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Opinion My unhealed father-wound: Did my dad ever like me?

Michael Valpy is a senior fellow of Massey College and a senior fellow in public policy at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

The shock of my father’s death as I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation more than half a century ago remains the greatest trauma of my life, the pain still very deep.

I was 21. I cried uncontrollably through his funeral a few days later. A friend of my father’s told me coldly to pull myself together and be a man, as he formally shook hands with my older brother at the back of the church and walked past me out the door.

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The first thing my brother told me when he got off the plane from where he lived, halfway across the country, was that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was the wrong thing to do for someone who’d had a heart attack. I should have done cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he said. The truth was that I didn’t know how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

I think the fundamental truth is that my father and I didn’t like each other.

I had a conversation with my brother about him maybe a dozen years ago. My brother, now dead, described him as warm, loving, caring; “He was a good guy,” he said.

My recollections were of a cold, persistently critical man, disdainful of me as a child and without any interest in me as I entered adulthood. He didn’t teach me games or sports. He played soccer with my brother on a father-son team. I don’t recall him ever asking me about school, university, work, my social life, what career I wanted in life, what I thought about things. I remember us doing only one thing together that I liked. When I was 11, he took me with him to see the British navy war movie, The Cruel Sea. Years after he died, I bought a cassette of the film. I still have it.

He was thrilled when my brother entered naval officer school. He had wanted to join the navy himself but his father wouldn’t let him.

Twice in an argument, he punched me.

I am bringing our relationship out of the closet – at least most of it; there are some things that can never be on public display – because time is draining away. I have not got forever to answer whether it was the shock of his death that so traumatized me, or the death of a father-son relationship that could never be healed.

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American psychologist Ronald Levant, a specialist on men and fatherhood, has written that the relationship is difficult because fathers feel an obligation to make their sons into men, in the classical-traditional sense of stoic, self-reliant, stay-calm-in-the-face-of-danger manhood.

There is a dearth of research on the topic, but the hypothesis is that fathers’ expectations about their sons’ masculinity are often negatively associated with adult sons’ self-esteem and relationship satisfaction.

Early emotional contact with our parents profoundly shapes our character.

Men learn they are men, American author and counsellor John Eldredge suggests, by having their fathers notice and reflect their sons evolving man-ness – competency, mastery, strength, bravery, intelligence and so on – back to them. When this doesn’t happen, or when a father instead reflects a surfeit of criticism, disdain, disappointment or ambivalence for his son, the son never fully matures. Instead, he lives with a private fear that he is not really an acceptable or worthy man.

He describes a father’s failure to acknowledge and support a son’s passage into manhood as a “father-wound.”

I am uncomfortable, feel threatened, in the company of men. My sense of incompetency and absence of mastery, strength and bravery borders on all-encompassing.

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“Children look to the same-sex parent for guidance and acceptance,” American journalist Neil Chethik, author of the bestselling book FatherLoss, writes about men who were young when their fathers died. “I found that when a father didn’t offer these things, the son was deeply hurt. He often went through adult life looking for acceptance from other men, especially male bosses.”

I made father figures out of two of my male bosses.

By the time my father died, we had become distant. My parents were living in a different city from me. They came for a visit and were staying with my grandmother. I didn’t want to see him, but my mother pleaded with me to come. His life ended, in my grandmother’s apartment, with me beside him.

How much of an imperfect father was he, or how much did I do things that invited his dislike?

In 1919, novelist Franz Kafka crafted a 47-page letter to his father, attempting to bridge the growing gap between them. He wrote, “I believe you are entirely blameless in the matter of our estrangement. But I am equally entirely blameless.”

I would like, now, to be able to write something such as that and close the door. But I don’t think I can. I still don’t know the full story between us.

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A codicil: I was apprehensive about becoming the father of a son. I did not think I could teach my son man-things, play sports with him, guide him into masculinity. As far as I can figure out, he has travelled the journey into manhood comfortably on his own and our relationship openly acknowledges love. I don’t know how that happened.

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