As Father's Day approaches, I think about my father. As boys, our first relationship with a man is with our fathers. This is especially important for gay males, since our adult love relationships will be with other men.
I wrote a chapter on our relationships with our fathers and how they affect our sense of masculinity and our relationships with other men in my book 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Find Real Love.
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.
My Relationship With My Own Father
The work I urge on my clients began as a result of my own work with my father. I was raised in a female-dominated family where the adults were always trying to make a "man" out of me. They were concerned that all the women might "feminize" me and make me gay, so they would place me with other males, such as my uncles, and encourage me in sports, neither of which I liked. All I wanted was my own father -- and I never got him.
Most of the time 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 a very verbal and emotional, open about my feelings and thoughts. But early on I perceived that my father wasn't OK with that aspect of me, so to receive his love and approval, I unconsciously 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, and that the reason he never told me was that it would be wrong for a father to say this to his son.
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 10 children, so I can imagine the neglect he must have suffered in such a big family. Yet I had to deal with the marginal relationship with him that did impact my forming a male and relational identity.
When I was 3 and my sister was 1, our parents divorced. One year later my father remarried and later had a son with his new wife. As a divorced part-time dad, he was an adequate provider, taking 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, so I tried to tell him. But I did not experience him as receptive; he'd change the subject or tell me he did not want to hear it, saying he felt chastised and attacked. And as a young teenager, I was admittedly aggressive and hurtful at first. I lacked the skills to talk to him, but hurting him was the last thing I meant. Instead, I wanted him to hold me and tell me my hurt feelings and perceptions were justified, even if he felt differently.
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 him to lunch when I began trying to talk about our relationship. I remember him ordering 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 it was like 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 avoided these types of discussions with him, 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 3 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 kinds 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 my ability to find a partner.
At age 37 I began to realize I was carrying part of my father's baggage, which he'd unintentionally passed onto me as a boy. I needed to give it back. So with the help of the men in a group to which I belonged, 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 occasions where I'd 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, that's what I am trying to do. I just need to express my feelings, not just about the past but about 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 that 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 talk man-to-man with my father.
"I said, 'Sit down,' Dad!"
Silence. The restaurant around us vanished, and mentally I was my 25-year-old self who had turned the car around when he'd demanded that I do so, with my teenage and preteen selves standing beside me. This time my masculine, 37-year-old self 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 the baggage he'd passed on to me so that I no longer carried it for him. Secretly I hoped that 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, I realized that so much of what I was saying to him was the exact complaints I had with my partner Mike. I had begun to realize that many of the issues I had with Mike were the result of the unfinished business I had with my father. I listened to myself tell my father things I'd said to Mike over the years. Now I saw that these things were clearly between my father and me, and that I'd projected them onto Mike. I found it comforting that I could go to Mike after this and begin removing these negatives that came from my fathering and exorcise them from our relationship.
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 him to go with me. But that was OK, because I went by myself. I didn't attack or blame him, call him names, or humiliate or belittle him. I stayed with the data that existed between us: my feelings and judgments. I had done a "clearing" with him, as I describe in Chapter Six, the chapter on communication. I had purged longstanding issues that had prevented me from maturing from a boy, not only with him but in other areas of my life. I firmly believe that on that day I became a man. I blessed myself.
A strained relationship with your father growing up doesn't make you gay, as some today still believe. It doesn't even make you more or less masculine. However, it can interfere with your relationships with other men. And as gay men who want relationships with other men, this is significant. Our fathers were our first encounters with masculinity. We men need their blessings to become men and go out into the world to find male relationships. Lacking their blessing, we can become lost.
Find a way to go from little gay boy to adult gay man for yourself. You will never regret it!