Fatherhood: When my son Aidan turned one, we started attending a drop-in center twice a week. The schedule was perfect for us. He got to socialize with other children and there was plenty of space and lots of toys and activities for him at this neighborhood center. I got to get out of the house on my non-teaching days and do more than just walk my son (and my dog) in the park. I lived in a large urban community very different from the England of my youth. To my surprise, almost all of the other adults at the center were females, nannies mostly. On many occasions I was the only adult male at the program.The children seemed curious about me. They would look and stare, not sure whether to approach. I was reminded of when I was a child and would see one of my teachers in the supermarket. I didn’t know how to address him and knew they wondered, “What is he doing here?”
When the children saw me playing with Aidan, towing him around the room in a car, or pushing him down the slide, or following him through the tunnels and banging on the roof, they would join in. I felt like the Pied Piper; though I had no flute I did have two-year olds laughing, giggling, and making lots of noise behind me.
I became aware of the strange looks and comments from the mothers and nannies. “It’s so nice to see a father with his child once in a while.” “Thank you for playing with my son.” “Your wife is so lucky to have a husband like you.” Being a Dad, an active, involved, day-to-day Dad, was apparently the exception rather than the norm in this environment.
I began to research the question, Just what is the role of a father in today’s society? Not surprisingly, the increased involvement of men in the lives of children has been called for from many quarters.1 These include the voices of feminists.2 Others too, are concerned with what they perceive as the dire consequences for a society of a father’s limited involvement with their children.3 As the number of women in the work force has increased – my wife, for example, works full time – some men appear to have become more involved in fatherhood and show greater interest in child-care responsibilities.4 Nonetheless, when both parents are employed, in many homes mothers maintain primary responsibility for daily childcare.5,6
Recent research suggests that fatherhood differs in relation to social circumstance:7-10 family structure, occupation, ethnic group, work orientation of wives, and stages in the life span. The need for theory capable of encompassing the complex interplay of influences underlying variation and change has been strongly voiced.11 Fatherhood is constantly being shaped and reshaped according to cultural context, work, family relations and age.
The question for me appears to be, Just what am I doing to contribute to the reshaping of the notion of what fatherhood is? It is inseparable from the fundamental question, Who am I? Perhaps in reviewing my journey, I can precipitate a discussion about fatherhood.
When Aidan was born, I have to admit I was experiencing a range of emotions: disbelief, amazement, relief, and concern. After all these months he was finally here. Yet, despite all the practical and emotional implications of having a baby, what no one had prepared me for were many of the responses I was to encounter.
Prior to Aidan being born, my wife (Peg) and I had gone to prenatal classes together, and we had gone on monthly, then bi-weekly and finally weekly visits to the gynecologist. My relationship supported my inclusion in as many aspects of the pregnancy as possible: This was our baby.
Being a father led me to think about my own father and grandfather. They both worked on the railways in England, though by the time I was Aidan’s age my father was working in a bank. They worked hard, full days. My father did bathe my sister, my brother, and me. He read us stories each night. Oddly enough, I remember their attempts at housekeeping when their spouses were out, my dad flapping a duster over everything; my grandfather earnestly cleaning and polishing the furniture in time for the 11am cricket match. Life didn’t get better than that! I knew what I wanted to do. I would maintain that fatherhood tradition of loving care because I wanted to, and I would do more. I would spend more time with Aidan–because I could. My relationship, my job, and my determination made this possible.
Early on, even before the encounters at the drop-in center, I knew that my choice of fatherhood surprised some. Walking Aidan and our dog, Zephyr, I started to hear comments and remarks such as: “How cute,” and “What a gorgeous baby.” Such comments made me feel about ten feet tall. But now and then I would run into people who would make comments like: “Got the kid for the day?” “Giving mommy a break today?” “Taking the day off to be with the kid?” ” Good luck.” “Don’t worry, you’ll be back in the office tomorrow.”
In such instances I always wanted to shout out: “I’m not just doing this today, I do this everyday.” Yet, something always held me back. I would give the individual a smile or a polite thank you. However, what I was encountering indicated that even in a large cosmopolitan, prosperous, liberal community, some people thought what I was doing was out of the ordinary. Their faces seemed to ask, why was I with him and where was his mother? Did some people really think that a man would not or could not be with his child?
Perhaps most surprising of all, for me, was incorporating parental responsibility with professional responsibility. I teach social work and have done so on a full-time basis in two colleges in two different states. As a profession and as a faculty we are sensitive to the issues of social change, the benefits for a child to interact with two parents, and the importance of both parents. The research cited above was all published by social worker scholars and taught in social work courses. Other faculty, male and female, had children of their own. Who would better know the need of a parent, of either gender, to juggle responsibilities of home and work; who would be more likely to work out accommodations that are fair and progressive thinking? I quickly learned what the mothers on faculty knew only too well: the juggling is difficult and frequently does not support parenting.
When caring for an ill Aidan necessitated me missing a meeting I soon discovered the difficulty of weighing competing demands of concern for a sick child and professional responsibility. Participating in an hour-long meeting on a telephone with my left hand while tending to sick infant with my right was a lesson in competitive juggling. When must a parent decide stay home? What are the emotional and physical difficulties of bringing a sick child to a meeting? I have never made my child-caring responsibilities a secret and I have missed meetings only when unavoidable. Yet I have come to realize the internal pressures that working women with children have struggled with.
Sometimes the accommodations needed are counter to employment cultures, even in academia. It’s an interesting problem. My presence is desired, maybe even needed at these meetings. Think of the stereotypical reasons that men give for being reluctant to hire child-bearing aged women: train them, then they’ll quit to have babies. Or, they’ll stay on the job then leave early when the kid has the sniffles. The New York Times12 has reported on the resentment felt by certain childless people at the “perks” utilized by those with children. This isn’t the attitude of my colleagues. The system, however, frequently echoes: There are classes to hold, meetings to attend, papers to publish, how can you expect that to happen when your head is at home.
As a consequence of these experiences, I became far more in touch with the conflicts of work and family responsibilities that many of my colleagues and students face. In Universities in the two states where I have taught, many of my students were working full-time, going to school, and raising families.
Another example of the traditional child rearing practices was illustrated when my wife joined a local children’s connection playroom, a place for parents and young children to make new friends (formerly the Mother’s Connection). What a great idea! But though the name had changed, the attitudes hadn’t yet caught up.
Due to Peg’s work schedule, I took Aidan to this group and was welcomed by the director with well-intended comments like: “It’s so nice to see a father involved once in a while.” “Aidan is so lucky to have his daddy with him.” My role as a parent is negated as I am viewed as “extraordinary” for doing what all parents owe their children.
Change is a process; nothing, no matter how beneficial or how desired happens overnight. According to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, this society wants fathers to be involved, but in what way? I would assert that perhaps some of the following may help the fatherhood process:
The misconception that somehow Dad is just there to do Mom a favor must go. Dads who want to be actively involved in the raising of their children do not see their role as “helping out Mom.” I realize that many remarks are made as a compliment, but they are disrespectful of the importance of fatherhood and condescending to men. It is insulting to be viewed as someone special, just for doing the things that parents must do.
Expectations and systems should be supportive whenever people decide to share responsibility for daily parental duties. If we want to get Dads more involved, certain taboo and boundaries issues have to be broken down. Dad should be expected to share in taking the baby to the drop-in center or the daycare center. These programs should be geared towards Moms and Dads. We need to get away from the notion that parenting is not “work.” As any parent can attest, I am often more tired after a day of parenting, than after a day at work.
I would find it helpful to have a Parent-to-Parent organization similar to the local chapter of Mom to Mom (the local non-profit organization to which my wife belongs). It would be an organization “supporting parents who have altered their lifestyles in order to focus on parenting.”
Paul Johnson, Ph.d., works as assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Southern Maine.
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Silverstein, L.B. (1996). Fathering is a feminist issue. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 3-37.
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Parke, R.D. (1996). Fatherhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Hansen, S.M.H. and Bozett, F.W. (eds),(1985). Dimensions of Fatherhood, London: Sage.
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Belkin, L. Your Kids Are Their Problem. The New York Sunday Times Magazine July 23, 2000.