The king of the roost eventually has to face competition from the next generation at home.
It happens in a dozen different ways. He's inching above you, then one day he's taller than you. He's better than you at soccer, he's discovering sex and you're not. It's that difficult moment when a father is displaced by his teenage son.
Howard Blumenthal, 55, recalls that moment in his relationship with his 18-year-old son, Jackson.
"One Saturday evening, I opened the door to Jackson's girlfriend and she said, `Is he upstairs?' At that moment, I realized with envy that this young woman hadn't come to see me, she had come to see my son. That was a bit of a shock," he said.
In those few seconds, a pivotal father-and-son rite of passage had taken place. The baton of manhood was passed from father to son. As something drew to a close for one, it was only just beginning for the other.
"I saw Jackson slightly differently after that," Howard said. "He became my son who was possibly sexually active. Somewhere inside, I had to acknowledge that he was taking a step into manhood."
Not that there was any kind of conversation about it afterwards. The household -- Howard, who runs his own textile business, Jackson, his 16-year-old son, Jaspar, and his wife, Laura, a theater education officer -- just carried on as normal. But, secretly, Howard was having an internal talk with his younger self.
"A feeling of loss and nostalgia descended on me. I acknowledged to myself that my own days of sexual exploration were over," he said.
Over at a wedding reception in a groovy bar on London's South Bank, another father-and-son rite of passage was taking place. Malcolm Bennett, 52, was there, accompanied by his son, Tom, 15. Malcolm has the slightly faded good looks of a once good-looking man, whilst Tom is the young pretender.
Between them, they managed to attract a couple of twentysomething Argentinian women.
Somehow -- father and son stories differ -- Malcolm got distracted, and Tom ended up with both women on his lap. Father and son treat it all as a bit of a joke, but it's clear that Tom is on the brink of a takeover, and Malcolm is ceding power, particularly in the sexuality stakes.
Tom lives in Bristol, England, with his mother, and visits his father -- who is single -- whenever he can. They hang out together, a bit like mates, but the balance of power is subtly changing.
"I take him to Borough market, introduce him to my mates in nearby pubs," Malcolm said. "We might do an art gallery too."
Malcolm said he sometimes feels twinges of envy.
"I envy him the opportunities with women that I didn't have. I was good-looking but I didn't realize it," he says. "But I'm not sad. I love it that Tom knows he's good-looking already. At 21, I had a beard like Dostoevsky to hide my face. He's confident at 15."
In these emotionally literate times, we are, it seems, increasingly familiar with the tensions in the relationship between menopausal mother and teenage daughter, as explored by Kate Figes and other writers.
But the equivalent tussle between middle-aged father and teenage son is rarely considered. According to the psychotherapist and author Malcolm Stern, it's because men find it difficult to confront their father/son envy.
"Envy is around for fathers," he said, "and it is focused on their sons' increasing opportunities for sex with women, which usually comes at a time when these fathers are getting older and are perhaps in long-term relationships, therefore their own opportunities are decreasing. But these feelings are much less admitted by men than women. For men, it is still taboo to discuss this type of envy."
In west London, Luke Narcisse, 43, garage owner and youth project organizer, bears out Stern's thesis. Luke flatly denies any feelings of envy towards his son, Jacque, 18.
"Nah, nah," he says, "why should I feel envious? I've seen all the girls eyeing up Jacque at clubs," he said, "but I'm watching out for how he handles the attention. And he handles it pretty well."
"He's not big-headed. That makes me proud. As for women, I don't have any problem attracting them, but I've worn that T-shirt and now it's Jacque's turn," he said.
Like Malcolm and Tom, Luke and Jacque don't live together -- Jacque lives in Harlesden, west London, with his mother, while Luke lives down the road in Ladbroke Grove -- but they do spend more and more time together as Jacque gets older.
"When my partner and I split up three years ago, it was difficult for a while between Jacque and I. We didn't know how to say what we needed to say. But recently I got him a little car, and he comes down and works with me at the garage one day a week, so our relationship is getting closer," Luke said.
"Of course, I know he's good-looking but I tend to joke around about it," he said.
Humor is clearly a useful way for fathers to survive the ageing process. Novelist Dave Hill, who writes regularly about family life, has two teenage sons, aged 15 and 17. While it's wonderful to see them flourish, he says, inevitably their youth and vigor only bring into sharper focus your own fading physical powers.
"I don't resent it at all -- though I could do without them being taller than me," Hill said. "But having a 17-year-old son who is still filling out and growing into his adult body does bring home how you're in decline."
"I can understand why for some guys the idea that your son has become bigger and stronger than you, and is becoming more independent, can be challenging to your self-image. Part of the culture of masculinity is that men are supposed to be in charge of things -- have mastery over their surroundings," he said.
It's tricky, therefore, when the teenage son appears to be taking over.
Malcolm Bennett, father of 15-year-old Tom, thinks there are clear differences in the way that men and women handle the process of fading into the shadows as their children take the limelight.
"Men live in a different sexual culture than women. We may be unconsciously competing with our sons but we're not going to confess to it. Unlike women. Women feel more at ease about stepping into that kind of vulnerability," he said.
According to the psychologist Oliver James, however, there is another, more significant difference between men and women that is responsible for this mother/father dichotomy.
"Research shows that women are attracted to power and status, so they are less attracted by the physical appearance of men," he said, "whereas what attracts men to women is how sexually attractive they are. Sexual attractiveness in girls, although we don't like to talk about it, starts at about 14. That's why there's so much middle-class angst around teenage girls in bikinis. Mothers with teenage daughters will be aware of this increased attention on them from men, and therefore be susceptible to feeling less looked at, and less attractive themselves."
Teenage boys, however, do not receive this level of attention from women.
"A middle-aged father and his teenage son wouldn't have the same experience as a mother and her teenage daughter in this respect," James said. "Also, because women's attraction to men is not so directly based on looks, middle-aged fathers don't feel so threatened by their sons."
The truth is many middle-aged men seem to believe they can continue to attract younger women. Women, on the other hand, are much more likely to believe they become less attractive to all men the older they get. Maybe it's because their bodies have undergone a more dramatic transformation following childbirth. Their fertility comes to a more abrupt end than men's, and the menopause is a sharp reminder of all that is lost.
What unites the fathers interviewed here is a growing pride in their sons, and their evolving relationships with them. And they all feel far closer to their teenage sons than their own fathers were to them.
"I wasn't very close to my father, he was a businessman and fairly distant," Howard said. "I certainly wasn't allowed to bring girlfriends home, whereas I've always supported Jackson in this way. I notice how much more confident he is around girls than I was at this age. In fact, I am very proud of him for acting responsibly around contraception. I was nothing like that mature at his age."
Malcolm's father worked at the shipyards in Liverpool, in the north west of England, so he rarely saw him.
"But I loved my father to bits. In some ways, it is a bit like Tom and I in that we don't see each other much but there's a lot of love between us," Malcom said.
Luke didn't see much of his father because he left the family home before Luke went to primary school.
"I'd go round and see him to get a bit of money, but I didn't have a relationship with him," he said, "which is why it's been hard for me to know how to talk to Jacque. Now we do more together, it's easier. Jacque is dyslexic like me, but he has the support I never had, and passed his [final school exams] last year."
For Howard and Luke, the disparity between their decline and their sons' youthful beauty is particularly acute. Both Jacque and Jackson now work as occasional models. Jackson was spotted at Homelands, the one-day music festival, by Dior's menswear designer. Within two weeks, he was on the catwalk in Paris.
"I was proud rather than envious," Howard said.
"If I do allow myself to compare my body with his, I feel more of a sense of loss. Often it feels like a loss of energy. I can't play football like he does, I feel worn out a lot of the time. Laura says I'm a grumpy git so that may well be my unexpressed anger around all of this," he said.
The Relate counsellor Paula Hall points out that there's another difference in the mother/daughter, father/son debate.
"For mothers, it's more about envying their daughters on an aesthetic and flexibility level, body-wise; whereas for fathers, they envy their son's vitality. Being aware of the ageing process means they can envy their son's speed of reactions, and their general staying power, in sport as well as sex," she said. "This envy is often mixed with nostalgia. It becomes unhealthy when the fathers feel they are missing out."
All this and we haven't even mentioned the words mid-life crisis.
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