Those of us in the mental health profession can get a skewed idea of the world since the people who come to see us are in pain. Many are wives whose husbands have abandoned them and their children and who are left to financially, emotionally, and physically take care of everything. They rightfully feel overburdened and gypped out of a partner for themselves and a role model for their kids. They worry whether they can do enough to be mother and “father” all wrapped up into one. It’s painful. It’s unfair. And it’s what therapists deal with too many times in too many days.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many fathers — I hope most fathers — are simply, reliably and steadily doing the job of fathering as best they can every day. As Father’s Day rolls around again, let’s celebrate the fathers who take their place among the millions of dads who for millions of years have shown their kids how real men operate.
Over the years, I’ve asked both fathers and mothers what they think are the essential qualities of such men. They tell me that fathers who are real men:
- love the mothers. They show their children what mature and reciprocal love, tenderness, and caring is about. They are affectionate and supportive of their wives and are their greatest fans. Neither partner would dream of cheating so both are secure in their love and their partnership.
- are men, not boys. Sure. They know how to play. They enjoy a game of basketball or time with video games as much as any teen. But they know that responsibilities come before personal pleasure and have learned to take satisfaction from fulfilling those responsibilities as best they can.
- do their financial share. They see it as their responsibility to support their family as best they can, without fanfare or complaint. Couples have many different ways to divide the financial and practical responsibilities of parenting. What matters is that both people feel their arrangement is fair. The economy is tough. Fathers show their kids that when the financial road gets tough, the tough get going. If their wives find work faster, these men matter-of-factly assume more of the household tasks. Meanwhile, they apply for jobs, do whatever work they can pick up, and sometimes accept work they at one time felt was beneath them. Keeping their family financially afloat takes priority over personal pride or ideas about the way the world is ‘supposed to be’ when it’s not.
- are there for their kids. They know when a child is hurting and willingly listen. They encourage them when they are learning something that’s new and maybe a bit scary. They are there to cheer successes and to help them learn from near-misses and failures.
- take the time to know each child as an individual. They accept that sometimes kids aren’t interested in the things their pop is passionate about. They see having kids with different interests as a way to expand their own horizons.
- give their kids love and affection. Their kids know their dad loves them. He tells them so in actions and words. Real men snuggle the little ones and high-five the teens. They do little things for them that they don’t have to do. They know that building forts with the sofa cushions with toddlers or making extra trips to the mall are small but important ways to say “I love you.”
- command respect, not fear. They set clear, age-appropriate limits for each child and insist on those limits with kindness as well as firmness. They rarely, if ever, raise their voices at any family member because they know that children learn what they live. They want their children to obey out of respect for the needs of the situation and others, not out of fear of their dad. They want them to learn that talking out problems does far more for relationships than yelling about them.
- are members of the community. They show their children that real men are involved citizens. They vote, pay their taxes, and participate in activities that make their community safe for their families. If they don’t like the way something is going, they join committees, get involved in the political process, and go about the business of making change
Being a good dad requires a man to give up childish things and be a full adult. It’s only human to at times wish to be one of the kids instead. But dads who are real men understand that although Peter Pan may have known how to fly and fight pirates, he never knew the love of a woman, the adulation of a small child, the growing respect of his children, or the satisfactions of being a man among men and a pillar of his community. Fatherhood gives a man a role, and maybe more important, a reason, to really be all he can be. This Father’s Day, let’s all celebrate the guys who know all this and quietly go about the business of being fathers with dignity and pride.