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Redefining Dad: The shape of fatherhood has undergone a dramatic shift in just one generation

Katrina Onstad reflects on what's changed and what's stayed the same.

Primary-caregiver dads still share stories of being treated as novelty supporting acts in parenting. (Photo: Pexels).

When I spent a week working away from home, my husband did all the activities: shepherding, homework signing and consoling after a tough baseball tryout. Mid-week, an acquaintance half joked, “Are you worried your husband can’t handle them?” Not really, because he handles them when I’m home too — just half as much. But the man who asked was my father’s age, so the question made sense: I doubt I ever had a full week alone with my dad as a kid. He was a force and a comfort throughout my childhood, but if the phrase “primary caregiver” had existed, my mom would have worn the sash.

I thought about this interaction when a blogger posted a picture of his T-shirt, which said, “Dads Don’t Babysit: It’s Called Parenting,” on Reddit. Within 24 hours, 3,000 commenters had weighed in. Most posts were from fathers seconding the motion, blasting back at the pervasive idea that dads are fumbling Homer Simpsons who only occasionally, but always incompetently, interface with their kids — a stereotype that a lot of women unfairly reinforce as well.

That T-shirt nicely sums up our confused view of contemporary dads. Men do more domestic labour than ever before, and there’s been a major spike in the number of Canadian stay-at-home fathers over the past decade. Yet primary-caregiver dads still share stories of being treated as novelty supporting acts in parenting. Meanwhile, modern motherhood remains loud and lucrative, overstuffed with “how to do it all” books, online debate and mommy-baby workouts. Fatherhood is less visible, and, far too often, pop culture depictions still swing toward the clueless dad, or one who cowers cutely in the shadow of a strong woman (a.k.a. the Phil Dunphy model).

Father’s Day seems like a good moment to consider how a generation of kids raised by more hands-on fathers may bury that cliché once and for all. For many kids today, Dad’s presence is a given. In 2015, the internet was abuzz over a series of photos by Johan Bävman featuring fathers and kids during Sweden’s state-mandated parental leave. There’s a bearded dad giving his toddler a bath; another father painting his four-year-old daughter’s nails in the bathroom. It’s at once revolutionary and totally normal to see men in the muck of child rearing, not so long ago construed as “women’s work.” While there are certainly many hetero families who don’t reach — or aspire to — high-level dad involvement, for a good number of children, the mom and dad roles are less distinct than they’ve ever been.

Looking back on my childhood, it’s easy to see how I absorbed my father’s influence, if often at a slight remove. My love of journalism and well-calibrated bullshit detector were honed while watching him work for social justice, in teaching and in politics. Of course, these were the same predilections that kept him working long hours, away from the family, as per the norms of his generation. We didn’t begrudge him those ambitions (well, maybe sometimes), but his absence lent him a kind of authority. One-on-one time with my father fell into a supply-demand pattern: rare, therefore more valuable — and formative.

One of my best memories of a turbulent adolescence was being plucked from school on a Friday and travelling with my dad to Seattle for a weekend road trip. We went to a Woody Allen movie and then sat talking in a restaurant for hours. I don’t know what we talked about but I’m sure I was insufferably precocious, trying out adulthood. I remember ordering a fancy “strawberry champagne” dessert; clearly the height of 1980s sophistication. I finished, and my dad — who was neither extravagant nor rich — said: “You want another one?” I now interpret that second dessert as my dad encouraging me to take pleasure when it was on offer, to invite sensation, even decadence. So many other voices were whispering that paucity was an expectation of growing up female. Becoming a woman meant damping down desire, staying small. My father, over and over, told me otherwise. He left loving letters at moments of transition, like graduations or a first published poem. In his sloping all-caps printing, he declared his pride and excitement over the future just up ahead. I was young and filled with panic; I hung tight to his certainty. He may not have been paint- ing my toenails, but he listened when I desperately needed to be heard.

Skip ahead a generation: My husband took parental leave with both our son and our daughter, and we’re close to parity in the work of raising them (well, maybe sometimes). Last summer, he took our daughter on a backwoods canoe trip, like he has before, thrilling her with dugout toilets and fox sightings. They have their own way of being a twosome; she’s a little wilder with him, and no one makes him laugh like she does. They are, above all, comfortable together, their relationship well-worn. On a weekend, he’ll sometimes nap in her bed and wake up buried in stuffies. He’s a new kind of dad, one that just is, no T-shirt explanation required. The shape is new to me, but the love between them, the reach of a father’s influence — that I’ve seen before.

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