Huzzah to nurturing dads.
My son was a scant 2 or 3 months old. He’d been attached to me via Bjorn for the majority of the time he wasn’t sleeping or nursing. I was a natural, attentive but not smothering, careful but not coddling. The night we brought him home from the hospital, he had trouble sleeping. While reclined on the couch, I held his little body to my chest, sharing my own heat to quiet him down. It was then that he truly became real to me.
I was a teacher at a prep school in bucolic Western Massachusetts, which boasted a very “mom” centric culture as a result of the school’s long established professional preference paid to men. This led to “girls only book clubs” and “girls’ nights out,” and many of the women’s identities were married to mom-hood. It was one of these “mom” events that provided the opportunity for me to be left alone with my son for the first relatively long stretch of time since his birth. We, of course, had been out to the local diner together, he propped up at the breakfast bar with a bottle, me with hash and eggs. We had gone on solo hikes to leaf peep while he rode on my back, gurgling his approval in my ear, but his mother and I hadn’t really left his side for those first few months.
Another liberated-for-a-night mom was over to grab my wife. Moments before her departure, she asked if I was nervous to spend the time alone with Morgan. I thought this an odd question to ask. Why would I be? I responded, “No.”
“Well, you should be,” she said.
I had the rest of the night to unpack that. It seemed that, in her mind, dads were incompetent, and my lack of anxiety about spending time with my son was not born from confidence and know-how, but from ignorance and a knuckle-headed naiveté about child rearing.
In the midst of my divorce a few years later, my life resembled a country song: wife married a co-worker, dog died, lost my house. However, despite having a solid full time job, a regular salary, and no concerning habits of any kind, people were stunned that I got 50% custody. “Wow, that’s a lot,” people would remark. “Every weekend?” They were shocked that I was actually going to be a consistent and active part of my son’s life post-divorce despite the cause and details of that divorce.
I recall some of my son’s first parent-teacher meetings. My ex-wife and I would arrive separately and sit down with the teacher. I had been helping my son with his homework at home, reading aloud to him, giving my own very dad-like lectures on the topics of his current studies. I was eager to share my insights, get reassurance that he was indeed brilliant in class like I had imagined, and excited to gush in tandem with his teacher.
However, as it turned out, I had to fight for eye contact. All the reports and praise addressed were to the mom. I practically had to wave and bounce in my chair to get her to ask me about homework routines and his at-home scholarly habits. I found myself saying things like, “At my house, he sits at the kitchen table with a healthy snack while practicing his times tables,” though to little avail, and this was in a “progressive” part of the country.
Everywhere I turned, I started to recognize the general skepticism in dads’ abilities to raise children. Each and every advertisement for diapers, cleaning fluids, laundry products, and school clothes were invariably geared toward moms. Instead of becoming bitter, turning in, and grumbling, I found adopting a measured and consistent approach with a touch of wry humor was my best defense. I am always where I am supposed to be, early for pick-up, engaged in the meetings, hosting my son’s friends for play-dates, a term that to this day, makes me cringe, and yes, hugging and caring for my son in a nurturing and fatherly way. These are not mutually exclusive terms.
Masculinity has been assigned such a narrow definition that any nurturing abilities have been deemed unacceptable. The fact that I have a clean house, a strong and rich relationship with my son, and yes, raise a little hell now and again, doesn’t resonate with anyone. Sometimes it seems that the perception of men is that they are either incapable apes or glossy professionals negligent of family, focused on career mobility.
I am aware that there are men who are inept at fatherhood; who can’t get past their own naval-gazing long enough to be available for their children. But not all men. In fact, I am proud to know a handful of good fathers. With some exception they have not experienced the same prejudice or are not keyed into it because they fit and are playing into the expectation of a nuclear family, etc. But for those of us who are divorced dads, remarried or not, who love their kids easily and expect equal treatment in affairs of parenting, it is high time we stood tall, don’t shy away from those skeptical moms, grade-school teachers, and office mates.
Say with confidence that, yes, I love my child, and I changed his diapers with equal frequency if not more, and yes, I can apply a band-aid, get rid of grass stains, and roast a chicken. This proclamation may still fall on deaf ears, but it is still worth saying because one day in the future, you will be recognized fairly for your love and abilities, and by the one person that matters, your kid.
—Photo jenny downing/Flickr