I was buckling my son into his carseat after our gymnastics class yesterday, when he asked me something I've never heard him ask before: "Dad, how come you are the only dad there?" I immediately inferred what he meant, but wanted to clarify. "What do you mean, buddy?" I asked. "You are the only dad that helps in Brynlee's class." See, while my son does a preschool parkour class (yes, it's as amazing as it sounds), my daughter and I do a tiny tots class, where I help her with tumbling, balance beams, and other gymnastics activities. As he noticed, there aren't a lot of other fathers there with their kids. It is interesting to me that it took him until 5 years old to realize that our situation isn't the norm: I am the daytime, stay at home parent while mom teaches middle school. Most weekdays during working hours, I'm their driver, diaper-changer, nose-wiper, snack-getter, argument-settler, activity-generator, etc. And one of the more interesting aspects of stay at home fatherhood I have discovered is that it is far more common than many realize, which points out to me how much catching up we have to do as a culture in terms of our perception of gender/parenting roles within our families. The very fact that people still refer to it as "babysitting" when fathers take care of their kids, should tell us something about the perception of dad's role in the family. Dads might be perfectly capable of watching the kids, but for the most part, they aren't often thought of as essential. And yet, study after study shows us the psychological and social damage a child can suffer when their relationship with their father is broken in some way.
The very concept of fatherhood, wrapped up in generations of misunderstood masculine identity, can be pretty complicated. I know some dads who feel anxiousness when they are responsible for their kids well-being on their own for even a couple of hours because they feel like they don't really understand what their kids need. In truth, I believe this is part of a long-held generational idea that dads aren't supposed to know these things. Moms are the nurturers and caretakers (And moms will always, always be the champs in this area. Sorry fellas.) Dads are the providers, sometimes the playmate, and often the disciplinarian. But to get too deep into that other stuff would be damaging to the very idea of their masculinity.
This makes me think a lot about our cultural climate, and our perceptions of masculinity within it, and the idea that strength equals assertions of power. I think of all the ways this belief, especially as it’s carried out by men, has negatively affected so many lives by enabling abusive and controlling behaviors. The way that anyone who might be viewed as sensitive is labeled a ‘snowflake.’ There's ridicule for anyone who might seek a "safe space" to let their feelings out. As far as we’ve come as a culture, men are still often taught the same mantra: toughen up, bury your feelings, be a man. Trying to raise a child, I'd say especially a son in this environment presents a number of challenges. And in the midst of it, i think about my father, Monte, and my own upbringing. When I do, the word that comes to mind is gentleness. My father is not a hard man. And his gentleness in raising my siblings and me, in his marriage and his dealing with people was a model for me growing up. Like all parents should be, he could be strict and never held back from speaking truth with clarity. In fact, as a pastor and counselor, he still does this boldly. He and my mom walked through so many challenges, including life-changing injury, and yet my father never stopped being gentle. And his gentleness didn't weaken him; it gave him strength. From him I learned that strength was more than a demonstration of power or dominance, or being the biggest and loudest, but was found in your character. Courage, humility, peace, vulnerability. These things flowed from his gentle character into the lives of many. My father most often spoke gently to us. He listened to us. I have memories of my mom leaving early for work, and my dad getting us dressed, brushing our hair and making us breakfast before taking us to school. He'd play with us, sing to us and nurture us. He learned to understand who we were and what we needed. He and mom truly worked as a team to raise us. I truly believe his gentleness changed his own father, also a gentle soul, who was a father in a time when men were told to be hard. So his temper was fierce and his discipline was harsh. But I watched as my grandfather softened over the years, and now he can hardly choke out the first few words of a prayer at a family meal without being overwhelmed by emotion.
I am overwhelmed by gratitude that this was modeled for me as I try (and often fail) to demonstrate this with my own son. Let me tell you, after hours of 5 year old demands and arguments over toys and tv shows and battles over getting a strong willed little guy and a toddler discovering her voice to eat their carrots at lunchtime, it can be easy to have your temper explode and realize you might not have been modeling what you truly want your kids to see in you. But what I want want my son to see more than anything, is that through gentleness of character, we learn to empathize. And I imagine a world where men are taught to be gentle, and how it would change the way they relate to each other, to women and to those who are different from them. I think in many ways, what we believe and teach about masculinity in our culture is failing our children, especially young men. But empathy can change everything. What would our world look like if we broke down some of the toxic ideals of masculinity, and taught our children healthy ways to express their emotions, to apologize and forgive and to learn to better listen to one another? Better yet, what if we did our best to actually model these things for them? To admit when we are wrong, and work to improve.
I believe there are times to be tough, to stand strong and show your power. To raise your voice and not back down. In fact, something I realized recently is that my one true hope and aim as a parent is that my discipline wouldn’t break my children’s spirits, but temper them. That they will learn where and how to bend when needed, but always stay strong in their convictions. Of course I don't think all dads need to be stay at home parents (though everyone might benefit if every dad had to do it for a stint!) But I do hope more dads will learn to be ok with carrying the diaper bag, driving the mini-van and letting a hurting child cry in their arms. To be gentle and show that true strength is more than dominance, possession and power. I really believe our future depends on it.