Fatherhood: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m what you’ve referred to as a “renewed dad.” I’ve got young adult children from a previous relationship and just became a new dad again. Things already seem very different than they were the first time around. Has fatherhood changed or is it just me?

A: A little of both. Renewed dads tend to be more financially secure and less worried about moving up the corporate latter than younger dads who are often just starting their careers. Renewed dads also typically have more time to spend with their young children. You’ll find that you’ll interact with your baby differently than you did with your older kids when they were the same age. Then, your back and knees were stronger than they are now and you probably spent more time wrestling, running, kicking, and doing other physical things. These days you’ll spend a little less time on the floor, and more time reading and talking to your baby.

Expectations for you as a new father today have changed too. A generation ago, society still ranked “provider/protector” as a dad’s number one role. And “disciplinarian” was definitely in the top five. Today, being the provider/protector is still important, but you’re also expected to do a lot more of the hands-on child rearing, go to parent-teacher conferences, and be a real physical and emotional presence in your child’s life. Some of those expectations are internal (meaning that your expectations for yourself have changed), some are external (meaning they’re coming from society as a whole).

Unfortunately, while society’s expectations have changed, the amount of support fathers get has barely budged. Yes, there are now changing tables in men’s restrooms, it’s common to see dads pushing strollers, and there’s been a growing acceptance of the many benefits involved fathers provide their children. Children with involved fathers are more independent and have greater emotional intelligence. They’re better problem solvers, get better grades in school, and are more likely to go on to college. And they’re less likely to become teen parents and abuse drugs or alcohol.

But there are still many obstacles. Working fathers are still far less likely to take family leave—even if it’s paid—than working mothers (fathers are MORE likely than mothers to report work-family conflict.) No one would dare utter the phrase “a woman’s place is in the home” but we have no problem saying that “a man’s place is on the job.” Sports commentator Boomer Esiason recently criticized New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy for taking off the first two games of the season to be at the birth of his son. Esiason said that Murphy should have told his wife, “I need to be there opening day” and scheduled a c-section to accommodate his schedule.

And then there are the same old media portrayals of dads as irresponsible, incompetent buffoons who can’t be trusted to care for their own children, whose kids don’t respect them and would never go to them for advice, and whose wives see them as just another kid to look after. There have been some lovely TV commercials featuring involved dads, but they’re far too rare. And if fathers aren’t the butt of jokes, they’re invisible, as in Procter and Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” Olympics ads that completely ignored dads’ role in nurturing their children’s athletic achievements.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether fatherhood has changed or not—it’s up to you to do what it takes to be the dad you want to be and your children need you to be.