When I consider the relationship between fatherhood and the existentialist framework, I am confronted with a disturbing realization. One of the most central and important existentialist principles, for me, is self-actualization; however, my initial tendency is not to relate this essential dynamic to my identity as a father.
The question that immediately follows this troubling awareness is, of course, “Why is this true for me?” Is it because I don’t like being a father? Of course not; although I do find parenting to be very challenging, I love my two boys and I love being their dad. Is it because I don’t consider my role as a father to be relevant to my process of self-actualization? No, that’s not it either; I do indeed recognize the vital significance of actualizing my full potential as a father to my children. Is it perhaps because, after seven years of parenting, I still think of my self-actualization process in ways that are too individualistic and narrowly personal? Ah, I believe this may in fact be the real answer to this inconvenient question.
As I think about my own self-actualization, what I typically have in mind is realizing my potential as an individual person; developing my individual personality, furthering my personal intellectual and spiritual growth, accomplishing my individual goals, achieving my professional career objectives, etc. Herein is the crux of the issue.
When I married my wife, my self-actualization ceased to be a purely individually-based process; my life was no longer completely my own, and actualizing my potential as a husband became a core aspect of my personal development. When my oldest son was born, my life was less my own in a way I could never have imagined, and since the birth of my younger son, my life has been so far from being my own that I can’t remember very well what it was like when it was just “my” life as a single person without kids. On an intellectual level, I understand that this is a necessary dynamic within such developmental transitions. Yet, on a practical, more “existential” level, I find it difficult to accept.
In my better and more consciously aware moments of critical insight, I realize that while my own individual self-actualization is very significant and even foundational to my actualization as a father, the latter is ultimately more important and will likely become the basis for defining the meaning of my life. Although these existential processes are intimately woven together, what will matter most at the end of my life are not my individual accomplishments and fulfillment, but rather the type of father that I am to my sons. I often have thought that the ultimate tragedy would be to realize at the end of my life that I did not become the person that I was capable of becoming, that I didn’t actualize the full range of my potential as a human being. But I can now see that the ultimate tragedy of my life would be to excessively pursue my own individual development at the expense of my children’s development, to not become the father I am capable of becoming and need to be for them.
Of course, what then occurs to me, and what some may be thinking at this point is that perhaps this self-analysis is a bit too dualistic—that it isn’t necessarily about choosing one process of self-actualization over another. Whereas it does seem to me, in a certain sense, that father-actualization should come before individual actualization, these really cannot be legitimately separated from one another. They do feed into each other in fundamental and profoundly subtle ways. Where does the realization of my individual potential end and the realization of my father potential begin? I don’t know. I suppose this reveals the essential nature of the dilemma for me. What healthy development requires is a dynamic balance between the two processes, and it is difficult for me to maintain this balance.
Fully actualizing my individual potential depends on fully actualizing my potential as a father and vice versa. To become the best, most whole person I can be, I must become the best, most whole father I can be; to become the best, most whole father I can be, I must become the best, most whole individual person that I can be. This is my great challenge as a father, and it is my great challenge as a human being. I accept and commit myself to this challenge and, if you are a parent and particularly a father as well, I encourage you to do the same.
— Scott Kiser