Becoming a parent is a huge learning curve. I don’t know what it’s like in other cultures, but in ours there seems to be unspoken expectations that as soon as that baby pops out, women will immediately click into gear and know exactly what to do, and men will be idiots until trained by their expert wives to be otherwise.
It’s true that most women probably read more, obsess more, talk to their friends and mothers more, and likely had more babysitting experience as teenagers. Perhaps that makes women slightly more prepared or in the “know” about the life-changing task at hand. And perhaps that also adds up to unspoken pressures to know exactly what they’re doing, feel like a stellar mother from the get go, and move into their new role with confidence and grace and authority. Dads are expected to trail behind, taking notes and learning from these all-wise and all-knowing maternal figures of perfection.
But something happens when those parents are actually released from the hospital carrying their tiny bundle of joy and looking at each other in delight and disbelief as they realize this is no joke: the reality sinks in that they are now parents and it’s up to them to raise a human-freaking-being.
They might be just as terrified as thrilled.
Figuring out what it means to be a parent
New moms and dads take on many tasks and roles in the days following birth. Some struggle to find their place and their groove, while others struggle to find their confidence or wrestle with the drastic change of roles and pace they’ve found themselves in. Some soldier on, hardly missing a beat, while some feel as if life as they’ve known it is over forever. All deal with a learning curve and then forge ahead, becoming a family and learning how to parent the next generation.
She learns what it is to be a mom; he learns what it is to be a dad. It’s a process of becoming even as it is an event already done. (I’ve been a mom since the day those two lines first appeared, but I became a mom in a whole new way the day my son was placed in to my arms… and I’m also growing into my role of mom all the time.)
We bring our personal expectations and ideals, our worldviews and cultural stereotypes, and our family upbringings and religious experiences into the mix. And so often—in our culture at least—the women are portrayed as confident, superior parents, and dads are portrayed as hopeless unless they are faultlessly carrying out mom’s detailed instructions with fervor, as if we mothers have the corner on good parenting.
Dads are not “Mom’s Assistant”
Women and men alike joke that dad’s at home playing “Mr. Mom” while we’re out for the day. Some joke that dads are “babysitting”, as if they are no more than a hired hand.
All of this joking and stereotyping is doing two things: 1) giving moms a false sense of superiority, which can easily lead to feeling guilty and insecure when she actually doesn’t feel like she’s attained perfection; and 2) undermining dads’ confidence and diminishing their role as “less than”, which can easily lead to them disengaging and feeling inadequate and defeated as if they will never measure up anyway (so why bother?).
This stereotyping is not helpful to us as parents and it’s not fair to our kids.
Men and the notion of “women’s work”
Sure, there was a day (not that long ago) that men really were disengaged. They kept clear of “women’s work” such as childrearing, housekeeping, and ensuring the family is well nourished and fed. But most families I know don’t operate like that any more. In most families I know, work is distributed through the family according to each person’s strengths, job responsibilities, schedules, and seasons. There is give and take and compromise and partnership.
Our families aren’t perfect, and we sometimes still struggle over roles and stereotypes and desires and laziness and faults and weaknesses and expectations and personal ideals. But we struggle together because our families are worth it, our marriages are worth it, our individual sense of purpose and fulfillment are worth it, and our kids’ security and a healthy, loving home environment is worth it.
Of course there are exceptions, but by and large when I look around at my friends—and certainly my own husband—I see the exact same thing…
The kind of dads I see
I see engaged dads, hands-on dads, creative dads, dads who have wisdom to offer in terms of learning styles and discipline issues for their kids. I see crafting dads and carpooling dads, baking dads and tutoring dads. I see dads who are up in the night with babies and dads changing sheets after accidents, dads cleaning up vomit and dads rising early to serve breakfast. I see dads leaving work early to attend recitals and dad’s working late so they can attend a school field trip the next day. I see dads brushing little heads of hair before church, dads pushing double-wide strollers to the park, dads wrapping birthday gifts and dads getting “manicures” from their four-year-olds (and loving every moment).
I see dads going to parent-teacher conferences and dads folding laundry. I see dads who wonder just as much as their wives if they’re doing a good job and who strive to learn and grow in their roles as fathers. I see dads esteeming the work their wives do by rolling up their sleeves and doing it alongside her. I see dads sending their wives to the office and caring for their children by choice and not feeling less of a man because of it, and other dads kissing their wives goodbye each morning to earn a hard wage so she can stay home with the kids (and every combination of the two). I see dads sacrificing, giving, receiving, compromising, and making it work.
I see dads changing the world, one band-aid, one kiss, one storybook and bedtime prayer at a time
Are we willing to trust our husbands in their role as dads?
I’m about to leave my family for twelve days while I attend a writer’s retreat overseas. Last year I left for three weeks when I went on an outreach to Papua New Guinea as a staff writer and photographer. When I leave Ryan and the kids behind I don’t leave him with a menu plan, a freezer full of meals, four pages of details on the kids routine, and a schedule of park and library outings for them. I don’t hire a cleaning service or put a hold on the mail.
Why? Because I’m not caring? (Duh.) Because I’m not organized enough? (Could be debatable.)
No. The reason I don’t do all that stuff is because Ryan is a grown man—a dad—who knows how to take care of his family. He’s not my assistant. He’s not the second fiddle parent. His job is not to carry out my parenting wishes or to be a substitute mom when I’m away.
He is a dad. A fantastic one.
Engaged dads are becoming the norm. It’s time we recognize and affirm them.
I realize I have an exceptionally great husband (who is also an exceptionally great dad), and so of course my views on this stuff are a little bias.
But I also realize when I look around me that dads like Ryan aren’t that uncommon any more. There are probably a million reasons why this stuff is shifting culturally (some better reasons than others, I’m sure), but this I do know: pegging dads as clueless, hopeless, incompetent idiots does nothing to encourage them in their family roles or empower them as fathers and as men.
They are not Moms’ Assistants; they are Dads. And they are worthy of our honor and affirmation. They might approach things differently and bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table, but—as different as they might be—they are no less important or significant or competent.
And the more we approach these engaged dads as an anomaly, the less room we give them to shine in all they were created to be. And these are the dads we desperately need shining, not only for our own families’ benefit, but so they can also teach the absent or aloof ones what good parenting looks like.
The joke’s not funny anymore
So maybe it’s only lighthearted, but can we work a little harder to keep our flippant joking and teasing and stereotyping in check? Let’s encourage the dads in our lives that they are incredible: smart, capable, wise, tender, creative, strong, loving, nurturing, and excellent at what they do.
(And in the meantime, we moms can simultaneously deal with the unspoken pressures that fool us into thinking we have to walk in perfection and be the authority on all things parenting and children and home. Isn’t that a liberating concept? Perfection is not our standard. This is fantastic news!)
Happy Father’s Day, to amazing dads everywhere
Happy Father’s Day to you, Ryan. No words can express how wonderful I think you are and what a gift you are to the boys and I (and baby!). You make me aspire to be a better person and parent, and I mean that from the depths of my being. Our boys are blessed beyond measure to have you as their role model and it brings me such pleasure to see you walk in the fullness of your calling as a dad to them.
And Happy Father’s Day to all the dads and granddads who are working tirelessly and devotedly to love their families in ways that are life-changing and world-changing, whether it was modeled to them or not.
And a special Father’s Day shout out to the single dads. You are amazing! Everyday heroes! Worthy of our honor and praise! Thank you for parenting well, despite not having a partner alongside you to figure it all out with.
Friends, do you have the kind of husband or dad in your life like I’m talking about? Feel free to brag about what a wonderful father he is in the comments.