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The Meaning of Fatherhood

Author Armin Brott
Submitted 27-08-2008

Q: It seems that the definition of “fatherhood” has changed a lot over the years, while the definition of being a mom doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. What does it mean to be a father these days?

A: To fully integrate the idea of being a father into your self-identity, it’ll help to understand exactly what being a father actually involves. One of the most consistent findings by researchers is that new fathers almost always feel unprepared for their new role. Personally, I would have been surprised if it were otherwise. As writer David L. Giveans says, “It is both unfair and realistic to expect a man . . . to automatically ‘father’ when his life experiences have skillfully isolated him from learning how.”

When most of our fathers were raising us, a “good father” was synonymous with “good provider.” He supported his family financially, mowed the lawn, washed the car, and maintained discipline in the home. No one seemed to care whether he ever spent much time with his children; in fact, he was discouraged from doing so, and told to leave the kids to his wife, the “good mother.”

Today, yesterday’s “good father” has retroactively become an emotionally distant, uncaring villain. And today’s “good father,” besides still being the breadwinner, is expected to be a real presence-physically and emotionally-in his kids’ lives. That, in a nutshell, is exactly what most new fathers want. Most of us have no intention of being wait-till-your-father-comes-home daddies and want to be more involved with our children than our own fathers were. The problem is, we just haven’t had the training. The solution? Jump right in. The “maternal instinct” that women are supposedly born with is actually acquired on the job. And that’s exactly where you’re going to develop your “paternal instinct.”

Another question you’re going to have to ask yourself here is how being a father fits with your definition of being a man. There are two major reasons why so many of us would prefer to drive ten miles down the wrong road than to stop and ask for directions. First, from the time we were little boys, we’ve been socialized to associate knowledge with masculinity-in other words, real men know everything, and admitting to being lost is a sign of weakness (and, of course, a lack of masculinity). Second-and even worse-we’ve also been socialized to be strong, independent, and goal oriented, and to consider asking for help as a sign of weakness (and, again, a lack of masculinity).

Nothing in the world can bring these two factors into play faster that the birth of a baby. Because of the near-total absence of active, involved, nurturing male role models, most new fathers can’t seriously claim that they know what to do with a new baby (although never having cooked before didn’t prevent my father from insisting he could make the best blueberry pancakes we’d ever taste; and boy, was he wrong).

Getting help seems like the obvious solution to the ignorance problem, but most men don’t want to seem helpless or expose their lack of knowledge by asking anyone. In addition, too many dads are aware of the prevailing attitude that a man who is actively involved with his children-especially if he’s the primary caretaker-is not as masculine that his less-involved brothers.

It’s easy to see how the whole experience of becoming a father can lead so many new fathers to wonder secretly (no one ever openly admits to having these thoughts) whether or not they’ve retained their masculinity. All too often, the result of this kind of thinking is that fathers leave the entire child rearing to their partners and leave their kids essentially without a father. “Children are at a particular disadvantage when they are deprived of constructive experiences with their fathers,” writes psychologist Henry Biller. “Infants and young children are unlikely to be provided with other opportunities to form a relationship with a caring and readily available adult male if their father is not emotionally committed to them.”

Armin Brott

A great dad himself, Armin speaks not only as a specialist in parenting, but as a parent himself. He has written several books including The Expectant Father and Fathering Your Toddler.