Why men are shaped by their fathers

One way or another, men are always the product of their fathers influence

One of the positive developments of the past 40 years has been the extent to which kiwi men have become more open about their feelings and more prepared to seek assistance when life sometimes overwhelms them. As a male, the New Zealand of my youth was a much more one dimensional place with an implicit expectation that, to be a ‘kiwi bloke’ you had to conform to a fairly narrow set of views and behaviours and that to step outside of those meant you weren’t ‘a man’.

I’m a good example of what happened to those who didn’t adhere to that ‘norm’. I was a small kid, not at all interested in sports, and intensely creative in both words and music. To make matters worse, I had two older brothers who were the epitome of the kiwi bloke – so I wasn’t just out of step with social expectations, I was also a disappointment within my family.

Which brings me to my father. This was a man who had grown up in an era even more regimented than my own. The oldest of seven in a Catholic family he started his working life as a Plumber for the Railways and, by the time he was in his early 20s, found himself a father – repeating history by going on to produce 7 children of his own over the next 15 years.

I can only imagine how tough it must have been for him and Mum – but somehow they managed to get the family out of a State house and into their own home in a better suburb. No mean feat for a working class couple with very little money and 7 mouths to feed. But whereas I was extremely close to my Mum – I didn’t really know my father at all. He and I were estranged for my entire early life and, as the middle child of those 7 kids, I always felt that I was the odd one out and the one who failed to meet his expectations of what a son should be and do.

He died 30 years ago, in 1989 – and while it would an exaggeration to say that we made our peace with each other – I did get to spend some time alone with him on one of the final days before he succumbed to bowel cancer. I remember that conversation being awkward. He was deeply embedded in Labour politics and I was already a strong supporter of National, he was brought up in the Catholic tradition and I was (and still am) a Protestant Christian, and our worldviews were miles apart. We still discussed these topics, of course – but we didn’t venture far beyond the superficial and certainly didn’t touch on anything that might have suggested an emotional connection.

I shed no tears when he died. Not because I was angry at him but because I felt…. well, nothing. I was 24, already starting to make my own mark in life, and – as far as I was concerned – I had no need of a father figure.

How wrong I was.

Over the past 30 years he has played an enormous (albeit silent) role in my life – some good and some bad. While my choices and behaviours have been my own – I see his traits and influence in some of my wrong turns and have wrestled with some of the same demons that he struggled with. But I also see him in my successes – and to the extent that I’ve made anything of myself or made a difference in the world, a big part of it is due to him. When I was a younger man a lot of that was driven by my desire to defy (what I believed to be) his perception of me – but as I’ve grown older, it’s simply because I would have wanted him to be proud of me.

Sadly, I’ll never know, for sure, what he really thought of me – but I do know that, as I grow older, I understand him and his actions better. He was a product of his time and his influences and he was trying to make his mark on the world in a way that made sense to him – just as I am.

I have no doubt that my story isn’t unusual – and that thousands of kiwi men had a similar experience with their own fathers. Some of these will have been the product of so-called ‘broken-homes – but this certainly isn’t the only culprit. For every kid who came from a home where there was only a mother present – there will be another who lived under the same roof as both parents, but for whom there was no real relationship with his father.

“In the natural order of things fathers teach boys the importance of integrity, loyalty, determination, and respect for women”

And that relationship is the key to producing good men. The relationship between father and daughter and father and son is equally important, but different. Just as the relationship between mother and son is different. The bond between boys and their mothers is a deep one and the role that mothers play, in the formative years of their sons, is one of the most important influences they’ll ever have. But there is no substitute for the impact that a father will have on a son. In the natural order of things fathers teach boys the importance of integrity, loyalty, determination, and respect for women. When a son has this influence the chances are dramatically greater that he will make good life decisions and be a role model to his own sons. When he doesn’t – the potential for him to make bad life choices and set bad examples is that much greater.

I very definitely fell into the latter category and, as a result, it took me a long time to learn these lessons for myself – and it’s only as my own children reached adulthood and started having children of their own that I started to understand how it’s all supposed to work. It’s a circle. As men, we pass from being the son to the father and have a responsibility to build our boys up and do our best to teach them to avoid our mistakes and the mistakes of those who went before us. But mark my words – there’s no avoiding this. Whether you do these things, or not – whether you’re in your sons lives, or not – you’re going to have an impact on who they become. And whether that influence is positive – or negative – is largely up to you.

Ultimately, our sons just want us to love them and be proud of them. The rest is a work in progress.

The song above is from Irish band ‘The Script’ and perfectly encapsulates how I now feel about my Dad. I hope it has meaning for you too.

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