On June 15, in the run-up to Father’s Day, Parker J. Palmer wrote on his facebook homepage:
“As we approach Father’s Day, I’m thinking about my Dad, a wonderful man who raised me in an energy field I’ve always treasured: unconditional love interwoven with expectancy about my potential. The expectancy helped me grow & the unconditional love helped me take the risks that growth requires, knowing that I could fail & not lose his love. Every day I meet people who need this combination. I bet you do, too.”
I for one need to be reminded of this combination: unconditional love interwoven with expectancy about my children’s potential.
In The Art of Love, Erich Fromm compared a mother’s love and a father’s love for their children. Fromm was of the view that a mother’s love is unconditional, while a father’s love is conditional. A child has to earn his or her father’s love by doing well in life. Fromm asserted that this is not necessarily a bad thing. A mother’s unconditional love may lead to her child being spolit, a father’s love offsets that possibility as it is conditional upon the child behaving and making an effort to do well in life.
Of course we understand that writers sometimes dichotomise to clarify their viewpoints. We need not extrapolate from that and think that fathers are incapable of unconditional love, or that mothers have no expectations for their children.
But as a father, when I compare myself with my wife with regard to how we relate to our children, I think that there is some truth in Fromm’s assertion. I do find it harder to love them unconditionally.
That is why Palmer’s words are a useful reminder for me. Palmer is not negating the value of his father’s expectancy; his father’s expectancy helped him grow. But he also highlighted the importance of a father’s unconditional love, because growth involves risk-taking. If you know that your father’s love will always be there, even if you fail or make a mistake, you will dare to take the risk, and you will grow.
These words resonate with me because recently my daughter made a career decision which I could not bring myself to fully go along with. I had to go through a period of difficult reflection to redefine for myself what it means to love my daughter. I can say that I finally came to terms with her decision, but I still had to make an effort to understand her and support her.
“The unconditional love helped me take the risks that growth requires, knowing that I could fail and not lose his love,” Palmer told us the kind of love that he needed, and received, from his father.
Today is Father’s Day. Let us fathers continue to learn how to love our children unconditionally. And let all children understand that being a good father today may not be as easy as it appears (because men don’t like moaning and groaning). Your dad certainly needs an occasional pat on the back.
(I recommend the following blogpost by Janet Law, about father-daughter relationship:
And the following is a quote from The Art of Love by Erich Fromm:
The relationship to father is quite different. Mother is the home we come from, she is nature, soil, the ocean; father does not represent any such natural home. He has little connection with the child in the first years of its life, and his importance for the child in this early period cannot be compared with that of mother. But while father does not represent the natural world, he represents the other pole of human existence; the world of thought, of man-made things, of law and order, or discipline, of travel and adventure. Father is the one who teaches the child, who shows him the road into the world.
Fatherly love is conditional love. In conditional fatherly love, we find, as with unconditional motherly love, a negative and a positive aspect. The negative aspect is the very fact that fatherly love has to be deserved, that it can be lost if one does not do what is expected. The positive side is equally important. Since his love is conditional, I can do something to acquire it, I can work for it.
(The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm, New York: Harper & Row, 1956, p. 35)