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“Too often, fathers are outsiders in their own families.”
We interview psychoanalyst Dr. Kenneth Feiner, Psy.D., about the prevailing misconceptions of fatherhood, and Chris Calderon, the dad who’s turning those on their head.
Chris Calderon has been sharing an intimate account of fatherhood via his “father and son journal” Instagram Love And Supply since his son’s Kenzo’s birth in 2014. “Instagram is a place that allows me to share my journey as a father,” he explains. “I got into documenting our times because I always want him to know where he comes from. I want to give him the option to look back and see how much he taught me. How much we learned together. How much of life we explored and how much love we have given to each other.”
The fact that heartwarming images and videos of a man openly teaching his son the fundamentals of love, self-care, emotional expression and gratitude are a refreshing sight demonstrates that Chris is an anomaly in a world where vulnerability and masculinity haven’t yet fully intertwined. “The stigma around expressing emotion and being vulnerable is still prevalent,” says Kenneth Feiner Psy.D., a psychoanalyst in private practice for 32 years, who has conducted research on child development and the psychotherapy process. “Messages about emotions which also relate to ideas about masculinity are transmitted to boys from extremely early in their lives. They are deeply ingrained and they have a lifelong effect.”
Kenneth explains that emotional expression isn’t just talking about feelings; it filters down into every aspect of life: “The stigma is baked into men’s ideas about masculinity and as they get older, they affect the ideas that men develop about sex, power and consent, and these ideas ultimately play a significant role in how boys and men think they are supposed to act in the world. And naturally, the messages that boys get about these things will affect who they become as adults, who they become as partners in their relationships and if they become fathers, the kinds of fathers they become. And this, of course, means that these ideas will be passed down to the next generation of boys as well.”
Chris agrees, “I believe two influences come from an upbringing. You take what you were given and repeat it in comfort or avoid it at all costs. I have some ideas and concepts from my upbringing that I am definitely repeating and some that I am definitely avoiding at all costs.” Kenneth elaborates: “Typically, when kids run, crying to their parents, they are immediately told to stop crying. They are often told that big boys or big girls don’t cry. Or worse, parents often get angry at or humiliate their kids when they cry. This is one of the ways that the stigma about expressing emotions is transmitted. The next generation learns these lessons well and they begin to identify with their parents.
“In their earliest school years, you can see kids teasing each other when their behaviour does not conform to the conventions they have learned. It is partly because one way to protect themselves when they are humiliated is to ‘identify with the aggressor’. This means that they become like the parent who has called them a baby for crying. They then tease their friends when they cry as a way of assuring themselves that they are not themselves the crying baby. These attitudes are internalized and as older men (or women), they police themselves in relation to their own emotions, attacking themselves for crying and becoming stoics, who keep their emotions to themselves and don’t know how to be open with or close to others. And when they become parents, they respond to their children’s tears in the same way that their parents responded to their own.
“This is not the only possible outcome though. Some children will counter-identify with their parents. They may see one parent, stereotypically women, in marriages between men and women, tolerate abuse by the other, or adopt a submissive stance in a relationship. Some kids see this and become determined not to do the same, not to be submissive. Ideally, they find their way to free themselves from these patterns that might otherwise, be passed from one generation to the next. When the counter-identification is not excessive, they can be in charge, in some situations, as well as being submissive in others, so that they can choose freely, rather than compulsively and rigidly adopting one stance or the other.”
Dr. Kenneth Feiner completed his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University and psychoanalytic training at New York University, and the majority of his clients seek treatment to get help with difficulties in relationships. “In psychotherapy, we identify repetitive patterns that interfere with the initiation and/or maintenance of intimate relationships,” his biography reads. “Too often, fathers are outsiders in their own families. They become enforcers, called in to set limits and to dole out punishments. When this is the father’s only role with his children, he can become so accustomed to the stern demeanour expected of the disciplinarian, that it becomes difficult to shut it off, and become the kind of figure with whom a young child can feel safe and close.” One form of bonding that Kenneth and Chris both value? Self-care. “It is part of developing emotional muscle,” Kenneth explains. “The ways that parents handle stress will become models for their children, so if parents focus on self-care, they convey to their children the value that they place on it.”
“A great starting point for parents to start this process would be through self-discovery,” Chris advises. “The ability to experience yourself in an honest way allows you to offer something of potency to your child. Start by creating a user manual for the body you live in. Once this process starts to happen, you will be leading by example. Expose yourself to yourself and most importantly to your children. They will feel inspired to do the same.” Although self-care may sound like an unconventional approach to parenting, when it’s widely perceived that having children means that your ability to prioritize yourself shifts in a seismic way, Chris stresses that self-care isn’t selfish: “Self-care isn't the absence of others, it's knowing that everything we do will affect everything and everyone around us. True self-care in my eyes always extends beyond the self and is only truly complete with a sense of community.”
Chris Calderon and his son Kenzo @loveandsupply
This realization dawned on Chris the moment his son’s mom told him she was pregnant. “I had this overwhelming feeling of not knowing myself. That day I began the journey of self-discovery, exploring and experiencing myself in all capacities of life,” says Chris. “That's when I started to see that it was only possible to care for someone else when you cared for yourself.
“Self-care is very individual so understand that your child's routine will look different than yours,” Chris recommends to those looking to incorporate these teachings into parenting. “Always start slow especially with tasks that involve new fear. For example, my son is now six years old and we have been exploring stillness or meditation for a few months. I started at 30 seconds a day for a week, and added 30 seconds every week, and now at the end of the month he is doing beyond 2 minutes every time we sit. So don't rush and always follow what I believe to be the most important rule—quality over quantity.”
Kenneth Feiner, Psy.D. is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and is a supervising faculty member of the New York University Post-Doctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. With Danielle Knafo, co-authored a book titled Unconscious Fantasies and the Relational World and has written on psychoanalytic theories of development, psychoanalytic technique and unconscious fantasy.