The Grief of Fatherhood

8 August 2020

3.3 MINS

When my beautiful and only daughter got married, I was reminded of the words of Enid Bagnold,

“A father is always making his baby into a little woman,
and when she is a woman he turns her back again.”

At the time of my daughter’s marriage, I was sharing with a friend, another father who has two married daughters, my sadness and my joy about my baby’s impending marriage. His words and reaction tell the story for many dads as well as himself.

His eyes filled with tears as he told me how he felt when his second daughter moved out of the house and got married,

“You put in all that work over two decades from their birth to the point when you walk them down the aisle and they get married, and then it hits you. Another man has taken your little girl and they are no longer yours, and you have to say goodbye. The house is now empty and the silence is deafening.”

His words were eloquent and to the point.

At my daughter and her fiancé’s engagement party, I said,

“The only constant in a growing family is change.”

I told my friend of another conversation about the grief of parenting, with the former chairman of Dads4Kids. He had pointed out that all change brings a certain sadness, and also sent me the link to the article found in New Dads this week. Here is a short excerpt from ‘The Difficulty of Life Transitions’.

Transitions are difficult because we unconsciously or even consciously resist change. As humans it seems like every fibre of our being is innately programmed to resist anything new or unknown to us, most likely a result of our basic self-preservation instinct. Whether we realize it or not, even good changes like winning the lottery, can cause us to feel stressed and uneasy. On some level, we are simply not comfortable with the unknown.

Retirement for example is supposed to be a wonderful time for us. It is a time when we can finally relax and enjoy the fruits of our labour. For many people though, retirement is the most stressful time of their lives. This life transition is beyond the scope of our known behaviour patterns and way of thinking. Suddenly, not having to get up every day and leave for work by seven each morning leaves us feeling completely lost. For years, we create an entire persona revolving around our job title and what kind of person that makes us. As a result, retirement can create all kinds of self-esteem and identity issues and if left unresolved, they can lead to depression and physical illness.

New parents enter another kind of transitional period from the moment they conceive. They are no longer just a couple; they are now parents and everything that comes along with that title. People treat you differently, you see yourself in a new light and once the baby comes, everyday is a transitional period in itself. This can send one or both parents into emotional discord as they try to work out the new parameters of parenthood and marriage. If you are successful, parenthood can become one of the most significant transitions of your life. If you resist however, the marriage is likely to fail miserably and require help from a counsellor.

For a father and a mother, every stage of parenthood is marked with a certain amount of grief. When the children are toddlers, we wish they were babies again. When they go to school we grieve that they are no longer toddlers. When our children become teenagers, we wish that they were young and less rebellious.

When our children grow up and leave home, we wish they were teenagers again and still a little dependent on us. In a subtle way, all of this is a grieving process, but your daughter getting married really is a personal challenge.

My solution is simple: embrace the change and don’t run from it. To be a father is to plan joyfully for your obsolescence.

To navigate the different stages of grief a loving father will feel as he raises his children, he must do the following:

1. Realise that we only have our children for a short time. Treasure that time and treasure the stages because they will not return.

2. Plan for growth and work towards your children’s success. Be prepared for change and be prepared to stand in the shadows.

3. Actively welcome change. Support your children and your children’s mother through them. Parental grief can often (but not always) be greater for her.

4. Realise that a father will always be a father to his children but in different ways as they mature.

Accept that to be a father is to plan for redundancy in the nicest sense of the word.
Remember to enjoy the journey along the way, because as the Polish proverb says,

“You have a lifetime to work, but children are only young once.”

Yours for embracing the change children bring,
Warwick Marsh

PS: Yesterday we had over 150 men from all over Australia at an online Men’s Leadership Summit. Dave Hodgson and Dr Allan Meyer smashed the ball out of the park. More about it next week.

[Photo by insung yoon ⭐️ on Unsplash]

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