When our daughters were 14 (14 years ago), we went back East to show them where we grew up; a trip they teasingly call “The Northeast Nostalgia Tour.” In New Jersey, my mother showed the girls where I was born and went to grammar school. She told how my late father was not present for my or my sisters’ births (very common in the ’50s) and how she didn’t go to my christening because, two weeks after birth, she was considered to be in “too delicate a condition.”
Our culture of birthing has certainly changed since then–returning to a semblance of the family event it was through much of history. We fathers are back to being involved in pregnancy, labor, and birth. I relish telling the story of being in the hospital 6 hours before the kids were born, when we first heard that we were having twins. I still recall, with wonder and lucidity, going to our daughters in the nursery, holding and talking to them–making the first connection while Nancy was still in the delivery room. That is surely an immediacy of involvement my father never experienced.
But how does that involvement sustain itself after infancy? Lamaze-type classes train dads how to contribute to the birth experience. Where is the training for us to contribute as much to the ongoing life of our child after birth? Where is the “cultural script” for getting and keeping fathers involved?
I don’t really know what led me to be involved with my daughters as much as I was. Nancy and I both worked part-time through their younger years, so we could each be home with the girls (and I cold claim the “At Home Dad” moniker). As they grew closer to womanhood, it remained fun to be their father. They parried puns, conversed, and poked fun with me. They still liked piggyback rides and sitting on my lap. They also spoke up to me.
During the Nostalgia Tour, we also went to New York City–where the city’s tempo used to combine with my fears and bring on major anxiety. As I was rushing down the street trying to battle my way through the crowd, Mavis turned to me with her arms stretched urgently in front of her, palms down, and said, “Calm down, Dad!” That’s a startling forthrightness I appreciated then (and now) in my daughters.
They were not always that direct during their teens, of course. They sometimes kept things to themselves, as they should, I suppose. But by any standard, they were (and still are) more emotionally direct, honest, and articulate than I ever learned to be. There are times I felt rejected by the way they sometimes expressed their feelings, didn’t turn to me with a problem, or wouldn’t take comfort from me. Sometimes, I’m the one who reacted like a “teenager”–moping around, feeling put upon.
But overall, I think my biggest success was to remain connected with them. That’s a new experience for me. As I grew up, I kept my relationships long on intensity, but almost always short in time and on commitment. I think our “cultural script” gives us men more permission to bail out on intimate relationships–even with our children. Nia, Mavis and Nancy taught me a lot about hanging in there–and all the fullness of life that follows from that. Can we challenge ourselves and our brother fathers to rewrite that old script? Try it next time you’re with another father at school, on the field, having a drink, at the bowling alley or golf course, in the market, at work. It might have consequences far beyond our own families.
Joe Kelly is a father, author,
blogger, activist, and primary media source on fathering. He has
written several books including the best-seller Dads and Daughters.