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Evolution of Fatherhood: What I Learned at Dad Summit 2.0

Dad Summit 2.0 was held in Houston, Texas from Jan 31 – Feb 2, 2013. It brought together “daddy bloggers” and brands seeking to affiliate with dads who had audiences on the Web. It was a recognition that today’s fathers are now a demographic that large consumer companies want to reach. But it was so much more for me than that….

It was a statement that today, being a dad is central to men’s lives, identity and sense of purpose. It also says that how we judge masculinity is changing. I experienced the warmth and support from a community of men who valued fatherhood. It was very moving and made me aware how far men have come from when I started out as a dad.

My son was born in 1981. I remember walking around with him in the “front pack” called a snugli. Often women would comment to me on how nice it was to see a man “mothering.”  I think that was the first phase of today’s Fatherhood movement. That men caring for their children were doing what women did…”mothering.” Phase One was that a dad caring for child would be an extension or a replacement or just a helper for the mom.

A couple of years later I was at the park with my son.  I met an older woman, probably in her early 70’s sitting on a park bench and we had a conversation about parenthood. I told her how fortunate I was that my wife and I worked half time each so we could co-parent our son. I told her how much it meant to me to be with him and sharing the early years of his life. It was so exciting to see his each new discovery. I thought I understood life in a very deep way as I watched and helped him navigate the new discoveries which were daily! After about an hour I needed to leave and told this woman how much I enjoyed talking with her and hearing her stories about her children too. She said, “Yes, young man it was wonderful to talk with you and I do hope you get some more work soon.”  This was 1983 and the cultural context for fathers was…men who can’t get work or “make it” at their jobs defaulted to taking care of their kids.  Along the cultural landscape, men who were valuing the importance of fatherhood in their lives were either being seen as “mothering” or not competent enough in the work world.

At that time I felt very isolated from other dads. From time to time I would meet up with a dad in the park on the weekends but during the week it was mostly me and the moms.  The moms all “loved” me and often commented on how they wished their husbands were more available for their kids. I had been involved in the “Men’s Movement” for some time and had many good men friends but none at that time were dads. I knew the value of being with other men and sorting out our lives together.  I wanted to find some new dads to share my experiences of fatherhood.  All these feelings that were emerging from me by becoming a dad: what is expected of myself as a father, how do I care for this infant, why is my relationship with my wife so different, thoughts about my own father, concerns about money, changes in relationships with my single friends, so little flex time when you have a young child, did I put the diaper pail out on Tuesday morning?

I did find four other dads and we met for three months. We found much in common: the lack of sleep, the change in relationship with our wives, trying to balance work and family life.  When we talked about our own fathers, the emotions ran deep. We each knew we wanted to be more involved in our kid’s life than our dads had been. Even though each of us was working out our lives in different ways, it was reassuring to see we all had very similar challenges. Our conversations led me to feel that what I was going through, all these changes, was normal. It also gave me a larger perspective on what was possible for me as a dad, listening to how they were working out their lives and families.

This experience with this first group of dads inspired me to focus my practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist on working with dads and couples with young children. I started the Fathers’ Forum programs in 1985 offering Men’s Groups for Fathers of Young Children and a Becoming a Father workshop for expectant dads. A couple of years later I added the Parent’s Journey a 3 session program for couples who had recently become parents. I began to see more and more men who were focusing their lives around children and family. They were trying to find the balance between work and home, career and family.

I remember in about 1986, in my private practice, seeing a dad who was expecting another second baby. He had just been interviewed for a new job. After passing all the initial interviews a Vice President at the new company pulled him aside and said, “I know you are expecting another child, but if we hire you we need you as part of our team, none of this Mr. Mom stuff.”  Aside from probably being illegal, his comment highlighted the next phase that was developing for dads: The “Mr. Mom” phase. This was what I was seeing in my groups, that dads had really begun to develop a desire to be more involved in their children’s lives and that they were, in some cases, discriminated against when they did. But there is more to this “Mr. Mom” phase and how it came about.

I noticed that as women began to focus more on their careers and wanted equal status with their husbands, men/dads began to need to develop more of their parenting skill set to help out with domestic life. At first a number of researchers into fatherhood development saw men simply filling the role that was needed as their wives began to have careers and contribute significantly to the family income. What I was seeing in my Dad’s Groups was that these new fathers really desired to be able to care more for their children on a daily basis. The dads were reporting how competent they were feeling as a parent and how exposure to more time with their children made them feel that they were contributing, not just to their families, but making a greater and more significant contribution to the world than they felt at work.  This was definitely the “Mr. Mom” phase but it was evolving into something much more.

Phase Three is when men who care for children are seen as “fathering” plain and simple. Ample research in the last 10 years has shown that today’s dads are nurturing, competent, caring and are attachment figures for their children. There are more stay-at-home dads today than ever who have taken on both the caring of their children and the domestic tasks of the household while more women are pursuing their professional careers. The moms feel positive about pursuing their careers knowing that their child/children are being well cared for by their husbands. Masculinity is evolving to see the strength, courage and sensitivity as a father to be an important aspect of being a man. Men are becoming supportive of each other in their roles as dads and the competition that has often divided men is being overcome.

At Dad Summit 2.0,  I was on a panel titled “Can parenting be gender neutral?”  This is a long way from when I started caring for my children and being told I was “mothering.” At the conference there were great vibes of all the dads being so proud and fearless about how important fatherhood is. All the great dad bloggers are really changing the world. (Certainly corporate advertisers are noticing this!) More and more men/dads are recognizing this too. We are moving as a community of men towards a more cooperative and less competitive relation with each other. We are redefining masculinity as connected with nurturing and caring for others as an authentic expression of who we are as men. The world is changing. The next phase, Phase Four, will be to see both moms and dads, not only as mothers and fathers, but as primarily as parents— either gender capable of caring and providing for their children. “Hat’s off” to Doug French who spirited Dad Summit 2.0. It is the beginning of a revolution. And to all the dads out there…you are not alone…come join us at the New Dads Network!                                    (Thanks to The Good Men Project for hosting this post.)