Fathers' Liberation Ethics

A Holistic Ethical Advocacy

for Active Nurturant Fathering

by Gary Ritner, Ph.D.


Published by
University Press of America
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Copyright 1992
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Library of Congress Cataloging

Paraphrase of the tale of Iron John translated by Robert Bly, used with permission of Addison-Wesley Publishing, Co., Inc.



Those who want to change their behavior and adopt ANF need further understanding of what it entails, what spirit is required to succeed at it and what complications are involved. They need some helpful images to give an overview of the philosophy behind the activities of ANF.

Those who are already active nurturant fathers could benefit by images that help to motivate them to understand the importance of what they are doing. Such images could help to generate enthusiasm for the task. Myths, metaphors and theology can clarify the significance of the commitment of ANF and give direction when the purpose of daily routine seems painful or pointless.

The first section ("The Myth of Equality") describes a hypothetical family engaged in shared parenting. The second section ("The Myth of Wholeness") provides a psychological interpretation of the wholeness that is produced by ANF. The third section ("The Myth of God's Love") creates a theology for ANF. The fourth section ("The Myth of Fierce Love") reweaves an ancient tale for the purpose of helping men to discover the power to be nurturing with their children. These additional distinct pieces of the puzzle are part of a whole which is designed to work together to motivate men to be ANF's.


Equality can be said to be a "myth" because it may be as rare as unicorns. Those who live out this myth live in a fantasyland that many others will never have the opportunity to experience because of the many barriers that stand in the way of ANF.

Having such a myth may help one to strive for the ideal image. Achieving that goal with any degree of perfection is very difficult in the current social situation where few supports and great resistance make individual choice in the matter irrelevant for many. Nevertheless, it is important to have a clear picture of what that goal would look like in action. In order to clarify that goal, so as not to confuse it with alternative and less egalitarian approximations of shared parenting, I will develop a mythological image of the egalitarian family. This myth of equality serves as a model, an ideal or a goal to inspire those who would endorse, encourage and adopt ANF.

This image is mythological because it is not a description of a dominant trend that is happening, though I affirm that it ought to be. Regrettably, there are more factors moving the society toward fatherless families than there are moving men toward ANF. That means that these motivational images are even more important than if ANF were a dominant trend that would just happen with little or no resistance.

A mythological image of an egalitarian family will help to provide more substance to our mutual understanding of what ANF is and is not. The myth will help others to know what ANF ought to be. It will provide some clarity for those seeking to fulfill goals of equality in families. It can serve as a measure against which families can evaluate their own behavior to ascertain whether they are very liberated in their thinking or whether they are doing a simple rearrangement of sex-role stereotyped behavior.

A cautionary note is due, however. This is not the only possible image for equality. Some issues may not be treated adequately in this myth. Some of the details presented in this myth may be only one way of arranging for equality in the family.

Although taking turns may appear unequal if viewed over a short period of time, it can be equal if viewed over a longer period. If a father or mother stays at home for a few months while the other parent is working full-time, finishing school, etc., and later the other parent stays at home while the first goes back to work full-time there would be equal sharing over a long period of time even though during a given week there would be an imbalance of paid work and family work in comparing the two.

This myth is not timeless. Next year new issues may arise that have not yet entered the discussion of fairness in family and work balancing by the egalitarian family. However unfinished the picture of ideals of equality may be, one must begin to paint the picture. Like an oil painting, additional layers and details may be laid on in additional brush strokes in the future.

Let's call this mythological family the "Fair" family. It includes Fay, the 34 year-old mother; Ray, the 34 year-old dad; Jay, the 8 year-old son; and May, the 6-month-old daughter.

Ray and Fay have just finished a 6-month parental leave from their jobs. They were paid full salary and received full benefits while working less than full time. Their employers viewed this leave as well spent, since they did not have to hire someone else to fill their jobs and it would encourage high productivity, staff stability and good will among these employees.

Fay does caseload work as a counselor with a counseling service. She takes counseling appointments at her convenience as long as she works the required number of hours. While on leave she was required to work sixty-percent of the full-time hours. Ray works for a computer software firm. When working full time, his hours are flexible: he has to work 7 hours on weekdays some time between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. While on paid paternal leave, he worked four hours a day in this flexible manner. Ray and Fay chose leave arrangements from several options available to them from their employers. They felt it was the best way for them to adjust to the new baby, to have an adjustment period for negotiating sharing work and family joys and options, to share child care after the birth, to balance work and family life, to avoid losing any ground at work and to maintain their income level when they needed it most to cover costs for the baby.

Today is the first day after they have both returned to work full time (with flexible hours). This morning Ray is home while Fay is at work. She left the house before May woke up crying for a feeding at 6:30. Ray changed May's diaper, then fed May with a bottle of mother's milk that Fay prepared the night before. After feeding the baby, Ray gave her a bath. He encouraged Jay, who is 8, to join in making faces and cooing sounds. Ray told Jay stories about funny things he did as a baby. They looked at a few pictures together and laughed. Ray was sensitive to the Jay's need to feel important at this time when the new baby was getting so much attention.

May went down for a nap. Ray fixed breakfast, packed a lunch for Jay, and then wrestled a bit with Jay on the floor as they watched for the school bus to pull up out front. Now Ray picked up the pace and rushed about doing laundry, washing dishes and cleaning like a basketball player making big plays. Ray thought about how this may not appear to some guys like important stuff to be doing, but he felt it was really vital to the well being of his family and himself. He enjoyed it and felt competent much like he did at work. He considered this work to be the fundamentals like those in basketball (which he plays three times a week for fun and to stay in shape): passing, running, blocking out, playing defense, and rebounding. They were not as glamorous as scoring the winning basket, but they made all they difference in whether the team won together (i.e., whether the family was satisfied with their life together). He beat the buzzer with a final sprint of housework, finishing with a few precious minutes for reading the paper before May woke up again.

Around noon, Fay arrived home to a lunch that Ray had fixed. They ate together and talked. It wasn't always easy to schedule May's naptime so that they could eat together and talk, but it worked today. After lunch, Ray went off to work. He fielded questions and provided assistance to clients. He enjoyed the variety of tasks and was less tired when he could find such balance in his day. It helped that he didn't stay in either place or at one kind of task for too long.

Around five o'clock Ray picked up Jay from Cub Scouts and went home to dinner that Fay had prepared. Ray cooked more stir-fried vegetables and rice. Fay did more variations on the chicken and potatoes theme. They worked hard at being sure they would each cook meals that the family liked. They shared equally in planning meals and cooking. Sometimes they did a meal together and at other times they took turns. It took some negotiating to get there but they had developed a rhythm and appreciation for each other's cooking. Mutual gratitude was high. When neither felt like doing the work, they would take a break and simplify it a bit with microwave cooking or eating out.

Tomorrow Ray would be taking the baby to the pediatrician to ask a few questions about a skin rash she had developed. He was concerned about it. Fay thought it would heal with some non-prescription ointment, but Ray wanted to be sure and it was time for a checkup anyway. Jay would be out of school for a vacation day and Ray had a light afternoon of work planned at the office so that Jay could come to his office for a couple hours. Dad's work with computers was very impressive to Jay. He got to play some games on one computer while Ray worked on another.

Jay is Ray's son from a previous marriage. Ray shares custody with Jay's mother. Half of the week Jay lives with Ray and the other half he lives with his mother a few miles away. Ray was very close to Jay from the beginning. When he was born, Jay remained in the same birthing room with his parents for three days. Ray slept there too and cared for Jay around the clock with Jay's mother. Ray had learned a lot about nurturing babies and doing the basics by watching both his mother and his father take care of his sister and brother when he was young. Now he just did what seemed to come naturally for him.

When May was born, Fay was not reluctant to see Ray as competent as a caregiver with the newborn infant. She did not have a need to be the "expert" and "in charge" of parenting. She realized that if parenting and housework were her domain, she would be doing more than her share of the worrying and the work. If she asked Ray to "help" her in the housework and parenting, Ray would view it as exceptional when he did that work. Equality was possible for them because they agreed together that breadwinning, billpaying, childrearing, caregiving, cooking and cleaning were neither his nor her work but joys and responsibilities to be shared equally. They also expressed their gratitude to each other frequently for doing the work that each new the value of very well from their own experience of doing that work.

They both looked at their careers as a source of fulfillment to be held in balance with the needs of the family. Both are primary parents. Ray does not "babysit" the children for Fay. Ray is not just "taking care" of the children until Fay gets back. Like Fay, he is a "caregiver" and not just a "caretaker" for the moment.

Ray and Fay have worked out a schedule for a typical week that provides for them to spend amounts of time at work and at home that are equal with each other. They each have a few unique talents and jobs they do: he does the plumbing, she does the sewing. They assure equality in other jobs by alternating responsibility between them. They share the laundry, taking out the trash, vacuuming, cleaning, doing dishes, doing the yardwork, et Work at home does not become burdensome for either of them because they share it and have a balance in the kinds of work they do in the family. Sometimes they work side by side. The sharing is not calculated exactly because they have a high level of trust and reliability. Each does their fair share willingly. They have both lowered their standards of cleanliness during the busiest times. Perhaps because they have been used to autonomy at work, neither criticizes the family work of the other. They do, however, encourage each other a lot by signs of appreciation and affection as well as reciprocated labor when it is clear that a lot of work was done by the other.

This arrangement has been widely viewed as a myth because so many women have longed for it and so few have found it. So many sociologists have documented its arrival in some rare cases but few have found it in a form that comes very close to equality. In order for this myth to become a more widely spread reality, more men and women will have to adopt this ideal. Caution is suggested here, however. It is one thing to hold an ideal in one's hopes and quite another to live it out in reality.

A woman who holds such hopes in a marriage where equality is not likely to happen, may be very dissatisfied and depressed. She may abandon such hopes to preserve peace in the relationship. She may abandon the relationship to search for realization of the dream. It would not be unusual for a woman to have this dream. Many women have had such hopes for a long time. But if great numbers of men were to begin having such a dream of what it takes to find satisfaction in family life and were to start doing what it takes to make it happen, then a significant change will have taken place in the society.

Therefore, it is strategically vital that a clear picture of an egalitarian ideal be shared, advertised, taught, narrated, repeated and disseminated so that future generations of fathers may know the image well and grow to want it like current and past generations of men have wanted to be powerful, successful and rich. If this myth begins to sell better than it has in the past among men, the next generation of men may find real happiness and deep satisfaction in the fairness lived out both at home and at work.


Having a motivating ideal, metaphor or mythical image can be especially necessary and helpful to fathers who did not have active nurturant fathers for role models in their own childhood. One father expressed this point in lamenting, "the lack of previous role models affects me at the level of motivation, not the level of skill acquisition."1 A good myth bears truth in a symbolic way. It provides an image that has the power to motivate behavior.

A myth of wholeness can be a motivating image for active nurturant fathers. The person who is whole has free use of the capacities for thought, feeling and action. While purveyors of traditional gender-role stereotypes espouse the view that men and women have very different capacities, practitioners of the image of human wholeness assert that men and women share these capacities in common. However, this does not mean that men and women have to accomplish things the same way. "Androgyny" implies alikeness of men and women, but "wholeness" implies that even though men and women, on the average, may tend to do things differently, they share in working at similar goals, tasks and responsibilities within the family and society. For example, it would not contradict the concept of "wholeness" if most active fathers tended to play and wrestle with infants more while most active mothers tended to sit and talk to their infants (as some researchers have concluded).2 Whole men and whole women may live out their relative wholeness in different ways. The differences between men and women in a group, however, may be greater than the differences between men as a group and women as a group. A greater wholeness happens as men and women move beyond dysfunctional symbiosis of traditional roles that kept them both half-human, incomplete and mutually defective.

Among the motivations for ANF is the drive to satisfy the need for balance in life---balance between work and family, balance between achieving and being, balance between history-making and nurturing. Such balance (or "wholeness") is experienced as more fulfilling than career-centered or child-centered lives. When men are deprived of the opportunity to exercise some basic skills of ANF, these skills atrophy. In order to find wholeness, fathers need to work at developing these skills further. Traditional mothers may have lost or failed to develop many skills that could bring deep satisfaction and creativity to the lives of others through paid employment. Wholeness for them could be found in building up and using a wide repertoire of ways to exert their creativity in the work world.

Balance helps fathers to appreciate both work and family to a greater extent than when too much emphasis is placed on one or the other. Giving one's life and soul away to the "company store" may no longer be as necessary or fulfilling as it was for previous generations. Two incomes have become more necessary to survive, but families have also been finding ways to adjust their needs downward so that parents do not have to work overtime hours or push beyond the 40-hour work week. Active nurturant fathers have adjusted their work commitments to make time for family joys and responsibilities and thereby balanced their lives.

Wholeness is also the gift that ANF's can give to their children. Dorothy Dinnerstein addressed this issue profoundly in The Mermaid and The Minotaur.3 She analyzed how "mother-raised children" exhibit several debilitating psychological dysfunctions that would not be as likely to occur if both mothers and fathers shared equally in the care of infants and pre-schoolers (especially the "pre-articulate and pre-rational"4). Active nurturant fathering is vital to facilitating the wholeness of the next generation.

I want to expand upon Dinnerstein's use of the mythological images of the mermaid and the minotaur as they relate to this discussion of "wholeness." The mermaid is half woman and half fish. She lives in the "underwater world from which our life comes and in which we cannot live."5 Being a fish below the waist, she cannot get out of the limited environment that traps her (the water). The modern counterpart to the mermaid is a woman who has been created and reinforced, or restricted to feel, that her only appropriate source of satisfaction must be caring for a succession of young children at home. She has been created by socialization to stay put and has been prevented from venturing into the work world. From her realm she lures people in by her attractiveness and empathic nurturing. She understands well what others need and think, but does not have the opportunity to use that in exerting her will in the world. She has a longing to be fully human and thus capable of full human love. Being trapped makes her resent where she is. Being trapped by overwork in her role makes it difficult for her to appreciate the joys of nurturing as much as she could if she did not have to be so overly consumed with it. She could be more free to experience love of the children instead of constant struggles that come in the face of overfamiliarity and her fatigue as well as that of the children.

She wants to get out of the sea and be active in the world, but she cannot do so because of the limitations imposed upon her. She longs for wholeness that would come with the opportunity to balance work and family. She needs for the father to share equally in child care and housework so that she and he can both be free to be whole persons.

The ancient mythical minotaur is also only half-human. While his body from the neck down is human, his head is that of a bull. Today's minotaur, the bull-headed absent father storms about in the world without much consciousness of empathic nurturing at work in his family relations. The mythical minotaur is fearsome, gigantic and eternally infantile. He represents mindless, greedy power, and he insatiably devours human flesh (disregarding the well being of others on his way to the top). His modern counterpart in the absent father also devours people thoughtlessly. He has not developed the empathic capacity to see people from their own perspective and treat them with compassion. He pursues his career aspirations at the expense of his family's happiness. He is as bullish with his family as he is at work, allowing his work and his will to overrun the needs and wills of others. His competing activity on the job and/or at recreation take him away from the place and style of being that is necessary for nurturing his children well.

These characters are mythological in the sense that they are metaphorical explanations for a complex set of realities. The mermaid and the minotaur provide a simple and more memorable reference to the complex dynamics of destructiveness of the traditional roles and to the deformed results of the traditional arrangements.

Wholeness is a myth in two ways. First, it may be said to be "just a myth" (i.e., unreal) because there is so little wholeness in our present situation where there are so few ANF's. Second, "wholeness" is a concept that helps to explain more simply and with a single specific image (like a mythological character) what happens when fathers are active in caregiving with their children. It happens for the fathers and mothers as well as the children.

Wholeness is a mythical reference to the ultimate goal that may not be completely realized by anyone. ANF's experience a greater degree of wholeness (than traditional fathers) as do the children they care for and the mothers who are also liberated. And yet there is always the possibility of more complete wholeness. Because most fathers today work out of and over against their relatively traditional upbringing, there is likely to be recurring regression to a more traditional mindset and behavior pattern.

Arlie Hochschild documented the way in which some fathers espouse an egalitarian gender ideology but subvert that ideology with a gender strategy that is working in the opposite direction.6 While some men believe that they ought to feel like being an ANF, this is not how they really feel. Consequently, they do things that, in reality, do not add up to ANF on a regular basis. The wholeness of ANF is "just a myth" for some, a reality for a few others, and a mixed bag of partially fulfilled goals and missed opportunities for most at this point in history. This does not have to be the case, however.

In her search for what it would take to facilitate wholeness, Dinnerstein develops a critique of what is wrong with the traditional arrangement from the perspective of the infant's psychological development. She argues that mother-raised children have been stunted in their growth. As adults, these children raised by mothers in the absence of their fathers in early life are half human beasts. They represent partial humanity---not full humanity (wholeness). They are incomplete beings part animal and part human.

As infants they have not had the opportunity to experience men in the same way that they have experienced women. Early infancy is controlled by mother and that control involved great ambivalence for the child. The infant feels a great deal of ambivalence about the one who cares for its basic needs. The caregiver is pleasantly identified and loved as the source of pleasure but also she is rejected and hated as the one who does not stop the hurt, or does not grant pleasure or does not give it quickly enough. This vacillation between love and hate toward the one the infant perceives to be the source of pleasure and pain stays oriented toward the "hand that rocks the cradle."7 The infant does not see the mother as simply another agent outside itself who is not totally responsible for the pleasure and pain the infant feels. The infant sees the mother as the direct producer of good and bad feelings within the child. She is blamed and held totally responsible. That is why she becomes the object of the infant's rage and tears.

The major source of the infant's pain is located within: hunger, physical pain and discomfort. The major source of the infant's pleasure is also within: pleasures of the senses and the capacity of the brain to generate good feelings about the world. But life also involves the actions of others. The mother will have to withhold some things that the child desires and give others that the child does not want. Later the mother will have to separate from the child for its own growth. The child will react with strong negative feelings toward the mother when these things happen. It is a fact of life and love as much as dying is a part of being human. The infant sees the caregiver as the controller of all these things and as the one who is to be held responsible for how the infant feels. The caregiver may be seen as a despot who seems to the infant not to care at all about what the infant wants.

That is not unlike the belief of some that God is to be held responsible for the good and bad that happens in the world. When things go badly, such a believer expresses rage toward God or rejects God. When things go badly for the infant, it expresses rage toward the caregiver or rejects the caregiver. When things go well, the caregiver and God are worshipped. That is a burden that neither mothers nor God should have to bear. Neither mothers nor God have manipulated things for the purposes that the infant and believer have assumed. The psychological wholeness of the adult and believer will both depend upon how well they will be able to take responsibility for the things they do to create and sustain happiness as well as for the trouble and pain they cause for themselves and others. Their degree of wholeness will also depend upon their developed capacity for relating to others as outside their feelings rather than as producers of their feelings. Wholeness is taking responsibility for having self-generated the mix of feelings, for satisfying one's own emotional needs, and for being able to help others do the same.

When the mother is the only one doing this caregiving with the infant, then the infant comes to associate mothers/women with the deep feelings of ambivalence. If fathers also gave such caregiving, infants would have similar feelings about fathers/men, but infants would be more likely to separate the ambivalence from what they view as female or male. They would be more free to identify the feelings of ambivalence as characteristic of all aspects of life and relationships.

When fathers are relatively absent from caregiving with infants, they remain separated from the infant in a way that the cradle rocker does not. The infant sees the distant father as outside the self. Because he is more distant from the infant, he can be perceived with a mixture of feelings that are not nearly as intense as those the infant has about the mother. The intimate mother is so close that the infant perceives its own pain as her doing and blames her (and later, women in general). It perceives its own pleasure as her doing and worships her as a goddess. Both reactions are too extreme and too heavy a load for mothers to bear. Under these circumstances, mothers are not allowed to be human. They are either devils or goddesses. Having this approach to mother/women (and its corollary distortion of fathers/men) still operating in adulthood is very dysfunctional for many areas of life including sexuality, parenting and dealing with one's own feelings as well as the actions of others. ANF is essential to set mothers and infants free from this malaise.

ANF's, like active mothers, must also face rejection from their young child sometimes when the child is expressing the negative side of their ambivalence about being cared for and being so painfully dependent. These fathers who may experience pain in these moments, may take some consolation in realizing that this drama is preparing the child for a healthier psychological life as an adult. It is not to be taken as a personal rejection of the father as worthless. The rejection is most likely to come when the father is doing a good job that frustrates the child's will to do otherwise. The child is discovering that it is not just mothers/women who frustrate their desires. It is not just fathers/men who frustrate their desires. Neither fathers/men nor mothers/women are the appropriate object for their anger. It is life itself that fills them with ambivalence. It is their own reaction to the world that causes most of the pain. On the pleasure side, it is not just mothers/women that can give them pleasure or just fathers/men that can help them to feel good. It is life itself and their own capacities for joy that can fill them with satisfaction and enjoyment., Upon discovering this, they can be free to make their own happiness rather than be totally dependent upon someone else for happiness. Shared parenting could help children to contain both the intense positive and intense negative feelings inside themselves where they belong rather than projecting all responsibility for good and bad feelings onto mothers/women as they do in traditional families.

Dinnerstein argues that ANF is essential for men's growth toward wholeness: (as long as the traditional arrangement prevails) "woman does not share man's right to have (character traits that make her less than perfectly parental) without loss of human stature, and man does not share woman's obligation to work at mastering them, at shielding others from their consequences. Woman never will have this right, nor man this obligation, until male imperfection begins to impinge on all of us when we are tiny and helpless, so that it becomes as culpable as female imperfection....Only then will the harm women do be recognized as their familiar harm we all do to ourselves, not strange harm inflicted by some outside agent. And only then will men really start to take seriously the problem of curbing, taming, their own destructiveness."8


This section of the chapter is an exploration of some awakenings to how God's love can empower ANF's. Faith experiences can be powerful motivators. Faith experience does not motivate everyone, however. Statistically, men as a group are moving further and further away from participation in religious institutions. But this does not necessarily mean that men are abandoning religious experience. For those who have ears to hear, I will provide some images of faith that I find empowering for ANF. They stand in some contrast to the conservative religious underpinnings for the traditional family that was critiqued in Chapter One.

Jesus affirmed the value of children in the face of other priorities when he welcomed little children to come and sit on his lap. He reminded the Disciples that the children were indeed precious and worthy of the time and attention of adults and God (Mark 10:10-16). Jesus lifted up the unconditional love of a father when he told a story about God's love as like that of a Dad who celebrated upon the return of his prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus lifted up the love of a father when he spoke of the love of God as like that of a Dad who knows how and is willing to give "good gifts" to his children. "What father would give a serpent when his child asks for a fish, or a stone when he asks for bread?" (Matthew 7:7-11).

Where did Jesus acquire such nurturing habits with children? We have no indication that he was married or had children who would have given him opportunities to practice nurturing habits. He must have learned from Joseph and Mary and his siblings.

Risking the accusation of historical anachronism, I have deduced that Joseph was an ANF who had a very positive influence upon Jesus' view of fathers and God. Jesus must have received these "good gifts" from Joseph to speak so well of the gifts that fathers give to their children. Jesus must have experienced unconditional love from Joseph that was like the love of God. Jesus must have witnessed a father's active nurturing behavior in his home to have turned the religious emphasis in his land away from a judgmental God to a loving-father-God.

Jesus and Joseph must have worked side by side as carpenters for years---a closeness that is hardly likely for fathers and sons today. Part of the absence of fathers today is due in no small part to the Industrial Revolution which took fathers away from home to work in factories and mines. The closeness that Joseph and Jesus must have had as carpenters in the First Century is not easily recaptured by fathers today.

As a father, Joseph might be a good role model for today. He did not run away in fear when God called him to stand by this pregnant woman who was bearing a child not his own. This is a good model for the multitudes of young men who have participated in the creation of a human being and then left the single mother to care for it. Taking responsibility for one's procreative actions may require some courageous actions. Joseph could be a model for the young men who are weighing the alternatives. Joseph stood by Mary and faced whatever embarrassment it involved in order to care for this child of God. What will fathers do today for the children they know that they helped to conceive?

Later Joseph faced hardship to save his son from being killed when he took the baby Jesus to Egypt. In Jerusalem, Joseph must have had a clientele that ordered and purchased his carpentry work. Should he stay with this clientele that could support his family and himself? Should he take the child to Egypt to save him from certain death? Today, we call this a dilemma between the competing arenas of work and family. Today, fathers face the dilemma of whether to move with the company's order of his transfer or to walk from the company and find different employment in order to protect the family from great stress and disruption. Joseph made a tough decision that modern fathers may learn from. Love for one's family sometimes requires that the career be placed on the back burner in order to meet other needs of the family.

Judging by the results in Jesus, Joseph (and Mary) must have been (a) good mentor(s) in the home where much of the religious learning and worship took place in that day. Jesus must have learned his compassion from a family that was accepting of others, that was healing, that was unconditionally loving, that was affirming, that was encouraging, that was nurturant, that was inclusive of men and women. What Jesus did and said that turned the religious world upside down from judgment to grace must have been formed in his family where most religious education and worship took place in that day.

Beyond this rudimentary consideration, we should not seek specific direction in scripture to instruct modern fathers in exactly how to nurture or in what activities to be involved in caregiving with children. Our values have come a long way from the patriarchy of the First Century. To expect the full range of activities (that I have described as ANF) in that time would be anachronistic Instead, some theological ethics from the scriptures can be applied to our current situation.

The unconditional love of God is the most basic grounding I have for seeking to be an ANF. When I am most fully aware of God's love for me, I am most capable of sharing that love with others. I am better prepared to help my children to know that love because I have been there repeatedly in communion with God receiving affirmation and strength. For me, faith is a journey with many awakenings along the way when I come to a more complete realization of how miraculous love is and how grateful I am for that love of God. I am able to nurture my children because I have been nurtured because I am grateful for that nurturing and because my gratitude moves me to let that love overflow in me for others and the God who has nurtured me.

A father must first be able to affirm his own unconditional acceptability in order to be capable and willing to nurture children. Nurturing involves a lot of emotionally neutral activities in caregiving but many are emotionally and spiritually charged with elements of answering the child's most basic question: am I loved? The father who knows from his own childhood and adult experiences how painful it feels to wonder about this question, and how wonderful it feels to arrive at a positive affirmation has the most basic knowledge and motivation necessary for being an ANF. He can put this vital information and empathic capacity to work for him and his children as he seeks to understand, to love and to help them grow and develop. A parent's appropriate answer to the question ("Do you love me?²) when it is posed by the child in the form of attention-getting misbehavior may first involve a short scolding or "time out" before a gentle hugging and reassurance of unconditional love. It may involve saying "no" to inappropriate requests with a gentle explanation and provision of love in other forms. Whatever else the father communicates, it is imperative for the well-being of the child that he communicates unconditional love for the child.

Fathers must have learned about this unconditional love somewhere when they were young. It may have come from their mothers, their fathers or another caregiver. If they learned it from their mothers but not from their fathers, they may grow up knowing what nurturing is but feel somewhere deep inside that it is "women's work." While men can learn many of the elements of nurturing behavior from many sources, it is especially important that they experience their fathers exhibiting this nurturing behavior. In some exceptional cases, ANF's have been able to learn a lot of nurturing from what their own fathers did not do. They have been motivated by a feeling that their own childhood lacked their father's nurturing and now they want to make up for it in their own ANF. Approaching their upbringing from a critical perspective, they have learned what an ANF should do by observing what was not nurturing in their fathers. Even so, they have to learn it from someone and feel it somewhere in life. Perhaps some men are also able to teach themselves through therapy, or by their own ingenuity, or in a good adult relationship. The habits of nurturing are learnable. In order for one to be able to learn nurturing behavior, it is vital to have a solid emotional grounding. One needs to have a healthy sense of self-esteem (emotional wholeness) to live out what one knows in their heads to be nurturing behavior. Religious experience is the most firm grounding for healthy self-esteem that must be understood more as a gift to humanity than a grade for being a good person.

Human love has much to teach us about Divine love and vice versa. A deeper awareness of the value and dynamics of both may provide firmer grounding for an ANF. In the present, men can learn to draw upon their own emotional reservoir of positive images from their childhood when nurturing took place. They may also dip into the negative pool for awareness of what behaviors led to their feeling shortchanged in the amount of nurturing their experienced with their fathers.

My personal reservoir of feeling memories that I draw upon for recalling the deeply felt nurturing I experienced with my Dad frequently guides me. In my relationship with my Dad, I have discovered much about the love of God that is an integral part of me. I have felt deep security partly because Dad was there for me when I needed financial help or emotional support. I have known God's comforting love from back rubs Dad gave me and delicious food he cooked. I have known the joys of companionship as Dad and I went to sports events together. I have been empowered for life and love most basically by Dad's total acceptance and encouraging affirmation of my work and his hesitancy to lay any judgments on me. I learned of the tender love of God at work as my Dad visited with his mother frequently through her long decline with Parkinson's Disease, as he remained close with his brothers and sister, and as he has visited with strangers like they were long-time friends.

I have felt the comfort of being held by God as Dad and I wrestled playfully on the floor. Such closeness reminds me of the wrestling between Jacob and God. It formed a bond between them whereby the father gave his blessing to the son. In that wrestling with my Dad I first felt the blessing. As we moved beyond the wrestling stage of our relationship, he has continued to give me that blessing in countless emotional ways.

Recently, my fifteen-year-old son wanted to test his strength against me. He has grown taller than I. He is maturing and our ways of expressing affection are going through some transformations. We symbolically marked a point of growth and change in the relationship as he pinned me easily in wrestling. It was like Jacob wrestling until the break of dawn and prevailing. The father could now give some kind of blessing as they acknowledged together that he had arrived at the threshold of manhood.

Young women may mark such a time as the onset of menstruation or another event, but many young men may point to the day that they could prevail in wrestling Dad. This may not be limited to boys. My daughter likes to wrestle too. She is very athletic and eight years from now she will probably be able to prevail against me too. Many cultures have a tradition of giving the blessing to the child. Wrestling has been a rite of passage for me in a culture that no longer hunts. However the blessing rite takes place, nurturing requires a long-term reality in which the child experiences the blessing of the parents. This involves the experience of the unconditional love of the parent, the endorsement of the child's existence, and the affirmation of who this person is becoming. Fathers must learn how to extend that blessing to their children. It is a spiritual gift that fathers have received and gratitude for this gift must be allowed to motivate them to pass it on to their children.

God's forgiving grace has been embodied for me in Dad's response to my mischievous moments, "You know what you did was wrong. You have already suffered enough. Go. You have learned your lesson." Dad modeled good work habits and fulfillment in working that helped me to focus not just on God's comfort but also on God's calling me to work for others and to enjoy it thoroughly. Somewhat like God affirming the creation on the seventh day, Dad would rise early, whistling a beautiful melody and enjoying the sun shining and birds singing. The depth of gratitude for life that is so basic to my joy in living came as a gift of God that I learned in imitating my Dad.

In the negative pool, there was an uneasy reluctance by my Dad to disclose his feelings on many subjects. Mom would tell us what he was thinking or feeling. Because I felt distant from him at times as a child and wondered whether he loved me, I have a deep appreciation for the need of my children to hear my reassurance of them, my self-disclosing explanations for my moods, and my sharing of some frustrations, hopes and dreams. My Dad either got much better at expressing his feelings or I just got better at reading them in recent years. Now he continues to teach me how to be a good father by the way he affirms and accepts me.

My mom helped me to know how to talk about feelings. She opened herself up to me freely as a child. My Uncle Bob was open emotionally in his conversations with me and I saw in him that men could do that too. My Aunt Wilma was one who affirmed what I did. I needed that appreciation of my good actions. Her affirmation helped me toward entering the ministry. A reservoir of feeling memories like these helps me to nurture my children. As I remember how I felt when these people cared, I have greater awareness of the value of what I am trying to do in caring for and with my children.

There are other reservoirs from which to drink for the feelings of nurturing. In the moving conclusion to the stage version of The Grapes of Wrath on Broadway recently, a young woman delivers a still-born child, who died from malnutrition and the suffering inflicted upon its mother by strike breakers, union busters and abusive farm bosses. The dead infant is placed in a box and floated down the river rather than buried so that maybe the corpse will be found and the horror of it will awaken the conscience of the world to this suffering of a people. As the box was released, I saw it as an image like the baby Moses being sent out upon the waters so that a savior might be raised up to deliver the people. The event also mirrored the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who saw her own child die at the hands of persecution.

The saving nature of the event followed as the mother came upon a dying black man. He had not had anything to nourish his frail body for six days. With her breast, swollen with milk for her dead infant, she nursed this dying man back to life. I experienced an awareness of the profundity of the love of God and of a parent in this act. I sobbed tears of great sadness for human injustice that were balanced by overwhelming joy as I felt deeply that the love of God was indeed like that in a world like this. The child's death, like Jesus' death would raise the consciousness of the world. The mother's loss, like Mary's loss, would find meaning in the saving of life. The mother's milk like the milk of God's compassion would resurrect the dead.

This image of God as the nursing mother has not been affirmed very much in our patriarchal culture today or in the one which is represented in the Bible. One of the most basic impediments to adopting an image of God as nursing mother has been male envy of the female power to lactate and feed from the breast (as well as to conceive and bear children). Because it is such a wonderful miracle and profound power, men have done much throughout history to assure that it was not given the recognition and affirmation that it deserves. In the only times that it has been affirmed, there has also been heavy economic suppression of women (i.e., the pedestal syndrome).

Sometimes the old images become cliché¹s and they lose their life-giving power. For some who have had bad experiences with their fathers, the image of God as a father never had any life-giving power. I experienced both of my parents as nurturing. So both mother and father images of God have great power to communicate the experience of God's love for me. At this time in history, I do not use the father image very much because there is a need to bring some balance into a church that is in the process of being healed of its bias in favor of men and male images of God (as well as the preservation of male power).

This age calls for inclusive and non-gender specific images of God, in part, because we want to affirm that men and women can and should be nurturing that women and men can and should be self-reliant that there are admirable human qualities that are not just masculine or feminine (as previously thought). However, there is also a deep-seated human need for an embodied God who is not abstract or distant---a God who is incarnate or in the flesh. My religious experience has become more abundant and satisfying as I have come to know a God of both genders as well as beyond gender a God who is a body (both male and female) and who is also not just a body but more.

I want to commend the image of God as nursing mother and "flesh it out" with tools of theology, psychology and experience for those of us who find it life-giving. I believe that this image can enhance the understanding of the nurturing we have received and continue to receive from God. At least four biblical passages refer to the image of a nursing mother. The Psalmist in 131:2 suggests that God has been like a nursing mother and that the believer's soul has been quieted and calmed "like a child at it's mother's breast."9 In Numbers 11:12, Moses sarcastically asks if he is supposed to be like a mother who gave birth to a child and now carries it at her breast as it sucks on the way to the Promised Land---the land of milk and honey. This points toward the image of God as the one who really bore them like a mother and nurses them on the way to the Promised Land. In Isaiah 49:15, there is a statement that the nursing mother would not forget her child or fail to have compassion for it. God's love is like that. She will not fail to have compassion for those born of her love. Isaiah 66:10-13 suggests that we might have faith in order to "suck and be satisfied with her (Jerusalem's and God's) consoling breasts that you may drink deeply with delight" and verse 12 continues "and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you" (says the Lord).10

Why is this image so empowering for me? It is our first comforting experience of life as an infant after the trauma of birth. In our mother's arms and at our mother's breast, we were first comforted by the softness and tender caresses. The first delicious taste of life was her sweet milk. From the milk, we received the antibodies that would protect us against disease. This is indeed an empowering image. It is our nourishing and life-giving source. This action, that is symbolic of our ultimate comfort and consolation from God, is embodied in the love and touch of our mother. It is a defense against spiritual illness and a balm for emotional wounds.

One might think that this is an image for women only to appreciate. One might assume that it is an affirmation of women that leaves out men. I believe that it is an image that helps men to recall what being nurtured feels like in the emotions, the spirit and the body. If men don't know how it feels, they won't know how to share it with their children.

While human fathers do not have the biological equipment to breast-feed children and not all mothers can and do breast-feed, there are other activities that can help to provide the vital touch that creates bonding and emotional nourishment for the infant. I cuddled my infants close in my arms as they sucked from a bottle. At other times, they sucked comfort from my little finger. Men can learn much at a deep level from making this image come alive in their emotional reservoir that they draw upon for the motivations to be ANF's.

After telling the Disciples to let these infants come to be blessed by him and not to hinder them, Jesus says, "whoever does not receive the (love) of God like an (infant) shall not receive it."11 An infant receives love and affection first and very profoundly in a nursing posture. How appropriate then to metaphorize God's love as the nursing of the new creation which has been borne out of the womb of God. How appropriate then to metaphorize the believer as receiving the gracefilled love of God like an infant, quieted at its mother's breast.

Fathers who come up against the wall (like a marathon runner), and feel their emotional resources depleted by the demands of parenting might look to their faith images for some consolation and empowerment. Those who have reached this point know all too well that spiritual empowerment for fathering is absolutely necessary!

When men become frustrated with themselves and their children, there is great advice in Philippians 4:4-14. Let me paraphrase it here in language more specifically related to ANF:

Be patient and put up with a lot. Have no anxiety about anything that your children may do but pray about it. Give thanks for what is good. "The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." Instead of dwelling upon your grievances with your children, give thanks for them and dwell on what is good and beautiful about them. Learn to be content and accept whatever happens without regret for what might have been. Face the enjoyable moments and the challenges with the same spirit of joy in God who strengthens you.12

When I get off the track suggested by Philippians, it helps me to look at my children's birth pictures with the words "I love Jessica" and "I love Jonathan" next to them. I look at a picture of me when I was two years old and realize that I got to be happy and healthy today, in part, because somebody loved me and was patient and nurturing with me when I was young.

I also look at a cross that my son colored when he was three years old which says "I love you!" (a reminder of God's love and Jon's). I look at a card on which my daughter drew a picture of herself with a wide smile and a balloon with a heart in it and the words "I love you, Dad! Have a good day! Love, Jessica." These are among the many images that motivate me to be more nurturing and more actively engaged in caregiving with my children. They remind me of the love I share with them. They remind me of God's unconditional love for me and them. They sing to me the tune of God's love and remind me of the rhythm of nurturing when my memory fails. Then gratitude returns in full force and love overflows again. Then "Daddy" is back!


In Robert Bly's book, Iron John: A Book About Men, he recovers an ancient myth with midrash-like interpretation (i.e., throwing other sacred stories and human experience up against the text to shed light on what would be veiled for most of us). Bly writes that myths have been a place where human beings have stored knowledge that lay outside the instinctual system.13 Some birds and animals have nurturing instincts that direct them in how to care for their young. Perhaps there is some element of instinct in what men feel and know about caring for their young. Craig Rypma has studied this hypothesis and found indicators to substantiate such a view.14 But most of what men need in the way of motivation and knowledge for ANF is likely to be learned. Passing on myths has long been a way of passing on knowledge and wisdom. The story bears power as the teller and hearer identify with the characters and feel the roles as if they were their own. In taking on these roles in their lives, they find motivation and power for living out the dreams, quests, tasks and meaning of the myth. The father who is bored by parenting and does not see what is at stake for him and his family, tends to stay away. But the father who sees the vital importance of his fathering and who approaches it with imagination, enthusiasm and depth of understanding brings far more to his family and gets far more out of fathering because of this approach. Motivating myths can help fathers to set the stage in their hearts and minds for wonderful fathering moments (in stark contrast to just "babysitting" the kids for mom).

Myths can be passed on from generation to generation with flexibility to accommodate the new truth in an ancient form. Bly calls them a "reservoir where we keep new ways of responding that we can adopt when the conventional and current ways wear out."15

More important than what the story of Iron John meant at the time is what the story can mean for the full development of men now. Women have been working on this recovery of mythic power for women's full development for years and Bly provides great insight into a way in which men can find mythic power for fathering.

I want to emphasize men's nurturing as an act of courage. Nurturing a child may take great courage and incredible exertion of energy. Fathering is a series of activities that are carried out within a larger context. This context is the mindset that a father has about what he is trying to accomplish for himself, his wife and their children. The predominant image of a parent that ought to be larger than all other images is that of helping the child to know that they are loved and valued. This requires generous helpings of unconditional love and attentive affirmation of the child's good behavior along with helpful direction away from destructive behavior. This is no job for the faint-hearted. That may be the most critical source of the problem: fathers need help in acquiring courage to be equally and actively involved in nurturing their children.

My understanding of why so many fathers are distant, absent and abusive is that they are unwilling to face the pain of being as vulnerable as active parents must become. Absent fathers, workaholic fathers and abusive fathers stay away from their children to avoid getting hurt. Men are running from pain. If they open up their feelings enough to be very compassionate with their children, fathers are bound to get hurt. They don't want to feel that pain. So, they remain distant by overworking, yelling and leaving. The overwhelming emotional needs of the children and the vulnerability of the work of parenting frightens many fathers away. If they do stick around, somebody is going to have to pay emotionally for the pain they feel.

In light of this reality, one must recognize that nurturing is not a passive quality. Nurturing is repeating courageous acts of love in the face of vulnerability to getting hurt. When one invests that much energy in someone else, one is open to greater pain, but also greater joy. Nurturing is continuing to love and give gentle discipline when a child is saying "I hate you" to try to get his own way. Nurturing is continuing compassionate caregiving with a child when a child tells her divorced and single father that she loves mom best in order to make him try harder to please her with gifts, treats and entertainment. Nurturing is investing years of a father's life in caring with a child who decides at age fifteen that running away from home is the answer to his emotional pain.

Nurturing takes strength and courage that many men cannot muster. Perhaps because men have feared the vulnerability that goes with actively caring with children, they have put such caregiving down as "woman's work" or put it on a pedestal as requiring a "woman's touch." Ironically, many men have viewed the job of parenting as a "soft job" while knowing in their hearts that it is a challenge that they themselves cannot bear to face.

Normal people are not so courageous and they require a variety of resources to bolster their courage to be good parents. The myth of Iron John can be a story of empowerment that enables fathers to do a difficult job with great joy in spite of the pain that may come with it. If fathers can identify with the characters and live out the roles, they can find guidance for creating the meaningful mindset that is an invaluable resource for everyday fathering activity.

I will take liberty in reappropriating the story, though I believe my use is not very far off from the original purpose of the myth. Updating the meaning for us today is not anachronistic. It is the work of each generation to bring the old truth in the story alive again in the contemporary context. I focus more specifically on how the characters are enlightened to affirm the love of ANF as one very important form of compassion and vitality.

The story for men and women can be interpreted to be about enlightenment in general. For fathers today I see it as a potential vehicle for visualizing the mindset that it takes to be an ANF. It is a story with power for those who can enter into its images and take on the energy of the characters. If this story is "taken slowly into the body," it can give breath and life to the bearer.16 Like a tale that one repeats to remember who they are and why they are here, the tale of Iron John can empower men to be ANF's.

Traces of some form of the Wild Man myth go as far back as prehistoric times and cave paintings. Throughout the centuries, it has been adapted to tell the story of the times. Some central issues have remained the same while the reference to the contemporary context of the point of the story has been updated. I find the story to be empowering for fathers when inserting some key issues for ANF into the places where they fit in the ancient myth. Here is my brief reappropriation of the story for the specific purpose of encouraging and empowering men to adopt the myth in their motivations for ANF. Much of the credit for translating and modernizing the myth with insights about men and fathering goes to Robert Bly. I recommend your reading Iron John to see the story in full and Bly's commentary on the myth. The criticism anyone might wish to offer for this interpretation of the myth that follows can fall on me. My additions to the story are in parenthesis. My abbreviated, paraphrased and altered version of Bly's translation follows:

Once upon a time, a King (active nurturant father) lived near a wild forest (worldly attractions that lure fathers away from caregiving with their children). After several hunters disappeared there (became absent fathers), the King sent a volunteer (ethicist or researcher) to explore (to figure out why fathers were not using their abilities and energy to care for their children).

Hiding (like an absent father) under the water in a deep pool (immersed in political and economic power different from the power to be an ANF) was a Wild Man (one capable of passion and compassion in nurturing but not actually using his skills to be the ANF that he should be). He was captured and imprisoned in the King's castle so that people (fathers) could venture into the forest (work world, recreational world, et) and return again (to active parenting without getting swallowed up by other priorities).

As long as the Wild Man was imprisoned, however, there was a lack of fierce love in the land that was essential (for good parenting). The King's Son, who was eight years old then, played with a golden ball (acquiring the capacity to be nurturing), but it rolled into the Wild Man's cage. In order to get it back, the boy had to steal the key from under his mother's pillow (seizing his autonomy to become nurturing with others besides his mother). In doing so, the boy pinched his finger (experienced the vulnerability and pain that sometimes comes with caregiving). The boy set Wild Man free (enabling the fierce energy of love to flow) and left home on his shoulders (was empowered to nurture people beyond his parents by his mentor who gave him fierce love).

Wild Man then brought the boy to a spring with water that turned things into gold (empowered them by loving them). Wild Man told him to be sure that nothing contaminated the spring (destroyed the fierce loving spirit). The boy contaminated it himself (being human and imperfect in his love), but he got some of the gold (capacity for fierce loving) on his hair (it became a part of him) and his wounded finger (becoming strong in his compassion for others because of the pain he had known). So the Wild Man sent him out (reminding him that his love was not perfect) to go and experience poverty (in order to acquire deep awareness of just how incredibly important fierce love is for people). Iron John told him to call whenever he needed the energy of fierce love (and then he could get strength to be nurturing from God/spiritual sources especially when loving was not easy).

Another King's daughter (who knew love because of her father's nurturing behavior) saw this fierce love in the boy and threw him some golden apples (her love which was possible because of the love her father gave her) and they were married (nurtured each other and shared equally in work and parenting).

Another King (ANF) came to the wedding and announced that he was Iron John, who had been turned into a Wild Man (a man of fierce love and capable of actively engaging in parenting but not actually doing the job he was called to do because of the way he used his energy wildly without caring with his children), but who was now freed (able to do the job of ANF) because the boy who had befriended him had shown him by their relationship that he could find great fulfillment in channeling his fierce love into caring (for his own children).

All the treasures of Iron John (spiritual, physical, emotional vitality for loving) would belong to this man---the King's son (now a father himself who had been taught by his father about how to be a caregiver and who had been empowered with the Wild Man's fierce love). Iron John helped the boy to acquire fierce love and the boy had helped Iron John (to discover that children were indeed fit recipients for such love as well as caregivers themselves). Each had become empowered (to be ANF's by the nurturing relationship that developed between them).17

This myth is life-giving for one who identifies with the characters. Adult men may identify with the Wild Man because they know fierce love and use it in other parts of their lives but not in relating with their children. Young boys may identify with the boy because they have not yet discovered the fierce love in themselves that they could have for their future children. They may know how it feels for a girl friend but not for a child of theirs. Even though they know something about doing the tasks of caring for an infant/child, they have not yet discovered the depths and heights of love in their hearts that will be necessary for long-term commitment, quality and quantity time, and patience in their parenting.

1Harry Brod, "Fathering: New Styles and Old Problems," in Carole Kort and Ronnie Friedland, eds., The Father's Book (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986), p. 122.
2Kyle Pruett, The Nurturing Father: Journey Toward the Complete Man (New York: Warner Books, 1987).
3Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).
4Dinnerstein, p. 201.
5Dinnerstein, p. 5.
6Arlie Hochschild with Anne Machung, The Second Shift (New York: Avon Books, 1989), pp. 11-21.
7Dinnerstein, p. 175.
8Dinnerstein, p. 238.
9Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1952).
10Holy Bible.
11Holy Bible, Luke 18:17.
12Holy Bible.
13Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1990), p. xi.
14Craig Rypma, "Biological Bases of the Paternal Response," The Family Coordinator, October 1976, pp. 335-340.
15Bly, p. ix.
16Bly, p. ix.
17My adaptation of Robert Bly's translation of the story by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Grimms Marchen (Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 1946).

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