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On Becoming A Father

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 child for the duration of its 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 also 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—short of signing the birth certificate— for him to claim his relationship to and responsibility for the child. 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 many childbirth classes, most men feel that they, as expectant fathers, are peripheral, if not invisible. If their role is addressed at all, it is often solely about how to support the woman, and overlooks any conversation about or preparation for his own emotional experience of witnessing his child be born or growing into the role of father. Classes typically focus on the woman’s preparation for labor— not even mothering—and on orienting couples to the rituals of the birthplace.

During many conversations with new fathers, it is heart-rending to hear them talk about how expecting their own child awakened their quest to know their own fathers as a father. This urge wells up from their experience as men becoming fathers, not as the childson. They instinctively sense that knowing something of their own father’s experiences and reflections as a father is a portal to knowing themselves as “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 longheld images, assumptions and conditioning from his own father, step-father, grandfathers and society. It does not help men 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 the birth of their child and their own birth as a father.

What is needed now, more than ever, are fathers to mentor and initiate fathers.

For 15 years, Birthing From Within Mentors have taken a first small step to acknowledge the father by inviting him to a Special Fathers’ Class as part of the regular childbirth preparation series. But women 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 has taken some steps toward implementing this vision of father initiation: About 20 men have attended our mentor training course and have been mentoring fathers-to-be in their communities. 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 new father to talk about his relationship with his own father, and listen deeply to what he shares. Do not judge his father: As the son of his father and society, with everything he knew and did not know at the time, he did the best he could. 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 themes. Then he can explore what beliefs, judgments and even “rules” he has created in his own mind about what it means to be a “good father.”

Without bringing these assumptions and patterns into awareness, 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 (without judging or trying to persuade) will help him go further on his quest.

When teaching or mentoring a childbirth preparation class, always keep in mind that these classes are portals to parent preparation, too, and not just to labor and birth. Also, recognize that 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 their personal work or roles as if they are shared. Each has his or her own personal tasks of preparation.

Speaking to a woman about her transitions in the childbearing year does not include the man/father. He can listen in and learn about her preparation or experience, but he is not learning about his own subjective and personal journey. This is why we must separate the couple 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 his family, we must acknowledge and nourish his gestation process as a father and his birth as a father.