Tuesday, March 24, 2009

“They’ll let any [expletive deleted] be a father.”

I think every prospective parent should watch the movie Parenthood before getting pregnant. The film could easily be called Fatherhood, since the main character is a dad. That movie makes clear some central truths about fathering:

1. It is like a roller coaster.
2. While you can’t guarantee how your actions will affect your children, You can guarantee that your actions do affect your children.

My favorite line from Parenthood is when Keanu Reeves’ character Tod says, “You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any [expletive deleted] asshole be a father.”

With that bit of earthy humor Tod explains the biggest dilemma a father faces: No one trained me for this job. My daughter doesn’t come with an operator’s manual, plug-and-play attachments, or downloadable upgrades.

Despite this, dads today have more freedom than ever to take “nontraditional” approaches to fathering. Many men take time away from their careers to stay home with their children while their partners return to the workplace. Other men work part-time or telecommute so they can commune with the kids every possible moment. Some men even teach HeadStart and early childhood parent education classes!

In other words, you don’t have to father the same way your father or grandfather did. You can be your own kind of Dad. That opportunity is liberating and exciting, but can also be disconcerting. After all, it’s harder to find examples to follow when you’re doing things in a new way.

Fortunately, nature provides tools that you may not yet be conscious of. For example, from the moment of birth, you and your baby can instinctively communicate with each other, even though it’ll be a year or more before she uses words.

In his book The Collected Wisdom of Fathers, my favorite fathering author Will Glennon, a dad’s biggest challenge isn’t mastering the “proper” way to change a diaper or teach your kid to read. The biggest challenge is to set aside obsolete attitudes about a father’s role and to begin fathering from our hearts. That means becoming conversant in the sometimes foreign language of emotion.

Communicating our love to our children and acknowledging their importance in our life is an undertaking of enormous significance, for our children, for our own well-being, and for generations of fathers yet to come. Historically and socially, we are conditioned to be able to put aside our feelings in order to fight. Now the purpose for which we must fight is to become fully engaged with our feelings in order to reinstate ourselves in our proper place in our children’s lives. The effort requires courage and determination, for this is new territory, an area in which we will no doubt make mistakes.
Part of fathering is teaching our children important tasks. But the heart of fathering is nurturing the psychological, emotional, and spiritual connection between us and our kids.

As we attempt to father well, we make mistakes, some of which will seem pretty dumb. Let’s face it, a few of them actually will be dumb. But we can’t let our mistakes stop us, any more than your infant will let her “mistake” of falling down keep her from learning to walk—even if the culture magnifies our mistakes.

Learn more about fathering daughters in Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter.


JP said...

One of the things I have been doing in my dads groups is asking: "Did you bring your fathering manual to group today?" This is a funny thing we do to kind of initiate the new guys. Because the point of the group is that there IS no fathering manual out there. There is not a licensing or accreditation process for being a dad. We just connect, talk with each other as men, maybe I will teach a thing or two, but most of it actually comes from them and out of their experiences.

In my opinion, the number one thing we can do as fathers is to simply "show up."