Reflections on the Father-Son Relationship

My first thirteen years of parenting were with two daughters, Rami and Mira. So in 1989, with the birth of our son, John-Nuriel (Nuriel means fire or light of God), I was to embark on a slightly different kind of journey. Over the years, people have asked, “So, Barry, how is parenting a son different for you from parenting a daughter?” Here are my reflections on one father’s spiritual journey of having a son.

First, fathering a son is giving me a more direct chance to revisit my own childhood. Yes, this happens to some extent with children of the opposite sex, but I have found it to be more powerful and direct with John-Nuri, a son. There are times when I look at him and it feels like a window has opened to my own childhood. For example, John-Nuri has always been intensely bonded to Joyce. This is natural. She breast-fed him the first three years of his life. Sometimes it felt like I was the person who distracted him from his mother, somehow filling in the time until he could be with her next. (It wasn’t always this way. Sometimes I did feel like the primary caregiver.) This experience shot me back to my own early years and gave me a better understanding of my own father’s feelings. He often felt left out (as I sometimes did), but he didn’t seem to have the skills I now have. So he felt rejected by me, and by the mother-son bonded unit. He coped by either withdrawing or getting angry, neither of which got him what he was needing. I now better understand his feelings of being left out.

This brings me to my second point. How does a father include himself – wedge himself between the mother and the son? I (like perhaps many fathers) learned the hard way. I watched the tender flow of affection between Joyce and John-Nuri. It seemed his favorite pastime was clinging to his mother, getting as close as he possibly could to her. I envied that closeness, and often tried to cuddle with him, sing him songs, hold him on my lap, talk sweetly with him. In other words, I was trying to be a good mother – I was going for the sweetness. But this was not what John-Nuri was wanting from me as his father. He would reject any attempt in this direction, except of course when he got hurt, then he would accept my tender holding only if Joyce were not around. Boy, did I understand how outcast my father must have felt.

I learned something very important in those early years of his life. I was attached to what love was supposed to look like – the tenderness and sweetness. But love comes in many different forms. When I would get down on the floor for wild “rough-housing” or silly games, my son’s eyes would light up with glee. When I would chase him around the house, there was a shared joy between us. When I would throw him in the air or swing him around the living room by his feet until we were both dizzy, I began to recognize the bond of love every bit as great as what he had with his mother.

This, then, leads me to my final point. A son needs his father just as much as he does his mother, but often in a very different way. John-Nuri, now at age seven, is looking at me more and more to learn what it is to be a man and a father. I am and have been, especially when he stopped nursing, a very important model in his life. It is an awesome and sacred responsibility.

Likewise, a father needs his son just as much as he is needed by his son. When I give my time to John-Nuri and sometimes I feel there is nothing greater I can give to him, I am giving my time to a little boy who grew up a half century ago. When I love my son, I am loving myself and letting myself become as a little child again. And this is very precious work.

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