Two weekends ago, I participated in a 5K run at Chicago’s Soldier Field, along with thousands of other people. Why the great turnout? It wasn’t because the event offered a beautiful course for running (it was pretty lame, actually). Not because the competition was good (it wasn’t), because the weather was nice (it was way too hot), or because we were raising money for some great cause. This was a Girls on the Run event, and we were all there just to run alongside some elementary-age girls who had decided to take on the challenge of training for and completing a 5K this spring. Besides the girls, many or perhaps most of the participants were parents. They were there to help encourage their kids to do something hard. This is just the kind of stuff parents do.
The “running buddies” were not just moms; the place was crawling with dads. Like the moms, these dads could have been doing something else on a Saturday morning–something for which society would reward them and deem them sufficiently manly. Instead, they chose to spend their time supporting their daughters, and it was a perfect event for dads and daughters to do together. No one looked at these guys funny for being there, for spending time encouraging their young girls. But in so many areas of culture, we do just that–we treat dads as if they were extraneous, incompetent, and bumbling. We act as if it’s weird for them to behave like dads.
Culturally, we say we value good dads. But we have few rewards for them.
Movies and TV shows commonly make dads look like idiots. They pick on men constantly through their tired formulas, portraying them as simple-minded fools, driven solely by their appetites and urges. Somehow they always seem able to attract competent, intelligent wives–but they can’t seem to do anything else right. They always forget important dates, bungle domestic chores and home repairs, botch relationships, and totally fail when entrusted with child care. In general men look heroic when they’re shooting guns, playing sports, engaging in car chases, or rescuing beautiful young women. Otherwise, they look like dolts. We offer very few rewards for men who nurture their families, sacrifice their own desires for the sake of others, work hard in mundane jobs, help with the laundry, change diapers, or sit and listen to their kids.
Again this year, in choosing a Father’s Day card with my kids, I was depressed to see the selection. As always, 80 percent of the cards featured jokes about beer and TV remote controls. Ten percent were about golf and farting (and I’ll confess I’ve bought a couple of the fart cards over the years). The remaining 10 percent offered a legitimate word of thanks to dads. Have you considered the respect we offer, by contrast, to moms?
When our children were younger and my husband was a stay-at-home dad, he garnered frequent accolades for “babysitting” the kids when he took them out in public. His response: “I’m not babysitting. I’m being dad.” Some moms were suspicious of him, content to send their kids for playdates at our house if I was around, but silently-yet-obviously not comfortable if Dad was in charge.
When dads are not involved in their kids’ lives we criticize them–and rightly so. But those who do step up often face severe criticism as well because they don’t parent the way moms do. We say we want them to actively participate in raising their kids, but we assume they’re incompetent to do so. We nag them into doing things our way, mock them for doing things their way, and assume they can’t really be trusted with kids.
A growing body of work documents the critical role fathers play in their kids’ lives. Several Christian writers have recently written on the topic. Such publications are often used as exhibits in the call for dads to step up and take responsibility. But they also should be cause for women to better support men as dads. We need to step back and consider whether we’re undermining their efforts to be good fathers.
Dads, you’re not idiots; you’re not extraneous. We all need you. Not to be stereotypical men, not to be a new kind of men, but just to be your best selves, engaged with the people in your lives. You may not realize most moms are terrified by the role they find themselves in, figuring it out week by week in community with other moms. We don’t expect one another to have all the answers. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers either. And it’s OK if you’re sometimes scared witless by the sense of responsibility you feel as a dad. In fact, that can be a very good thing–it shows you’re serious about the job.
So many cultural messages undermine dads’ confidence, suggest they can’t parent correctly, discourage them from even trying because they don’t parent the way moms do. And it’s true, they don’t. Moms and dads complement each other, in ways that are unique to each family. They strengthen each other, work together to cover the bases, and keep each other grounded.
My daughter completed that 5K with both her parents running alongside her. She was too hot, tired, and nervous, and she was pretty sure she couldn’t do it that day. So my husband and I naturally played different roles in helping her get across that finish line. I encouraged her constantly and told her a story I made up for her while she ran–as long as she kept running, the story kept unfolding. My husband ran ahead of her and gently encouraged her to push herself. Together we helped her finish. Would she have kept going without my story? Maybe not. Would she have pushed herself without Dad’s challenge? I doubt it. She needed both of us, as she does every day.
Let’s be kind to dads and help them believe they can be great at what they do. So what if they don’t parent the way mothers do? Isn’t that the point?
Photo cc by stevendepolo on flickr.