Mindfulness for Fathers: Five Difficult Feelings We Can Learn to Love
In support of a new book I’m co-writing with Michael Stone about the spirituality of family life. Follow the link to support and pre-order.
It’s a tall order for many men to even acknowledge difficult feelings. But love them? That’s just going too far. But of course, going farther and loving deeper than you knew you could is what fatherhood, and life, demands.
Parenting is painted through with great strokes of perfectly natural sorrow. You can only pretend to fight it. Much better to look at it carefully, to see its colours clearly, feel its textures. What else could be at the root of empathy and compassion? What else would give you the gravitas you’ll need to be a person of consequence in later life? What else would you even aspire to? Our strange luck is that there are at least five inevitable sorrows that soften us as fathers, even as they strengthen us. Their lessons extrapolate well to the rest of life.
1. You are responsible, even when you feel distant or excluded.
The expectant father does not carry the child. It is for him to only wonder how it feels, how it will happen, and how things will be after this birth. Excluded from the front line, he plants a victory garden, tinkers with the house, performs a hundred unheroic tasks, and waits. As do we all, when faced with the countless stresses in the world it seems we cannot directly confront, but in which we share responsibility. Our environmental crisis is a good example here.
From the moment your partner conceives, you stand outside of something that is happening primarily to her. The pregnancy changes the focus and perhaps rules of the relationship. The fetus, who you cannot feel and can hardly believe is really inside her, upstages you. As child psychiatrists T. Berry Brazleton and Bertrand Cramer note in The Earliest Relationship: “He feels displaced, but at the same time, he feels that he has only himself to blame.” While your partner must surrender to the palpable nausea and fatigue in which you’ve somehow played a role, your own adjustments to your changing identity are much harder to feel.
You have no choice but to hold space for your partner, to create a second womb around her own, sewn from your wishes and worries. You have to act where you can, and otherwise simply exude a willingness to help. Things are not in your control. If you’re smart you’ll learn they never were, and your partner’s bump is showing you that now you have to act without being the center of attention and without knowing what to do. You have to help without recognition, and without knowing the results. You’re not the baby anymore. Which means you have the lonely privilege of being an adult.
2. You can feel your fantasies disappear. The fantasy baby, and the fantasy self.
The Birth of a Mother by Daniel and Nadia Stern describes how in the first and second trimesters, the mother actually experiences three simultaneous pregnancies. One is the actual physical work. The second is the gestation of her new identity as a mother. The third consists of her fantasies of who the child might be.
The expectant father undergoes the second two pregnancies as well. He imagines the father he could be, and the father he does not wish to be. He also imagines a fantasy baby to fulfill his wishes and console his fears.
For the mother, a strange thing happens in the third trimester. As the baby clearly demonstrates its own patterns of rest and activity, and its size makes her utterly aware that Someone Else Is Inside Her, the mother begins to let the fantasy baby fade away. It makes sense. As the Sterns write:
At birth, the real baby and the imagined one will meet for the first time, and the mother cannot afford to have too great a difference between the two. She must protect the real baby and herself from large discrepancies between the expectations she created in her mind… and her real baby.
But does the expectant father benefit from the same natural disillusionment? How does he let go of the fantasy baby? He can’t feel the real baby roll and press downwards and assert its own life force. In fact, at times it feels like the partner and child are a complete mystery that he can only fantasize into meaning. Who will they be? After the birth, he’ll begin to find out.
Before Jacob was born, I gendered my fantasy baby. I imagined running alongside a little boy on a soccer field while I ran through the forest trails. I imagined hearing a daughter play piano, or cello. And then there was the fork in the road of possible names. Our list of girl’s names was always longer than our list of boy’s names. This was a subtle warning that my expectations for who a son could be were narrower in some way. A fantasy son has the hard job of making his father’s life more tolerable to him. It’s tragic if you don’t recognize this, and give the same job to the real son.
I could feel the projections in my gut: my daughter could be anything. But my fantasy son already carried the danger of my own childhood. He already inhabited a more complex world of conflict and vulnerability. I pictured him alone, because I had very few friends growing up.
And then Jacob was born. Fat, ruddy, sturdy. Unimaginably himself. I held him wriggling and squawking and in saying hello I had to say goodbye to my fantasy-children, which were really perfected sketches of me.
In Indian philosophy, the word moksha – the goal of the whole game – is usually translated as “freedom” or “liberation”. But the etymology suggests something more austere: “the disappearance of infatuation”. When the real baby plops into your arms, you have the uncomfortable opportunity to watch your infatuations vanish. They were flimsy. They can’t protect you against the present moment. But somewhere this direct contact is what you want.
3. You won’t be able to give baby everything you want to give.
In Jonathan Franzen’s epic family novel The Corrections (2001),Gary embraces his son Jonah:
Jonah draped his arms on him. Gary could feel the looseness of his youthful joints, the cublike pliancy, the heat radiating through his scalp and cheeks. He would have slit his own throat if the boy had needed blood…
Isn’t this the way?
I remember back when I was a step-father, years ago, sitting in my step-daughter’s room while she slept on the night before going to school for the first time. I wept for an hour, wishing I could go with her and buffer her from the surprises and disappointments and cruelties.
But you just can’t. Your capacity to protect them and provide for them has a hard limit. The paradox is that when you reach that limit and feel helpless, only love – passionate, scared, hopeful – can come in to fill the hole.
4. Baby reminds you of things that are past.
Baby reminds you of being a baby. You’ll miss it. You’ll wish you could be like that again. And then, understanding you can’t, you’ll strive for a present openness, curiosity, and innocence. Baby also reminds you that you’ll never be a single man again. It will feel like losing freedom, but you’re never really free until you know how interdependent you are.
5. Baby reminds you to seize the day.
You watch baby breath in his sleep and imagine all he will discover. If you breathe in time with him you’ll remember that with every breath you are closer to the end than he is. In the best outcome, he’ll survive you, which means you’ll miss so many things in the vacuum of that future. What could be a stronger kick in the ass to drop all the petty crap, enjoy every breath you both take right now, and to get out there and make a difference?