Some Thoughts on Impending Fatherhood

There are some obvious reasons why I might have fatherhood on the brain right now. 1) in roughly four weeks I’ll become a father, and 2) My own dad just visited for a long weekend, 3) I am editing an e-book on parenting advice from young fathers and mothers. That in and of itself is enough to have one mulling over the cultural myths, stereotypes, roles and responsibilities of fathers. But what has been interesting has been how fatherhood keeps coming up in the larger cultural discourse and how it has been pushing me to think about fatherhood in a much broader way.

Having my dad come to visit just weeks before my own son will be born was a great opportunity to talk about how he thought about his own role as a father and what I may have learned, or still could learn from him. We talked a lot, but one of the most memorable and far-ranging discussions centered on how to raise “good” kids. I don’t mean how do we raise kids who don’t swear, or pick up their room, or eat all their veggies, or never scream. By “good,” I mean how do you raise a boy who is respectful, ethical, passionate, committed, thoughtful, honest, generous, and more. I’m talking about the big kind of good here. And, as someone deeply committed to progressive social change and politics, what role do those values play in how you raise a child?

Sometimes I wonder how I ended up the way I am. I never remember my parents talking specifically about politics and social issues to me or my sister. And yet we both ended up as advocates, working in non-profits and dedicated to trying to create social change while serving with and for others. When I asked my dad about this, he was reticent to take any credit and unwilling to pin down any one influence or defining moment that might have shaped our care for the world and people around us. Instead, he said in an almost off-hand manner, “I guess I think it is less about what you tell your kids, what lessons you teach, what books you read them in bed, and more about how you live your own life, the model you set.”

There are two kinds of modeling I suppose. We see in our parents both the behaviors we admire and aspire to, and we see in them the pitfalls we hope to avoid. No matter how much you try to set a “good example,” your actions will be filtered through your child’s own unique lens of experience and understood in the context of their own life and times. The power of our actions as models for our children can’t be understated, but shouldn’t be understood as deterministic either. We can only, really, be true to ourselves and our own understanding of the world, and help our kids make sense of the world (and their parents) in their own way.

Just days after my dad’s visit the presidential conventions began, and I was surprised to see fatherhood take center stage. Won Kim over at the SavvyDaddy blog did a great job summing this up, so rather than outline it all again here, I’ll just pull a couple key examples:

“When Obama’s wife, Michelle, took center stage earlier this week, she began talking about her family. Quickly, she turned the focus onto her husband, and tugged at the heart of America by telling us that Obama is not only a good man and husband, but a father. ‘He’s the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital ten years ago this summer, inching along at a snail’s pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands, determined to give her everything he’d struggled so hard for himself, determined to give her what he never had: the affirming embrace of a father’s love.’

“The following night, one of the most memorable moments of the night was the speech before vice president candidate Joseph Biden took the stage. Biden’s son, Beau, had the task of introducing his father onto the stage. […] ‘We, not the Senate, were all my father cared about. […] He said Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can’t get another father.”

The entire post is worth a read, but Kim only hints at a reflection on why the Dems so emphasized these two men’s identity as father. Whereas he seemed to chalk it up to stage crafting and spin, I wonder if there is something more fundamental at work. I don’t think anyone could look at President Bush and think of him as a father figure for the country. At best he is more like the bumbling uncle who most of the family doesn’t talk to anymore (and even that is being generous). Are the Dems onto something when they suggest, in fore-fronting Obama and Biden’s fatherly qualities, that what our country really needs now is a father? Or, to put gender aside for a moment, does our country really need a parent figure. Someone who can model “good” behavior, who can scold us when necessary and inspire us to what is possible. I recognize the problematic patriarchal power structures this plays into, but at the same time, this urge toward the parental may also explain part of what has made Sarah Palin – the self proclaimed hockey-mom – so popular.

What interesting fathers Obama and Biden are. One man, raised without a father, has defined himself by his search for the father who left him, the other raised his children as a single father after his wife was killed in a car accident. These are complicated men, troubled and passionate, caring and committed – to country and to family. As I ponder what it takes to raise a “good” son, I also wonder what it takes to lead a “good” country. Is it too naïve to wish for a country that felt, even just a little more like a family (with all the ups and downs that that entails).

As our due date nears my wife and I have been taking advantage of our hospitals wonderful childbirth education program. We have taken a course on breathing and meditation and one general “childbirth 101” course. Both of these classes have included some amount of practice in preparation for labor that has called on couples to be really close and intimate in a very public, very sterile setting. Over and over again I have marveled at the deep care and warmth I see between couples in these moments in class. I realize while looking around the room at these couples how seldom we see real caring touch and deeply loving embrace in our day to day lives. Even more so, I realize how seldom in my daily life and especially in our media and culture I see men supporting their wives with such depth, care, and openness as in these courses.

None of which is to say that it is not happening, but there was something really moving about making these private acts a little more public. Thinking back to my conversation with my dad, I realize that this caring, supportive male role is not a model that I have seen often in my life outside of my father. I was lucky to have a father who – while being a workaholic – was also pretty emotional and generous with his hugs and embrace. But few boys and men get to see that.

It was really beautiful to look around the room and see men, some of whom had remained so silent and put forward such a tough exterior throughout the class, shift and begin to soften as they listened to their partners and responded to their needs and concerns. Seeing men lying around the room, curled around the exaggerated curves of their wife’s pregnant bodies with their arms arching over rounded bellies and fingers interwoven. Seeing husbands stare into their partner’s eyes and practice breathing with them, encouraging them, embracing the uncertainties of labor and birth.

I wonder, as I watch these tender moments of quiet connection, if they will remember to bring the same care to their relationships with their sons and daughters.

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