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Dads go off the map

First of all, happy Father's Day!

I've been intrigued by two things this week as I've watched the volume of information leading up to our special day. The obvious is the rise of modern dads, Stay At Home Dads, dads who change diapers, do hair, cut the crusts off sandwiches. We're everywhere. The culture shift that has taken place to allow us to be "in" is kind of cool to be a part of. I obviously didn't do this job for the social prominence that comes with it. But being a part of a movement that has caught on the way it has is fun.

Just under the radar, however, has been the dad counter-current to us. Blink and you'd miss it. But I've caught a few posts and articles out there about the previous generation. A lot of it from people wondering about their own dads who lived in a time when being a dad meant something very different. And how they loved in the way they could for the times.

It's no coincidence that my Twitter photo is from the black and white period of idealized tv fathers. I'm being cheeky and ironic in my own way. Because you'll often hear from that generation of men that it was constrained and they suffered...often quietly...under the weight of that vision for manhood.

In some ways, I can totally understand the backlash and anger coming from certain circles. Modern dads have gone off the map. We've gone rogue. We've thrown away the script. We've decided that being a dad--being a man, really--has more to it than the array of choices our fathers and grandfathers were given. It's a sexism we don't talk about much unless indirectly. We talk about the war on boys, women being better educated, the male prison population, single moms...what we don't talk about much is the lack of options available to men previously. The suffocating way our culture has limited choices for role models. Heck, those sexist stereotypes still exist. We bitch about them everyday in our SAHD groups. I made a healthy snack for my kids and, no, we're not just waiting for mommy to come home. Thank-you-very-much.

I hope in my son's generation that we're not creating another false choice of "your dad changed diapers and got juice so why can't you?" But if you think this generation of modern dads is trying to convince everybody to be like us, you're very mistaken. That's not the point. There's nothing wrong with working. There's nothing wrong with you if you're not the World's Greatest Dad. We're not aiming for perfection. We're aiming for the freedom to be ourselves.

As I'm sitting here writing this on a beautiful spring day, the windows are open to let in the dainty, small cry of a newborn. Cute. But I don't miss it. I remember back when my son was first born trying so hard to be...good. I wanted to be capable. I wanted to be good at this new role I'd chosen.

Now, I can honestly say I've never been bad at much. Many things make me miserable. Math. 3 hours of college chemistry lab. Law school. Trying to join the football team. But I can do all those things even if uncomfortably. My "failure" at them was really more a failure in being ok with the misery continuing. They didn't make me happy. (Pole vaulting I'll give you that I probably did, in fact, suck at.)

Some people feel that way about fatherhood. Having kids isn't going to necessarily make your life complete, perfect, or better. It did mine. But that's in no way indicative of how all men everywhere should tackle children. If you suck at it, maybe that makes you an even better dad than me in some ways. This comes naturally to me. I enjoy it. It feels like home and the place I should be. Even on my worst days. I don't regret waking up to start again in the morning.

I imagine the dads in my grandfather's generation. Waking up every morning to the misery of putting on a suit and tie, going to the office. Maybe even being unable to play with their kids the way they wanted. I love to pretend with my kids. This morning's nectarines were "fish" that we "eagles" swooped down to catch after I taught my babies how to fly when leaving the nest. Not all dads are so lucky to be so at ease.

My early wanting to be good has given way to something even more profound the older my kids get. Relating. It's become less about the symbolic (empty?) parenting tasks and the really cool stuff is in the interpersonal dialogue we have. When one of them tells me a hope or fear. When we share something in common. Or maybe when we have nothing in common and I take pride in their independent personhood.

The point being that fatherhood looks different. From generation to generation. From person to person. I struggle sometimes to figure out how it all comes together. What's the essence? The older and wiser I get, the more willing I am to forgive the fumbling way others have taken to my task because it's all shrouded in mystery. If you take parenting seriously it is humbling. I don't know what I'm doing and neither do you.

My greatest wish for all dads everywhere this Father's Day is that whatever the nature of your relationship with your kids that we all take some time to reflect how we've been changed by the experience. What we've learned. Father's Day isn't maybe so much about them giving us something.

As a dad, it's more about appreciating the gift I've been given. Thank you to my son and daughter for making everything a little clearer than it might have been otherwise. Thank you to my partner in all this who has made it possible to be who I am...and, of course, for making them possible!

Enjoy your grilling, your bad neckties, your poorly drawn stick figure greeting cards, your ability to drink a beer and watch the game alone, your golf outing, your ice cream together as a family. Whatever it is, I hope all my dad-friends want to be there.