I was in several states last week doing qualitative research with fathers on behalf of Fathers Incorporated. As I sat taking copious notes observing focus groups and structured interviews with dads, several salient themes emerged that stood out to me.
1. Fathers Need to Know They Are Valued
All of the fathers who participated, regardless of race, marital status, custody arrangements, or socio-economic status, were amazed and oh so appreciative that someone—ANYONE—was acknowledging the importance of fathers and interested in their thoughts and insights on parenting. This became even clearer as the father focus groups developed into de facto peer support groups. The men shared intense discouragement about their perceived lack of support, acknowledgement, and faith in their competence as parents compared to that of mothers. This thread hit home for me because, like many of you reading this post, I am a fatherhood advocate. Many of us work tirelessly to raise awareness of the importance of fathers for child wellbeing among policy makers and human service practitioners, and we have seen substantial progress in these areas. However, are we paying enough attention to making sure our efforts and messages are being realized by fathers themselves? As a professional field, does Responsible Fatherhood have processes in place to even define and measure this outcome? Or, more simply put, are we connected to and talking with dads regularly? Are we working to create spaces and opportunities for fathers to gather where they can support, encourage, and help one another? Even if we are in some capacity, we need to do better.
2. Dispel the Seduction of Being a “Disneyland Dad”
The noncustodial fathers who were interviewed (i.e., dads who did not have 50/50 physical custody of their children) expressed a tremendous amount of pressure to use the limited time they had with their kids to create “memorable moments” – notable experiences the children would not likely forget. What parent doesn’t want their children to have special memories of them from childhood? However, for noncustodial dads, this desire can create pressure to become a “Disneyland Dad;” i.e., a father who spends his time with the kids only doing fun and/or expensive activities. Not only is this unrealistic for many low-income dads to do, it isn’t necessarily a benefit for children. For example, behavior problems can arise, like a strong sense of entitlement/expectations and not adhering to structure or boundaries. Another problem that can occur with the pressure to create memorable moments is these fathers miss out on the opportunity to be “good enough” parents.
3. Don’t Sacrifice Good Enough Parenting Trying to be the Best or Perfect Parent
The theory of “Good Enough Parenting” was explained to me by my therapist when my daughter was a toddler. I was doling out a great deal of self-flagellation during my therapy sessions for being a failure as a mother for things like watching Oprah instead of building Lego structures with my daughter that would have undoubtedly improved her fine motor skills, which surely explained why her finger-paint art was not put on display at her pre-school. And, yes, I am keenly aware that this is an example of a First World problem…However, my therapist’s point was this: I was with my daughter almost every day. Some, albeit rare, days I was an A+ parent; some days were bad, D-F days; most days, by far, were good enough, or C-B days, and those are the days that counted the most.
In fact, one of the tenants of Good Enough Parenting theory (Note that it was originally called Good Enough Mothering) is to allow for a developing child’s “disillusionment” with his or her parents. In other words, it is ok to make mistakes and even good for your children to see and understand that you are neither good nor bad, and not perfect, but human.
It occurred to me that many noncustodial fathers don’t get the benefit of the “average” or “good enough” days that balance out the ups and downs of a parent’s “grade.” Yeah, maybe they don’t face losing their sh*t everyday amidst the screaming of doing hair in the morning or threats to get kids to clean up, eat their vegetables, finish their homework, etc. BUT, this means they are also potentially missing out on precious, small moments that curve the grade, such as reading their child stories, singing songs while waiting in the school carpool line, getting that braid perfect without any tears or tantrums, or just playing with Legos. It is the importance of these types of parenting engagements and activities (particularly bonding activities that occur when a child is 0-5) that build strong attachments between parent and child, help develop well-balanced, resilient children, and provide a context for parents to balance out F or absent days without having to book Disney vacations to overcompensate.
Again, while we advocates promote the importance of father involvement, let’s make sure we are also sending the message that quality time is not measured by expensive activities and toys or grand experiences children will necessarily remember or write about in school essays one day. Hopefully, our children will forget far many more of our best, or good enough, moments as parents than they will ever consciously remember. Fathers should get the benefit of “good enough” moments too.