A father's love divided
Updated: May 12
Over the past 6 months I have been doing some research for a book that I am writing. It's all about bringing a different kind of listening to family life. As a result, I have been witness to some amazing stories unfold as individual parents explore what is on their mind in a Listening Space - a process that involves a combination of repeating key words the other person has used and asking them Clean questions.
What follows is the transcript from one such session in which a father explores his relationship with his two sons (my questions are in bold, his answers in blue):
So, what would you like to explore?
I have two sons, 11 and 13 years old, who live with me some of the time.
I’m very keen to be a good father to them – to give them both the same amount of attention, of love. But their personalities are very different, and my eldest regularly complains that I favour the younger one. Which I’m sure I don't.
However, it is easier for me to connect with my younger son because he’s more of an extrovert. He is always inviting me to engage with him, to respond to him.
So now I’m looking for the right balance. How can I approach this in a way that is fair, that they both realise that I care for them fully, without giving more to one than the other?
I repeated back some key words so that we could establish a focus to his exploration:
A good father. Connect with. The same amount of attention. The right balance. Fair. Care for them fully. Do any of these words resonate for you in particular?
I noticed something happening inside me when you said ‘fair’. Fair seems to be a very, very important thing to me.
What kind of fair is that?
It’s a fair that doesn’t necessarily need the same amount of attention to both of them, in time or energy, but still conveys that I love them both equally. Equally isn’t even the right word because I love them both individually one hundred percent. So, it’s not a divided love, where both get fifty percent. In this case fair is not about division. It’s more about being able to communicate to both that I love them each one hundred percent, even if I engage with one more than the other.
It's not a divided love. And communicate to both that you love them one hundred percent.
And is there anything else about fair?
Well, I know I'm being fair, but I’m not sure that the eldest gets it. I’m very happy that he expresses his concern about me favouring his brother, but I would like to find a way to let him realise that I love them equally.
Happy that he does express his concern. And how can you approach this.
And whereabouts is fair, like that?
When you asked that question I had a feeling of my heart opening, like a flower with petals, opening.
Is fair on the inside or the outside?
It’s on the outside, in front of my chest.
And does fair have a size or a shape?
It’s about the size of a DVD. And it’s like a flower. Not like a real, material flower. It's like a flowery energy.
A flowery energy, in front of your chest.
And is there anything else about fair?
I had hoped that it was obvious to both of them that I love them equally because it’s obvious to me. Being fair is a very important value to me, in a broader sense. I can be very annoyed, rebellious, angry even, when things aren't fair. Which makes the complaints of my eldest son very understandable to me. It resonates. That’s why it feels like a problem that I really need to sort out. To me it’s fair, but he doesn’t perceive it as such.
And, as I’m talking about this, I realise it’s getting more and more urgent. It needs to be addressed now.
More and more urgent. It needs to be addressed now. And a flowery energy.
And is there anything else about fair?
Well what comes up is that I was an only child, so the whole issue of fair, in this sense, never came up in my own childhood. I never had to quarrel, for example. And what I’m thinking is that maybe my own lack of experience of having siblings might be hindering me in dealing with this. I’m not sure what’s natural and what isn’t, what's normal or extreme.
They tend to fight a lot, my boys. Not in a very extreme way, but they do. My first inclination is always to be a negotiator and help them make peace. But their mother always says to me, ‘Let them be. They’re boys, they’ll work it out.'
You're not sure what's normal or extreme. And love them equally.
Is there anything else about fair?
No, not really, I just need to find a way of expressing my love to my eldest that he understands as love. And perhaps I am too reactive, waiting for them to come to me - which turns out to be a lot easier for the youngest one to do.
I then invited him to represent what he had explored on paper in some way, and this is what he drew:
What do you notice as you look at what you've drawn?
I've drawn a flower opening up (that’s me) and two suns – sons and suns! I'm like a flower willing to open up to the suns.
What really strikes me as I look at this is that I’m lucky they are so near to each other. It makes it possible for me to direct my attention to both of them. If they had been on either side of me, I’d have struggled to open out to them both. So that’s a relief.
The other thing I notice is that, without intending to, I have drawn the younger son taller than his brother, and it looks like he is standing closer to me. In reality my eldest son is taller than me, and his younger brother shorter … Very weird! In a sense it describes what I was talking about, of course. My older son is a bit held back. And the younger is inclined to come forward, to be more present, to let everybody know that he’s there.
Is there anything else about what you notice?
I look a bit flabbergasted, like someone who doesn’t really know what to do.
But as a whole I'm rather open and able to be vulnerable.
And what do you know now about fair?
That there’s a difference between feeling the same amount of love for both of them and showing it. Perhaps I should express my love more without waiting for them to come and get it, to come and get the attention.
And what difference does knowing that make?
I think I should be more proactive in this. I feel more responsible for what’s going on. At the same time, I feel more empowered. Most of all, it’s up to me to do something about this
I asked him to reflect on what his experience of this Listening Space had been:
Wonderful actually! I keep being amazed how good it feels to hear your own words repeated back to you. It’s helped me to get in touch with what’s going on inside of me.
Like when we were exploring what the right focus word should be; you gave back the word ‘fair’ and immediately something happened inside me, which hadn’t happened as I was saying it. It’s close to miraculous.
What I also liked was the persistence in repeating the same question over and over. I was surprised by just how much information was available. More than you would come to mind in the first place.
In a follow-up email a few weeks after this session, this father-of-two reflected on what he had noticed since his Listening Space:
When I saw the boys again the atmosphere was very relaxed, more relaxed than usual. Although I didn't do anything specific to bring that about.
And there was something I noticed about the drawing that I had made. As I looked at it two days after our session, something struck me as odd. I liked the son/sun pun, but things seem reversed. I realised it would be much more appropriate if I were the sun (one instead of two) and the boys would be the flowers. A sun gives it’s light and warmth indiscriminately; there would be more than enough for both flowers,
What this shows me is that up until now I was probably more concerned with receiving love from them than giving love to them.
I have adjusted the image in my head. I am now that sun, giving light and warmth to the flowers.