Men, too: a reflection on being a father to a son in 2017
My grandmother is 95 years old. Living almost her entire life in rural Iowa, she and my grandfather raised seven children. She now has eighteen grandchildren and thirty-one great-grandchildren. In short, in the realm of childrearing, she has seen it all. The waxing and waning of various parenting techniques, all manner of revolutions in clothing, toys, and gear. Diapering:she has forgotten far more than I will ever learn when it comes to diapering. Every time I think I know a thing or two about being a parent, after thirteen whole months of experience, I think about my grandmother. She tells me, my mom, my aunts, and anyone else listening, that I am the most involved father she has ever seen. Every time she says it I feel more than a little shocked.
I know I spend a lot of time "dad-ing," more so than most fathers. A big reason for this is my work schedule – as a graduate student, I'm fortunate to have a very flexible schedule. This means I can be around to play with my son, go grocery shopping, preparing food, feeding our son, cleaning up after his meals, putting him down for naps, and of course, taking care of all those diapers. But there's another reason that I can spend so much time with my kid – I prioritze being with him over other things, in particular my work. I don't pretend to be able to "do it all," and I accept the consequences of my choices. Just this afternoon, I got home in time to go on a walk with my wife, son, and dog. Afterwards, I watched our son toddle all over the yard, blissfully unaware of the rain falling, chewing on sticks just like the dog. He walked out almost to the end of our yard all by himself, totally calm and independent. I can remember not that long ago when he could barely pull himself up to standing from the floor. I know there will be lots of moments like this in his life, where I look at him and am shocked to realize how much he has grown. But I'm glad I was there for this one. Lots of parents – especially fathers – don't get that chance.
Our nation's failure to provide paid parental leave is well-documented, but that's not the only problem. Even when paid leave is available through employers, there are lots of parents – fathers especially – who don't take it, or don't take as much as they can. Beyond falling behind at the office, many men fear losing esteem with their peers for choosing their family over their work. There are serious problems with the way we as men define ourselves. I learned growing up what was important about becoming a man: domination, intimidation, and strength. Talking about your feelings? Not so much. Snuggling your baby who will smear your clothes with all kinds of icky-sticky goo? Even less so. The idea that a father would choose to spend so much time and energy being with kids – especially really little ones – it just doesn't scan for a lot of people, even in 2017.
When I tell people I'm at home taking care of my son, they sometimes respond, "oh, you're babysitting." Would you ever tell a mother at home with her kids that she is babysitting? No, because babysitting is when you take care of someone else's kids. That well-meaning folks who know me can use that phrase to describe me when I've been up since 5:30 a.m. working my butt off being a parent says a lot about the ways that our conceptions of parent diverge when we specify mother or father. I know from watching my wife go through it that there's a lot about being pregnant that isn't any fun at all, but it killed me watching her go through it knowing that I would never be able to share her experiences. I kept telling myself that once our little one was born, I would do everything I could with our son. This is something both my wife and I wanted, because my involvement doesn't just create kodak moments of fatherhood, it illustrates how men being present supports the women in our lives as well as our children. Every time I show up, I want my wife to know her time and energy and contributions are as important as mine, and I don't want to pay that lip service, I want to show it in my actions. The action of being present. Every day, even when I feel that pull from my professors, my colleagues, and myself to put more time into my work, I try to balance that with my deep desire to be with my son.
I always feel sad when I think about what my grandmother thinks about me as a father. Don't get me wrong, it boosts my ego, but I'm not out to become father of the year. What I would rather is for my choices to feel less extreme. I want my son to grow up with lots of memories of me being around and involved. It's possible there will be times when I can't be there as much as I am right now, and we will have to deal with that when it happens. In the mean time, it matters to me that he experiences a different model of masculinity than the one that I grew up with. I want him to learn to talk things out and share his feelings, to learn to find solutions to conflicts through cultivating a sense of empathy and compassion for others, and to learn how to interact with other people -especially women – without resorting to the type of domineering and bullying behavior so frequently found in popular movies and even elected officials of late.
I don't think that everyone needs to make the same choices that I have made, but I also think that there could be a lot more room in terms of legal protections and cultural expectations that would support more fathers (myself included) to engage fully with their children from their first breath. Things have changed a lot since my grandmother was raising her children in the 1950's and -60's, but there's a long way to go.