So I started taking her to the large park in the center of our town letting my spouse stay home to catch up on exercise, sleep, or housework. It’s perfect for our little girl. There are trails we can walk or take her on a wagon ride. There are several large playgrounds and a swing set she absolutely loves. There’s a dog park, and so people are always walking their dogs through the park, which never fails to delight and excite her. And what’s best is that at eight in the morning, the playground is still cool and not crowded. She runs around and wears herself out so that she naps well in the afternoon, and I don’t have to work so hard wrangling her around a house with breakable objects.
I’ve noticed over the past few months an interesting reoccurring phenomenon. We usually encounter a few other children her age at the playground, children who also wake their parents up at painfully early hours on a weekend. And these parents bring their children to run around and wear themselves out. And, like me, these parents are by themselves. And nearly ninety percent of them are dads. I haven’t polled them, but in conversations with them – more on that in a moment – they talk about their children’s mothers as if they are still very much in the picture. So I can’t make any definitive statements about how many of these dads are married versus single parents, but it does seem like my little town has a flourishing community of dads who bring their toddlers to the playground early on Saturday mornings.
Something else that has struck me about all these dads is how naturally a community seems to spring up around us. I’m a quiet introverted person by nature and not particularly predisposed to conversing with strangers. But as soon as we cross paths with another child-father dyad, I am usually greeted by the other father and it isn’t long before we’re both asking the questions typical of parents who meet solely because they have children: What’s your child’s name? How old is he? When did he wake up? Does he usually sleep well? Do you use a daycare? Not only am I surprised by how quickly other dads start talking to me about the very substances of being a dad, I’m just as surprised at how eagerly I join the conversation. It’s really not like me to readily engage in conversations with strangers, but we’ll be fifteen minutes on the playground before my little girl is tearing me away from a conversation with someone I’ve never met before about the best sippy cup.
There does seem to be something uniquely “dad” about this experience. The one or two times that I have encountered a mother on the playground with her child, I have experienced these women to be much less interested in talking. It’s entirely possible that given my ratty t-shirt, the rolled-out-of-bed style of my hair, and my general awkwardness around other people, that these women just find me creepy. But I have wondered if perhaps there might be something developing in the culture of suburban fatherhood wherein we dads are hungry for the affirmation of community with other dads.
I had a good father growing up; you won’t find me singing “Cat’s In the Cradle” or choking up at The Great Santini. My dad was present to me and my brother; he played with us and read to us and took us to ballgames and picked us up from church and at one point in my life wrote me a letter telling me how much he loved me and how proud he was of me. I think my dad may have broken some ground in changing how dads support their family, away from the stereotypical old-world model of an emotional distant, financially supportive disciplinarian. I’ve written before about how low the bar has been set for modern fathers. But I do think that there are more men in my generation who were raised by dads who broke the mold and spent more time at home being a little more emotionally available. And now we’re struggling to find our own way to live into our roles as dads, integrating into home life while our spouses go back to work after only two months of maternity leave. It’s more than just raising the bar for how men can be parents to their children; it’s also about finding a place in society that is still struggling to figure out how to redefine gender roles. Even in my post from last week I had to change the language that my all-time-favorite developmental psychologist used to describe the experience of a child’s early attachment. It’s all about the “mother-object.” The object-relations theorists didn’t talk about the “object-father.” This has certainly drawn plenty of criticism and corrective over the years (Nancy Chodorow’s Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory is a provocative example), but I think that there is a cultural shift in our society around how dads can be dads.
Of course, this has to mirror a similar shift in how moms can be moms. For instance, more women are in the workplace and continue to work full-time while raising children. The media is full of “mommy wars” talk (a recent example is here, but just Google the phrase for a large sampling) and how women are struggling with the idea that they can have a full career and also be parents. Well, there’s never a struggle for one gender that doesn’t affect the other gender. For my part, I think this is all a good thing. I’m glad to be able to enable my spouse to have her career (a higher-paying one than mine, I might add) and still be the wonderful mother she is; she hasn’t had to choose between them. But I have to strike the same balance, and I sense that this is just as new terrain for dads as full-time motherhood is for many contemporary moms.
Yes, it’s an upper-middle-class luxury to wrestle with this. Believe me, my liberal white guilt is always active, so I recognize how silly it is to ponder the cultural significance of taking my daughter to the playground on a Saturday morning. But I’ve found the instant community among dads on the playground to be striking, and I believe it signifies something important. I’m trying to figure out what it means to be a dad (and to a daughter, no less, but I’ll unpack that more in a later post). In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see other dads my age struggling and succeeding at the same task just one or two swings down from us.