From dad, with love: The struggle for sons and fathers to talk openly about feelings

Fathers all over the land will have recognised the reaction of Richard Cass when his son Jamie was found. He may given him a ticking-off, but we know his true feelings, says Peter Stanford
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The Independent Online

Richard Cass doesn't mince his words. "When I hear about all the mistakes he made," he said of his 19-year-old son, Jamie, who was found alive last week after being lost for 12 days in the Australian outback, "I can't say I'll kill him – that would defeat the purpose – but I will kick his arse."

Not quite what you would expect from a man who the day before his son was found had conducted a quasi-religious "closure" ceremony with candles and roses in the Blue Mountains park as an acknowledgement that his boy was dead.

The biblical equivalent would be Martha and Mary giving Lazarus a tongue-lashing when he rose from his tomb for all the grief he'd put his sisters through. But, as far as we know, they didn't. Why not? Well, Richard Dawkins would no doubt point out that, like most stories in the New Testament, we can't be sure they existed, but more pertinently, Martha and Mary were women, and in general women tend to react differently to these back-from-the-dead scenarios.

So Jamie's mother, Jean Neale, when she heard he had survived his ordeal, said: "I am not angry with him for getting lost. I think he has shown amazing guts and I am incredibly proud of him." Mothers and sons, or indeed father and daughters, do seem in general to find it easier to express emotions than fathers and sons. The reason, I'm afraid chaps, is that in both these other relationships, there is a woman involved and they are usually emotionally more literate.

To be fair to Richard Cass, he also described himself, when he heard the news that Jamie had been discovered alive, as "like a lunatic, [shouting] 'My boy's been found, my boy's been found.'" So he was able to show the public he loved his lad, but when he got to the bedside felt the need to "kick arse". It seems a reasonable assumption therefore that Cass's rebuke to his son was borne not of genuine anger, but rather was just his way of expressing relief. He lacked the emotional language to do it properly, so substituted cod macho bravado. Put it that way and it sounds inexplicable, though I suspect many fathers will know why.

I do. It reminded me in particular of the day when my own son, then only nine, ignored everything I'd taught him about road safety and stepped off the pavement so as to overtake his six-year-old sister, and straight into the path of a car. I watched helpless as the driver was mercifully sufficiently alert to swerve and avoid him. Did I (a) rush over, scoop my son up and tell him what I was feeling, namely, "Thank God my beautiful boy of whom I'm so proud is still alive", or (b) rush over, scoop him up, and tell my son what I was feeling, namely, "You bloody fool, how could you be so stupid?" The answer is I did both, but, to my shame, (b) first followed a few minutes later by (a).

However far we have travelled as a generation of hands-on, nappy-friendly, share-the-childcare fathers – and, of course, every generation sets itself the goal of doing things so much better than the previous one – we still seem to have a long way to go in freeing the channel of emotional communications between fathers and sons, as between men and men.

To take a simple example of the latter. How do men of my (fortysomething) age greet each other when they meet an old and close friend? With a kiss or a hug – which is what they would most probably do with women friends they know half as well? Of course not. We're not going all European. And even if we were more prepared than Nigel Farage to ape continental men and their penchant for hugging and kissing, most of us would be too inhibited.

At my cousin's funeral recently, her grown-up sons stood at the church gate, their grief unbearable. My instinct as I walked up to them was to embrace them. Words on such an occasion are meaningless, a handshake a rebuff, and a thump on the shoulder the sort of macho gesture I've never quite mastered (nor wanted to). But I hesitated. Only briefly, but hesitate I did. There is still a residual inhibition, rooted in our upbringing and society's expectations of how a man behaves, that lurks inside many of us.

My father, as far as I can remember, never embraced me once until he was in his eighties. Left suddenly emotionally vulnerable by my mother's death, he took to kissing me when we met. He did it on the lips, which felt very odd, and was the misunderstanding of a social custom by one who comes to it late in the day. However, it felt too unkind, given what a big step it was for him, to redirect him to my cheek.

Yet for all my formative years, my father had his own version of Richard Cass's apparent displacement of emotions. He would press money into my palm as a way of showing me he loved me. It was never a large amount (no one had a trust fund in Birkenhead in the 1970s) and indeed mirrored the habit of a whole generation of my uncles over the water in Liverpool who, at the end of Auntie Rita's annual Boxing Day get-together, would slip me a few coins as we said goodbye. It was how they expressed affection.

It is a mark of how things have changed that recently, when I took my now 12-year-old son up to Liverpool and he met those of my uncles who are still alive, he was utterly lost when they tried to do the same thing to him. He'd never come across this traditional avoidance ritual between an older generation of males and sons and nephews.

If we have lost some of the substitutes for more open displays of feeling, what has a modern generation of fathers and uncles found to put in their place? Well, like many of the dads my age of my acquaintance, I make sure that I tell my son clearly and often that I love him. And until very recently, there has never been any inhibition about hugging and kissing between us.

Strange, even as I write this, that I find myself recoiling from such candour. I think it is something to do with the climate we live in where child abuse looms so large that it reinforces male inhibitions about any public display of affection or even interest in children in case someone, somewhere, misinterprets them and calls social services. The irony is that this fear of men is based on the idea that we are overwhelmingly the abusers, though recent research from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation has pointed to large scale under-reporting of abuse of children by women.

As my son approaches his teenage years, however, I can see his inhibitions growing, especially around me. So we only hug at night now, rarely in public. Recently he had a schoolfriend to stay for the weekend, and dodged round me when he said goodnight, though he seemed quite happy to be cuddled by his mother. Perhaps it was fear of being reported back to the classroom – what Harriet Harman might call the "court of public opinion".

One time-honoured way of breaking down generational barriers is to talk about sport. It is the lingua franca of fathers and sons. So when I was a teenager my dad took me to stand on the Kop to watch Liverpool in an effort at male bonding. The fact that I recall it so vividly suggests it was successful. The problem was I didn't much like football. Or sport in general.

Nevertheless, from an early age, I have tried to nurture in my son (but not his sister), and share, an enthusiasm for some kind of sport or team, if only to help him avoid the classroom problems I encountered when I expressed my disdain for the national game. So we watch matches on the TV and have even gone to see some of them live, but, despite my best efforts, he has seen through the ruse. Now, given the choice, he opts to go with his maternal grandfather who has taken over what he calls his "sports education".

Which is, in one sense, a relief. I can't help thinking that if men could define each other by their interests, the books they read, their beliefs, their work or their politics, instead of, as in so many cases, by what football team they support, we might make a bit more progress on unlocking our emotions. And there is nothing more irritating than a budding politician pretending to be an avid football fan in the slightly patronising belief that it will help him (and it is always a him) to connect with voters. Remember those unconvincing pictures of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown "enjoying a beer" as they watched a World Cup match in Downing Street?

With or without sport as a prop, though, it remains a struggle for sons and fathers to talk openly about feelings. Most of us continue to get it wrong, like Richard Cass. We may be doing a bit better than our own dads, but not nearly well enough. The one consolation is that watching us may just inspire the next generation, in their turn, to do slightly better again.

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