By Yuki Hayashi
It often appears as though the roles of moms and dads are converging into one all-purpose job called “parenthood.” And I’ll admit it: We mamas often think of papas as second-string. They mostly do the same things we do: clean, feed, burp, put-to-sleep, chauffeur, bring home and cook up the bacon, only we don’t think they do any of it as well as we do.
The blundering-father scenario remains the running cliché in lame comedies and TV ads, but the fact is, even as their role evolves, dads are different. In our increasingly gender-balanced society, the distance between Mom and Dad is narrowing, but it hasn’t been erased — and probably never will.
“There’s no question that mothers and fathers have different styles of interacting with kids,” says professor Kerry Daly, associate dean of research at the University of Guelph’s College of Social and Applied Human Sciences in Ontario. “We have research showing fathers are more rough-and-tumble with kids, and they introduce more risk into children’s activities.”
Toronto-based David Eddie, a journalist and author of Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-At-Home Dad (Random House), agrees. “These are horrible generalizations and clichés, but men are more rough-and-tumble. They push their kids out there, they push them faster, farther, they dare them to do things, whereas mothers tend to soothe and nurture.”
And while you may blanch at the sight of your six-year-old happily hanging upside down from a tree, the fact is: some risk is a good thing. As anyone working within the new economy knows, in a landscape of career changes and new technology, having a healthy approach to risk is a necessity.
Additionally, even as moms and dads share housework and breadwinning duties, says Daly, “We still have very pronounced cultural differences between men and women and boys and girls. There are different skills and strategies required to live as a man or woman, and while it’s important to teach respect for equality, it’s also realistic to acknowledge that we live with different pressures.”
Just as young girls model their self-image on their moms, boys look to their dads for clues on what it means to be
a stand-up guy. Hardworking. Honest. Protective. Respectful. Funny. Good at starting campfires. Willing to take a stand. Remembers to bring in the recycling bins. And, of course, a good husband.
“I hope my kids see that [my wife] and I juggle matters and that we’re equals and negotiate everything in a spirit of fairness,” says Eddie, who also cites respect, affection and fidelity as key relationship traits he models to his three sons.
Being a great dad takes effort. And for single mothers or grandmothers raising a child in the absence of a good male role model, outsourcing the job takes effort too. But it’s certainly not as optional as we once thought. Countless studies have shown that an engaged male presence in a child’s life contributes to better emotional, cognitive and social development, as well as higher educational scores.
For Nadine Clark,* a journalist and single mother, the need for a male role model in her son’s life became apparent after a Father’s Day meltdown when Kyle* was about seven. “He just broke down one morning and wailed, “Why don’t I have a dad?” she recalls. “Something just went off in my head, and I said “I can’t get you a dad, but I can find you a man,” she says.
She signed up with Big Brothers and after a wait of a few months, her son was matched with Jeff,* a single man in his early thirties. “He wasn’t a father figure, just a nice, normal, guy friend he could hang out with,” she says. Which was just what her son was craving.
Clark’s advice for other single moms? If you’re signing up for a Big Brother, be as open as possible to different types of men. “They ask you if it matters if he lives in the city or the suburbs, if he’s straight or gay, or if race matters. Whenever you check something off, it adds to your wait time. But race was the only thing Kyle insisted on. I said race didn’t matter, but Kyle said, “No, he has to be black too.’ That was very important for him,” she says. Ten years down the road, their official relationship has concluded, but Kyle and Jeff remain in contact. “He’ll always be in my son’s life, and his approval means a lot to him,” says Clark.
In blended families, stepping into that male-role-model role can be tricky if the guy who pioneered the gig is still in your stepchildren’s lives. When Scott Maxwell, a Toronto-based racecar driver, started dating a divorcée with two small kids, then aged one and three, he took on dad duties even before the couple moved in together about a year into their relationship.
“I wanted to be proactive and establish us as a family,” he says. Not wanting to feel like “a visitor,” Maxwell helped care for the kids and he regards them as his own. (“The kids now listen to and respect — or don’t respect — our authority equally,” he says.) However, when the younger child began to refer to Maxwell as “dad” a couple years into the relationship, the biological father responded with resentment. “But [my son] was used to me being the main male influence in his very early years,” says Maxwell, who stood his ground. A few years later, the kids now are in the enviable position of having two involved dads in their lives.
For dads who lack healthy father figures, parenting your own children can be daunting. Take Canada’s aboriginal community, where single-parent-led families make up 24 percent of families on reserves, and poverty, unemployment and lack of educational opportunities are prevalent. First Nations fathers often have to overcome family histories marked by tragedy ranging from substance abuse to physical and sexual abuse, suffered at the residential schools where aboriginal youngsters were forcibly taken as a matter of social policy until the 1960s (most residential schools were closed by the late ’80s).
“Fathers today still suffer the effects of that colonial past,” says Earl Lambert, who has worked with numerous agencies to design and develop aboriginal fathers’ support groups in British Columbia. “At one point the traditional role of fathers was hunters, fishers, builders of shelter, but they were also very patient and took part in crafts and show games and protected their families. When colonization came into play, there was a breakdown in the identity of the father,” he says.
Today, he argues, there’s a need to proactively reclaim fatherhood. “It’s not natural for guys to seek out a father role model. You don’t just say “Hey, buddy, can you be my mentor?’ But mothers do have that support network,” he says, and guys need one, too. Lambert says typical topics of discussion at some meetings include relationships, self-esteem, discipline, conflict resolution and “even just the rewards and challenges of having kids.”
For Lambert himself, wanting to be a positive role model to his daughter, Alyssa, 12, and son, Donovan, 9, played a large part in his own transformation. Lacking a father figure in his own youth — when he was 12 his dad was murdered by Lambert’s uncle, who then committed suicide — Lambert turned to drugs and crime. It was only in his mid-20s that he was able to turn his life around for good, largely so he could be active in his daughter’s life.
According to Canada’s 2006 census, the faster-growing family unit in Canada is the father-led single parent household (as compared to mother-led single parent households). Dads are no longer strangers at the playground during daytime hours, with more and more fathers either taking extended parental leave or choosing to stay at home with the kids while their partners work.
“There are a lot of activities mothers and fathers now do that are shared and interchangeable,” says Daly. “I don’t think mothering and fathering makes a big difference on the fundamentals.”
While some things may never change, like, say, dads freaking moms out by letting kids romp in the mud in their dress-up clothes, or taking them on one ride too many on the Tilt-A-Whirl, one fact is certain: We’re probably the first generation of parents to fully appreciate all that dads are truly capable of.
Yuki Hayashi got her perseverance from her mother, and her fishing techniques from her dad.
Moving father involvement from the realm of theory to practice is easer than you think. In fact, you probably walk the walk in many ways already. But if you’re looking to up your game (especially as kids move through different ages and stages) or want some tips you can pass on to grandpa, here are eight easy ways to shine as a dad, from Tim Paquette. Paquette is chair of the Fatherhood Involvement Initiative — Ontario Network, an organization dedicated to promoting engaged dad-hood.
1 Bond over breastfeeding. “You can bring the baby over to mom for breastfeeding, burp baby afterwards and put him back down to sleep.”
2 Be there. “Just be a companion: be nearby physically.”
3 Entertain them. “Read a story, put on a puppet show or just use a silly voice.”
4 Go to the rec centre together. Whether it’s for family swim time or to shoot hoops.
5 Show them how to play street hockey. Or another sport they show an interest in.
6 Play with them and let them take the lead. “Kids learn a lot through play, and apply rules learned during play to life.”
7 Stay in touch while travelling. “If you work for extended periods away from home, use a program like Skype to read a bedtime story or talk with your child since there’s both an audio and a visual feed. Or send a video over the Internet.”
8 Take a walk this weekend. Ask your child to join you for an errand to the corner store or even just around the block to walk off dinner.
* names have been changed