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Going from Boy to Man with Your Father

On Father's Day, not all men celebrate.

Key points

  • Going from boy to man with your father is important.
  • Making peace with your father is important.
  • Both fathers and sons need each other’s blessings.
  • Males need affection from their fathers even as adults.

“The son wishes to remember what the father wants to forget.” Yiddish proverb

On Father’s Day, not everyone celebrates. There are men who were not fathered or have strained relationships with their dad. Unfortunately, as I tried to be close to my father, he didn’t want to be close to me.

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The day comes when we must go from boy to man with our fathers. When I became a man with my own father, he could not bear it. Sadly, it ended our relationship, but I have never regretted doing it.

Many times during my growing-up years, my father was absent from my life. When he was around, what affected me negatively was mostly what didn’t happen and what wasn’t said. As a child and teenager, I was very verbal and emotional, open about my feelings and thoughts. But early on, I became aware that my father wasn’t okay with that about me, so to receive his love and approval, unconsciously I decided to be quiet and go with what I thought was his program. I sat up at night crying, wondering what it was about me that he didn’t like as I did not feel loved by him. I thought that perhaps I was unwanted or was just a reminder that his first marriage to my mother had gone bad. I believed he really didn’t love me.

But after I became a therapist and learned more about my father’s formative years, I came to understand that it probably wasn’t personal. Most likely, he gave to me all that he could—perhaps that was all he himself had received as a child. My father is the last of ten children, so I can imagine the neglect he must have suffered in such a big family; nonetheless, I had to deal with the marginal relationship with him and how that impacted my forming a male identity.

When I was three and my sister was one, our parents divorced. One year later, my father remarried and later had a son with his new wife. As a divorced dad, he would take my sister and me for visits each weekend. I remember spending most of my time with his wife while he watched sports on television. To this day, I cringe inside when I hear a sporting event on television, especially on weekends.

As I grew older, I could no longer hold in the feelings and emotions I felt toward my father and tried to tell him. But I did not experience him as receptive; he either changed the subject or told me he did not want to hear it, saying he felt chastised and attacked.

Once when I tried to talk to my father, he walked away from me physically. Another time he packed up my sister and me and took us home. Still another time I was driving us to lunch when I began to try talking about our relationship. He ordered me to turn the car around and go back home, which I did. Each time he stopped the conversation, I would avoid him until things seemed better between us and as if nothing had happened.

I wasn’t physically afraid of my father, but I never wanted to make him angry or have him upset with me. I learned to avoid these types of discussions with him, and yet I wanted to have my truth out between us. I had so many questions about how he felt with my mother, about leaving me at age three and making a new family. One line in Eminem’s song “Cleaning Out My Closet” refers to his father, who left him at a young age: “I wonder if he even kissed me goodbye.” I wondered the same thing.

Those were the kind of conversations I wanted to have with my father. Even if they weren’t things I wanted to hear, I wanted to hear them anyway because they still stood in my way of having a good and connected relationship with him. I wanted to talk them out because they were negatively impacting my relationship with him. I felt that I was holding on to things he had done and said, and needed to get them off my chest, because I knew they were impacting my relationships with other men, both straight and gay—and particularly on my finding a partner.

I began to realize I was carrying part of his baggage, which he unintentionally passed onto me as a boy. I needed to give it back. I worked on approaching my dad for a heart-to-heart talk. I met him for lunch, but once he realized this was one of those times where I wanted to talk on a deeper level about my feelings and our relationship, he said, “Joe, I cannot do this.”

“Do what?” I asked.

“The past is over and done with. Can’t you get over it? Can’t we move on?”

“Dad,” I said, “that’s what I am trying to do. I just need to express my feelings, not just about the past but the present as well.”

My father shook his head in disappointment and began to rise from his chair. “I’m sorry son,” he said. “I cannot do this.”

It was then I went from boy to man. Afraid and yet not afraid at the same time, I stood up and said firmly, “Sit down!”

He looked at me in disbelief. “What did you say?”

I wasn’t going to cower to his disapproval this time. I felt myself coming into my mature masculinity and wanted to be man to man with my father.

“I said, ‘Sit down,’ Dad!”

Silence. The restaurant around us vanished, and mentally I was my twenty-five-year-old self who turned the car around when he demanded I do so, with my teenage and preteen selves standing beside me. This time, my mature masculine thirty-seven-year-old adult wasn’t going to back down. Once more I said, “I am asking you nicely to sit down!”

And to my total disbelief, he did.

Shocked, I calmly sat down and firmly began telling my father of my pain, my sorrow, my desire for more from him and with him. Many times as I was talking to him, I thought to myself that even if he wasn’t listening, I had to do this for me. I had to give him back all his baggage he’d passed onto me so that I no longer carried it for him. Secretly, I hoped he was listening, that somehow my pain and my feelings would open up his, to let him connect with me as I’d always dreamed of.

He sat there and listened. He wept, and so did I. In fact,

After an hour, I was finished. My father had hardly said a word. I knew that for him, this had not gone well. He wouldn’t and couldn’t go where I needed to go with him. But that was okay, because I went by myself. I didn’t attack or blame him, call him names, humiliate, or belittle him.

On that day, I went from boy to man with my father. But I have made peace with him and myself. I needed to cut ties with him after this as he continued behaving poorly toward me. How I wish it had gone differently as described in this beautiful story from the Talmud.

A king had fallen out with his son. Very angry, the son left his father’s castle and created his own kingdom, many miles away. Over time, the king missed his son and sent a messenger, asking him to return, but the son declined his father’s invitation.

This time, the king sent the messenger back with a different message: “Son, come as far as you can, from your kingdom to mine. And I will meet you the rest of the way.”

I love this story. The father’s attachment is strong enough for him to stretch out of his comfort zone and do whatever it takes to reunite with his son. If you’re lucky enough to have a father like this, you’re more likely to have healthy relationships with men.

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