Brad Sachs of Columbia studies them as a father and as a psychologist


June 16, 1991|By Randi Henderson

If the child is father of the man, as a famous poet once wrote, it seems to somehow follow that the man can rediscover the child within himself by fathering his own child.

That's Brad Sachs' theory, anyway, and like millions of other fathers he just might be putting the theory to the test today as he celebrates Father's Day with his children.

And even though Dr. Sachs -- the father of Joshua, 4, and Matthew, 1 -- knows just how consuming fatherhood can be, it isn't something that he'll leave behind as many men do when they head out the door for work Monday morning.

Dr. Sachs, 34, a Columbia psychologist, is director of a program called the Father Center, which offers therapy, workshops and public lectures. He has an interest in fathering that first developed academically, then grew with his own clinical work. Finally, it became intensely personal when his own sons were born.

What he has found in his studies and in counseling and in interviews with hundreds of fathers and fathers-to-be, Dr. Sachs says, are deep feelings that lie untapped and conflicting emotions that often remain undealt with.

"It's very difficult for men to share the experience of being a father, even with their own sons. The sons might want to ask, 'What was it like for you, Dad, what was in your heart?' but it's hard to share these things.

"Men get anxious and panic about what's being stirred," he says of the feelings that often come with fatherhood. "It's an uphill battle in this culture for men to become less peripheral in family life. Women still run the show, buy the presents, make the doctors' appointments, do all the little things that make a family a family."

Uphill though the battle may be, it has been joined at least nominally by no less a body than the U.S. Congress. Last week Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, convened a hearing to examine the role that fathers play in parenting and look at how their work environment can be more helpful in supporting that role.

The news was hardly encouraging. According to James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute, a New York research organization, working fathers are an "invisible dilemma" for corporate America, which does not even recognize the concept of working fathers as a group with special needs in the workplace.

That's just the kind of deficit that Brad Sachs found back in the mid-'80s when he moved from a career as a middle school English teacher to study psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and was looking for a subject for his doctoral dissertation.

"My interest in fathering started to emerge gradually," he recalls, "as I looked around and saw that almost nothing had been done researchwise. The field was wide open. Everything was mother-focused, or mother-blaming."

His dissertation explored changing feelings in expectant fathers and how a man's relationship with his own father changes when he becomes a father. He had no problem convincing his professors that this was a valid area of research. "People recognized that this was an area that needed to be explored," he says.

But though his work was well-received in academic circles, Dr. Sachs found the popular market nowhere near as receptive. "I hit a wall with the popular press," he says. "Publications I first contacted, magazines like Redbook, Woman's Day and McCalls, were very clear that there wouldn't be much interest. They were just very skittish. There was such a solid denial, a rigidity, a steeliness against this topic, it was really stunning."

Not that he was reporting findings that shook the foundations of American manhood.

He predicted his own results before his research proved that men experiencing fatherhood for the first time manifested changes in the way they thought about themselves. It turned out, he says, "to show up not as saliently as I had expected. But I soon realized why: I needed to look at the whole thing more longitudinally, over a longer span. I realized that it really is a several-year transition, not just something that happens from conception to birth."

Though the data about relationships of new fathers with their own fathers was not conclusive, he found in some men "dramatic" changes in their feelings about their own fathers. "They had this desire, this yearning for their fathers to be there, to be a piece of what was going on," he says of many of his subjects. "And that is unsettling. He [the new father] doesn't expect this, he feels embarrassed, sheepish.

"It's a primal feeling, but many men fight it off. They throw themselves into their work; there's an avoidance."

Exploring the field forced Dr. Sachs to examine his relationship with his own father, and what he found fit right into the pattern his research was unfolding.

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