MLA: Tom, we know you have done a lot of work with father reconciliation and reestablishing connection to the father-line over the years, so could you speak about why you believe this work is so important?
Tom: I believe all men need and want the blessing and love of their fathers and/or their grandfathers and elder men. We need to have an essential blessing and supportive connection with our father-line to be really comfortable with our maleness regardless of age, intelligence, sexual preference, political affiliation, religion or whatever form our maleness takes. So often we substitute trying to get the validation we need from our peers or from the women only to discover they can’t provide it. And more often than not, it takes years to figure that out.
Given the conflicts and confusion about what it means to be a healthy man in contemporary society and the suspicion and betrayal that younger men have felt about older men, it’s not surprising that the bonding between sons and their fathers and other male elders is so difficult and confusing.
MLA: Have the relationships between fathers and sons always been problematic? And if not, how did we get here?
Tom: Before the industrial age most men knew who their fathers and grandfathers were and what they did everyday and in most cultures those elders were honored for their experience. In those times boys became men basically by following in their father’s or uncle’s footsteps or being apprenticed to an older man to learn a trade or become a fisherman or farmer. Once fathers increasingly began working away from their homes and neighborhoods and in factories those traditional patterns began to break down.
In the US generations of immigrants came to make a better life for themselves and their families leaving their lineages behind. They lost connection with their ancestors both consciously and often unconsciously. Generations of black men were brought to this country and were completely cut off from their roots. I believe that much of the confusion about what it means to be a healthy man today stems from the separation, disconnection, and the resulting rootlessness. With each succeeding generation of these separations there has been a concurrent loss of meaningful rites of passage to male adulthood.
In addition and beyond those great disconnecting forces, it’s also clear that almost every generation of men since the 50’s seems to want to set themselves apart from those who came before. That aspiration has created a natural tension and suspicion between old and younger men. I’m recalling one of the slogans of my generation in the 60’s…. “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
I certainly felt that way myself during those years. I felt we were being betrayed by the politicians in Washington and the military-industrial complex that required sending the young men of my generation to an unjust war in Vietnam.
MLA: It sounds like you felt the disconnection and betrayal personally. Could you tell us more about how your own story impacted your work with men and the urge for reconnection with your father line?
Tom: In retrospect I see that my personal father wounds led me directly to men’s soul work. My birth father died when I was 3 1/2 and that completely changed the course of my life. My grandmother and aunt convinced my mother to allow me to be adopted. so By age 4 I had a new set of parents. I didn’t realize until nearly midlife the implications and depth of that early loss. Even though my adoptive father was a good and deeply principled man, like many men in his generation, he had little access to his feeling body. As a World War II veteran he learned to protect his heart by keeping his feelings to himself. Like many young boys I was sensitive, feeling kid, and so with dad unavailable, I gravitated toward my adoptive mother. She became the dominating force in my childhood. When I began doing men’s work I naturally felt I had a lot of mother issues to deal with. So I started there. I did a lot of cord cutting from her both literally and metaphorically. I soon realized that once I got some distance from her, I was freer but really ungrounded. I had little or no male support.
About that same time I divorced and became a single father. At the first PTA meeting at my son’s school I was the only man in the room. I got it that elementary schools were overwhelmingly a female domain. That made it clear to me that I wanted male support for both my son and for me.
I took a risk and started my first men’s group. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew I needed to be around more men. The men in that first group were good-hearted guys who had some of the same struggles with relationships and fathering issues as I did. We could really hear one another and feel seen. That helped considerably but I felt something was missing.
I decided to find a male counselor. Fortunately for me the man I chose was a very savvy elder. From my dreams he could tell that I needed to access the strength of my deep masculine. I had no idea what that meant but over the course of my work with him and other mentors I began to see that the loss my birth father and the inability to connect with my dad left me without the support of my father-line. I resolved to figure out how to reconnect.
I discovered I wasn’t alone in that regard. In fact most of the men that came to our men’s groups and retreats had little positive contact with their fathers or grandfathers and elders. In fact a large percentage of those men were openly angry with their fathers or felt unsupported, or felt no connection at all.
Given what I was feeling within myself and the need I was hearing from other men I began to create ritual processes, groups, and workshops to directly address the father wound. Most of that material was compiled into what I called the FatherWorkBook. Even in the formative stages I could see that the reconnection to the father-line is at the core of men’s soul work.
Men’s work has come a long way since I began that first group in the mid 70’s but even now I believe the vast majority of men have no idea how important and essential father work is in their lives and how the lack of both inner and outer father-work impacts not only us personally but our whole culture.
We can see the profound ripple effects of the disconnection between fathers and sons as we look at the men we elect as presidents. Trump, Obama, Bush 2, Clinton, Bush 1, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Johnson, and Kennedy all had weak and/or troubled relationships with their fathers. How each of these men compensated for their difficult relationships with their fathers makes a powerful case for how important and essential father work is.
MLA: Could you say more about what it costs us men to not have that father-line connection?
Tom: When the relationship with our fathers and grandfathers is weak, we will question how we feel about ourselves as men. This will deeply color how we relate to other men at all levels. Most often this shows up as not trusting other men and feeling the need to dominate externally as compensation for inner weakness. Or the flip side, other men take the victim role and either feel “not man enough” or self-righteously judge the dominators.
Without the clarity of having our men behind us, we will have difficulty facing the intensity of feminine power. Many relationships between men and women and also between men and other men fail for this very reason. We need that ancestral strength to feel our personal authority and sovereignty as men in our relationships.
Without the strength of our father-line behind us we often find ourselves being confused about how to father our children.
Without those men at our backs we often question both our inner and outer authority and how we relate to our work in the world.
And lastly and very importantly without the clarity of ancestral support we will often be confused about our connection to a higher power or a lack thereof.
MLA: So how do we claim the power and strength of our male ancestry in a good way given that those connections are so complex and often painful?
Tom: First and foremost we have to bring the relationships with our fathers and grandfathers out of the shadows and into conscious awareness. We must take the courageous step of digging in to what our relationship to our father actually is or was and where we stand with our grandfathers and our male lineage. Importantly we have to remember that we can do this whether our fathers or grandfathers are alive or dead.
We have to be willing to look at our father’s lives more objectively and realistically. Sometimes this means digging into our family history and opening doors and reveling secrets. This can involve certain risks but most often ones that are well worth taking.
Once we’ve become clearer about who our father really was and what made him the man who fathered us, and made our grandfather the man who fathered him, then we are ready delve into how that relationship changed over the years or didn’t. We have to look with an open mind and heart at both the gifts and the wounds that came from that relationship and gain new awareness of the true impact his fathering had on our lives. Until we see the deep patterns of relationship to our fathers we will always be run by them unconsciously. We’ll have no opportunity to transform them. With that greater awareness we can begin to see how he still lives on within us and how that inner father still influences our lives. With that awareness we can begin to change that relationship in ways that is both supportive and generative.
Lastly we can work at soul level and co-create powerful rituals that solidify our connections to our fathers and our male ancestors. For the sake of all our children and grandchildren and for the world, I truly wish all men could access this essential and sacred healing work.
If you would like to start this work within yourself now I invite you to try this visualization:
Find a chair that you can lean back into comfortably. Close your eyes take a few deep breaths. Now imagine your father behind you just resting his hands gently on your shoulders. If you find this difficult for any number of good reasons, just imagine that he’s standing a little bit beyond your right shoulder and then imagine that his father or your great-grandfather is standing behind you with his hands on your shoulders. Now imagine your great-grandfather’s father behind him and his father behind him, visualize that vast line of men going back through time to other countries and cultures.
It’s important to remember at this point that there is a single line of men going back thousands and thousands of generations, each one of which was able to pass on that Y chromosome on that gives us our male bodies. Most certainly in every one of our fatherlines we had all kinds of men, both courageous and cowardly, wise and ignorant, stoic and full of feeling, playful and serious, generous and selfish, sovereignly and undistinguished, both killers and victims. The one thing they all have in common is that they were able to father a boy and he was able the pass on that genetic heritage to the next generation and the next and the next until you arrived.
So now again imagining all those men behind you, lean back a little feel the strength of all those lives that came before you. Take as much time as you are able to allow images and feelings to emerge. When you are complete take time to journal any new awareness or feeling that showed up.
For many men just being able to imagine the strength of that connection to all those men is a source of joy and soul satisfaction. I invite you to sit in a comfortable chair for several days in a row at the same time each day and remember all those men behind you. Perhaps this can be a potent first step in reclaiming the gifts and blessings of your father-line.
For those of you who are called to deepening this process please consider taking the Men’s Leadership Alliance 6-Week online course. For complete details go to: