A couple of weeks ago as I was walking through Boston's Public Gardens, I came across a father/daughter music duo. On any given day, even on a treacherous February afternoon, plenty of musicians busk in the gardens. But this was something new. She was all of 8 years old, maybe, completely shredding it on her violin. Her dad accompanied her on guitar. Swoon! My ovaries were incinerated on the spot. It was a perfect, sweet, early summer afternoon and there were plenty of people strolling around, pausing around the duo to listen. How awesome for this girl, I thought, to have this experience: not just playing out on the streets of Boston, but playing out with her dad. If it were a Mastercard commercial, the tag, "priceless" would have been ghosted above their heads. That dad was doing it right, and I bet if he were asked he would say that he was just being a dad.
The truth is, dads are frequently among the visible invisible. In his new book, Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About The Parent We've Overlooked, author Paul Raeborn makes the case that reinforcing the cultural message that dads are less relevant and are less crucial for a child's development from womb to birth and beyond sets up individuals in that role to participate in their own erasure. Dads definitely get elbow-deep in diapers, spend afternoons around the princess tea party table, run carpool and do all the voices at story time. They don't have to have dude parts to do the dad thing; they just have to identify as "the dad."
To Raeborn's point, we're not that great calling attention to dads and their importance as we are when it comes to moms. We share the Upworthy video of a dad doing something "mind-blowing" and "epic" in the name of fatherhood; we don't typically broadcast about the late nights spent helping with homework or about his fifth time taking her on the mind-numbingly stupid ducky ride. If we weren't so distracted by the "outstanding" as some kind of bizarre yardstick of self-worth measurement, we would appreciate and relish the real, the small and the imperfect. Because, spoiler alert: Dads suffer from the perfection trap, too. Dads compare and feel self-critical when all they really want to know is, "Am I doing this right?"
I was about 10 days into my 18th year when my Dad died. It was five days before Christmas. It was four months into my senior year of high school. Unfun. My dad came into marriage and fatherhood flanked by the Mad Men culture of the late-1960s where, despite social shifts, many conventional gender and family models remained entrenched. My dad went to his corporate job each day and my mom devoted herself to raising my brother and me. Like every parent, he made mistakes with us. He let his gremlins run him from time to time. He housed a silo of sadness that took me most of my adult life to understand. He gave us all as much love as he could muster and a lot of very fun, silly and tender memories to store.
I took it for granted, his dad-ness; the dad-things he did like taking us sledding (letting us lay down on his back as we careened down our icy side lawn) and singing goofy songs on long car rides. I am sure he was wracked with self-doubt on a daily basis (isn't every parent?), but he never showed it. He never let on if he was unsure or even regretful. After all, at that time in our cultural history, weakness and vulnerability were not in the job description. And I think because of it, it didn't occur to me to mention, "Hey, Dad, you're doing it right, you know."
But I wish I had.