DESCRIBING his craft, Joseph Conrad says "My task is to make you feel, it is, before all to make you see. That and no more, and it is everything."
This two-fold task, always difficult, demands the heroic when the subject to be described is a universal experience such as fathering, where each of us is expert, sole survivor and champion of his own suigeneris paternal relationship.
Collectively these three books succeed in making us feel and see; singly they fail. Robert Meister's book makes us feel, Ross Parke excels in making us see. The authors of The Father Book offer bits of feeling and knowledge in one small area of the fathering experience.
Robert Meister's Fathers raise our feelings by provoking customarily dormant questions. Is father the hero with a thousand faces or the traitor to our trusting vulnerability? Is he originator of self-doubt or supplier of stability? Of is he a dismissable stranger from our past?
The author's intense personal feelings of failure as a son and father prompted him to investigate the interactions and feelings between fathers and their children. He interviewed 98 fathers and 115 sons and daughters in two-hour interviews. He describes 16 of these relationships, as told both by father and children. He divides the 16 fathers into six categories: distant and silent, seductive, tyrannical and demanding, idealized, macho-competitive, and eccentric andd bizarre.
Of the 30 sons and daughters presented, 22 describe their fathers as failures. The positive feelings of the remaining eight are shaded by a protectiv e denial.
I missed the revelation of the research tool that so powerfully primed the usually recessed well of paternal influence. These folks spill their tenderest emotional guts and offer insights worthy of veteran psychoanalysts, all in a two-hour interview. Their pain and agony make one grateful for boring normalcy as well as providing a tinge of envy for the excitement of the extreme.
These sideshow fathers create enduring anguish for their children. Among the anguished are: sulking, self-absorbed Anna, daughter of the absolutely hedonistic Roger; suspicious Sara, whose father, nightly, for 15 years, visited her room to talk after mother fell asleep; Amy, victim of physical incest; Robert, so pressured into piano lessons by his father's vicarious desire for genius that he collapses emotionally and physically; and Albert, whose father, both alone and with others, teachers Albert the pleasures of normal sex as well as the thrills of sado-masochism.
Recognize your dad or yourself yet? The author's selection of a typical relationships, heightened by his dramatic style, narrows the similarity between these fathers, their children and the rest of us. The average father of plain strengths and pedestrian weaknesses is missing. Though this father possesses only wee bits of tyranny, seduction, distance, sadism and eccentricity, his children feel his influence. To a son or daughter he is enough and more, average but never common, so powerful that his influence lasts a lifetime. He is replaced by the tabloid father, sensational, but removed from the real world.
In contrast to Meister's subjective presentation of fathers, Ross D. Parke's Fathers offers an objective view. Parke's small book, one of the contributions to The Developing Child series of Harvstrd University Press, is full of documented and reliable information about fathers obtained from scientific and observational studies.
Parke presents a mass of data in an orderly and readable manner avoiding the usual academic jargon and analyses of variance that go thud on the common man's brain. The focus is on what is known, what has been learned through experiment about fathering. There are chapters on the myths of fatherhood, the expectant father, fathers and infants, socialization, intellectual development, divorce and custody and innovations of fathering.
Albert Einstein tells us that our theories determine what we observe. Due to the influence of matricentric child development theories of Sigmund Freud and John Bowlby, observational studies on fathering were begun only 10 years ago. In this short time, results indicate that fathers are much more important in fact than they have been in theory. These studies confirm what each child knows in his heart: dad is just as important as mom.
For example, by 18 months infants are equally attached to fathers as to mothers and react equally to separation from either, despite the mother's role as primary parent. The more contact with the father, the easier it is for the infant, child and adolescent to make contact with strangers and to feel comfortable in new situations.
Fathers expect more from sons and play rougher with them even from birth. The amount of time the father spends with his childs and the father's encouragement of exploration positively affect the child's cognitive ability.
As Freud's influence made us blame mother for our shyness, slowness, self doubting and sexual identity problems, these studies indicate that daddy made us do it, too.
The experiments and studies Parke reports teach us that father is as powerful an influence as mother, that he affects his child's social and intellectual skills from the very beginning and that his degree of involvement has both immediate and far-reaching effects on his child.
Contrasting Parke's widespread information about fathers in many situations, The Father Book: Pregnancy and Beyond is an informative and helpful explanation of pregnancy written exclusively for expectant fathers. Nearly every conceivable outcome of pregnancy is presented, some belabored. The book instructs the father-to-be how to examine his feelings about pregnancy, gives many tips on helping and understanding the wife quotes fathers both in favor of and opposed to participation in the actual labor and delivery.
The description of the labor and birth is particularly appealing. We feel the awaited tension grow to fear, yield to excitement, to joy and now euphoria as father touches his baby.
The sensitivity of the six female authors to the expectant fatherhs timid curiosity is beneficial in places, such as the detailed descriptions of labor, birth and delivery. But men, even anxious, expectant men, will resent the patronizing attitude of the eighth-grade textbook tone, the offering of hints and tips including such uncalled for advice as:
"Receive treatment appropriate to an adult." Make informed decisions." "Protect your partner, your child and yourself."
This resentment will not noticeably diminish men's appreciation for this book. Its presence elevates father, that bashful, helpless bungler of yore, nervously pacing the waiting room or sheepishly peeking in the nursery, to new status as involved parent from the very beginning.
The publication of three books on fathering in the same month feeds a current interest in this the oldest, perhaps the most difficult, challenge for men. While interests come and go, the power of father never falters.
The ebb and flo of our interest in fathers is but a sign of the gravity pull of a changeless truth: there is but one father in the world and he is yours.