There When He Needs You
CHAPTER ONE A Dad Is Not a Male Mother
From Half-There Fathers and Peripheral Parents to Good Enough and Better
I met Kevin on a cool autumn afternoon. His wife, Larissa, and his fourteen-year-old son, Jason, had arrived in my office at four o’clock. We were meeting to talk about what was going on with Jason. A ninth-grader, he had grown moody, stopped talking to his mom and his dad, and his grades had dropped.
Jason looked uncomfortable in my office, trying to sit straight on the squishy black leather couch. Wearing a Borat T-shirt and bowling shoes—he liked the way they looked, he said—he rarely looked up when I talked to him. I made small talk with him about school, friends. Larissa, a prim woman in a pale pink sweater set, often answered for him.
Kevin arrived fifteen minutes late. He charged in, out of breath and still wearing a suit from work. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There was a meeting at the office and it ran late and I had to excuse myself to get here and anyway, I’m here. I’m sorry.”
Larissa and Jason were unfazed by his explanation. A tax attorney at a large firm, Kevin was often late. It wasn’t uncommon for him to miss dinner. If he did make it home, he was exhausted. Larissa also worked as an attorney but had a flexible schedule. She and Jason spent most family time alone. “We’re used to him not being around,” she said.
That comment put Kevin on the defensive. He lapsed into an explanation of how hard he worked to make sure his family had a good life—“the nice house, safe neighborhood, megavacations, saving for Jason’s college.” He said he knew that Larissa wanted those things as much as he did. He was willing to make the sacrifice.
I suggested that it must be hard for him to relax and spend time with his family. Kevin sighed. “I try to go to as many of his basketball games as I can,” he said, “but there’s only so much time in a day.” Trying to go to basketball games, Larissa informed me, meant he’d gone to one all season. Of course, Kevin wanted to go and because of that he’d felt like he’d gone to many more. But the truth was he was torn between work and family.
I felt similarly when my kids were young. I’d leave for the office in the morning and my son would hang on to my legs. I’d rush home to read him a bedtime story and sometimes find him already asleep. I’d go to sleep with a knot in my stomach. I felt a tug—as if my love for my son was pitted against the power of my obligations.
“Kevin’s a good man,” Larissa chimed in. “I try to support him, but he’s not around enough. I wind up doing almost everything for Jason. I cover for his dad in a way, and try to be his mother and his father. And it’s not easy being a—”
“—single parent,” Kevin said. His cheeks turned crimson. “That’s what she says sometimes—that she feels like a single parent.”
Jason tucked his hands under his thighs. He gazed down at his feet and said he was used to hearing his parents bicker over how little time his dad spent with him. I asked him how that makes him feel. “Can I listen to my iPod while you talk about this?” he asked me. His parents shot each other a look.
Kevin told his son that he wished he could spend more time with him, that he feels as if he’s always apologizing. He said he’d be there if he could, and that “I’m doing the best I can.”
MOVING AWAY FROM OLD STEREOTYPES ABOUT FATHERS
Forty to fifty years ago, fathers were silent when it came to family matters. It was a mother’s job to wake the children, dress them for school, pack their lunches, and draw their baths. Mothers stroked their sons’ foreheads when they struck out in Little League, and instructed their boys to be like their fathers. A son’s job was to understand what it meant to be a father by observing his father from afar, by following him around the golf course or watching him flip steaks behind the grill. These “cavemen dads” would come home from work, plop themselves in front of the TV or behind a newspaper, and nurse a scotch or martini. These dads started to become obsolete as more women entered the workforce and as the divorce rate rose, making it necessary for fathers to become more engaged in everyday routines with their children.
Cavemen dads generally didn’t learn good parenting skills, because their wives took care of the emotive, expressive, and intuitive aspect of caring for another family member, including their own sons. Whenever boys had a problem, cavemen dads would tell them to “suck it up,” “take it like a man,” or “talk to your mom about it.” Mothers allowed their boys to cry and express a range of emotions. Cavemen dads grunted or gesticulated their feelings. All in the Family’s Archie Bunker defined this prototype for a generation of men; Married with Children’s Al Bundy defined it for another. These men were generally considered beloved, harmless, and laughable. They worked hard, had their bigoted opinions, but were there for their families in the only way they knew how to be. Their wives and children often made excuses for them.
Even today, many grown sons will protect their fathers’ cavemenlike behaviors. “He was a good man,” one forty-five-year-old man said of his dad, after he had spent thirty minutes listing all the ways his father hadn’t been there for him.
Being a good man doesn’t mean you’re a good dad, I reminded him.
Expectations of fathers have evolved over the last few hundred years. Dads in the 1600s were expected to educate their sons in trades, and emphasize respect and authority. In the next hundred years, fathers shed that persona and became their sons’ best friends and moral guides. In the 1800s, fathers returned to an authoritarian role, but at the turn of the twentieth century, “masculine domesticity” took hold, and—believe it or not—fathers and mothers ran households together. But in the mid-1900s, increasing consumerism led fathers away from the domestic role and returned him to a “provider” role. Even with the rise of the two-income family in recent decades, fathers remain the primary breadwinner. Women today earn only seventy-five cents for every dollar earned by a man.
Fathers who focus on “providing” tend to raise lonely sons. They offer birthday parties and baseball mitts, summer trips and fishing poles, but don’t always give time to their sons. I’m reminded of the father-and-son pair in the classic holiday film, A Christmas Story. Twelve-year-old Ralphie dreams of owning a BB gun. His mother, his teacher, and even Santa Claus, tell Ralphie, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie’s father surprises him with the gun on Christmas morning, but when Ralphie goes outside to try it out, his father doesn’t follow. He doesn’t give his son a lesson or watch him shoot. Ralphie gets hurt shooting the gun and his mother comes running out to comfort him. His father’s job is done.
Most sons of cavemen dads vowed never to be like their fathers. These boys fantasized about having fathers as sympathetic and responsive as Ward Cleaver, Andy Griffith, or Charles Ingalls. They aspired to be the ideal father: someone who was the man of the house, breadwinner, mentor, father figure, handyman, and role model. Their imaginations were fueled by the 1978 hit film Superman. They may have seen their fathers in Al Bundy but they saw themselves in Clark Kent. He was a role model who transformed their ideas about manhood. Superman had a successful career as a reporter, a passionate love life. He could save the world—and he could do it all in one day.
This generation of men came to a silent consensus: They weren’t going to be great dads. Just as women expected to have it all—career, love life, and family—and be supermoms, these men were going to be superdads—mythical perfect fathers.
Alan felt he was losing touch with his twelve-year-old. Every time he got home from work, Alan would find his son in his room, door closed, playing Xbox or surfing the Web, music playing in the background. When he’d knock to say hello, he’d barely get David to say hi, much less turn to look at his father. So last February, Alan told his wife, Mary, that he wanted to take David on a ski trip. Just the two of them. It would be the perfect bonding experience for father and son.
David seemed indifferent when Alan raised the idea to him. Could he bring a friend? David asked. Of course not, Alan responded. The question hurt Alan but he pretended not to care. He told his son that this was their time together. David reluctantly agreed. In the week leading up to the trip, Alan threw himself into planning and scheduling. He created a spreadsheet listing all the items and gear they had to pack, prepaid for lift tickets online, and surfed the ski resort website to study maps of the slopes. He called the lodge to make dinner reservations, making sure the restaurant served steaks, as he wanted to buy his son a thick juicy one after a long day of skiing. He fantasized about the types of conversations they’d have in the car—deep meaningful conversations about life, the kind Alan never had with his own dad.
On the day they were to leave, Alan got home later than he had expected from work and was perturbed they were already off schedule. As he rushed to pack the car, he kept pestering David to get moving faster. After stopping by a gas station for snacks, they were ready to hit the highway by five-thirty with a five-hour drive ahead of them.
As soon as they got moving, David turned on the car stereo and tuned out everything else. Alan tried to start a conversation by talking about which slopes they’d ski—black expert or blue intermediate?—and where he wanted to stop to eat. David didn’t seem to care much about either decision. He took sips of his Mountain Dew and stared out the window. Then he fell asleep.
Snow started to fall.
When David woke up, there was a soft white blanket of snow on the road. Alan wanted to have a meaningful, intimate talk, but didn’t know where to begin. Instead, he brought up all the old topics he knew David would relate to. They talked about how poorly the Knicks were doing, about David’s favorite Xbox video game, and what David’s friends were doing that weekend. Alan felt a twinge of disappointment: their talk was no different from the terse, forced conversations they’d been having recently at home.
The snow was coming down harder and Alan was having trouble seeing the road. They pulled into a McDonald’s for a quick bite and bathroom break. By the time they got back on the road, they were only two hours from the resort. From here, they would drive on a twisting two-lane road that cut through valleys and mountains.
“Dad, there’s a lot of snow on the ground.”
Alan pretended to shrug it off. The snowflakes looked like cotton balls, he told David, but he didn’t say that they were coming down so hard and fast, straight into the windshield, that Alan was having a hard time seeing the road. “Dad,” David finally piped up, “are we going to be okay?”
“Sure we are. This car can get us anywhere. That’s why your mom and I bought it.” But Alan was getting nervous. He was driving only fifteen miles an hour but he could feel their four-wheel drive barely gaining traction on the road.
“I’m scared,” David confessed.
Alan didn’t respond. The truth was that he was just as scared as David but he didn’t want to let him know. Finally, after a few minutes of silence, he confessed, “You know, Dave, I’m a little scared, too.”
His son perked up. “Have you ever been this scared before?”
“When I was fifteen,” Alan said, “a few friends and I went swimming in the Hudson River. I wasn’t such a hot swimmer but I figured I had to go along with the guys. The current started pulling me farther and farther out. I couldn’t get back and I thought it was the end. Then I felt a strong arm pull me under his shoulder. It was my friend Bobby. My heart was pounding. I really thought that was the end for me.”
“How come you never told me this before?” asked David.
The question stumped him. “I guess I never wanted to admit to you that I’ve been scared.”
“There were a lot of times I’ve been scared but I never said anything.”
“Like when?” the father asked.
“Like when I had to give that speech in school or the morning of my baseball playoff game.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about how you felt?”
“Because I thought you’d think I was weak.”
There was a loud crunching noise outside the car, then a thump. The SUV came to a stop. Alan got out and took a look. The snow was too deep to pass through. “We’re stuck. We’re going to have to wait here until a snowplow arrives.” It was eleven o’clock at night.
Alan could sense his son was nervous. He encouraged him to put his seat back and get some sleep. Alan thought of a Leo Tolstoy story he’d once read, Master and Man, about a wealthy man and his servant whose horse and carriage get stuck in a blizzard. They don’t know when help will arrive so they huddle together to stay warm. The following morning, the master wakes up to find the servant frozen to death, his body covering the master to keep him warm. Alan knew it was ridiculous to think in such drastic terms. He loved his son so much he knew he’d do anything to make sure he was safe overnight. He’d do the same for his son, if he had to.
“The plows will wake us up when they get here,” Alan said reassuringly. Snow continued to blanket their windows as wind whipped and whistled through the pitch-black forest around them. David seemed afraid so Alan pulled his son closer to him. The boy let his head fall into his dad’s shoulders. It was the first time in years that he and David had been this physically close. David leaned closer to him for support and comfort.
As Alan held his son, he closed his eyes and thought about the last time he felt this way as a dad. It had been when David was only two years old. Every day when Alan would get home from work, David would beam his bright smile, race to the door with his chubby little legs, and give his dad a welcome-home hug. It was the best feeling in the world, and it made Alan want to be the best dad in the world. The memory warmed him inside, but it also made Alan wonder how he’d gone from feeling an indescribable love for his son to feeling vexed and estranged from him. For now the answer didn’t matter. Alan gripped his son even tighter, not letting go. He wanted this moment to last. And it did—even after the plows arrived.
THE HALF-THERE DAD
Today’s dads could never be called cavemen. They’re forward thinking. They define masculinity differently. They’re living in a world transformed by women’s rights and so are often equal partners in running the household. Fathers today shuttle their kids to piano lessons and the soccer field. They sit at their son’s desk at open-school night, teach their boys to ride bikes, finger paint, and fish. If a boy hurts himself, a father will wipe his tears just as quickly as his mother would.
But something unexpected happens on the way to men becoming great dads. These fathers find themselves falling short of their expectations—and their wives’ and sons’ expectations. Why? It’s impossible to play all their roles well. They feel the pressure to be successful at work, to be attentive to their wives, and to be model citizens in their community. Most important, they feel the pressure to be great fathers. The only problem is, their own fathers did not give them the tools to be great dads. So they’ve improved but often find themselves stuck.
In spite of all the positive changes in being a father today, 56 percent of dads surveyed by the National Center for Fathering said they spend less time with their children than their fathers spent with them. According to a 2001 Child Trends study, fathers are half as likely to be involved in their child’s school activities as mothers. One 2004 study reported that fathers with sons spend more time in the office than fathers with daughters—researchers speculate that fathers unconsciously believe it’s important to demonstrate to a son a man’s role in society. Sadly, only 37 percent of men surveyed in a recent study said that they’re satisfied with their ability to talk to their own fathers. In another national study of fathering trends, only 44 percent of fathers reported knowing what’s going on in their children’s lives.
Many dads deceive themselves into believing that they’ll change and become more involved in their sons’ lives next year. And then the next year goes by without any change.
Nonetheless, today’s dads have come a long way. They’re a major step beyond the caveman dad of old, and most important, they want to be more involved in their sons’ world. But, like today’s mothers, they’re struggling to juggle work and family. Mothers often describe their husbands as rushing around trying to do all the right things but not quite pulling off anything well. Their families often feel as if they never get “all of him.” Yet one recent study found that 74 percent of fathers prefer a “father-friendly” job to a “fast-track” job, a good illustration of how much men want to be better dads.
But the study said nothing about how many fathers actually have “father-friendly” jobs—and few do. Less than 50 percent of the fathers who come into my practice have jobs that make them available to their families. With everything from real estate to gas prices shooting up over the last several years, parents are under increasing pressure to provide. Men who wish they had “father-friendly” jobs are caught “keeping up with the Joneses.” Some fathers approach spending quality time with their sons the way they approach a meeting at work—if it’s not scheduled, it won’t happen.
Many fathers delude themselves into believing that being successful or having a powerful job will raise their stature in their sons’ eyes or inspire their sons to be successful. But this is often simply a rationalization for their own obsessive drive to prove themselves, and for their being more comfortable at work than at home. Too many men confuse giving material things with giving the most precious thing they have to offer—time. They buy their sons laptops, expensive sports equipment, cars, hoping that their sons will overlook their absence or lack of attention. But boys don’t overlook this. They yearn for their fathers. Think of it as “father longing.” Father longing colors a son’s existence. His grades suffer. He’s more susceptible to peer influence. Maybe he does just fine—maybe he becomes highly successful, eventually—but he may spend his life analyzing why he wasn’t good enough for his dad, what was more important to his dad than he was. And that legacy is likely to affect his relationship with his own son.
Because fathers today are so wrapped up in work and getting ahead, they’re often only “half there” for their sons. A struggling dad is the guy you see at the playground talking to the parents more than he is interacting with his boy. He’s the parent at the soccer game who has got his head buried in his BlackBerry or is jabbering on the phone. He may not be plopped in front of the TV nursing a scotch, but he has no problem forcing his son to watch the Patriots game rather than watching Ice Age for the ten-thousandth time. He physically “shows up” for his son but he’s not exactly sure what to do while he’s there. These dads aren’t “good-enough” fathers.
Half-there dads don’t realize that their sons would feel just as resentful and hurt when they see their dads typing on their BlackBerries at a basketball game as they would if their dads hadn’t shown up at all. “Sometimes my son looks me in the eye and asks me if I’m listening to him,” says one forty-three-year-old father. “I’ll say, ‘Sure,’ knowing full well that he caught me drifting again.”
The half-there father is a man in the middle. On one hand, he’s determined to be a good father, available to his son and actively involved in his boy’s life. On the other hand, he doesn’t know how to be. He’s expecting better parenting skills to come naturally to him and doesn’t know how to ask for help. Some dads are so overwhelmed by how far they are from their parenting ideals that they stop trying at all. Others try so hard but still fail to connect with their sons, which causes them to give up on fathering altogether.
One of my patients recently told me a story that illustrates the half-there father perfectly: Steve is CEO of a small company. His seven-year-old, Matty, wanted to learn how to ride a bike, so they went to the park one afternoon. Matty said he was nervous and Steve reassured him he would never let him fall. Matty climbed onto the bike and his dad held the handlebars to keep him balanced. When his father tried to lift his hands, Matty screamed. He didn’t want his dad to let go.
After half an hour, Steve started growing impatient with his son; he was acting like a baby. Matty said he wanted to go home but Steve insisted that he try it a few more times. On the next try, he let go of Matty’s bike. The boy glided ten yards. Matty started screaming for his dad, but it was too late. He crashed into the curb, scraping his leg. He lay on the ground crying.
“Matty,” he yelled. “Get up and ride that bike. Are you a man or a mouse?”
The seven-year-old looked at his father angrily. “I’m a mouse,” the boy said. “Deal with it.”
This is a great example of a half-there dad. He took his son out to teach him and spend quality time with him. It was a moment they would remember forever. But this potentially wonderful memory turned sour, mostly because Steve treated his son as he would an underperforming employee. Steve’s lack of patience is a side effect of his stressful job, but also demonstrates how tenuous is his hold on being unlike his father. Steve promised himself that he would parent differently from his father and would swear to me that he was nothing like his own father, but, when stressed, he instinctually became a caveman. He called on old definitions of masculinity to push Matty to do something he didn’t want and didn’t have to do. And the result was disastrous; he lost his son’s trust.
What would have been the correct way to handle a situation like this? Let me retell the story in a way that might help you understand and glimpse a “360-degree dad,” or a dad who turns his parenting around.
Stuart is a CEO of a small company and one afternoon he decides to teach his seven-year-old, Mark, how to ride a bike. They walk a couple of blocks to the park. Mark says he’s nervous. “I’ll never let you fall,” Stuart reassures him. Mark climbs on the bike and his dad holds the handlebars to keep him balanced. When his father tries to lift his hands, Mark screams, because he doesn’t want his dad to let go.
After half an hour, Stuart starts growing impatient with his son, who he thinks is acting like a baby. Mark says he wants to go home but Stuart wants him to give it another try. He doesn’t push it, but he encourages Mark to take a break. The two walk over to the swings. And as Mark glides back and forth, Stuart asks him what is scaring him. “I feel like I’m going to tip,” Mark says.
Stuart tells him that he was just as nervous when he was learning to ride. He had fallen several times before he could stay up. Stuart describes to Mark how good it feels when you finally get it right. “What’s the matter with falling anyway?” Stuart asks. “You just get back up and try again.”
After a half hour, Stuart encourages Mark to give it one more whirl and he does. Stuart grabs hold of the handlebars. “Okay, Mark, now pedal,” he says. “I’m going to let go as soon as I think you’re steady.” Mark nods nervously and begins to pedal. Stuart lifts his hands for a few seconds but doesn’t leave his son’s side. When Mark’s bike wobbles, Stuart catches it before he falls.
“How about one more time?” Stuart asks.
When Mark says he’s had enough, Stuart gives him a hug. “That was brave of you,” he says. “You’ll get it next time.”
See the difference? In the first story, Steve is a stressed CEO who grows impatient with his son. In the second, Stuart reframes what could have been a tense moment into what educators call a “teaching” moment in a day and a lesson that his son will want to remember forever.
Now let me set the record straight. I’m not saying boys shouldn’t be raised to be strong. I’m just saying that if fathers and sons want to connect on a more meaningful level—and many do—then they need a new framework for doing so. When Matty told his dad he was a mouse, he was sending a powerful signal. He hadn’t yet learned that he was supposed to be tough. He was a little boy enjoying an afternoon with his dad. But he learned that his dad wanted him to be something else. And that moment may stay with the child forever. It’s certainly haunted Steve. He remembered that he’d tried to teach Matty how to bat a year before, but that, too, ended in frustration for both of them. Then he remembered how demanding his own father had been—and how much he had hated him for it.
Men like Steve and Alan don’t understand why they’re not connecting to their sons. They all want to know: “What am I doing wrong?”
Last year, Bernie, forty-three, came to talk to me about his eleven-year-old son, Patrick. From the outside, Bernie had the perfect life, a sprawling house, a new promotion at work. He played golf on Sundays and coached his son’s Little League team. But he felt anxious and wasn’t sleeping at night. He always felt as if he wasn’t doing enough for his son. “When my son was born,” he told me, “I vowed to myself that I’d be a different kind of father than my dad was to me. But despite my promise, I’m still struggling with the same things that he did—getting ahead in my career, being a good provider, and finding enough time to spend with my son. Much as I hate to admit it, I often feel rushed and I have trouble letting go of work and other self-imposed obligations so that I can be with my son a hundred percent.” His relationship with his son has suffered and Patrick rarely asks Bernie for help anymore. When Bernie asked him why, Patrick said, “It’s easier to ask Mom.” Bernie knows it’s because his wife is always around. Bernie isn’t.
Men are working harder than ever and it’s keeping them from their families. A 2003 survey of over three hundred fathers conducted by the website CareerBuilder.com found that 65 percent of fathers worked more than forty hours a week; 25 percent worked more than fifty hours. And that’s counting time spent only in the office. Add in the time we spend checking e-mail at home or responding to BlackBerries in the middle of dinner. Men are often on the road; 54 percent of fathers travel out of town for work. Surveyors confirmed what I see in my practice every day: the most common question children ask is, “When will Dad be home?” It’s often Mom who has to do all the explaining.
WHY WIVES ARE FRUSTRATED
The following is an excerpt from a therapy session with Joe and Kathy Littles. They have two boys—a nine-year-old named Clay and a six-year-old named Giles.
Joe promised me he’d wake the kids this morning at eight A.M. and get them ready. But when I check on them at twenty after eight, they’re still puttering around in their pajamas. Clay is playing Game Boy. Giles is looking for his socks. We’ve got to be out the door in twenty minutes. So where’s my husband?
Joe’s in the kitchen reading the paper.
I hustle the kids to get ready. When the kids and I walk into the kitchen, Joe smiles at us, as if the kids miraculously got dressed on their own. I feel like wringing his neck. I want to yell, “Am I the only competent parent here?” But the kids have only ten minutes to eat before we have to load them in the car. So I don’t say anything at all. But again, I feel like I just can’t count on Joe to get things right.
I got the kids up on time and told them to get ready and come down stairs in fifteen minutes to eat. They’re not babies anymore. They ought to be able to do things on their own. Then before I know it, Kathy comes in the kitchen and gives me a dirty look. She’s rushing everyone to get ready like we’re going to miss a plane or something. We haven’t been in the car five minutes before she’s on the phone yelling at me because we forgot Clay’s cleats. She doesn’t appreciate anything I do. Let her do the damn stuff herself.
Joe isn’t exactly a caveman dad, but his perception of his role as a father and partner in parenting needs some readjustment.
Women have a right to feel frustrated with their husbands. Their ideals for men have evolved just as rapidly as their husbands’ ideas about fathering. Two decades ago, more women entered the workforce, creating two-income families. These women wanted it all, to be great moms and career successes, to be “supermoms.” Many men expect this of their wives, too. But to ensure that both careers move forward requires equal partnership at home and in parenting.
Husbands and wives want to run their households as couples. Dads cook some nights. Mothers take out the trash. Dads take the kids to soccer games and doctors’ appointments.
That is the general expectation on both sides, but what I’m seeing play out is quite different. Dads do want to participate in child rearing, so they will cook dinner and slip out of an office meeting in order to make a parent-teacher conference. They will mow the lawn Saturday morning and shop for the kids in the afternoon. They’ve certainly stepped up their role inside the home. But few women would say that they married men who are their parenting equals. Instead, many women often feel betrayed, as if their husbands somehow deceived them into thinking they’d do more when they promised that they’d be highly evolved, available fathers—a new breed of dad.
Men weren’t being purposely duplicitous. They thought that better fathering would come easily to them. For some it has. But the majority of men I see in my practice are struggling. They didn’t realize how unrealistic it was to think they could do it all and still be a different kind of dad.
Still, you can’t blame women for their mounting frustration; they’re married but they often feel like single moms. Lots of women say that they appreciate what their husbands do to help, but it’s just not enough. Many of them are in the same predicament their own mothers were in—overstretched. “I get up and go to work,” says one twenty-nine-year-old mother. “Then I get home, play with the baby, feed the baby, put the baby to bed, cook my husband dinner, clean the house. By the time I’m done, it’s ten P.M…. time to go to bed. Then I do it all over again the next day. I feel like I’m doing everything by myself. If things don’t change soon, I’m going to flip.”
An underlying assumption in many marriages is that mothers do, and fathers do when they’re asked. A mother is going to know if her son’s laundry needs to be done and throw a load in. Today’s father will happily do his son’s laundry, but he won’t think of it on his own. Television shows such as Nanny 911 depict incompetent dads in nearly every episode. The nanny gives advice to mothers, who in turn filter the information to their husbands. That line of communication would be expected if they were stay-at-home moms, but many mothers on the show—and in America—continue to be working moms. So even though the expectations of fathering roles have changed, fathers still parent from the periphery, and mothers still are considered the alpha parent. And their resentment over it is building.
Take Joe and Kathy, the couple featured in the story above. Kathy asks Joe to get the kids dressed and take Clay to his soccer game, but Joe drags his feet. He doesn’t feel the same sense of urgency to get Clay to his game on time or to remember that Clay has to take his cleats. This makes Kathy furious that she has to stop what she’s doing and work double-time to make up for his lax parenting. Things get tense between the couple because Joe, who considers himself a modern, available father, doesn’t comprehend what he did wrong. He got the kids up, told them to eat breakfast, and drove his son to his game. Joe believes he’s helped out—his job is done. What Joe doesn’t realize is that his ideas on “doing the job” are based on an outdated assumption that “helping out” is fathering.
Kathy expects Joe to be an equal parenting partner. She expects him to think three steps ahead of her to meet their kids’ needs, just as she does. When Joe forgets the cleats, it illustrates that Joe’s parenting is still dependent on Kathy’s direction. Joe didn’t get the kids up independently, feed them breakfast, and then shout out to Kathy that he was taking the boys to soccer, while she read the paper. Kathy had to give him a checklist of assignments. When Kathy expresses her disappointment, her husband says she’s unappreciative and next time he won’t help at all—as if his role in caretaking is optional rather than a requirement.
That’s not good fathering—Joe is another example of a half-there dad.
I don’t blame men for being confused. They’re stuck in what I call “the father trap”: they’re drawn to fatherhood by their desire to outfather their own dads, but when they do become parents, they realize they have no idea how to go about being different. They’re parenting in the dark, often not having had a positive role model, uncertain of what’s considered “good enough,” “not good enough,” or “more than enough.” Many men still don’t define their self-worth based on how good a father they are. Unsure how to attain the closeness that they crave with their sons, they are still putting more pressure on themselves to perform as well at home as they do at work. They want to do better.
You should know that your feelings of frustration are legitimate and that you’re not alone in feeling them. The parents’ stories in this chapter are meant to help you identify the problems you’re having, so that you can move forward in solving them.
My hope is that you will be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses and, in turn, take your fathering to the next level. I often tell men, You can become the father you’ve always wanted to be, the role model that your son needs. But you need to open yourself to change. By the end of this book, you’ll see that in becoming a better father, you’ll become a better man.
DEFINING GOOD FATHERING
Harvey was camping for the weekend with his son’s Boy Scout troop. He didn’t have time to be a troop leader, because he was a software salesman and on the road most of the week. When his son, Hal, told him that fathers were invited on the next camping trip, Harvey jumped at the chance. He rarely had his twelve-year-old to himself.
On the first night, the boys stayed up talking around the campfire. Harvey enjoyed watching his son interact with the other boys. When one of the children bullied another about his weight, Hal intervened, making a joke about the bully’s zits. “Nobody’s perfect,” his son said. Harvey had told Hal that the week before when his son had spilled milk on the couch. When he and his son locked eyes, Harvey gave him the “thumbs-up.” His son smiled.
When the boys fell asleep, Harvey stayed up talking with the other fathers. A few complained about their wives. One was going through a divorce. Then they started comparing what video game systems they’d bought their sons and where they’d taken their families on vacation. The conversation turned to what cars they drove, what percentage rate they got on an equity loan, how you shouldn’t take out an equity loan. Harvey listened. He drove a nice car and he had a big house but he didn’t feel the need to tell the world about it. He changed the subject.
“Do you think you’re a good father?” Harvey asked a guy wearing a John Deere cap. Every time Harvey took off in an airplane, he’d think about the possibility of it crashing, which made him worry about his family. What would they do without him? He’d flown often lately and he’d been thinking a lot about his relationship with his son. Am I a good father? he’d recently asked himself midflight.
The men shifted uncomfortably around the fire. One said, “I’m here, aren’t I? If that doesn’t make me a good dad, I don’t know what does.” A couple of guys laughed. Someone asked if anyone had seen the Redskins game.
Harvey told me this story when he was talking about his fears one afternoon in my office. He had come in several months after this trip because he was worried about his son, who had become distant from him and his wife. Hal was giving one-word answers and holing up in his room. They didn’t know how to deal with this change.
Harvey tried to be there for his son. He attended most of his son’s events but missed some because he worked hard and traveled often. So he’d send his son e-mails, offering anecdotes about whom he’d met that day, the place he was in, or just saying he missed him. “I don’t let work run my life,” he told me. “Some men I work with stay in the office just to avoid going home. It sickens me.”
I would later talk to his son, whose behavior had nothing to do with his father or mother. Hal was on the verge of puberty, and was pulling away naturally, as adolescents do. I mentioned this possibility to Harvey and we set an appointment for Hal.
Harvey seemed satisfied. He began to stand to leave. Then he sat back down.
“Doc,” he said. “Am I good enough?”
Harvey needed encouragement. I told him truthfully that I’d be happy if I had him for a dad. He wasn’t perfect but he didn’t have to be. He was fully present when he was with his son. Hal didn’t have to vie for Harvey’s attention and never felt like an afterthought. Harvey left my office breathing a sigh of relief.
Says Harvey: “Sometimes you just need to know that you’re doing okay.”
You don’t need to be perfect to be a good father. You just need to work harder and with more awareness than you are now. Forget about being superdad, the perfect dad. There’s no such thing as the dad who thinks of everything, gives everything, sacrifices everything, succeeds at everything. If that person existed, he’d be miserable. He’d be living for everyone but himself.
Fathers who burden themselves with unrealistic expectations often feel guilt and heartache. They’re uncertain in their role and constantly second-guess their parenting skills. Sometimes they mask their self-doubt by acting overconfident. Lots of men I see want me to tell them that they’re good fathers, but I have them ask themselves whether they are. They—and you—can usually answer that question. If you feel guilty, you’re probably not giving your son something he needs. If you feel close to your son, you’re probably giving him enough of yourself. If you have never considered your son’s feelings then you’re probably not giving him much at all.
Men are task-oriented, so I’m giving you some tasks that will help you learn to be a better father. You don’t have to be the best. But you do need to be good enough. Here are your assignments:
- A “good-enough dad” finds balance between being there for his son and nourishing his own spirit.
- A “good-enough dad” should commit to being home at dinner at least two or three nights a week.
- A “good-enough dad” keeps his promises and shows up when he says he’s going to.
- A “good-enough dad” listens attentively and makes his son feel important and understood.
- A “good-enough dad” expresses his feelings openly and encourages his son to do the same.
Fathering is a study in contradictions—gentle and rough, serious and silly, strict and lenient. A father is often moved by his son’s hurts and disappointments, and is always looking to protect him from the cruel world. No matter how many mistakes a father makes, he will always play an indispensable role in his son’s development. Even a flawed father can be good enough.
As you read on, you’ll meet dads who have struggled to balance career and family; men who are having trouble making peace with their own fathers; men learning to openly express their feelings to their boys. And you’ll hear from mothers and sons who catalyze a father’s transformation.
You can find the courage to change, and new ways to become a dad for all seasons and still be comfortable in your own skin and “all there” for your son. No need for excuses or guilt. Just get to it. Your son is waiting.
It’s time to get the father monkey off your back.