This Father’s Day eve I am celebrating the changing role of fatherhood during my lifetime, especially as it is embodied in many of our young fathers.
There are always exceptions, of course, but during my own father’s generation, and well into my own, parenting was primarily defined by the role of the mother who tended the children and the dad who worked outside the home. For many fathers, children were mostly to be engaged when convenient. The assumption was that the “inconveniences” of diapers, feeding, the patient care of crying babies and addressing their emotional needs were mostly the mother’s responsibility.
Beginning in the 1970’s of so, I think, this role began to change in significant ways. I was one of the first fathers in my area, I believe, who accompanied my wife through childbirth training, and, with the permission of a very reluctant obstetrician, then went on to attend the birth of our son in a hospital delivery room. Other fathers my age were doing the same. And it followed that fathers learned skills that allowed them to assume more and more responsibilities for the “inconvenient” roles noted above.
As important as the beginning shift in the role of fathering was in my generation, what most truly impresses, inspires, even awes me at times is the much greater engagement of our three sons - and many in their generation - in their role of devoted fatherly childcare. They have been so much more involved in almost every aspect of their children’s care from birth - for their physical needs, their nurture, and their emotional and spiritual well-being. They readily share with the moms the tasks of changing diapers, cooking meals, feeding the babies, going to the children’s doctor appointments, worrying about the child’s emotional needs, cheering the children through the accomplishments, and nursing them through the tears and complexities of childhood socialization…the list goes on. Much of these role changes, of course, are necessitated within the context of the mother being part of the wider public workforce. But I think these young fathers actually have embraced these new roles and accept them with surprising joy and pleasure.
And that’s the point I want to acknowledge and celebrate. Much of childrearing is laborious, boring, and certainly exhausting, and in the past the mother assumed a huge portion of this difficult work. But childrearing is also incredibly satisfying and rewarding, and the more engaged fathers are in the overall process the more they can honestly, emotionally, fully claim the role of “parent” (from the French verb parere, "to bring forth") as equally responsible for the parental role. I find it truly exciting how much the new generation of fathers seem to actually savor the opportunity they now have to be such engaged fathers.
So my celebration this Father’s Day will focus on appreciating the social and cultural progress being made in the role of the engaged father, and the way my own sons and their peers are owning their appropriate responsibilities. Yes, the change is very much in process and there are many fathers who don’t yet embrace the joys of true parenting, but the norm is shifting. I often now see young fathers tending their children in public places with a tenderness and savvy that I experience as a step forward in the role of fatherhood. I don’t know exactly how pervasive or significant this changing role of fatherhood may be, but a positive and uplifting process is definitely happening, and we are all the better for it - perhaps especially the fathers themselves!