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Let’s Talk About Dads

Do you remember the Huggies Dad Test commercial? People complained, and it was yanked after a few weeks because it portrayed fathers as unable to care for their own babies. This spot I’m thinking about showed a group of dads in a house – with their babies and without motherly backup – and wouldn’t you know, chaos ensued! Spaghetti sauce-smeared faces, sagging diapers, crayon graffiti on the walls – kind of like what my house looked like in the early 2000s.

And then there’s the doofus dad on almost every sitcom ever. Are you familiar with him? He is relatively pulled together in many areas, but falls apart when he tries to clean the house, make dinner, or do anything remotely kid-connected? This dad will slink back to the couch, open a beer, and watch the game while Mom goes on to win at parenting.

Maybe it’s because my husband Scott and I married later in life, and he cleaned his house and cooked just fine up until then without a woman around. Or maybe it’s because he was so attentive at our breastfeeding class that we didn’t have to crack open a single baby book until month two. Or perhaps, it’s because for most of our journey, we have worked at home together, so he’s been in on parenting life 24/7 from the beginning. Whatever the reasons, the bumbling man trope has never played well around here.

Gearing up for this month of fathers, I’ve also been thinking about two dads in my life from an earlier era: my father and my absolute favorite uncle. Both of these men operated in a world when dads might have been referred to as babysitters instead of parents, and people were okay with that. Decades ago, it was the norm for men to work nine-to-five jobs, come home, have a drink, and pretty much check out. Thankfully, both of these dads played against type, and they parented thoughtful, sensitive, responsible sons who grew up to be wonderful fathers.

These wonderful fathers (my brother and my cousins) learned from dads who were engaged in family life. They also had mothers who welcomed their husbands’ support and who were open and honest about asking for participation, and yes, sometimes demanded it. Growing up, these men did not have the constant media exposure to the dumb dad caricature that today’s kids experience.

Times have changed, and fortunately, so has parenting. But I feel like the bumbling, disengaged dad trope persists in the media. That’s why I’ve decided it’s important for families to not only live a certain dad truth, but also talk about fatherly contributions more freely. In this way, children (and boys especially) can understand what goes into being a father. And just maybe, the idea of fathers having time off for paid family leave will start to make sense more broadly.

At dinner recently, I polled my daughters about their dad. I was looking for concrete examples to add to my own list and share, in case you wanted a blueprint. Here are some of the “good dad” things we remembered together:

1. He is a labor and delivery partner. I still get chills hearing the father of my kids talk about our childbirth experiences. Years later, he can even recall unique tidbits from different baby’s births. When Amy Schumer’s The Day You Were Born skit from SNL was all over the place last month, Scott reassured our daughters, point by point, that it didn’t have to be like that.

2. He is engaged in childcare. With our oldest, when I went back to work at six weeks, Scott worked at home and kept Sam with him. Later, when we started using childcare, he dropped her off and picked her up most days.

3. He is the building guy and the project engineer. In the early years, LEGOs and puzzles were his go-to activities with the women-children. As a parent, you might not want to know what it feels like to see your 5-year-old learning how to use a drill press, but trust me, it’s a good thing.

4. He is the best at reading aloud. His specialty was Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, but most any children’s title benefitted from this man’s dramatic interpretation. Once, I stood outside a bedroom door and listened to him reading The Web Files by Margie Palatini so I could savor every page.

5. He volunteers in the classroom. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but when my kids were in elementary school, dads were superheroes if they showed up to help at a classroom party. Scott was Sunshine Math Man!

6. He cooks with the kids. Who knew that separating egg whites was a life skill? Or doubling a recipe? Not me, that’s for sure.

This Father’s Day, remind your kids about at least one specific Dad-thing that happened when they were little. If he had a knack for carefully folding tiny baby clothes – instead of just stuffing everything in one drawer (my bad!) – tell your kids. If he read to them every night before bed when they were in preschool, their memory of that may have faded. Tell your kids! If he was the one helping them with LEGO DUPLO towers long before they graduated to building egg-drop contraptions for school, tell your kids. To learn how to be a good father one day, children need to hear their dad is one today. Please, tell your kids!

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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