Fathering 101: Tyranny, Tuning Out or FINE-Tuning By PETE WALKER

Friday December 30, 2005

Tough love? Unconditional love? Disney-Channel love? Quality-time vs. quantity-time love? The 13 different Greek words for love? The roof-over-your-head and food-on-the-table love of my parents? The pile-the-presents-so-high-you-can’t-see-the-Xmas-tree love. What’s a 59-year-old man with a 2-year-old son supposed to do? Will I heed my ancestors: “kids should be seen and not heard,” or subscribe to a New Age permissiveness that would give every kid a portable microphone? 

As a seasoned psychotherapist, I vacillate between difficult choices: cognitive-behavioral or neo-Freudian? Rewards and punishments or anal, oral and oedipal resolutions? Dr. Phil or Oprah? 

Codependent and not wanting to offend anyone, I, of course, am trying to choose an eclectic approach—a “take the best and leave the rest” middle path. But how do I know my choices won’t be denial-laden reenactments of my parents’ execrably poor parenting?  

In truth I don’t know, but nevertheless I am deeply committed to evolving my own eclectic parenting style—a hands-on, out-of-the-study, TV-dectomy approach of gentle coaching and benevolent guiding. I am attempting to balance a “love and limits” approach with an old research-proven formula that shows that kids respond best to correction when each instance of it is balanced with at least five pieces of positive attention. 

In this dauntingly meaningful endeavor and responsibility, I frequently find myself amazed at how much I am buoyed by the wisdom of the age-old metaphysics I first ventured into some thirty years ago—the psychology and spirituality of astrology.  

My understanding of astrology informs me that my son has complex developmental needs and drives—often competing and contradictory—that will only flourish if I am generous with my love and nurturance in many diverse ways.  

In this regard, I see that like every other human being, his essential self is composed of twelve different parts and that each part has corresponding drives and needs—needs that can be delineated by the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Each sign, then, describes a fundamental archetypal aspect of human being and informs me about different aspects of his Self that he will need my loving assistance to develop in a way that will promote his growing up to be a balanced, fully articulated human being. 

So Jaden, my son: How do I love Thee? Let me Count the ways 

Here then is a very abbreviated delineation of the ways—the 12 categories of loving actions that I infer from an astrological model, and that I hope will guide me to be what the famous psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott called “a good enough father.” 

Aries reminds me to nurture his need to be assertive and powerful in the world, so I love him through wresting and vigorous play. I greet his asking for what he wants, I let him make as many of his own choices as reasonably possible, and I respect his healthy and instinctive use of the word “No.” I want him to be able to say no not only to drugs, but also to corrupting influence from any dangerous authority figures that he may encounter—whether they are elected or not. 

Libra reminds me to teach him to share and compromise, and that everyone deserves their fair turn. It further informs me to nurture his ability to develop intimacy through conversations that are authentic, vulnerable and reciprocal. I won’t pass on the “no-talk” rule that was part of my Anglo-Saxon upbringing, and my enculturation into the tight-lipped male world of macho posing. I will try to show him by example that real intimacy is directly proportionate to the amount of one’s whole experience—mental, emotional and behavioral—that can be shown to and shared with another. 

Taurus instructs me to help him discover his own sense of aesthetics—his capacity to be moved by art and beauty, and to exult in color, form, texture, composition. I will create copious opportunities for him to explore arts, crafts and tools, and I will take him out frequently into nature to nurture his enjoyment of natural beauty.  

Gemini informs me to love and support his present-time, crucial and delightful developmental stage of following his curiosity and investigating everything and everyone in his environment. I love him by giving him copious time to explore—to, whenever possible, take an hour to witness his discoveries as we painstakingly [me, rarely him] circumnavigate the block we live on. Part of this discovery process is teaching him names and words to describe his experience. In this vein, I greet and love all his questions, refusing to shame him as a chatterbox or “Chatty Cathy.” 

Virgo informs me of his need to settle into healthy eating and hygiene routines. Accordingly, my wife and I have relinquished our family legacies of eating in front of the TV. We strive to make mealtime around the table a sacred family time, a time that links eating with the pleasure of conversational engagement—of sharing the triumphs, mundanities and tribulations of the day. 

Leo tells me about Jaden’s need to discover and bring forth his whole individuality in a confident, spontaneous, fully expressive way—to shine on the world his unique gestalt of talents and qualities. Playing frequently with him, with minimal directing, is the best way I know how to cultivate this. His enthusiasm, nascent sense of humor, rudimentary singing, and inventive use of toys is typically easy to actively appreciate—and even though it’s natural, sheer repetitiveness sometimes makes me feel like I am Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I subscribe to applauding him copiously—not out of insincerity—but as a labor of love. 

Cancer reminds me to protect his fragile need to maintain an unconditionally loving relationship with himself, which as will be seen when Capricorn is described below, does not cancel out his need to be considerate of others. I am committed to nurturing his capacity to grow into being his own best friend, and especially, in the emotionally impoverished milieu of an industrial society, to love and value himself in all his emotional experience. In other words I strive to support the growth of his emotional intelligence and try to greet all his emotional expression, especially and somewhat paradoxically when I am lovingly and non-punitively guiding him to “use his words” and find non-hurtful means of emoting. I want to help him resist this culture’s pressure on males to split off their female sides—an act, I believe, that leads to the workaholic and/or drug and alcoholic management of emotions that causes so many men to die a decade earlier than women. 

Scorpio tells me that he will be periodically subject to the painful life losses that are existential to being human. Grieving is the most powerful tool that people have to recover from their losses, and he was born instinctively knowing how to grieve out his pain. His cries have always had the capacity to release both the anger and sadness that is a core part of pain, and I love him by showing him that I fully cherish him when he non-hurtfully expresses “his mad and his sad.” 

Grieving releases the stress of loss and upsets—which for him at this time in his life is so often about grieving the gradually decaying narcissistic privilege of his infancy, and discovering that there are limits and rules he has to learn to accept—that his brief birthright of being the center of the universe is coming to an end. “It’s OK that you’re mad that you have to stop playing now, Jaden; I see you’re really sad too. And you do have to stop now. You can come with me, or I’ll have to pick you up and carry you to the car.”  

To illustrate two essential life lessons about which I hope to be one of his key teachers, I will present the needs represented by the last four astrological signs as pairs of contradictory but complementary opposites. I hope to offer him throughout his childhood ongoing guidance regarding two difficult existential choices he will continuously face. I hope to help him come to terms as gracefully as possible with these paradoxical issues of life. 

Sagittarius then, informs me about Jaden’s spiritual need to recognize life as bounteous, grace-full, and replete with opportunity and wonder, while Capricorn represents his mundane need to accept that life also contains many obstacles and struggles, and that he will also need to be disciplined and work hard in order to succeed and thrive. I want him to get that life is an inordinately exquisite gift—an incomparable free ride—even though it is simultaneously a school of hard knocks and many dues will have to be paid. 

I want to nourish in him a trust in the essential worthwhileness of life. I want to help him know when to flow with the river, and when to get out, chop down a tree, carve a canoe, and start paddling upstream. I believe his maturation will be about becoming increasingly adept at finding the ever-shifting balance between taking things for granted and working like a dog to get some desired result. I think I do this for him now by ongoingly adjusting the balance of love and limits in his life—the latter something he must gradually learn about as he embarks on the long journey to adulthood. Hopefully I will do it in a way that play will always be important to him as work. 

Finally, Aquarius encourages me to nurture his evolutionary need for continuous growth and development—I hope that by providing non-pressured opportunities for him to explore a wide variety of interests, entertainments, hobbies, activities, group memberships, etc., that I am sowing the seeds for a perennial love of self-development and life-long learning—the kind of lifelong learning that science now believes is a key antidote to Alzheimer’s. 

In a somewhat opposite and complementary way, Pisces reminds me to support a counterbalancing development of his need to devote sufficient time to relaxation, letting go, and a lifelong respect for getting a healthy amount of sleep. I don’t and hopefully won’t over-schedule his day—no matter how rich the potential for growth and development. Too much of anything is too much. Overeating, even when it’s the best and most healthy food in the world, still creates digestive problems—and serious ones when it occurs over time. Similarly, too much rich experience creates very problematic psychological indigestion. 

My loving pledge to Jaden is to help him live his life like a human being and not a human doing.