by Archie Wortham
“Men feel good about themselves because of what they achieve…the status they attain….you don’t get recognized by your peers for being a good father…you engender respect by how much money you make, how much power you yield…and we are always comparing. Is his bigger than mine,” Dr. Aaron Hass says in the introduction of his book, The Gift of Fatherhood. This comparing happens in locker rooms, boardrooms, classrooms, and bedrooms. Men constantly strive to best each other, to get one up on the next man. This obsession with competitiveness is passed on to sons and daughters. And if this compulsion is not softened, it creates hard edges on relationships that last a lifetime, going far beyond sibling rivalry. Yet few men are willing to talk about any of these and become unwilling pawns who refuse to terminate this pattern of silence whether at work or at home.
I have no idea where it starts, yet I see it. I see it in my sons. I see it in me. I see it in the young boys at school who are constantly comparing and as they are focused on being the best rather than enjoying the experience of being who they are. Instead of enjoying the game they are consumed with the idea that winning is everything. Talking with some dads about this, I’m amazed at how uninclined some dads are to talk about this comparing thing. It’s as though privacy is a secret weapon. If you don’t know my secret you’ll never know if you are as good as I am. Since many of us are managed by exception, we have limited knowledge of how many correct paths we take, but take a wrong one, and we instantly know it! Our bosses tell us. Our wives tell us. Our kids tell us! But how many tell us we’re doing a good job? Especially as parents?
I’m constantly hounded about the things I could have done. Yet it’s not until I do what I know is right that I feel the joy of truly experiencing fatherhood. You dads know what I mean. You forget about that chore you have to do. You forget about the money you have to make. You simply go out and do something with the kids and they pay you back in things so intrinsic you’re amazed you don’t take more time out for them. If you listen to them, or actually get engaged in a game they want to play, then watch their involvement increase as you too become involved and realize how nurturing dads can be when you allow yourself to be. You may not be recognized by your boss, your peers, or even your parents for this, but it’s the acceptance by your kids that’s important here. You understand what’s important to them, so when you must correct them, make them realize a consequence for something they’ve done, the consequence makes sense because you know your kids, and they know you.
I’m learning how hard it is to be a dad first, and a man second. Being a dad first involves being a husband first, realizing the person who has most of the answers is mom. Mom seldom criticizes dad activities. Moms (not wives) delight at children and their dads connecting. Wives may be more oriented toward the expectations society, their family, or the neighbor next door place on what car you drive, the clothes you wear, or even the size of her diamond. But moms relish dads relating to their children. Moms hunger for that connection as a way for dads to let moms know the kids are important to us too. It’s hard realizing this. It’s hard sometimes appreciating what you do have rather than what you’d like to have. Moms are the pulses of the family. They care about dads’ career goals, because those goals center on goals for the family.
Friends are the same way. Remember you are known by the company you keep. Ask any dad you know who really loves his family what he found most important in life, and how he made the hard career decision. They probably struggled with issues surrounding comparing or being compared. Yet for the men whose relationships with their sons and daughters are already ones that are noticeable, affectionate, and engrossing, the choice was easy, and these men validate for other men what can be done. You may not find ‘real men’ talking about these things in locker rooms. But if you listen close, you will heardads talking about these things in locker rooms. You may not find ‘real men’ prioritizing their schedules around soccer games, ballet recitals or T-ball games in board rooms, but you will hear dads decline assignments that extract too much of the time away from their families.
I think some of society’s ‘real men’ see kids as another trophy used to measure manhood and their role is over once the child is born. These men have been culturalized to accept arcane ideas that a new generation of dads doesn’t agree with. Many of those arcane ideas were established by some patriarch who felt men had some divine right. Today that divine right needs reprogramming as men realize being a father involves being an active parent and keeping a promise as holy as the covenant of marriage. Men should be encouraging one another, talking to one another so we feel good about being good fathers with no need to compare stupid things that have nothing to do with who we are. Because we are our kids’ dad, which in this day and time takes a ‘real man’ to admit.