I was at the playground the other day with my nearly three-year-old twin girls. It wasn’t an unusually different day than any of the other thousand trips we’ve taken to the playground. As a matter of fact, it was remarkably the same. So, I remark.
I released the girls from my capable hands and they ran, full-speed, toward their independent objects of desire—one to the “tree house” climbing structure; the other to the animal sculpture-laden area beneath the same structure. I followed and set up camp in the shade of the tree house, comfortably chatting with Lucy about squirrels and whether of not they would eat spiders. It was during this debate that another girl toddled over and sat down with us. She didn’t say anything initially. She just sat down and sized-up Lucy and me. I waited for the detente to warm and then relaxed when I realized that neither party had weapons of mass destruction in their little moose backpacks. Then, two other kids joined us. One little boy was very sincere when he said that we should see his car—a 1967 Shelby Cobra Matchbox. It was indeed a sweet ride. We were all (at this point five kids and me) sitting and talking and, seemingly, really enjoying our time together. It was then that my other wee one came down from her vantage point and said, “Where are their daddies?”
Sure enough (and predictably) there were no other dads to be found. Understandable given that we still live in a world where gender roles are pretty culturally defined. Dads go to work and moms work at raising kids. I see this daily in my life as a “full time dad”. It even feels weird writing that about myself. Don’t get me wrong. I relish the role. But this is a lonely existence. My mom carried this load as well. As did her mom and countless moms before. But this is a different kind of lonely.
You see, moms have this generational competency—principles and practices handed down—not only by their mothers, but by their fathers as well. I hear the screams now; “I had to figure this ‘mom’ thing out by myself!” And I validate those screams. It’s hard and we as parents are the ones who have to figure out how to parent our kids our own way. My mom will attest to the fact that I’m unrelenting in my objection to her advice. But, women (moms) have one thing going for them that men (fathers) don’t: cultural competency.
There are models for “how to do it” available to women. There are support groups, informal groups, and playground banter that have a shared language, customs, and beliefs. Motherhood is clearly defined. Literature, art, film, television, commercial interests have all been complicit in not only the perpetuation of this culture, but some would argue, the creation of this culture. And men have been at the heads of these “industries” for a long time.
There is also a cultural context for fatherhood (close your eyes for a minute and you will know what this looks like.) I liken the explanation of fatherhood to the explanation of school. I asked my 80-year-old father-in-law recently to describe a day in school. His response was, “I couldn’t do that. I haven’t been in school in decades and surely it’s different today.” But it’s not. In spite of all that changes, fatherhood, like school, is fundamentally unchanged because it’s in our cultural DNA. It just is the way it is.
Here’s what it looks like to me: Dads wake up, maybe chat with the kids for a few over breakfast, make a couple funny faces, and then say “see you after work.” When they come home from work, they play with their kids while mom makes dinner, and then help put the kids to bed. On the weekends, dads mow the lawn, fix stuff, and play golf. This is the cultural understanding of “fatherhood.” Sure there are dads across the spectrum, but the baseline is this cultural understanding. The bar is wicked low.
And herein lies the rub: I’m a stay-at-home dad with virtually no relevant role models. I speak a different dialect of the language, the customs and beliefs are those of a neighboring tribe, and the message that I hear over and over is that I’m special. Special? Have you seen me throw down a sausage sandwich and wash it down with two or three IPAs? I’m special in that I’m like the other 147,000 stay-at-home dads who are doing our best for our kids and their moms. And, we’re effectively doing it blind. All of the media that’s available on parenting addresses dads from a deficit perspective—how can dads get MORE involved in parenting; how can dads take a more active role.
When the girls were about 8-months-old, I took them to the grocery store with me to get some shopping done. I filled a basket with stuff to sustain us all and then stood in the checkout line. Behind me was an older woman, kind looking, who was understandably admiring the girls. But then she said, “I can tell you’re a great dad.” She was right. I am. But how could she tell? I wasn’t talking to the girls. I wasn’t doing anything extraordinary that millions of moms do weekly across the country. But, I was doing it. In a thousand years, if my wife had been doing exactly what I was doing, she would likely never be told that she looked like an amazing mom—which she is. She was doing what was expected of her as a mom.
Things are changing. Women in America have access to the opportunities that once were the domain of men (limited access, but access nonetheless) and are forging paths and excelling in their fields. More men are CHOOSING to be dads and not just defaulting to it as the professional landscape becomes more heterogeneous. But the paradigm doesn’t shift overnight and it doesn’t do it without intentional thought.
Here are a couple of challenges that I will pose:
Women: Look around at the playground and count the men. Observe what they’re doing and how they’re engaging with, not only their own children, but also other children. Look at the other women and observe how they’re engaging with kids and with each other. I ask that you do this in an effort to recognize the differences in culture.
Men: Stop being “that dad.” Our children’s’ mothers are moving beyond us and need us to be something that we haven’t culturally been. It’s hard to do, trust me, I know. But it is essential if we are to be relevant examples to our children 25 years from now.