Generations of Fathers

When one of my brothers did something caring for my late mother, she used to say he was like a daughter. In her world view, men did not do much care giving. Similarly, Robert Fulghum wrote this Mother’s Day tribute to his son:

“I called him a ‘Mother’ in that he reflected the spirit of New Parenthood. Equal rights and equal responsibility. He did all the things that, once upon a time, mostly mothers did. He fed, cleaned and dressed, nurtured, accepted, approved, encouraged, protected, comforted, and dearly loved the little girl in his arms and heart. I admired him for taking his place in the life of his child. He was good at being a Mother.”

With my father

With my father

Fathers like mine from the Greatest Generation were definitely not “mothers.” Dad was not expected to do much parenting beyond discipline. My mother claims he helped bathe me and I do remember him reading to me. But mostly I remember he went to work, came home, sat in his special chair reading the paper (this was “do not disturb” time), and ate dinner with us. If my brothers or I were in need of discipline, Dad delivered the world’s longest lecture. It was a greater punishment than yelling or grounding would have been.

My father was never in charge of us except as the tour guide on vacation. In general, his main responsibility was to “bring home the bacon.” He was not expected to take us to the doctor, attend school conferences, or sit through our performances. He did coach my brothers’ little league teams but often confessed he didn’t know what to do with girls. He said the same thing about his granddaughters and great granddaughters. Our gender was a mystery to him.

My husband is a mellow Baby Boomer through and through. He is a caring father and grandfather, but he draws the line at changing diapers and doing solo turns until the kids are old enough to talk to him and listen to reason. I could never threaten my kids with “wait until your father comes home.” They knew he would be a soft touch who would rather give in than get involved in conflict.

Unlike my father, when he was home, he was 100% present. While he might have preferred playing ball with our son, he sat through more of his daughters’ skating shows and school performances than he could count. He was our children’s homework helper, game player, and adviser. Anything that interested them was a priority for him. Still, when he stayed with the kids solo, he was babysitting. And I was grateful when he did it.

Not so for men who are my grandkids’ fathers. They are hands-on and when they watch the kids, they are co-parenting, not babysitting. When groceries are needed, they shop for them. They wash and fold the clothes, clean the house, pack the lunches, and cook dinner. None of these tasks were remotely within my husband’s skill set.

But here’s a big difference – I was lucky to be able to be home with my children when they were young. My daughters and daughter-in-law are working full time outside the home, so life has become a game of divide and conquer. Gen-X dads have to do half the work, from diapers to sleep training to bedtime rituals. And that’s a good thing for my grandkids, even though it is also a necessity because my children’s lives are much more hectic and stress-filled than mine was as the parent of young kids. Unlike my mother and Robert Fulghum, I see them as real men.

I guess I grew up with the dad from Father Knows Best and married the dad from Family Ties. I’m not sure who is the model for the modern co-parent. It could be a partner of either gender who struggles to raise children in a less family-friendly world. The fathers in Modern Family only capture part of what it is like, and a very privileged part at that.

So to all of the contemporary fathers and partners out there: Happy Father’s Day. I am in awe of all you do to keep the family ship afloat. I see how hard you work at being present in the lives of the children you nurture. To my husband, thanks for being a loving father and caring grandfather. And to my father, I miss you, Dad.

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