the impossible expectation that she should meet every one of the emotional and intimacy needs that the husband has dumped on her.
“Be a man” ends up being more about passing the hurt around than anything else. If not physical violence, then verbal violence, or violence against oneself: men going overboard drinking, or ignoring their health needs and refusing to take care of themselves. And then there are other kinds of violence, far more subtle: stone cold silence. Paul Kivel’s father, on his deathbed, refusing to bless his son, saying “No, he doesn’t need that ego-boosting stuff.” Subtle violence: the desperation that fathers can feel, when they bring to fathering their “be a man” training—desperation that presses down upon them, makes it impossible for them to let up, ease up, cease from trying to drill the discipline into their kids NOW.
But desperation is not the last word. Men can get up off the Procrustean bed of their “be a man” training and become whole again. Stop passing around the hurt. Grow back the parts that have been cut off. Allow the parts that have been stretched to resume their proper proportion. Father their children from out a more healthy place. Success like this—real success—can absolutely happen.
There can be a new morning. A significant part of this involves consciousness-raising, in which three different kinds of things happen simultaneously. One is a growing awareness of how one has been trained to “be a man”—going right back to all those moments when you were sitting in the chair, and someone said something or did something that did not feel fair, and you were about to stand up in protest, but then you heard the all-powerful voice of Dad saying, “Sit down. I didn’t say you could go anyplace.” So you sat back down. Becoming aware of these kinds of moments, what it felt like for your integrity to be violated. Crying tears that have been so deeply stuffed for so long. It is an awakening, and it hurts. It can make you long to go back to the numbness. Yet the only way out is through.
Which leads to the second aspect of consciousness-raising: male friendship. Safe places in which one can be heard into speech. Encouragement from others who have been there, or are there with you right now. This congregation’s men’s group, for example, meeting on a regular basis—aiming for a different kind of male bonding. Not competition, not hatred of some “other,” but honest sharing, mutuality, respect for others, and emotional risk taking. “The kind,” says Paul Kivel, “we often envy women for, the kind that we each long for ourselves.”
Growing awareness of our “be a man” training, growing friendship, and then this: growing capacity to let go of the desperate need to control. That’s the third aspect of male consciousness-raising, all to the end of learning how to father from a more healthy place.
For Paul Kivel, it happened like this. Go back to the fight he had with his son, over homework. In the days following this, he reflected on what had happened, drew on his awareness of his “be a man” training, talked about it with his men’s group, and came to the realization that things weren’t working precisely because he had all the power and all the responsibility. He says, “I resented my responsibility and Ariel resented my power. It finally occurred to me to sit down and talk about it with him.”
I told him I didn’t like playing the enforcer when it came to his completing his homework assignments; I didn’t like yelling. But I was concerned and wanted to know what kind of support he needed from me.
“What I need from you is to back off some, stop yelling at me every day about my assignments.”
“What can I do? Stay out of it completely?”
“No, don’t stay out of it, just lighten up some.”
“What else would help?”
“Ask me when I’m going to do my homework instead of telling me to do it. Then I can plan out the right time.”
“What if you save it till you’re too late and you’re too tired?”
“I just won’t save it all for late.”
[At this point, Paul Kivel says that he bit his tongue. He found this hard to believe, but he didn’t say anything, just this:] “Okay, it sounds good to me.”
“Yeah [his son responded], I need you to answer questions about the assignments and things.”
And that was the conversation Paul Kivel had with his son. “It was a tremendous relief,” he says, “to both of us. It didn’t completely end the arguments, but it confirmed that we were both on the same side. It also shifted the responsibility from me to him for planning his homework schedule. The next day after school he told me his schedule he had planned. And he followed it. He still forgets his books at times, or loses assignments. But he doesn’t feel like a billiard ball bouncing between the wrath of school and home. He feels in charge of his homework and I feel like his ally.”
Now that’s a father’s blessing. That’s what real success looks like.