The day fatherhood first came my way, twenty-six years ago when our son was born, the transformation from child and husband to co-parent and father felt as if a miraculous moment were unfolding. And twenty-two years ago when our second child came out into this wild and ever-changing world, being a father to a daughter was a new and distinct way of being in the world.
I can’t really say how being a father is different from being a mother, though I know some of what the research tells us: We men are more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play, our presence in a child’s life as she or he grows plays an important role in their sense of security in the world. But I’ve never felt so comfortable with these or other generalizations—the notions, so often inquired about at conferences—that men are less empathic than women, that dads are less nurturing than moms, that, somehow, we men just don’t have the “maternal instinct” to care for infants like a mother can. I just don’t buy the extremes that these statements imply.
My own training in attachment tells me that attachment security is gender neutral. What this means is that how a son or daughter attaches to a mother or father is more about something that has to do with that individual parent, not their gender.
On this Father’s Day, all I can really say is that the essence of parenting is an inside-out job—for fathers and mothers. What this means is that the field of attachment research suggests the most effective plan for helping a child develop resilience and optimize their chances for well-being in life are, simply put, a parent’s presence.
Parental presence comes from the experience of a father, or mother, making sense of his or her life so that issues from their own childhood experiences do not impair, in any prolonged or profound way, their ability to connect openly with a child. Making sense of your life as a parent means reflecting on the past so that you understand how your own childhood experiences shaped who you have become. What this means is that you’ve done some at times painful reflections to see clearly how whatever you had in your own past that was negative, or whatever you missed out on in your own family life, has impacted your own development from childhood into adolescence and into adulthood.
Making sense makes sense to do.
What we experience in our own childhood embeds itself in direct ways in various forms of memory. We can have implicit memories that take the form of bodily sensations, perceptual images, emotions, and behavioral patterns as well as mental models or schema that are generalizations of repeated experiences. We can also have explicit memory in the form of facts and autobiographical reflections. For example, if my father was mean to me when I asserted my independence, as a two year old or a seventeen year old, I may have a sense of fear (implicit emotional memory) when I seek autonomy, may shut myself down (behavioral implicit memory) and may even have a sense that any move toward independence is fraught with danger (a mental model).
I can also have an explicit set of facts that parents are unsupportive, and may have a blockage in my access to explicit autobiographical reflections and simply say that “I don’t remember much from my childhood, or adolescence” or “my early experiences have not impacted me.” These are all the indirect ways that my adaptations may shape my narrative of who I am and how things should be.
When not reflected upon, implicit memory that remains in a pure form can be retrieved with certain situations and fill our awareness without any “tagging” as something coming from the past. In this way, the past is my prison, and I don’t even know I’m incarcerated. Explicit memory, shaping my narrative, can also imprison me if I don’t reflect upon the origins of the sense of conviction in how things “should be” in life.
Our adaptations to painful experiences in our childhood can include a pattern of being unaware of my own emotions (as they were too terrifying if my father yelled at me), becoming disconnected from other people (as their independence would threaten me), and learning to intellectualize my experience so that I would not be aware of my own implicit memory prison (to help me be more effective as a rational and not emotional person).
Adaptations to experience along with implicit memories that have directly encoded those experiences can shape how I parent my own child—even without my awareness! In Parenting from the Inside Out, Mary Hartzell (my daughter’s pre-school director) and I offer a way of exploring one’s own early life so as to free up the mind from such implicit prisons and maladaptive adaptations. What may have been useful in the past but may often be in need of updating in the present.
This Father’s Day, you may expect gifts from your children to honor you as a parent. It’s a wonderful moment to foster gratitude and appreciate the profound gift of giving life to another being and supporting their development. They can appreciate you, and you can be grateful for them. In my own life, my son and daughter have been my most provocative and powerful teachers. I am forever grateful to them and continue to honor their ways of being in the world. One gift we can give our own children is the gift of making sense of our own lives so that we can have parental presence. That is a gift that keeps on giving!
When we develop presence, we are open to whatever arises with kindness and compassion. Presence is the portal through which we have contingent communication: We take in the signals of our children, make sense of those communications, and then respond in a timely and effective manner. Across all cultures, contingent communication is what provides the kinds of experiences that promote secure attachment. Here is the essence of such security:
We are seen by our parents;
we are soothed by our parents;
we are safe with them (and when they scare us that rupture is readily repaired); and
we then develop a sense of security with them.
These are the four S’s of secure attachment. And secure attachment is the key to your child optimizing their development toward resilience and well-being.
Want to have a wondrous Father’s Day? Consider offering the gift of your presence to your children and you may be amazed at the relational gifts you’ll receive throughout your collective lives.
Daniel Siegel is a Garrison Institute Board Member and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.