I’ve been wanting to share publicly a conversation that I’ve been having frequently with close friends lately.
That’s the growing realization that I really desire to be a father someday.
Saying this out loud has been the culmination of many years of processing my feelings around fatherhood and family, my relationship with my own father, the dynamics within my romantic relationships, and all the complex feelings that come with the prospect of bringing a child into this world.
I’m going to share a lot of my personal story here, stretching back to childhood as well as events from this past year, that have all led me to a deeper understanding of the nature of fatherhood & the realization that I do want to share the experience of raising a child with a woman one day.
I share these reflections in the hope of contributing to a healthier vision of masculinity and fatherhood in our culture.
My attitude to fatherhood begins, of course, with my relationship with my own father.
Ours has always been a complicated, challenging one. From my earliest days, my father clearly struggled with intense mental health issues. I obviously didn’t have the vocabulary for this at the time, but I realize as an adult that my childhood was spent in the presence of a father who was very mentally unwell, emotionally unstable and often volatile, and deeply, deeply wounded. He found comfort in his religious faith, but this religiosity was so intense and obsessive that it filled my childhood with overwhelming amounts of fear about God’s judgment and eternal damnation if I wasn’t a perfect little Christian boy - a scenario that many people now refer to as “spiritual trauma”.
Then, at age 13, my father announced he was leaving our family. My parents divorced and my mom gained sole custody of me. I lived with her full-time, but every other Saturday my father would pick me up for the day. These Saturdays with my dad were uncomfortable and awkward, but there was still a part of me that so deeply longed for his love and approval. I still desperately wanted to be the good boy who was worthy of his love. But because of my father’s inner pain and his own sense of unworthiness, he wasn’t really capable of affirming my worthiness or showing up consistently as a father.
Instead, he would disappear.
My father has spent a lot of my life disappearing. Then he will reappear, usually in a very destitute and needy state. Years ago, I even took him in and let him stay at my house for several months when I found out he had been living in a homeless shelter.
As of this writing, my father has disappeared from my life yet again. I haven’t spoken to him in nearly a year, and not for a lack of effort on my part. He won’t return my emails or phone calls. And I’m at the point in my journey as a man where I am no longer desperate for him to reappear. In fact, I’m okay if he doesn’t. Nor am I desperate for him to finally see me as his good boy, worthy of love. I have learned to see myself as worthy, to give myself the love he couldn’t. Much of that inner work has been a process of reparenting myself, or what I personally like to call “finding the Father within.”
The discovery of that Father within has taken a long, long time… 37 years in fact.
I remember having my first inkling of fatherly energy when I was a teacher, particularly during the two years I spent teaching middle school. I started my career in education at age 23, working with high school students. With not many years between me and a high school senior, I didn’t necessarily feel myself occupying a very fatherly role in their lives. Maybe more like an older brother of sorts.
But a few years later, when at the age of 28 I took a job teaching 7th grade English, I started to feel the rumblings of a more fatherly type of energy towards those 12 year olds in my classroom.
This particularly manifested with students that I perceived to be having an emotionally challenging time in school… kids who were experiencing bullying, kids who were picked on for being nerds or liking anime or listening to different music, kids who were questioning their gender identity or who they were attracted to, kids whose parents were going through a divorce. I could easily spot those students walking around with their wounds and my heart absolutely ached with a desire to protect them, to give them shelter, to tell them they were amazing just as they are. I am proud of the fact that my English classroom during my teaching career was a safe haven for all manner of young misfits. I might not have been able to put these words to it at the time, but I loved those kids like they were my own.
But there was a very different relationship to fatherhood unfolding in my romantic relationship at the time.
I had recently gotten married to a woman I had been with for over 6 years and planned to spend the rest of my life with. Every time the topic of our future came up, she was a hard NO on the prospect of having kids.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like children (she was a teacher herself and had dedicated her career to helping at-risk youth get a quality education), but she expressed a particular aversion to ever becoming pregnant. We actually discussed the possibility of adoption a few times, but she made it abundantly clear that she never, ever wanted to be pregnant and had no desire to have any biological children.
I learned to accept that this was my reality regarding children. This was the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with (or so I thought), so if she doesn’t want kids… then I guess I’m never having kids. And considering how intimidating the prospect of parenting is, this didn’t seem like some awful fate. Sweet, I thought, we’ll just be that cool married couple without kids, taking vacations whenever we want, never having to change diapers or function on no sleep or save up for a college fund. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who consciously chooses this path!
But in my case, it wasn’t something I was consciously choosing. My own thoughts about potential fatherhood were so vague and uncertain at the time, and my wife’s so clear, that I just went with the flow and took her lead on the subject. It was that simple, seemingly. My wife didn’t want children, so I would never have children. Case closed.
Until we divorced after only three years of marriage. Suddenly, all my certainties about the future and family and children were no longer so certain.
Years later, I would learn through mutual friends that my ex-wife had become pregnant with her second husband and had given birth to a son. We hadn’t spoken for some time at that point, but I sent her a brief message of congratulations. She wrote back, we exchanged a few pleasantries, and that was it. Congratulating her felt like the right thing to do, but in my heart… I felt emotionally crushed by the news that she had a child with another man.
Now, I have no idea what her journey towards motherhood was like, or how she and her husband had come to conceive a child together. Perhaps it was planned, perhaps it wasn’t… I have absolutely no idea. I could rationally tell myself not to take it personally, but on some deeply primal, biological level… I felt rejected.
The news of her giving birth spun a story in my head that she has assessed my potential as a father for her children… and found me lacking. In my moments of self-doubt, I started to think that her adamant desire not to have kids during our marriage was because she didn’t want to have biological children with ME. She didn’t choose me to be the father of her children, but she chose another man instead. This feeling of being rejected as a father stung on some soul level I hadn’t even been previously aware of.
Now, I obviously have to take some responsibility for my feelings here. I didn’t express a strong interest in having children when we were together. My opinions about kids during our marriage were extremely uncertain and I was perfectly happy to go along with her decision at the time not to have children. I ultimately can’t complain about being denied something I didn’t even know I wanted. I have no right to blame her for that. But the whole episode of learning about the birth of my ex-wife’s son served as a wake-up call to feelings about fatherhood that I didn’t even know I had.
All of this sent me on a journey of searching for a better understanding of myself… myself as a man, my relationship to masculinity, and my understanding of the energy of fatherhood, the father within.
I began to explore books on the topic of healthy, conscious masculinity. I learned to find a connection to the masculine within me that actually felt authentic and self-chosen… not a socially-constructed gender stereotype of what a man should be, but my own understanding of manhood on my own terms.
I began to embrace the idea that there is an archetypal Father energy that each of us can find in ourselves, independent of our relationship to our biological dads. This Father within is our inner source of protection, stability, guidance, wisdom, and a love that can be both firm and solid as a mountain yet as warm and comforting as a campfire. It is what some call the divine, or sacred, masculine. It is the true God the Father… not a literal male deity in the sky like the fundamentalists would have us believe… but the spirit or essence of fatherhood, in His fierce and tender love for all children.
All this inner work with masculinity and my understanding of father energy crystalized in my first men’s retreat in the winter of 2019. (Not to mention a 7 gram psilocybin mushroom trip where a figure very much resembling Eddard Stark from Game of Thrones passed down to me the secrets of noble fatherhood… but that’s a story for another day).
The belief that emerged from all this inner work around masculinity is that anytime we embody this energy, this spirit of fatherhood, we are practicing the art of fathering… and I’m intentionally using father as a verb here.
“Father” is fundamentally an action, a way of being and loving… not a status of being related to someone.
Plenty of men who get women pregnant are not fathers. But on the other side of the coin, we don’t have to be someone’s biological dad to offer fatherly love. I firmly believe that stepdads, uncles, mentors, teachers, coaches, therapists, etc. all have a capacity to provide fathering energy… and humans of all ages benefit immensely from healthy father energy, in whatever form it arrives in their lives. And we can offer ourselves (no matter our gender) an inner fatherly love to repair the wounds our own inner child may have experienced from a lack of good fathering growing up.
As this journey of understanding fatherhood unfolded, I entered into a romantic relationship at the end of 2021 that really deepened my understanding of the father I wanted to be someday.
In December of last year, I fully dove into a relationship with a woman who was the mother of teenage sons. This was my first time seriously dating a mother, but it brought back a lot of positive memories of when my own stepdad entered my life in my teenage years when he started dating my mom. Not only was I falling deeply in love with this woman, but I was surprised by how deeply excited I was to be a part of her sons’ lives and potentially step into the role of stepfather myself one day.
Maybe this would be my opportunity to give my father energy in this lifetime?
My partner would not be able to have children again, but I embraced the idea that loving her sons could be the fatherhood experience I was yearning for. And the fact that they were sons, in particular, doubly warmed my heart. How amazing would it be, I thought, to play a role in their lives and help usher two amazing young men into adulthood.
They might not be sons of my blood, but they could be sons of my heart… and in loving them I could finally have a chance to express my Father within.
Unfortunately, things didn't turn out as I had hoped. I eventually learned some very dark and disturbing truths about the father of my partner’s children… her ex-husband and current co-parent. Not only did I learn that he was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and had been horrifically abusive during their marriage, but I was shocked by the nature of their co-parenting dynamic: an absolute lack of boundaries, complete emotional enmeshment, enabling of deeply toxic behavior, secret-keeping about past abuse, and what I was able to later identify (with the help of knowledgeable experts on the subject of narcissistic abuse) as a tragically deep trauma bond between the two of them.
I came to the heart-breaking conclusion that this was not a family I could be a part of. It was made abundantly clear to me that her ex-husband, despite the absolutely evil depths of his past and current behavior, would always take precedence over me… because he was the father of her children, and I was ultimately just the boyfriend.
I am well aware that not every co-parenting dynamic is like this. I believe that some blended families are beautiful examples of unconditional love where stepparents and stepchildren are integrated beautifully into one big, loving family. I am rooting for these families and believe that their success stories could probably teach us all a thing or two about the power of love.
Unfortunately, that was sadly not the co-parenting family dynamic I walked into. Instead, I had to walk away from this relationship before I got pulled deeper into the toxic dysfunction and normalization of abuse.
Despite this dream of stepfatherhood ending with such a heartbreaking conclusion, I did have one conversation with the woman I dated that completely broke me open to a deeper understanding of my desire to have children - biological children - of my own someday.
One morning, she gave me a compliment that I had never, ever received before. It was a compliment wrapped in a heartbreaking truth, but it was still a compliment that changed my life. Over breakfast one morning in my kitchen, she turned to me and said “It’s such a shame I can’t have children anymore, because you’re the exact kind of man I always wanted to have a baby with. I know you would be such a good dad.”
I’m getting emotional as I write these words… just as I was overcome with emotion that day.
In my 37 years on this planet, I had never heard a woman say those words to me before.
I had never felt a woman look at me and deem me worthy of fatherhood. It brought up all those old painful feelings of believing my ex-wife didn’t believe I was worthy to be a father.
Her words broke me & healed me all at the same time.
We later talked in depth about how her words made me feel and I wept openly with her over how touched I was by her seeing me as a potential wonderful father. But as I said, her compliment was wrapped in a heartbreaking truth… that us having a child together was an impossibility. And even more tragically, the man that she had chosen to have children with turned out to be as despicable as a man can be.
My heart broke that day, and breaks every day, when I hear amazing, wonderful, beautiful women using the words “my child’s father” and “my abuser” to describe the same man. It fills me with a blinding rage at all the worthless, absent, abusive biological fathers out there who make the lives of their children and their children’s mothers a living hell. They may have contributed to a pregnancy, but they have no right to claim the title of Father.
But her words that day were an unbelievably priceless gift for me. The depth of emotion I felt in her seeing me as a potential father caught me entirely by surprise & woke me up to a deep longing I had kept buried for so long… buried under all the complicated emotions surrounding my father… buried under all the pain from my first marriage… buried under all my doubts and fears.
Buried under all of that was a longing.
A longing to be a father.
Where this journey will take me in the coming years, I do not know. I will simply have to trust. I know I feel a massive shift in how I approach dating now and the thought of meeting my next romantic partner. I know I already feel a change in my sense of priorities, in how I see myself planning for the future.
Like all people who contemplate parenthood someday, it is a prospect that seems filled with equal parts overwhelming love & overwhelming fear.
But I do know this.
When I’ve shared these thoughts on fatherhood recently with trusted friends, including both loving fathers and wise mothers I know, I keep getting the same response over and over and over again.
“Matt, I can tell you will be an amazing father someday.”
And there are no words… no words I’ve ever heard in all my life… that could make me happier.
- Matthew Robertson