My father was a working man, toiling in the Ford factory for 33 years after his contribution to the military. He often worked another job as well, usually involving his twin brother. For a while it was a landscaping business, then they started to invest in rental property. The first property was when we moved and my dad had the bright idea of keeping the old house and renting it out. My mother wasn’t thrilled; it meant that with two mortgages, money was going to be really tight for a while. Like many women of her generation, she went along with her husband, probably because she didn’t really feel that she had much choice. The modus operandi in those days seemed to be quite similar across many families, men worked outside the home, brought in a paycheck, did the maintenance around the house and cut the grass. They also made most of the decisions. The women were mostly “stay-at-home-moms”. They took care of the inside of the house, keeping it as neat and clean as they could, given that there were kids (some of them yours, some of them from the neighborhood) who were messing it up on a regular basis, usually about every 6-7 minutes. The moms bought groceries, cooked food, did all the laundry, kept track of the kids and made sure they were clean and clothed and (at least occasionally) well-mannered.
My father didn’t change a diaper, despite the fact that he and mom had 5 kids. He actually seemed kinda proud of that fact. He also didn’t help much with homework, dishes, cooking, clothes shopping, buying groceries, attending Open House at school, ball games, or trips to dentists/doctors/music lessons and more. It wasn’t his fault, really, that’s just the way it was and had been for some time. I don’t believe my siblings or I ever felt that we were really missing out on something because our dad wasn’t as involved in that stuff. It just wasn’t expected. If he were alive today, I know he would look back on it with some regret, knowing that he missed out on many opportunities to witness his kids’ growing pains and gains.
My paternal grandfather was pretty much the same way, with a short list of exceptions. He made pancakes on Sundays after church and everybody raved about “grandpa’s pancakes,” but didn’t say as much about grandma’s cooking every other day of the week. Grandpa was also the more nurturing grandparent, at least in a physically affectionate way. He welcomed our visits on his lap so that we could blow out the match when he lit his pipe. We sat on his lap and listened to his stories while he smoked his pipe, (something we all would recoil in horror at today!). Otherwise, grandpa was pretty much like other men of the time, hardworking outside the home, regularly catered to once crossing the threshold. It’s gotten quite a bit more complex now all the way around. Most two parent families have parents who both work outside the home for a paycheck, sometimes one or both of them work two jobs. Everyone is involved in taking care of the home, or are at least expected to. Many fathers are expected to do what my father referred to as “women’s work” which would be the cooking, cleaning, scheduling and chauffeuring kids to various activities and play dates, helping with science projects, untying knots, and a thousand more tasks.
Research studies suggest that women, despite having an outside paying job, still generally do much more than 50% of the “household chores” broadly speaking. The research also suggests that in many relationships, both spouses believe they are doing more than 50% of the household chores, an obvious impossibility. I think some of this is an artifact from how some of us grew up, where fathers were not expected to do a lot of those things. Yes, it has gotten very complex. All parents, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and single or dual parent household status, are expected to continue to spread ourselves thin to cover the myriad of responsibilities we have as parents. This is an ever growing list, which now includes monitoring our kids’ use of the internet, worrying about the amount of time spent with video games, wondering if they are eating enough of the right foods, making the right kind of friends, feeling conflicted about whether they are scheduled enough or too much, and wondering if we are being too tough or too lax in our discipline. How old does our daughter have to be to walk down the street to a friend’s house by herself? Or do we just wait until she is old enough to drive? I don’t think my parents worried as much about these things. If they did, they didn’t let it show.
Well, now it’s Father’s Day and time to celebrate. Being a father has been my toughest life assignment so far, at least it can often feel that way. I read somewhere that having kids was like having little people running around with your heart inside of them. I relate to that. Three of the four greatest days of my life were the days our children were born. What follows is a lifetime of holding, scolding, molding, and ultimately loving them with all your heart no matter what, even when angry, disappointed, frightened, or hurt. Many of us can more easily point to our shortcomings in this regard, but I think it’s time to give ourselves a break, especially on this day. We don’t want to go back, nor should we go back, to the old days. We have been actively reconfiguring what it means to be a father and what the expectations of fathers are for the past 30 or more years. None of us want to be like Robert Duvall as Pat Conroy’s militaristic bully in “The Great Santini”, but we also don’t think it is realistic to always be like Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, either. I think the goal of the “good enough” father is a worthy one, one who is available, but not always possessing the right answers or comforting words of wisdom. I wish all of the fathers out there good fortune and much joy in the process of figuring all of this out. Be kind to yourself and those you love. Today and all days. Happy Father’s Day!