If you’re like me, you grew up in an era with an exponentially different gender/parental landscape. Dads were the providers, very often the sole providers. They were financially-minded stalwarts who offered stability for the family. They earned all the money, they typically were staunch disciplinarians, and they felt nothing.
Welcome to 2017, where fatherhood has been flipped on its ear.
We pack lunches. We attend parent-teacher conferences. We even attend makeshift tea parties. We’re invested in the development, socialization, and emotional well-being of our children. In a growing number of households, we’re the secondary earner (if we even work at all) with an equal hand in the day-to-day caretaking duties. And while this paradigm shift in our culture yields visible benefits—an enhanced father-child bond, decreased pressure on the mother to maintain the household, the downside is starting to creep up: In a culture where men can choose to be the involved dad or the head-down businessman, many are realizing that they’re trying to do both, and not succeeding at either.
Even though there’s less pressure on men to be the pipe-touting robots of old, there exists a mentality that men can do it all, but not really do it all. The same mentality also silently exists for women. It’s this sugary tagline that we can “be anything.” A problem emerges, though, when we try to be everything.
So what we’re left with is emotionally connected fathers who still feel a responsibility to reach the board room (and many working moms who struggle with the guilt of being away from their children). In other words, the barricades have been torn down, but most of us still see them anyway, like phantom limbs.
Personally, I keep coming back to the term masculinity. It’s a term that, as an impressionable teenager, I thought I understood. Physical and emotional strength. Drive. Intelligence. The ability to earn a sizable salary and hammer a nail. But guess what? Those are all qualities that can just as easily be attributed to females. So, what we’re left with is a society mostly consisting of men who were raised under this guise of what a man should be, now being told as adults that the framework they were told about, doesn’t actually exist. They’re scrambling to find an identity. And their egos are struggling to accept the fact that they aren’t Tony Soprano.
So we’re told we don’t have to be the primary provider for our family, even though we grew up in a time where men were exactly that. We’re told we should let ourselves express emotion, when we grew up being warned that “boys don’t cry.” So many of us “modern dads” are embracing this lifestyle, pouring just as much (if not more) of our hearts and minds into our children than our careers. And what’s happening? Our children still want their mothers to put them to bed and our bosses are looking past (some of) us when it’s time to hand out promotions. We’re like that stray Lego piece you often find isolated under the couch. Clearly, it fits somewhere. But finding its destination is never as easy as it sounds.
Often, we’re trying to do too much at once. We’re on our iPhones when we should be listening to our daughters at the dinner table. We’re half-paying attention on conference calls while looking for the perfect Instagram filter. Wherever we are, we aren’t there. And until we commit to where we are, we’ll never get to where we want to be.
The problem is two-fold. Men who are being out-earned by their wives need to tame their egos. But they also need to divide their time fairly between career and home. If both of those hurdles aren’t cleared, resentment ensues. To their bosses, to their wives, to their children. And most significantly, to themselves. This is when marriages fail, careers crumble, and men fall apart. Because they aren’t satisfying the dated voice in their head telling them they need to be a better earner, and they also aren’t satisfying their spouse and kids’ needs of an emotionally available husband and father. In this all-too-common scenario, everyone loses.
The beautiful opposite of that, of course, is when all of the major “components” of our lives are humming in unison. Our relationships with our partners are blossoming, careers are advancing, children are happy, and we might even have time to see our friends for a drink and a game once in a while. But none of those things happen if we’re not comfortable in our skin, and if we don’t check our egos and antiquated notions of how to define masculinity at the door.
The trick, as I see it, is to not get so hung up on being everything to everyone all at once, but rather to focus intently on the task currently in front of you at all times, whether that’s a demanding boss or a demanding child. And when at all possible, go easy on yourself. You could use the break.
I hope this struck a chord with any fathers out there trying to do it all, and feeling like they’re failing.
You can follow me on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.