Growing up in the mid-1980s, the height of playground taunts was to issue a dare, then to be trumped with a double-dare. I suppose people could triple dare you, but in my neighborhood to say “triple dare” was to admit defeat and cowardice.
I rarely use the term anymore. Sometimes I’ll bring it out when my wife and I have devolved our arguments into infantile flirtations, or when my dad-friends and I are out for a drink.
Given the state of things, I’m going to use it today to dare you to reimagine fatherhood. In the midst of this pandemic, our “normal” systems have been replaced by virtual meetings and “zoom” coffees. In talks with colleagues about the state of higher education or family structures, many have referenced that it is hard to say anything is a best practice anymore. Instead, everything is akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. So, let’s throw some spaghetti at fatherhood and see what sticks.
Let’s reimagine fathers as breadwinners. It isn’t hard. It’s already happening with the rise of women as primary breadwinners and more fathers remaining at home to support their children. In Finland, this has already been reimagined with equal paid leave policies and many fathers remaining at home for a year with their children. Studies show the time fathers have to bond with their children is critical to the child’s later success in life, especially in the first few years of life.
The pandemic has forced many fathers to remain at home and work alongside their children who are going through remote learning at school. While it is still too early for studies to provide reliable data on this current moment, anecdotally many fathers are reporting a renewed connection to their kids. They are excited to have the chance to be present to build emotional bonds and see their children’s development unfold before their very eyes.
Founder of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, has lent his voice for the fight on paid family leave along with Dove Men+Care and hundreds of dad bloggers and influencers. So perhaps, this one isn’t so hard to reimagine. But it is hard to give up on the past and to step into discomfort. So let’s move on to number two.
2. The Lone Wolf Phenomenon
Let’s reimagine how dads have to go it alone. In the U.S. culture, the idea of the lone wolf isn’t just popular, it is almost ubiquitous in action/thriller movies. If you think about iconic movies like Rambo, any James Bond film, and Die Hard, or more recent thrillers like Nolan’s Batman trilogy, John Wick, and the Bourne movies, the protagonists are all solitary men. Sometimes they have a supporting cast that doesn’t die, but generally the victory is theirs with lots of casualties along the way.
The other thing these movies all have in common is the warped reality the “heroes” possess. They are disconnected (at best) or estranged (at worst) with their families. They rarely display any emotion, other than anger, and they struggle to communicate. None of these are signs of a healthy or balanced man. Yet we glorify them with summer blockbusters complete with action figures and toy replicas of their weapons. Then, when Halloween rolls around, there’s simplified costumes on display for you and your child to wear.
The problem with this is fathers can’t be lone wolves. Lone wolves rarely survive in the wild because wolves are pack animals. They survive by counting on one another to take down larger prey for food. While the dominant male and female lead the hunt and usually are the only ones to breed, the entire pack raises the young and is needed for overall protection and survival.
While we are not wolves that hunt for our survival (generally speaking), we do need packs. Humans are communal and social beings with emotions. Since men are human beings, they need community. They need a space to express themselves, to be heard, to be held accountable, and to express vulnerability.
So why can’t fathers join together to support one another? What’s the harm in men opening up to one another to learn how to become better men, better fathers, and better people?
Like the first point, there are a growing number of groups to support fathers. Conferences like the Dad 2 Summit bring together hundreds of bloggers and influencers to share stories and build relationships. Organizations like City Dads Group and my organization, Fathering Together, work to build in-person gatherings and virtual networking spaces for fathers to build community and learn from one another on topics ranging from diaper changing to college admissions.
Again, it isn’t hard to reimagine fatherhood when systems are out there, but dads need to learn that they are out there. But let’s try one more.
Let’s reimagine fathers being homemakers. Imagining fathers not being breadwinners doesn’t automatically make them homemakers. Research shows that even as women take on more leadership and increased income, they are still leading with unpaid work at home. The hours in which they are meal planning, setting appointments, and organizing playdates is unbalanced. And for all the work being done by the organizations above, mine included, this area is still lagging behind. Cailin O’Connor points to traditional binary gender roles as the culprit, but also points out that not all cultures have the same set of expectations about who does what.
Lucky for us, the family structure has evolved quite a bit since even the 1970s. More families have single fathers or dual incomes. However, pre-COVID19, the amount of unpaid labor at home still favored the moms. In order to replace the antiquated system, fathers need to be more than okay with the idea of being a homemaker. They need to see the value in doing the hard work of raising children and putting energy into their families the same way they do into their careers.
So, what will it take for fathers to step up? What will it take for fathers to imagine beyond these three examples? What incentives exist for us to imagine a new way for fathers to connect with their children?
In closing, here are just a few…
1. Require family leave that is not specific to gender or to biological parents. Fatherhood has moved beyond the biological relationship between a man and his offspring. Today, Fathers come in all shapes and sizes and creating policies that acknowledge that is essential. By creating these opportunities, or better yet incentives, for fathers means they have the opportunity to explore the full depth of their humanity, the full depth of their skill set.
2. Create pre and postpartum classes for men to understand the psychological and physiological changes happening in their partners and themselves. Some men are meant for the working world. I won’t deny that. Some women are too. Some of us are destined to be CEOs, while others are meant to be caregivers and homemakers. Regardless of where you are destined, when people are preparing for the birth of their child, an immense amount of change is happening and while women get support, most men do not. While there are a few classes for moms and dads-to-be prior to the baby’s arrival, little to no support is provided to dads after the birth. There are a few run by Boot Camp for Dads and others, but a few doesn’t cut it.
3. Stop stigmatizing men who do stay at home because those who do find new meaning in their role as father and caregiver. Plus, name calling and bullying were annoying in elementary school when we used terms like dare and double dare. Let’s leave them behind and accept that all fathers are on a journey of discovery and no two fathers are on the same journey. So let’s work together to learn and grow and become the best fathers that we can be for our children.