Patricia Fry is a freelance writer and publisher from Ojai, California. This essay is excerpted from Patricia Fry's book in progress, Fatherhood and Fathering: The Ultimate Guide for Today's Dad.
Fathering has become fashionable. But because their role models are outdated, countless men are struggling in this capacity. Today, fatherhood doesn't necessarily imply a wage-earning married man who lives with the mother of his children. The concept of dear old dad has taken on new dimensions, thus creating greater challenges for men who want to fulfill even the basic requirements of being someone's dad.
Our neighborhoods are filled with estranged dads who pay child support for the privilege of spending every other weekend with their kids. Too many of these men become walk-away fathers, leaving millions of our children dangerously deficient in the dad department. At the other end of the spectrum, the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures reveal that over 2.75 million of our children are being raised by their fathers.
We read a lot about the challenges and joys of motherhood in today's changing world. But how are America's fathers faring in their relationships with their children? In a recent study, 74 percent of the men polled said they would rather have a daddy-track job than a fast- track job: They want jobs with fewer demands and more flexible hours to allow more time with their families.
Those who are blessed with time for their children often feel unsure about their roles as nurturer, teacher, and disciplinarian. Fathering skills were not a part of their upbringing either by example or education.
THE LEGACY OF FATHERHOOD
Today's parents, whether their children are five or fifty-five, grew up in an age when a father's primary responsibility to his family was financial. Our fathers typically worked all day and came home to relax with a hot meal, the newspaper, and a favorite radio or television program. Mother, whether she worked outside the home or not, managed the household and child-care duties.
For the most part, twentieth-century fathers limited their parenting to that of ultimate decisionmaker. While children commonly brought important issues to Mom's attention, Dad had the final say. Dad was to be feared when you'd been naughty. Who doesn't remember Mom saying, "Just wait until your father gets home." You spent the rest of the day in anticipation of your punishment, which was rarely as bad as you had imagined.
Children growing up during the first two-thirds of the last century certainly interacted with their fathers, but these encounters were usually brief and carefully orchestrated to fit his agenda of work and relaxation. Typically, family discussions, over which the father presided and which often included behavior issues involving the children, took place at the dinner table. Sunday afternoon was reserved for family activities and customarily included members of the extended family. The women prepared a meal, and the men lit up their choice of tobacco and engaged in manly conversation. The children were relegated to the yard.
While many adults today recall special and close moments with their dads, some remember their fathers as stoic and emotionally distant. For these children, there were no rough-and-tumble playtimes, no father/child togetherness activities, and no spirited family discussions around the dinner table. Some adults remember living the concept in their own homes that "children should be seen and not heard."
"We were not to disturb father when he was relaxing, which was just about anytime he was at home," recalls 48-year-old Timothy. "Mother would prompt us to walk on 'quiet feet' and use our 'whisper voices.' He never had the time or, I guess, even the inclination to get to know us kids. I don't remember him ever hugging, kissing, or tickling any of us. As far as he was concerned, we belonged to mother."
Steven, 47, tells a similar story: "When I grew up and had children, I didn't have a clue what a father should do. …