Hey dads. Feeling irritable and distant? Blowing a fuse for no good reason? A little nervous about your disconnection from the kids? Well here’s a unique idea not always presented to fathers: you are good enough the way you are.
Below are some explanations and affirmations for our natural skills as men as we bond with our kids. I think these skills apply equally well to women or single sex partners wishing to manifest more testosterone in their parenthood. It can be a lonely world ruling justly as king over one’s castle (and sharing power with the queen) but when channeled well, our king energy is a key ingredient in a healthy family.
Masculine Good Enough-ness
The term “good enough” implies a kind of parenting that sets the stage for child development without micromanaging the entire process. The idea behind it is that growth is an internal drive unique to the nature of each child. The “good enough” parent responds with excitement to the spontaneous gestures of their child. In an atmosphere of positive excitement, the child flourishes and learns to trust his or her own core instincts. This inner confidence leads the child through many stages of autonomy and eventually through the turbulent but successful transitions of adolescence into adulthood. Simple enough, right?
However, the way men and women build this inner trust in their kids will draw from some legitimate biological differences. Based on several factors, a dad’s excitement about the independent gestures of his child will get expressed far differently than mom’s. These include:
- Levels of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone present in their hormonal surges.
- Amounts of norepenephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in the brain.
- General functioning between the cerebellum, brain stem, and neocortex.
There could be no better example of a child’s first spontaneous gesture than “howling bloody murder” at being denied the breast. Perhaps mom is busy, absent, or otherwise inaccessible, and it falls to dad to find adequate response to the excitement of the situation. There are two unique attributes of his brain that will dictate his response.
- Higher testosterone levels and a tendency to retain processing in the amygdala will lead him to seek a physical response to the situation. Men are more spatial in their emotional processing strategies.
- A relatively small corpus callosum prevents a whole lot of crosstalk between his feelings and the language centers of his brain. Ask him to describe his feelings aloud and you risk taking him to a place of neuronal oblivion.
Developing Secure and Elastic Attachment
So dads, let’s apply these brains of ours to the task at hand. At every level of development, our children need a balance of secure and elastic attachment with their caregivers. In many cases, mom’s brain and body are set to secure mode. Her capacity to empathize (mirror neurons in the brain) switch into high activation. The primal drive to provide emotional security reigns supreme and, according to much of our current cultural conditioning, there is little need to limit her innate impulse to nurture. It should equally fall on us dads to sing out what cooing, emotionally sensitive sounds we can muster. We can forge paths in our brains, enabling us to feel a maternal grizzly fierceness to satisfy our children.
With mom in the room, however, children may seek a more elastic attachment style with dad. This can be critical to their growth as individuals, as explorers of the world, as independent, freedom-loving howlers after their destiny. Fortunately, this is where you can trust your body and brain for the unique guidance they bring to the situation.
In the interest of space, I will present as bullet points some of the elasticity-oriented skills we dads are honing as we parent. Some skills are interactive. Others teach indirectly through the way we manage our alone time or our relationships with mom.
- Fun and Games: Primarily, men attach through play. As a distraction from loss, as a driver for cognitive growth, and as an arena for physical stimulation, play helps our kids develop more independent ways to get their basic needs met. Unlike the urge for secure bonding, successful play requires a certain amount of elastic tension between skill and goal. Too slack or too tight and the play becomes boring or threatening. “Good enough” fathering requires knowing our children well enough to help them find joy and curiosity in life’s natural tensions.
- Eyes that Scan the Horizon: Distance regulation is the act of managing the level of emotions in the house. It often falls to the less emotionally attached parent to regulate how much intimacy and autonomy is needed to create family balance. (“That was a good talk. Now let’s take a hike.”) Success requires establishing clear cues on how each member of the family can disengage from each other and re-engage after separating.
- The Command Structure: Rule setting involves the visualization of one’s intentions and effective management of consequences. The male brain often takes a lot of the same data that females make verbal or emotive and makes it spatial or abstract. Males rely on constructing abstract systems in the mind and adhering to the principles, rules, traditions, symbols of those systems. (“Wait till your father gets home” is less about your power to punish than it is an appeal to your capacity for bringing fairness and accountability to the situation.)
- The Breaking Point and Recovery: Who steps in to the fray when enough is enough? With higher oxytocin levels, moms may have a greater tendency to hunker down and talk about an unhealthy dynamic, and then later feel trapped by it. Men’s tendency to fight—then withdraw internally—might stem from the primitive urge to lead the stalking panther away from camp. Both tendencies teach valuable lessons about coping with high stress conflict. Both are modeling ways for children to regulate their own emotions.
- The Loneliness of Hunting and Leading: Authentic friendship may be more difficult to acquire in a man’s world partly due to his primal tolerance of solitude. Females are instinctively wired to tend and befriend as a survival strategy—joining social groups for the exchange of resources. Stealth and keen observation are quieter skills that may be taught non-verbally by fathers over time. The courage to stand alone with the consequences of one’s convictions is a trait that is modeled and practiced with few words needed.
Working with the natural tensions of childhood requires a willingness to acknowledge that not every life stressor meets with a solution. Sure, it’s nice when a sense of secure attachment rules the roost. But men offer critical alternatives and support for managing the hours when self-reliance is necessary. The elastic bonds forged between father and child in the early years are likely to provide each of us our own irreplaceable inner guidance system.
When ‘Good Enough’ Dads Get Help
And, yes, there are times when even the best of us “good enough” dads get help from others. Whether our healing comes from nature, medicine, or self-will alone, it is wise to seek counsel in the company of other men like ourselves when the going gets rough. Sustaining an elastic attachment with our kids requires that our own inner tension remains not too tight and not too slack. A few examples:
- Mad Dads Learn Resilience and Wisdom: The male mind can construct a nasty cocktail of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger. It’s a perfect storm of biochemicals in the brain known as Irritable Male Syndrome and is utterly ruinous to his instinctive relational skills. Worse, acting out our rage can become addictive. Where’s the positive in this, you ask? Grasping these moods as they arrive and displaying newly acquired strategies for self-control is a key life skill. Self-growth isn’t always so pretty. Children often learn self-control by observing how daddy gets help managing his mad days.
- Sad Dads Learn Self-Compassion: There are times when the wound is bigger than you are. Men who experience postpartum depression (PPD) are more common than you think. (About 10-15% of fathers experience it at some point.) Half of these men are struggling with partners experiencing PPD and thus feel less justified in taking their own symptoms seriously. The onset has numerous causes—mental and physical. Men who suffered loss of their own maternal bonds as children (first-born boys losing their connection with mom when the second child is born) may feel unbearably sad while parenting—even if the bonds are healthy. Sad dads model the bravery to explore deeply felt, long-held issues that rise unexpectedly. Like mad dads, they may get needed help from skilled people and invest naturally in their own healing process.
- Gurian, Michael (2003) What Could He Be Thinking: How a Man’s Mind Really Works. New York: St. Martins Press
- Diamond, Jed (2004) The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing the Four Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. New York: Rodale
- Courtenay, W.H. (2011) Sad dads: Paternal postnatal depression—what it is and what to do about it. New York: Routledge.
© Copyright 2011 by By Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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