We have no idea how to be a dad.
He’s been told his whole life that being a dad is expensive, awkward, gross and overwhelming.
I love Mr. Holland’s Opus.
I always watch it when it’s on TV. The Richard Dreyfuss movie revolves around a beloved music teacher who wanted to be a composer but ended up spending his career at a high school balancing work and his new role as a dad.
I think we can all agree that each of us should try to do so well in our careers that we get a “Mr. Holland Moment” in which people are so moved by what we’ve done that they orchestrate an elaborate ceremony to celebrate our accomplishments. I can only hope that one day my six-year old-son, Elliott, and my four-year-old twins, Hannah and Quinn, will coordinate an elaborate ceremony in my honor.
As a father, however, is Mr. Holland a worthy role model?
Not even close. Not that the movie makes it seem that way. Like many dads in pop culture, the bar is set very, very low and, whether he realizes it or not, your partner is getting a lot of unintentional direction on what fatherhood is all about from these types of sources.
Here’s the takeaway your partner could get from watching Mr. Holland’s Opus:
Becoming a dad will destroy your hopes and dreams and force you to take a job you loathe.
Becoming a dad means a lot of fights with your wife over how you can’t pursue your dreams (in his case, writing songs) and be a good dad at the same time.
Being a dad is expensive (his son is deaf and has to go to an expensive school).
Fatherhood is about dealing with disappointment, especially related to how your kid negatively affects your life.
These are subtle themes, but they are representative of the overarching theme you’d see in most any movie, television show or song related to being a dad. (In fact, think of how many plots are based on an absent or cruel father. Most Disney movies, in fact.)
That’s the thing: While motherhood is often presented as a rewarding, life-improving, loving journey, fatherhood is portrayed as just the opposite, even though it can be incredibly enriching and life-defining in the best possible way.
Fatherhood is presented in pop culture as a thing to overcome or accommodate. Motherhood is presented as a state of being to which a woman should aspire.
You’re preparing for motherhood now, either as a mom-to-be or as a new mom just learning the ropes. Based on how society trains young boys and girls for adulthood, it’s likely you are coming into the whole parenting thing with a different set of values and preconceptions about what your new role will be like compared to your partner.
You’ve been handed dolls since you were a little girl, and it was just assumed you’d be interested in taking care of a fake baby (kind of a big assumption in hindsight, right?!). For a little boy to do likewise, it would be a thing. That’s messed up but true. If your son wanted to carry a baby doll, nosy strangers would find it peculiar.
Strangers are the worst, especially when you’re a new parent. There are so many unsolicited opinions. I’m sure that if it wasn’t for all of our collective fears of the opinions of people we don’t even know, we would be much more confident as parents.
My wife and I sometimes throw coats on our kids for the three seconds they’re walking from the car to the store in 50-degree weather because (and this has happened!) someone would otherwise give us shit for letting our kids be cold.
I remember when my then-infant son had pooped through his clothes in the grocery store parking lot and I had to change him in the front seat. Some lady on my way into the store made sure to loudly comment, “A little cold out to not be wearing a jacket!”
Gee, thanks. I hadn’t thought of that.
It’s not a leap to assume she figured a dad alone with a baby wouldn’t think to grab a coat.
There are lower expectations for guys.
Just the same, we, in American culture, expect women to be familiar and comfortable with babies, even if you’ve never held one before. That’s undue pressure on you, to say the least. You’re just making this stuff up as you go, and even if you babysat as a teenager, have a baby nephew or work with kids for a living, motherhood is a whole new world.
Women I’ve spoken to have said that they’ve been talked to for years as though their eventual motherhood is a foregone conclusion. Does that sound familiar? Doubly so if you’re young and married. TRIPLE if you’re slightly older and married and financially stable.
I have married couple friends who decided kids weren’t for them, and they have to constantly explain that no, it’s not a medical thing — they just don’t want a baby. (Or even if it is a medical thing, it’s not your business!) As though they’ve done something wrong when in fact a child-free life is absolutely right for them.
You know how it goes as you get older:
Single: When are you going to find someone?
In a relationship: When are you getting married?
Married: When are you having a baby?
Have a baby: When are you having another baby?
Have seven babies: Good God, why so many babies? Ever heard of birth control?
People naturally assume you will keep progressing to the next step in what we as a society have agreed is the “norm,” whether that works for you or not.
Emphasis here is on “you will.” Once the guy proposes, the onus shifts to the woman to keep that chain of events moving. It may take two to make a baby, but guys are not often asked passive aggressively why they don’t have a baby yet. Why not? Shouldn’t they have to endure the same expectations?
It goes back to our philosophy of success.
Male success is first viewed within the prism of careers. Female success is first viewed within the prism of raising a family.
Notice I said first. Men and women, of course, can be viewed by others as a success for a range of factors from professional to personal. But even now, if a man and a woman who happened to be parents were at a cocktail party together, the guy would most likely be asked about his job, and the woman would most likely be asked about her kids. Even if she’s an executive. Even if he’s a dad of three who works part-time.
Do you see how there’s already an uphill climb to reach “involved dad” status as a natural state of being where people don’t assume it’s the woman who defaults to being a primary caregiver? Why can’t we assume there’s a strong possibility that the mom works and the dad stays at home?
According to Pew Research, “17% of all stay-at-home parents in 2016 were fathers, up from 10% in 1989.” So sure, it’s not likely the dad is staying home, but it’s trending in the right direction! In fact there are national stay-at-home dad organizations and even a Dad 2.0 blogger conference. (I’ve gone several times and met dads of all kinds from around the country and the world. It’s amazing.)
It’s not as unusual as it once was to say, “I’m a dad and I like to get involved with my kids.”
Sometimes it feels, despite all the progress, like we could easily slip back into a Downton Abbey-style approach where the men retire to smoke a cigar after dinner and the women are left to rear the children. (OK, they had, like, 14 nannies in that show but still.) For every celebrity dad taking selfies with his kids on a daddy/daughter date, there are politicians voting against paternal leave, female CEOs getting sexist questions about how they could possibly “give up their family” to pursue a career and dads left and right being celebrated for burning the midnight oil to help make an extra buck without anyone asking, “Hey, what about your baby?”
(Quick sidebar: I’m not knocking any dad who is trying to provide for his family and, as a result, sometimes has to push himself hard for a promotion or a bonus. It’s not the short spurts, which can be expected. It’s the marathon with tunnel vision where you forget why you’re earning money in the first place.)
In the alternative world where 50/50 child-raising duties are assumed, men would start getting more questions about how they are succeeding as parents, not just how they are succeeding as professionals. I bet in that world, men would more often feel a sense of pride and accomplishment as a result of those frequent trips to the playground or museum. Guys aren’t shy about wanting to be awesome at what we do; it’s just that “what we do” isn’t usually defined by outsiders as “being a dad.”
If he could get that kind of equality, he could still love his career, but when someone asks questions related to his happiness and purpose in life, his instincts would be to talk about his family because that’s where he feels the most fulfilled.
It’s a mistake to assume your partner is predicting fatherhood will change his life in the same way you predict motherhood will change yours.
Beyond the logistics, he hasn’t put nearly as much thought into it as you have. He knows life is going to be different, but chances are he’s more worried about what’s being taken away than what’s being added.
That’s not to say that you assumed motherhood would be a never-ending pleasure full of kisses and lavender and giggles. You’ve had girlfriends and aunts and coworkers give you the real scoop and open your eyes. Especially your loudmouth, oversharing aunt who talks about childbirth like it’s a scene from The Walking Dead.
They probably followed up that real talk, however, with tales of how they loved seeing their baby smile for the first time, or they went on and on about how their baby is the smartest baby in daycare. (Every parent thinks their kid is the smartest baby in daycare. They’re wrong, of course. Because mine are.)
I’m here to say that guys aren’t getting the same scoop as women.
I did a straw poll and asked dozens of other dads across the country the following question:
“Before you became a dad, what did friends/family tell you about fatherhood?”
The most popular answer was, “Fatherhood would mostly be tough.”
Second most popular? “No one talked to me about being a dad.”
Can you imagine that, moms? NO ONE talked to them about what to expect.
When my wife found out that she was pregnant with our oldest, people emerged like pigeons gobbling up discarded bread at the park for the chance to talk about childbirth. They would toss out morsels about their childbirths and what she should know and what she should buy.
They also said plenty of terribly inappropriate things, but that’s another topic. Let’s just say, “Hey, any day now, eh?” is never an appropriate remark to make to a pregnant woman. Especially to one who is only seven months pregnant.
One time, a Walmart cashier saw my very pregnant wife come down her checkout lane and said, “I hope you don’t go into labor right now because if you do, the store policy is that I have to help clean it up.”
Which is a great reminder that A) Walmart has a lot of in-store births and B) If you hear “clean up in aisle 8,” don’t go look. That’s placenta.
For the most part, though, people flooded her with attention, stories and support. It was heartwarming, even if it was also confusing to know what to trust.
Meanwhile, guys aren’t being talked to about expectations, and the attention they do get is flippant drivel like, “Guess you better clear out the man cave!” because people don’t know how to talk to dads about fatherhood.
When we found out we were having twin girls, I had strangers tell me, “Uh oh, better watch out for boys when they get older!” and I’m thinking, “WTF? Did you just warn me about holding off teen boys from sleeping with my yet-to-be-born daughters?”
For those expectant dads in my poll who said people did talk to them about what to expect, the majority told me they heard how tough it would be compared to the (much) smaller segment that heard how amazing fatherhood could be.
Dads are told about diaper changes. And rising expenses. And sleepless nights. And lack of time and freedom.
“I think I had this idealized vision of what being a parent was like. People who I did speak to painted a much gloomier picture of how it would be than the reality,” one dad, Ross, said.
It’s like you and your partner are about to enter the same skyscraper but you’re being let off at different floors.
As comedian Jim Gaffigan says:
Every night before I get my one hour of sleep, I have the same thought: “Well, that’s a wrap on another day of acting like I know what I’m doing.” I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. Most of the time, I feel entirely unqualified to be a parent. I call these times being awake.
I can’t even keep count of how many nonsense things perfect strangers have told my wife. People feel entitled to opinions simply because the baby is in their presence. It was even worse when she was pregnant.
“My ass was wide like that too! I bet you’re having a boy as well,” some crazy lady once said to her.
I don’t get nearly that many looks or comments. As a dad, the assumption is more often than not that it’s just nice I’m helping at all. Like, it’s a bonus instead of essential so they don’t want to judge lest I say, “Screw it! I don’t need this criticism! I’m a man!” and leave my son in the Kohl’s parking lot. I’ve wanted to leave my son in a parking lot for many reasons but not because of that.
(If you’re picking up on my distaste for the unsolicited opinions of strangers about child rearing, you are discerning correctly. I’ve awarded you 500 bonus points.)
You need to soak in the following popular sentiment because it’s a stereotype your soon-to-be involved husband will face regularly:
Moms parent. Dads babysit.
In the more than six years that I’ve been a dad, I’ve heard variations of that theme again and again, and it always makes me either chuckle or shake my head.
I get some equivocation of “How wonderful you’re involved as a father, you poor, helpless chap” most often when we’re on a family vacation, as that’s when parenting always gets cranked up a few levels; i.e., you’re even more visible doing dad stuff.
Now sure, the three-kids-three-and-under thing we had going on for some time meant a lot of people wondered how my wife and I accomplished just about anything. The answer: Patience, a lot of planning and snacks. I don’t care who you are — if someone puts fruit snacks in front of you, you’re going to be happier. Fact.
But there’s another set of comments I’ve heard a lot when we do our regular trips to the New Jersey coastline, especially on walks by the beach. These comments reinforce the idea that even now, many people assume dads aren’t involved and that it’s a blessing if they are, which then creates a cycle of guys thinking they don’t need to be involved because it’s not expected.
A typical scene that has often garnered the attention of strangers when we’re on vacation is when I’ve taken all three kids on a walk in our double stroller. With the warm sea air brushing our faces and the comforting low rumble of stroller wheels rolling over boardwalk planks reverberating in our ears, it’s a lovely way to spend an hour or so.
Just a dad out with his three kids on vacation.
Admittedly, when most of the boardwalk is filled with runners, bikers and single-baby strollers, we stand out. I’d probably do a double-take too, and it never gets old to have people say your kids are cute. That’s the kind of friendly gesture that helps balance out those moments when they aren’t being so cute. I’m not a murderer, but my babies have essentially accused me of as much when I’ve put them in their car seats. Death by safety buckle! It’s the silent killer.
So, you’ve got the scene in your head: a dad pushing his kids down the boardwalk. You’d think people had never seen a dad spending time alone with his own children out in public.
A sample of what I was told on just one trip:
“God, give you strength.”
“I remember those days. Giving the wife a break, eh?”
“Best of luck.”
“Good for you.”
“Wow … need another one?”
All comments made with good intentions, all said with a smile, all meant to be complementary.
Switch around the gender, though, and it’s a different sentiment entirely. Imagine it’s my wife walking with the kids. How many times do you think she would hear, “Giving the dad a break, eh?” or “Good for you” about her ability to be out with the kids on her own.
How many times do you think you’d hear that?
I’m taking a good guess your partner will.
There are definitely times when I go out of my way to take all the kids out of the house so my wife can have some time alone without someone pulling on her leg, but she does the same for me. We approach it as co-parenting. Together. They are our kids. I rely on my wife a tremendous amount and I’m so thankful to have her with me to tackle the crazy world of parenting (her patience is second only to her kindness for unbelievable traits), but she also relies on me. It’s never exactly the same, but we don’t approach it as a “I did this so you have to do that” quid pro quo kind of deal.
Passersby wouldn’t know how much we try to share parenting. They just see a dad out with his kids. For example, one time when the kids and I were at a department store checkout after my wife left early to go get the car, the cashier commented how brave I was for shopping alone with the kids. I asked my wife if she’d ever gotten that kind of comment — nope!
Who’s to blame for seeing a guy out with his kids and assuming he’s taking a risk by watching all his kids at once or that the only reason he’s doing it is to provide a brief respite for the mom? No one in particular. Pop culture says dads can’t handle babies. History says dads aren’t as involved as moms. I get it! Until recently, we didn’t hear much about dads being involved parents.
Those kinds of comments show that we have a long way to go.
We ought to assume that dads can and will be involved parents.
Guys simply haven’t been told their whole lives that, if they become fathers, they will be expected to take the baby to the grocery store alone, change diapers at 4 a.m., do the daycare drop off and put family in front of career. We’re just not there yet.
That means it will likely be harder for your partner to assume he’s meant for that role unless he’s been fortunate enough to have had great role models within his family or friend group.
This makes for a great opportunity for both of you!
I find more and more dads want to be viewed as essential personnel when it comes to parenting. Not because they want credit like a co-worker craving attention from a boss on a work project, not because of some ego boost (because that assumes they are doing something extra special), but because once everyone starts assuming dads should be as involved as moms, the standard increases for all fathers. When that happens, people will have less tolerance for guys who think it’s the mom’s job to raise their kids.
I’m talking about a culture shift and a needed one, at that.
The way that happens is by one dad at a time taking care of his kids at home, in public, at the beach and everywhere in-between the same way that moms are expected to.
Dads don’t babysit, as the hugely popular National At-Home Dads Network T-shirt says. They parent.
I can’t wait until that becomes ridiculously obvious to state. I can’t wait until your partner thinks likewise.
Let’s talk more about how we can make that happen for your family.