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Fathering: the new frontier

By Jeremy Adam Smith

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In the fall of 2005, I was more alone than I had ever been, and the least happy.

No, I'm sorry. That's not quite right: in fact, I was always, always with a baby boy and I had never been happier.

I took my infant son to playgrounds. In those sunny, desperate places I taught him to walk, his small fists clenched around my aching forefingers. Pushing a swing, I'd eye the mothers and they eyed me, or so I imagined.

I was typically the only father. The moms seldom spoke to me and I was frankly afraid of them. I feared -- it sounds ridiculous to admit -- that if I initiated a conversation, they'd think I was hitting on them. Deep in my bones, I felt that I didn't belong on weekday playgrounds. Not just because I was a dad; I didn't even feel like a parent, not then. I felt like a spy, an interloper, an anthropologist studying a lost tribe of stroller-pushing nomads.

It's not entirely correct that I didn't see any other dads. In fact, there were other stay-at-home dads, though all of us worked at least part-time. There was Nick, a contract archeologist, and Stefano, a former teacher getting his real estate license. I reflexively identify them by their jobs -- for are we not men? -- but in truth we were just as disheveled and discombobulated and underemployed as the moms. Moms clung to each other; we clutched at the straws of errant livelihoods.

We men tried to form a manly playgroup, but conflicting nap schedules meant that no more than two kids usually showed up at a time, which is hardly a "playgroup." And so I plucked up my courage and I set about finding mothers who could join us. I met Beth and her daughter Anna Priya at a music class. I met Karen and her boy Argus, and Jackie and her son Ezra, at the neighborhood playground. I met Spring and Astrid at the neighborhood farmer's market. I asked them for emails; and, after a moment's hesitation, they handed them over, and today, though I am no longer a stay-at-home dad, I feel very close to these moms, who provided me with guidance as well as friendship.

Dads were scarce on the playground, but in truth I wasn't alone. Generation X dads spend twice as much time with children than did their Baby Boomer fathers. The result is a huge generation gap (though, ironically, it was previous generations of fathers who pioneered more developmental and caregiving roles). When Kerry Daly of the University of Guelph interviewed thirty-two young Canadian fathers in the early 1990s, he found that many dads rejected their own fathers as role models. "In light of the perception that parenthood had changed so dramatically from the previous generation," Daly finds "a tendency to search for specific instances of good fathering behavior among one's peers."

At the same time, however, "the men in this study viewed their mothers and wives as providing some of the more practical and tangible guidance for how to provide care for children." One father tells Daly: "I think my mom for the most part did a better job of getting me ready to be a father. When the child came home, there was more input from my mother in helping me out on how to handle things; where my father was pleased for me, you know, 'it's your child,' and that's what I got from my dad."

Daly's findings are not isolated. In 2006, Trent W. Maurer and Joseph H. Pleck studied the connections between parenting identity, the feedback parents receive from others about their identity and behavior, and behavior by interviewing 47 fathers, whose average age was 38, and 56 mothers, average age 36. "The more involved fathers perceive other fathers to be," they conclude, "the more they attempt to model the level of that involvement (and the more models they have)." Maurer and Pleck suggest that such peer influence is one of the most decisive variable influencing fathers' caregiving behavior -- perhaps just as important as their wives' expectations.

Are men who take care of children mothering, or are they merely pushing the frontier of fatherhood into new territory?

It's not an idle question, for it goes right to the heart of the relationship between gendered identity and gendered behavior.

no turning back

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