By Pam England
In Ancient Rome, to be a father, it was not enough to conceive the child (in fact biological lineage did not matter). A man had to publicly declare his will and intention to become the child's pater (the Latin word for father). The ceremony was profoundly simple: by raising his son into the air, or by ordering his daughter to be fed, he assumed responsibility for the duration of the child's life. Failing to do so meant that the child would likely grow up in slavery.
In 2 AD, Romans expanded the duties of the father to include feeding his children. Father means "to feed," not only to nourish the child's growing body, but to feed the mind of the child, and to model and help form the inner Divine Masculine qualities of psyche, in both boys and girls. (The Divine Masculine modeled by and within mothers also plays an integral role in cultivating these qualities in boys and girls.)
We no longer have formal rituals of preparation for a man to awaken the Father-within, nor a sacred ceremony for him to claim his responsibility to the child (nothing short of signing the birth certificate!). Sadly, paternity has been reduced to a man's part in conception or a DNA test; this definition of fatherhood diminishes the cultural and relational importance of parenthood. In general, most men feel that they, as expectant-fathers, are peripheral, if not invisible, in childbirth classes. Classes typically focus on the mother's preparation for labor (not even mothering) and on orienting couples to the rituals of the birth place.
During many conversations with new fathers, it is heartrending to hear them talk about how expecting their own child awakened their quest to know their own father as a father. This urge wells up from their experience as men becoming fathers, not as the child-son. They instinctively sense that knowing something of their own father's experience and reflections as a father is a portal to knowing themselves as a father. Fathering is indeed less about biological ties than it is an emotional and social relationship with a child, a relationship that arises unconsciously from long-held images, assumptions and conditioning from his own father, step-father, grandfathers, and society. It does not help fathers when we idealize the role of the father. Rather, let us have compassion and resolve to humanize the father, even our own fathers, in our exploration. Let us acknowledge that expectant-fathers have their own unique tasks of emotional and spiritual preparation for their birth as a father and for the birth of their child.
What is needed now, more than ever, are fathers to mentor and initiate fathers. For the past decade, BIRTHING FROM WITHIN® Mentors have taken a first small step to acknowledge the father by inviting him to a Special Class Just for Fathers. But women/mothers cannot be the sole mentors or initiators of fathers. It is time to begin initiating Father Mentors, who will in turn initiate the new, gestating fathers of our time. There is too much at stake to leave the quest to the uninitiated and hope that they will magically evolve into this important role, especially under the pressures of work, school, and postpartum adjustment. BIRTHING FROM WITHIN's new vision of father initiation will be shared in a future newsletter.
Until it becomes commonplace for fathers to mentor fathers (and this will happen again), we must continue to do our small part to support the emerging father's birth as a father. What can you do?
Invite the father to talk about his relationship with his own father; if you are listening, then listen deeply to what he shares. Do not judge his father (who as the son of his father and society, with everything he knew and did not know at the time, did the best he could at the time). The heart-opening healing begins when the new father and the listener investigate, and possibly challenge, the assumptions he made during his childhood. He can reflect upon what he heard, saw and experienced related to: fathers, fathers caring for babies and children, marriage with children, discipline, financial and emotional support of children, and other related categories. Then he can explore what beliefs and judgments, even "rules", he has created in his own mind about what it means to be a "good father."
Without bringing these assumptions and patterns to consciousness, there is little chance of making conscious choices to do it differently, regardless of what is written in books. We, as listeners, hold our hearts and bellies open to hear what he discovers about himself. If you are listening to a father's search for his roots and future as a father, your deep listening (not judging or persuading) will help him go further on his quest.
Some things to keep in mind when teaching or mentoring a childbirth preparation class:
First, always keep in mind that these classes are portals to parent preparation, too, not just to labor and birth.
Second, since mothers and fathers do not and cannot experience labor, birth, postpartum and parenting from the same perspective, it is impossible to speak to a "couple" about the tasks of preparation or their personal work or roles as if they are "shared."
To speak to a woman/mother about her transitions in labor or postpartum does not speak to or include the man/father. He can listen in and learn about her preparation or experience; but he is not learning about his own. This is why we must separate the couple(s) during at least part of the class series. It is actually easier and richer to initiate women into birth and mothering when we are speaking as women to women about the sacred mysteries of birth and mothering. Men are initiated and prepared for fathering and being at birth in a completely different way.
The news that a child has been conceived or the act of witnessing the birth of a child does not initiate a man into fatherhood. We cannot expect an uninitiated man to initiate himself as a father. If we want the new father to be present to his child, and present to the family, we must acknowledge and nourish his gestation process as a father and his birth as a father.
Recommended Reading: In his excellent book, The Father: Historical, Psychological and Cultural Perspectives, Luigi Zoja explains, from a historical and Jungian perspective, the evolution of the role of fathers in western society and how it brought us to the current identity-crisis for fathers. I highly recommend this book for new fathers, mothers, and mentors.
This article about fathers is not intended to overlook or exclude the transformation within same-sex partnerships. Lesbian partners also must be initiated into parenthood. This topic is worthy of exploration and understanding, and may be addressed in a future article.
Article copyright 2008 by Pam England and BIRTHING FROM WITHIN. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
In response to this article, one reader wrote to us:
“I am LDS (Latter Day Saints, aka "Mormon") and in our faith after a child is born, the child’s father stands in a circle with other men to give a new baby a name and a blessing. After the blessing is pronounced he holds the child up for the congregation to see and be welcomed. . .”
Pam writes in response:
Thank you for sharing the LDS’ fathers’ baby-naming circle with us. My brief article did not acknowledge the many individuals and groups who do include fathers in “baby showers,” naming ceremonies and childbirth preparation. When the fathers in a church or group participate in a ceremony such as the one described by our reader, it benefits the father and everyone who witnesses it: the mothers, other fathers, and the children, too. When all the fathers in a particular group take part in a ceremony year after year, the ceremony begins to take on unspoken but shared meaning for every man and woman in the group; each time it is repeated, it honors every father who is witnessing it and it serves as a reminder of his own transition or commitment. Of equal importance: when boys and girls witness this ritual again and again, they are experiencing the positive relationship between father and child.
While fathers in the LDS church benefit from this ceremony, it is still important to acknowledge that the majority of men in our diverse North American culture, and their fathers, and their grandfathers seven generations back, do not, and did not experience a deep, soulful ritual of preparation for fathering or a ceremony honoring their new identity as a father. With rare exception, Western men do not benefit from a tradition of being mentored by an experienced father during his transition to fatherhood.
Evolutions in science, war, economics, religion and a myriad of other social changes, including the Industrial Revolution and the Feminist movement, have defined and redefined “father” from one generation to the next. (When the father’s role changes, it goes without saying, the role of the mother changes, too.) The profound significance of the ever-changing role of the father on the individual, and on society as a whole, is rarely recognized. What is expected of a father in one generation varies from the previous generation. Many fathers tell me they wonder, and even worry, how they will father, what makes a “good” father, how to have a different relationship to his child than his father had with him.
Men-becoming-fathers have unique tasks of preparation and transition not related to learning how to support the mother of his child in labor or baby care basics. The transition to fatherhood does not happen instantly by witnessing the birth of their child, or by participating in a ceremony that honors the father socially. Who is supporting the father during his inner-search and transition?