The Great Quest to Reimagine Fatherhood

by Jason P. Miller, MA, PCC

When someone says “be a real man,” what do you think they mean?  Usually, this phrase is uttered to convey a wish for a man to project a tough exterior; to be strong (usually physically); and to express a chiseled and stoic affect. If a “real man” is permitted to feel anything, it is usually anger, because that is the most useful emotion for conquering and defending, which is historically what is expected. In other words, a “real man” is a warrior: someone who exists to protect and fight for something important. Historically that could mean territory, principles, rights, and/or your family.

In family life, traditionally the “real man” is expected to provide safety and security, and his value and respect is measured by how much he is able to do this. In the workplace, a “real man” is hailed when he rises to a position of power in a hierarchy (read: power over others). Fame and fortune is the hallmark of a “real man”, because those are the traditional indicators of overcoming hardship and barriers placed on him from external circumstances. This typically has included people who stand in the way of “success.”

While this picture of the traditional “real man” may not be as universally common as it once was, it is hard to deny that these themes still widely pervade our world today. Look no further than the daily dramas centered on winning and dominating in any sector. Whether it be politics, business, media, science, education, or healthcare, we still experience cultures and leaders who are celebrated for playing the mythic “conquering warrior.” While many say that “this is the way things are and have always been”, there is and has always been a fundamental flaw with the balance of power in this paradigm. Certainly, all of our external systems need re-calibrating at a minimum and overhauling at a maximum. Yet, there is another institution that holds perhaps the greatest potential to change the imbalance of power in our world: the institution of fatherhood.

If we dream of a future in which more of us are able to focus on lives of thriving rather than just surviving, we cannot get there without reimagining the identity and role of fathers in family life. If we want a future marked by cooperation, care, compassion, and collective well-being rather than competition, winning, and personal economic gain, then we need to envision, build, and reinforce a new identity of fatherhood that embodies these ideals. This is the great quest to reimagine fatherhood.

The great quest is one that seeks to destroy the outdated and harmful identity of the conquering warrior and create in its place the identity of the nurturing partner in development and potential. Make no bones about it – this quest is not easy, not simple, and not done in a moment. It requires any of us who hold the privilege of being a father to commit to a long-term journey of truthful self-exploration, unlearning old narratives and habits, and persisting in the ongoing changing of how we show up in the world. With any quest, the journey will present us with challenges and trials that require ample doses of courage, strength, intelligence, and skills. But, this quest will not have us conquering someone else, or even looking to change something that is outside of ourselves. Rather, our courage will need to turn inward to examine the internal barriers we hold up to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of intimate relationships.

The courageous inner journey of the reimagined father requires dads to embrace their imperfections; to lean into their greatest fears; to challenge and disrupt habitual patterns of thoughts tied to old stories and beliefs; and to be willing to surrender to a purpose greater than oneself. It is a quest for dads to personally accept and express love through warmth, and to become more balanced and whole by embracing their nurturing side. The quest is indeed one that is perilous; one that is fraught with uncertainty and potential loss of self as anyone who has attempted it knows. But it is a quest worth taking because of the powerful role of modeling that we hold as fathers in family life. This is the only real chance we have as fathers to change the trajectory of generations to come.

The great quest to reimagine fatherhood starts with you, Dad. If you want to make the world a better place, first take a look at yourself, and then commit to changing who you are. You can bring balance and thriving to the world by embracing a new identity within your own family by modeling these ideals yourself. Your family lineage depends on your willingness to accept this great quest.

Jason Miller has over twenty-five years of experience as an Organizational Development leader, coach, and consultant as founder of Inner Sound, and serves on the faculty of the Hudson Institute of Coaching. Jason is father to a teenage son.

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