They were talking more distantly than if they were strangers who had just met, for if they had been he would have been interested in her just because of that, and curious, but their common past was a wall of indifference between them. Kitty knew too well that she had done nothing to beget her father’s affection, he had never counted in the house and had been taken for granted, the bread-winner who was a little despised because he could provide no more luxuriously for his family; but she had taken for granted that he loved her just because he was her father, and it was a shock to discover that his heart was empty of feeling for her.
― W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
War seems to do a job on us all when it comes to fathers and their contributions to our lives and to our communities. Men are not so much looked upon in the U.S. as cannon fodder as they once were, but they are still socially inducted into the role of keepers of order and rules. Wars don’t need to be waged constantly – though they are – for us to devalue the humanness of fathers.
Not very long ago, I met a veteran in his forties who said he was happy with the orderliness of his family. His children generally followed his directions and did not complain. His wife kept a tidy home and made good meals for him twice a week or so. He felt secure in his ability to find work if he were laid off again. He hoped to take some great vacations with his wife after his children left the house if his health held out.
For days after meeting him I was haunted by the emptiness of his feelings for his family members and himself. He would do anything for them, including working himself to the grave. That loyalty and commitment provided them all with stability. Passionate feelings or the honest communication of his thoughts and feelings seemed out of the question.
There is a distance to fatherhood that isn’t part of motherhood. In our earliest days, fathers are necessarily a step away. We don’t have an inter-uterine life with our fathers, aren’t expelled from their bodies in birth, don’t nurse at their breasts. Even though our infancies are forgotten, the stamp of those days remains in us, the first exchanges between mother and baby, the back- and- forth, the rocking, the soothing, the holding and looking. Fathers, on the other hand, enter the stage from elsewhere.
– Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays