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About The Book

Fathering is one of the most basic and profound human activities. Yet in addition to its many joys, fatherhood is often freighted with longing, sadness, anger, and misunderstanding. Most of us, men and women alike, are acutely aware of how difficult it is to father well, year after year, until, and even after, children are grown.

At the same time, the essential relationships between men and women and their children are under stress these days as never before, subject to the pressures of work, money, divorce, remarriage, and adoption. As a result, many fathers struggle with deep uncertainties about their parenting abilities. Meanwhile, society's definitions of masculinity appear ever more fluid, negotiable, and unreachable in today's media-saturated culture, which endlessly exposes men (and women) to a stream of images celebrating violence, war, hypermasculinity, athletic ability, corporate competition, alternative life-styles, "metrosexuality," and triumphant materialism.

Who, men might rightfully ask, are we expected to be? Do various pop-cultural definitions of masculinity really reflect what it is to be a man? What in men's true natures helps them be good fathers? Can aggression be useful? What masculine traits do fathers need to guard -- and guard against? How do men love their children, and how is being a father very different from and no less essential than being a mother? And how can women understand how men experience fatherhood?

This is the rich social reality that Dr. Mark O'Connell, a psychotherapist and father of three, addresses in his provocative, brilliant, and wise book. Drawing on both his professional case histories and personal experience, O'Connell describes the internal conflicts that many men feel about the difficulties of being a father but which they are often unable to discuss easily. Such issues include questions about authority, discipline, intimacy, physical contact, and sexuality.

In ways that are distinctly masculine, O'Connell says, fathers communicate standards, insist on respect for others, instigate necessary confrontations, and even engage in the kind of rough-and-tumble play that enlivens the developing neural structures in a child's brain. O'Connell contends that fathers play a crucial role in conveying the rules, expectations, and inevitabilities of life, and he describes how men can help their families by understanding and embracing their own masculinity. Men are different from women and must be allowed to parent differently as well.

The Good Father, however, is not just a very readable book for fathers struggling to find their best selves in relation to their spouses and children. Women will want to read The Good Father as well. All men and women have complex and important relationships with their fathers, whether or not those men were good fathers. Dr. O'Connell reveals how men and women alike bring these relationships to their parenting, and how we so often need to untangle these generational knots.

Filled with reassuring common sense, The Good Father opens a path toward happier, more satisfying relationships for the entire family while helping men become the good fathers they deeply want to be.


Chapter 1: A Father's Weight

Just a minute, "Dad."

 Dylan, my eight-year-old son, kneels over a battlefield of knights, dragons, and fantastic beasts -- each imbued with special powers that he has beneficently bestowed. I've asked that he leave behind the immense (though instantly reversible) carnage that surrounds him in order to do his homework. His answer tells me that the response I want won't occur right away.

By now I've heard "Just a minute, Dad" thousands of times -- from Dylan, from Chloe, his older sister, and from Miles, their older brother. I've heard these words often enough to have acquired an ear for their music, for the very different meaning conveyed by each subtly different tone.

Sometimes "just a minute" means that Dylan hears me and will do what I ask, but I'll just have to wait a minute. This tone hints at a new order: By taking this minute's space he makes clear that his mind is emerging from mine, that his being is no longer seamlessly folded into my vision of who he is.

This version of "just a minute," with its embedded claim of selfhood, holds a hard and important truth: Time is passing. And lately Dylan's distinctive little-boy gait, with its quick patter of small feet moving across the floor, has taken on a slower and heavier rhythm. The simplicity of his smile and the pureness of his voice are still there, but a slight edge in his voice, a new curl at the corners of his lips, hint at the more complex emotions that lie ahead. His skin is still smooth and unblemished, but the biology that will change his body and mind from boy to man lies coiled within him.

Yet "Just a minute, Dad" is not always about respectful proclamations of emerging selfhood. And indeed, that's not its meaning this time.

This afternoon Dylan's "just a minute, Dad" is spoken inwardly, more to himself than to me. His eyes move away from mine, looking not so much to his battlefield but to the middle distance, away from what is happening between us. And when I find those eyes, when I try to hold them with mine, he looks away again, smiling a smile that hides more than it reveals. This "just a minute" is not about a real minute, instead it proposes timelessness; it asks that the game never end, and that homework never begin.

These days Dylan's messages are reassuringly familiar. Yet years ago, when Miles, my older son, would say "Just a minute, Dad" in this same reality-bending way, I often didn't know what to do. I knew my son hadn't really heard me, didn't really want to hear me. His opposition made me angry, though it was not a useful kind of anger. I didn't feel solid or rooted, like a man and a father who had been through this before; rather, I felt edgy, ungrounded, like a fatherless boy trying to be someone he had not yet become. I knew that I needed to do something in response to "just a minute" but I didn't know what. So either I'd let things go, or I'd find a frictionless way to coax Miles into doing what I wanted. And with this lack of contact I lost touch with him, and our relationship vanished into a fuzzy world of pseudo-niceness.

But over time, I began to do things differently. I forced myself to confront as well as to coax, to seek out my son's eyes rather than look away. At first my uneven efforts felt like paternal prosthetics; strategies and techniques aimed at working around those places where I felt no guidance from the memory of my own father. But, organizing myself within the exoskeletal belief that as a father it was my responsibility not only to love my children but also to use my power and position to help them grow, I began to find my footing.

These days the psychic landscape around "Just a minute, Dad" is less daunting. For one thing, I have learned that Dylan, like all children, needs his father's help. The private battle that lies on the floor around him is a valuable one to him; it is a place where his mind can play with truly important things -- death, violence, triumph, and defeat -- without flesh-and-blood consequences. But eventually he will have to move outward from it, to real-world struggles that require the backbone that accrues from having done homework, to jobs and relationships that are lived in real time, and to a life from which he does not avert his eyes, his mind, or his body. So I know, now, that I have to find him with my eyes, my voice, my mind -- with my self. I have to lead him, through the friction of our contact, away from the infinite minute he proposes, and introduce him, again and again, to the finite minutes within which we all must live.

He doesn't need a heavy hand right now. But he does need a quiet and firm, "No, not just a minute, now. You've got homework to do."

Fatherhood and Authority

What does it mean to be a father? A good father? These days the answer is not so clear. Indeed, every week all manner of fathers, from the newly minted to those near the end of active duty, from men who are successful in many areas of their lives, to those who are struggling, come to my office with painful worries and confusions about their fatherhood and, by extension, their very masculinity. Often their concerns and doubts flow from a common source.

Consider Jeffrey, a forty-five-year-old father of two. Jeffrey came to talk with me about trouble he was having with his teenage children, who were failing at school, getting into drugs and alcohol, hanging out with a bad crowd, and generally spinning out of control. Jeffrey was at loss. "I listen to them, I love them, I took them to their Little League games and all that, but it seems like I've lost them," he said. "I don't see what more I can do." I could tell that Jeffrey cared about his kids, but I also noted that he seemed to be timid and helpless in the face of the chaos. Indeed, as he spoke he slumped his tall, thin frame ever deeper into his chair, averted his eyes, and spoke haltingly, a man tumbling into himself. I noted how defeated he seemed, and I wondered aloud, gently, had he ever considered tightening things up a bit? Perhaps some rules, a curfew, and a generally firmer attitude might help. Jeffrey became instantly more alert, but only because I seemed to have horrified him.

"I'm a father," he answered testily. "Not some kind of 'tough love' tyrant."

Jeffrey was struggling with what it means to be a father, and, what was more, with a dilemma that is familiar, indeed, I will argue, defining, to many men these days: What kind of man am I? And who could blame him for wondering? The world in which we live is replete with pill-form enhancements and strap-on accoutrements of male power -- Viagra, bodybuilding magazines, advertisements for penis enlargement, hormone supplements, power tools, power suits, Hummers, and more. Yet all of these products are emblems of our confusion about masculine power, not viable paths toward it. There is tremendous pressure on men to be strong and powerful, but simultaneously there is overwhelming uncertainty as to how to do that, whether it is okay to do that, and, indeed, what exactly "strong and powerful" even means.

And nowhere is this uncertainty more evident than when it comes to the question of what role, if any, a father's masculine, paternal power, his authority, should have in the raising of his children.

Fatherhood and authority: These subjects have long depended on each other for their meanings. If there is such a thing as a bedrock paternal function, it may well be authority. And if there is such a thing as an archetypal representation of authority, it is a father. From the strong and usually (but not always) fair hand of God the father, to Oedipus usurping his father's position and thus breaking the rules that are the foundation of civilized life, to Lear's failure in paternal authority, all the way to the mileage the late Ronald Reagan got from his seemingly benign paternalism, fatherhood and authority have been intimately linked.

But what do the words "fatherhood" and "authority" really mean?

Let's start with "fatherhood," a word essential to all of us, yet one that evokes remarkably different feelings. For some of us, fathers are kind and protective. For some, fathers are loved and loving. For some, fathers are agents of discipline. For some, sources of strength. For some of us, fathers have been harsh, critical, and even violent. And, of course, for all too many of us, fathers have been absent.

This latter phenomenon is central to our modern relationship with fatherhood. As we all know, many families are currently without fathers, because fathers are either emotionally unavailable or physically missing by virtue of long work hours, divorce, estrangement, outright abandonment of mothers and children, and even death.

This epidemic of fatherlessness and father hunger has generated revived awareness of the importance of fathers. Indeed, many fathers have made a conscious attempt to be more involved with their children. But these well-meant efforts have been accompanied by, if not stimulated by, a cultural prescription for fatherhood and masculinity that, while in some ways valuable, is also incomplete and flawed. These days many men and women believe that to be a "good father" means to act in a way that could best be described as a caricature of a "good mother." Meanwhile, in a related development, many of the basic qualities we have long associated with masculinity are coming in for heavy criticism. Men's strength and stoicism are now seen as the root of numerous ills, and so men are exhorted to renounce these "archaic" aspects of their masculinity for such "feminine" attributes as empathy, connection, and attunement.

It's news to no one that this is a complicated and confusing time to be a man and a father.

And then, what about authority?

Webster's defines "authority" as "the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues; the right to control, command or determine; an expert; persuasive force, conviction," and, in earlier editions, "power [that is] derived from opinion, respect, or esteem," and "power exercised by a person in virtue of his office or trust." These definitions, with their emphasis on power and position, are consistent with Machiavelli's assertion that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved, and Weber's belief that the power of authority derives from its legitimacy. These familiar ways of thinking call to mind people and institutions invested with keeping the social order -- judges, policemen, clergy, doctors, politicians, teachers, and others -- and they certainly call to mind the traditional image of a father.

But beyond these definitions, the word "authority," like "fatherhood," evokes a wide range of individual responses. To some it speaks of structure and order; to others it brings to mind discipline; to others, it conjures images of oppression and tyranny; and to still others, it elicits the urge to rebel.

arAnd, as with fatherhood, there is evidence of a dramatic shift in our relationship to authority. Whereas most people once located themselves clearly within accepted, if sometimes begrudged, hierarchies, these days we consider the lines of these power structures to be fluid and negotiable. Teachers' knowledge, judges' judgments, politicians' motivations, the wisdom of the elderly, parents' right to discipline, priests' moral rectitude -- all were once accorded institutional status, and we organized ourselves around and even underneath them. Now they, and many more, are subject to scrutiny and skepticism. Indeed, even authorities of a different order are being disenfranchised. I'm talking about the underlying realities that surround us -- physical realities of time, space, our bodies, and so on, and more conceptual realities like science and God. In generations past we lived our lives within their immutable confines, and we understood ourselves to be subject to their relentless demands and expectations. But now we have developed schools of philosophy and cultural analysis that claim that moral truths are relative, that biological imperatives such as gender and life span are negotiable and contextual, and that scientific givens are really uncertain matters awaiting refutation by yet more perspicacious investigators. Now technology allows us to imagine that the inexorable march of time and the nonnegotiable reality of distance are not the obstacles that they once were.

Every day I see these disorienting shifts ripple through the men, women, and children who come to my office to talk. I see them in men like Jeffrey, who worry that they will become "tough love tyrants" if they discipline their children. I see them in men like Jake, a forty-two-year-old father of two, who said: "After being driven crazy for half an hour about whether my son was going to get dressed for school I'd had enough. I put my hands on his shoulders, I walked him to his room, and I told him not to say a word until he was dressed and ready. It felt great to me, and I could tell my wife was relieved too, because the kids' routine drives her nuts every morning. But that night we wondered: 'Was I too hard on him? If I make him do it, will he never learn to do it himself?'" And I see these questions arise not only in men, but in women and mothers. Consider Phyllis, a thirty-nine year-old mother of three, who told me: "I'm sick of the chaos. I know our children need rules and structure, and that happens when Hank [her husband] weighs in. I know I shouldn't say this, but his voice is different from mine -- stronger and heavier. They hear it differently. But I worry. He's so big, sometimes I think he scares them."

Fatherhood and authority: two ubiquitous and important phenomena, often linked, whose meanings are, perhaps as never before, fluid and uncertain. These days fathers, mothers, and families are struggling with basic uncertainties regarding whether to shape children or leave them alone, whether to speak softly or firmly, whether to discipline or support, and whether the words "Just a minute, Dad" signify an emerging selfhood that needs to be respected, even promoted, or whether they communicate a stance that begs to be opposed and redirected.

In the end, fatherhood and authority, alone and in their convergence in a father's authority, are such deeply human and personal matters that they cannot adequately be understood by looking in Webster's, or by turning to even the most well informed of the experts. So if we are going to understand this issue in a useful way we'll have to go further. We'll have to find the meanings that help us apprehend things not just cognitively and semantically, but genuinely and experientially. Which means that we'll have to get personal.

Gary Palmer

When Gary Palmer first came to see me, neither he nor I could anticipate how much his story revolved around fathers, both his children's and his own.

Gary was a brilliant mathematician with a good job, a wife, and two children. In his forties, he was a study in contrasts. Handsome and well built, he could be engaging, particularly when he brightened with interest. However, he often retreated, and became boyish and unassuming. At times he went even further away, and would hide behind an ironic, nihilistic detachment.

Gary and I had something in common. His father had been older when he was born (mine was sixty-three when I came along), and, when he was a little boy, his father, like mine, had vanished (mine died when I was five). In Gary's case this absence involved nothing so straightforward as an outright death; rather, it was an emotional disappearance. What was more, the cause was a mystery. Maybe it was his father's frustration with his career, or maybe his unhappiness in his marriage. Maybe it was due to something so bedrock as a chromosome loaded for alcohol or depression. I often wondered whether Gary's father's pain had grown out of his having been a bomber pilot in World War II. He had flown many missions over Germany, and had never talked about the war. In any case, Gary's father had become depressed and discouraged. His once promising military career came to a dead end, and he gave himself over to drink and to unhappiness. As Gary told me, "My dad was like a ghost. I know he was important once, but by the time I came along, he was pretty much a shell of a man."

Gary had been a good kid -- he didn't get into serious trouble and did well in school. Still, like most boys, he had his moments -- of disobedience, of disrespect, of getting out of line. Occasionally his father would lose his temper with Gary, but he was never much of a dependable disciplinarian. Gary spoke of this shortcoming with regret. "I have a love-hate relationship with rules," he told me. "Aren't they amazing? Rules, I mean. I have a friend, another mathematician. He calls mathematical rules the Great Fascist." Gary became somber. "A father has to embody the rules. But to do that he has to be steady and fair. My father was in and out. Drunk, angry, and remote. I have a lot of anger at him, and at rules. I didn't take him seriously, and I don't take rules seriously either."

By the time Gary was a teenager he came and went pretty much as he pleased, having very little to do with his family. He remembered his father as a ghostlike presence during these years, floating around the edges of his life, physically there, but having no impact. And he also told me about a shift that took place, one that was to have great repercussions. Gary came to realize that he could think circles around his father. He later learned from his mother that his father had been painfully aware of this, feeling that he had very little to offer his gifted young son. But Gary, caught up in the heady intoxication of it all, wasn't aware of how his father felt. It simply seemed that outsmarting his father was a "cool" thing to do.

Like so many men these days, Gary had suffered a kind of fatherlessness, the costs of which could be seen in the reasons he first came to talk with me. Sure, Gary had a good job. But as I learned about his education, and his singular academic accomplishments, it became clear that he was bored and underchallenged. He could get done what he needed to get done in a very brief time, using little or none of his creative mind. He spent most of his time daydreaming -- playing privately with mathematical and technical problems that interested him but which had nothing to do with his job.

And sure, Gary loved his wife, Margaret, and their two children, Jason and Catherine. Margaret appreciated him as a decent husband and father, which he was, and he felt that she was a good wife and mother. But he didn't feel passionate and alive with his family. "I'm there," he told me, "but I'm not really there."

Gary and I went to work -- on his detachment, and on the lack of meaning and passion that characterized his out-in-the-real-world life. Along the way we learned a lot.

I say "we" quite deliberately.

I learned because our talks led me to think not only about Gary's father but also about my own. I recalled how mine had been a withering and dying man who occasionally burst forth with fits of hepatic encephalopathy -- transient out-of-control behavior brought on by the effects of his chronic alcoholism. I thought about how this man, who had seemed to me to be part ghost and part home care patient, had affected my life. I came, in particular, to know more about the ways in which my own pattern of withdrawal and self-deception grew from my fatherlessness.

And Gary, I believe, also learned, as we fought things out, usually playfully, but sometimes more seriously (particularly when I took him on about his ironic detachment). And while I don't wish, here or elsewhere in this book, to imply that the only thing that matters in life is one's relationship with one's father, I think you will be able to hear how some of Gary's vulnerabilities, in particular his pattern of withdrawal and self-deception, grew directly from his father's absence.

I will fast-forward to a conversation that occurred some three years into our therapy, when things had begun to change, and when Gary, by dint of hard work and commitment, had become more effective in his career and more present as a husband and a father.

One day, when he'd been building a stone wall, the feeling of working with his blistered, dirty hands led Gary to a memory. "All of a sudden I can picture my dad's hands," he said, beginning to sob. "He was good with his hands. They were strong -- kind of flat. It's so weird. I thought he and I were so different. Me the long-haired freak that I was back then -- him a military man. It turns out that a part of me is just like a part of him. Why couldn't we find each other?"

Gary had begun to remember his father. He had begun to feel how much he missed him, and to recognize that he, like so many children, had been profoundly shaped by his father's absence. The fleeting sugar high of "outsmarting" his father had only obscured the fact that he had needed his father desperately. As he grew more able to tolerate his pain, Gary could see that he had, as a boy, retreated into the privacy of his own mind so as to armor himself against loss and disappointment. And now, as an adult, his private "mind play," his working problems and thinking creatively in a place no one else would ever know, merely continued what he had done years before. Like my son when he knelt among his knights and beasts, Gary played a game that existed outside of his job and family, outside "the rules" of consensual, daylight life. He continually fled to a place he could control, a place where he could not be hurt.

These realizations led to changes. Rules, Gary now could see, weren't the "Great Fascist" after all. They were, as he came to call them, the "Great Father," guiding embodiments of the daylight world of competitive and cooperative interchange in which we all must try to live. Gary now resolved to step back into this world. He got himself a job that demanded that he use more of his mind, and he worked on getting his innovative thinking a more public airing. At home, he pushed himself to talk more intimately with his wife, and to be more of a presence in his children's lives. His efforts made him feel anxious, exposed, and vulnerable, but what he was doing mattered to him, and he stayed with it. His life began to feel more alive and grounded, as though he was, to use his own words, "really there."

I found Gary's self-confrontation both inspiring and fascinating. It challenged my assumptions about the goals, and limits, of therapeutic "cure." His life-solution was essentially an existential one. He saw the problem, saw what it was costing him, and he took a risk. He didn't think of himself as "cured"; rather, he simply committed himself to challenging what frightened him. You can hear how he felt about things when, toward the end of our time together, he told me, "I think that what has changed is that I would rather know what I can really do, even if it means feeling the pain of finding out that there are things I can't do. I think that it's better to stay in the real world than to go into my head, even though in my head I can pretend that anything is possible."

A Father's "Weight"

Salman Rushdie writes: "The reality of a father is a weight few sons can bear." What does Rushdie mean by this "weight"?

One could certainly argue that a father's "weight" is a burden of pain. This pain may flow from a father having been actively hurtful and injurious, or, as is the case for so many men and women, it may be the legacy of bitterness, hunger, disappointment, and anger that results from a father's being absent. It may even be the weight of a father's own pain, transmitted to the next generation. All of these weights are heavy indeed.

To my ear, however, Rushdie has more in mind. The word "weight" -- so open-ended and evocative -- comes as close to the essence of a father's authority as any I have heard. I believe that Rushdie also alludes to a weight that is to be honored, a deeply human and necessary experience that flows from what goes right between a father and a child. I'd say that Gary's father failed him because he, like me in my early years of fathering, and like so many other men struggling to find a place for their masculine, paternal authority, had no weight, at least not for his son. Gary couldn't feel his father's love, but that wasn't the whole of it. He also couldn't feel his father's impatience, irritation, pride, ambition, and anger. He didn't have his father's rules to shape himself to, and to push off against. Without his father's impact, his gravitational pull, Gary spun off in space, untouched and ungrounded. Not only did he not know his father, he also didn't know himself very well. How could he? He had not been able to bump up against his dad, to use these collisions to test himself out against a man whom he valued and trusted.

So, working from the lesson that can be learned in Gary's father's failure, here is the first of many attempts to go beyond Webster's, and to communicate both a deeper sense of what is meant by the words "a father's authority" and also a preliminary understanding of why authority is such a core element of being a good father.

In a mode that can be quite different from that of a mother, a father conveys to his children, ideally in a way that can be emotionally metabolized, the often reasonable, sometimes harsh, always inescapable, rules, expectations, and inevitabilities of life. A father does this by teaching his children about the realities of time and limit. He does this by being a relatively nonnegotiable "other." He does this by using the right amount of power at the right time to help his children understand that the world does not lie in their omnipotent control. In these ways, all of which involve bringing his very being, his weight, into contact with the mind of his child, a father inoculates that child against retreating into the muffled, daydream world of fantasy, pretend, and self-involvement. And so a father teaches enduring lessons about living and thriving in the real world.

Gary and His Son

The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. And then, as we all know, the children visit the sins of their fathers upon their own children.

As with so many men, Gary's sense of himself as a man was intimately and inextricably linked to his sense of himself as a father. As it turned out, much of our work became focused on his relationship with his son, Jason, who was eleven at the time we began.

Jason did reasonably well in school, and dabbled in sports and music but wasn't fully committed to any endeavor. I sensed that Jason was drifting, yet for some time I could not put my finger on why.

Eventually I realized that my lack of clarity reflected something about the father-son relationship. Gary was a decent man, and he was certainly an adequate father. However, just as his own father had with him, Gary stayed on Jason's periphery. Their relationship was without fight or struggle, in large part because Gary didn't weigh in with demands and expectations. For example, though Gary was himself a brilliant man, he didn't seem to be very interested in Jason's mind. Now some might say that Gary gave his son space to grow, but this wasn't the whole story. The fact was that Gary assumed that Jason's mediocre performance in school was a product of his being reasonably, but not exceptionally, intelligent, and he made this assumption without ever really getting to know his son's mind.

Over time I became troubled by the seemingly Teflon-smooth surface of Gary's relationship with Jason, and I increasingly called Gary's attention to the fact that father and son didn't scrape against each other very much. "You're being like your own father was with you," I'd say. "You can see what it cost you, and I imagine you can appreciate what it costs Jason when you do the same. What's going on that you keep your distance like this?"

Gary quickly acknowledged that something problematic was going on. He was not depressed, as his own father had been, and he had not retreated into alcohol. Nevertheless, he could tell that he was not all there. He seemed, at times, more like a pal or big brother than a parent. He didn't seem to realize how much Jason admired him and looked up to him. He didn't see himself through the eyes of his boy -- as a big, strong, smart man, one who could use his fatherhood to shape his son's character and behavior. In essence, he lacked a sense of his own power and weight: his authority.

Once Gary realized that he was repeating what his father had done, he did what he did best -- he resolved to change. He took Jason to his gym, and working out together became a regular routine. He involved the boy in building the stone wall, the one that had blistered his own hands and conjured memories of his own father. And he also became more involved in Jason's education. He challenged his son to get more from himself, sometimes by simply pointing out that Jason could do better. The two worked math and science problems together, and this gave Gary the occasion to show his son his own considerable talents (talents about which he had previously been overly modest). As things turned around (which they did quickly), Gary talked with his wife, and the family made a plan to send Jason to a more challenging school.

Two years after we began, Gary told me the following story about himself, and about a far more focused and content Jason: "I was working on the stone wall -- you know, I never knew that I could be as happy as I am when I'm out there, in the crisp air, working with my hands, with the stone and the dirt. Anyway, Jason came out, and he worked with me for a while. He set several rocks. When he left, I went over to look at his work. It wasn't bad, but his rocks were a little loose. I thought, should I go chew him out? But I decided no, I'll wait till he comes out again, and I'll just talk to him about it. So an hour later, he came out to do some more work with me. I took him over to the rocks he'd set before. I showed him how they were loose, and I showed him how he had to fill in with more gravel to make them solid. He just listened. And after he'd worked for a while, he came over, and asked me to take a look at what he'd done. His rocks were in there really solid. I said that it was good, that was all. Just good! Neither of us said anything more. We just kept working -- together. What else is there to say?"

As you can hear, Jason didn't need hard discipline, in the form of punishment and consequences. He wasn't that kind of kid. But Jason did need his dad's presence, his authoritative presence. Gary provided this in quietly forceful ways. He communicated to his boy not only his interest, persistence, and expectations, but also his own ambitions, struggles, and irritations. And in this way, he became the opposite of his own father's ghost. He became a man whose weight could be felt. He became a better father, and, as is always the case, in so doing he became a better man.

A Few Words on Method

There are many experts out there who fancy themselves able to pull the sword from just about any stone imaginable. They write in the popular literature about how to parent, how to love, how to discipline -- about virtually all aspects of how to "be." Some of these experts are open-minded and thoughtful; quite a few are polemically driven. Some refer to research. Some of this research is reliable, some of it suffers from methodological flaws, and a surprisingly large percentage of it is influenced by ideological bias. Some of this popular work is worth knowing about, but the words "caveat emptor" apply even to the best of it. The expertise of others, no matter how smart, can never, by itself, lead us to better understand, and master, life's most deeply meaningful and personal experiences.

Moreover, as Ann Hulbert notes in her book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, literature on parenting has undergone an endless series of pendulum swings, from one single-minded perspective to another. This certainly holds true for the surprisingly small subset of the parenting literature that pertains to fathering. On one side there is a "hard" school in which the father is king, and the rule is that children should have a clear sense of who gives the orders. On the other side there is a "soft" school, the aforementioned "fathers-should-be-more-like-mothers" school, in which men are exhorted to eschew what is seen as their traditional masculine roles for more "civilized" and "loving" attitudes like attunement, negotiation, and, as Susan Faludi puts it in her popular book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, "husbanding." Embedded in this division can be found a critical distinction. Is a father's masculine presence shaping, generative, and organizing, or is it oppressive, domineering, and even abusive? In other words, to introduce another important concept, is it authoritative or is it authoritarian?

While polemics do, at times, contain truths, in the end they are of limited value. For one thing, polarized thinking does not help us to embrace, and then work effectively with, our human natures: rather it seeks to simplify and control by disavowing one aspect of our essential selves in favor of another that is more palatable in the context of the given cultural moment.

Meanwhile another, related reason that we would be wise to be judicious in our use of the experts has to do with the critical matter of "authenticity."

The advice literature is based on the notion that what matters most is what you say and do; in other words, that to act a certain way is the same as to be a certain way. Well, it goes without saying that what you say and do matters a great deal. But it also needs to be said that saying and doing aren't the whole story. Words and actions, those things that are manifest and on the surface, often diverge from what is true beneath the surface. And when it comes to all manner of relationships, this divergence matters. When what you do or say accurately expresses what you feel, what you think -- in essence, who you are -- you are being authentic. When the opposite is true, you're being disingenuous. Authenticity is better. Wouldn't you rather be with someone who loves you deeply, even if he or she rarely tells you, than with someone whose affection is fleeting and superficial, even though he or she showers you with gifts, and tells you often and profusely how wonderful you are? Can't you usually feel which is more real? Our kids certainly can.

Gary read all kinds of self-help books. He and I went over ways that he could approach Jason. (I may be a psychoanalyst, but I'm not above offering advice and suggestion.) In the end, however, what mattered was that Gary was able to be himself in a way that both he and his son could feel, and use.

I raise the question of authenticity right at the start because it speaks to one of the central premises of this book: Fatherhood, like motherhood, indeed like most truly meaningful human endeavors, must be built from the inside out. If a man is to forge a solid relationship with his authority, indeed with any and all aspects of his fathering, he must learn to act from deep within his own self, that is, from all of the bedrock elements of his history, his psychology, and his constitution (including those parts of him that are relatively, and even distinctly, male). The advice literature can help with this in only a very limited way. "Answers," whether they be to simple and mundane dilemmas like how to get a child to leave a game of knights for the task of homework, or to those urgent and complex life crises that inevitably occur in family life, must be deeply personal and hard-earned; one arrives at them only by making the quite often painful journey of getting to know oneself, warts and all.

This book, therefore, aims less to "advise" than to begin a conversation.

For my part, I'll speak from a number of vantage points.

One is that of twenty years' experience talking, as a psychologist and a psychoanalyst, with fathers and mothers, indeed with all manner of men, women, and children. Throughout the book I will relate the stories and the struggles of my patients. When possible I've shared what I've written with my patients, not only to get permission to use their stories, but also for the sake of accuracy. When such interchange was not possible, I did my best to capture the essence of the persons, the relationships, and the issues involved. In all cases, the people and situations portrayed in these stories are heavily disguised.

I will also draw on the popular and academic literature on fatherhood and the myriad topics that relate: motherhood, gender, biology and neurobiology, discipline, authority, violence, aggression, sexuality, and more. I'll summarize the relevant debates. I have my own biases, and, to be sure, these biases will influence my distillations and interpretations of the literature. Nevertheless, I'll do my best to acquaint you with the field such that you can decide for yourself what you wish to reject, examine further, or embrace. Please keep in mind that theories of human behavior, from the most simplistic self-help formulas to the most thoughtful academic treatises, are always limited and imperfect. Such theories, mine included, are inevitably sculpted from the psychology of their authors.

And still another vantage point is my own struggle with authority, in particular my efforts to be a better father, a better husband, a better teacher and therapist, and a better man. In telling you about myself I don't mean to hold out my solutions as a beacon for you to follow. Rather I'll tell you about myself so that you can evaluate what I offer critically and objectively. And I'll tell you this right up front: Every thought that follows is shaped, in ways both obvious and not, by my own imperfect efforts to heal the fault lines and to fill the void created by my own father's death when I was five.

I'll end this opening chapter by recounting a conversation I had that involved a father and son who had come to see me after years of uneasy estrangement. The father, David, was a successful man, somewhat cautious and overly fastidious, but well meaning. His son, Zach, was seventeen, and he also did quite well -- academically, athletically, and socially, but in other ways he was the opposite of his father: gregarious, charismatic, and a bit impulsive. He had gotten into some minor scrapes toward the end of his senior year in high school, and his parents were concerned that the prestigious college to which he had been admitted would rescind its acceptance.

At first Zach and I met individually. During these meetings his complaints centered on his father. "I'm about to move out for college," he said, "and after seventeen years I feel like I hardly know the guy. We never horsed around when I was a kid, he never gets mad, everything is nice, neat, and in its place. You can't accuse the guy of anything, he's done his job. But who is he? Jesus, you'd think with me getting in trouble he could at least freak out a little. My mom is all worried, but my dad, it seems like just another opportunity to 'do the right thing.'"

Zach and I decided to invite his father to our individual sessions, and in these Zach spoke, in a direct but kind way, about how distant he felt from his father. His father, in turn, tried dutifully to respond. He asked Zach what was missing, he wondered what he could do, he wasn't angry, indeed he was hardly even defensive. It was clear that he cared, and that he wanted to do right by his son. But it seemed that the harder he tried to do the "right thing" the more frustrated Zach became, and the more frustrated Zach became the more guilty the boy felt about being upset at this man, his father, who was obviously trying so very hard.

Eventually, however, David spoke of having been aware of the distance for some time. He recalled that when Zach was fourteen he had talked with a local expert in the field of parenting, a man who had prescribed a series of exercises for him to do with his son. Father and son were supposed to share their feelings with each other, to write down what each thought of the other, to communicate what each liked about the other, what each disliked, and so on. "When that didn't work," David said, "I think I sort of gave up. I didn't know how to reach you."

Zach, finally exasperated, now shook free of his guilt and inhibition with full-throated anger: "Christ, Dad, I didn't give a shit about that stuff. You just hid behind it. Don't you know what I want?"

"What?" his father asked.

"You. I want a relationship with you. I want a father."

Copyright © 2005 by Mark O'Connell, Ph.D

About The Author

Dr. Mark O'Connell received his doctorate in psychology from Boston University and his post-doctoral training in psychoanalysis from the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife, Alison, and their three children: Miles, Chloe, and Dylan. He has a psychotherapy practice of adults, adolescents, and couples, and serves on the faculty of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and the Harvard Medical School. He writes and speaks about fatherhood, family life, and masculinity.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 31, 2015)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439104187

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Raves and Reviews

Edward Hallowell, M.D. author of Driven to Distraction, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, and Dare to Forgive This book is both brilliant and beguiling. Graced with warmth as well as startling insight throughout, it pleases as it teaches and teaches as it pleases. A wonderful book!

Jim Herzog, M.D. author of Father Hunger The reader feels immense gratitude for Mark O'Connell's vigorous examination of men, fathers, their wives and families, and their collective feelings, conflicts, attempted resolutions and negotiation of life tasks. Every father and every mother will want to read this wonderful book. It is not just a how-to manual, but rather and most importantly, a how-come masterpiece.

Alan Wheelis author of How People Change, The Path Not Taken, The Illusionless Man, and Quest for Identity I have read Mark O'Connell's The Good Father with great interest and pleasure. His discussion of fathers' aggression and authority is especially good, as is also his defense of the innateness of the emotional differences between men and women. The book is full of interesting stories, and the reader simply finds himself looking in on troubled lives involved in dramatic conflicts. A fine work, lyrical and wise in equal measure.

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