Dads Matter

Rus Ervin Funk

“Dad’s matter.”  There is nothing terribly profound about this statement.  Most people believe this.  Most of us have dads.  Good, bad or mixed, we all know  our dads mattered when we were younger and for most of us, our dads matter now.  The notion that “dads matter” is kind of a “duh.”

And still — how dads matter and in what contexts dads matter seems to be worthy of further exploration.  I am both the son of a father, and a dad.  My dad had a tremendous (and mostly positive) role in my being how I am, and I hope that I am being at least a good of a father to my son as my dad was to me (my child is 7 so the evidence is still out).  While it’s clear that all dads matter, it’s also critical to note that different dads matter differently.  More importantly, it’s also clear that the social conditions that encourage dads to matter are as critical to the dialogue as the degree to which individuals dads matter to their/children.  The focus of most of our efforts to “promote fatherhood” focuses on efforts to engage and educate men about their roles as a father.  Very little effort focuses on the broader social and environmental contexts and how they either support or undermine men’s efforts to act as engaged and responsible dads.

We live in a social-context that seems, at best, schizophrenic about men being responsible and engaged as dads. On the one hand, we claim with upmost urgency that we need and want our dads to be responsible and engaged with their partners and in their child’s lives.  On the other hand, we seem to do nearly everything possible to discourage men from being responsible and engage in their child’s lives.  While the rhetoric is strong and loud for the need/desire for men to be actively a part of our children’s lives, and overtly supportive of our partners in the parenting of our children; our social norms, community values and public policies actually work to counter this public rhetoric.  If we actually want our men to be engaged and responsible dads, we need to bring our social norms, community values and public policies in alignment with our rhetoric.  Beyond the “next best evidence based” curriculum, for father engagement, our efforts would be significantly more productive if we focused our efforts on the community organizing, social norms, and social change necessary to create environments, social structures, organizational practices, and administraive and legislative policies that support men to be the kinds of fathers we claim to want.

To demonstrate this “schizophrenia”, I’m going to explore a variety of examples.


I, like, any dads, attended child-birth classes in preparing for the the birth of our child.  The classes I attended were not unusual – taught by women, and thinking (appropriately) primarily of moms.  When men were included as a part of the conversation or planning for the birth, we were referred to as “coaches” – our role was to support our partners in their process of labor:  rubbing her back, providing ice chips, water and chocolate, advocating for her with the medical professionals, etc. There was zero mention or exploration of the experience that I or the other men have in this process.  No exploration of our anxiety, fear, hope or challenges.  No processes about how we can both attend to the needs of our partners as they go through labor and delivery AND attend to our own experience of the birth of our child.  The role of men, based on this class (and every daddy book I read) was to ignore our own experience and focus solely on supporting our partners.

Childbirth for dads, like for moms is a profoundly transformative and life-altering (life enhancing) experience.  Every other so-called transformative experience pales in comparison to this process of becoming daddy. And it is (or should be) our experience, not one that we are on the sidelines of witnessing, while it occurs to us.   The classes, social supports, hospital procedures need to be set up to encourage and allow dads to fully experience this while also attending to their partners who, afterall, are doing the actual work of labor and delivery.

For many of us, a “coach” is the person who is standing at the sidelines yelling (hopefully supportively) from the sidelines, making suggestions, and cheer-leading during the most critical moments of the game.  Speaking personally, I do not want to be on the sidelines of my own child’s birth!   I want to be “in the game!”

I don’t mean to discount this strategy.   I understand the historical context where the notion of dads as coach came from. “Coaching” came as we, socially, shifted from men in the waiting room (or the living room) pacing while the birthing was being done in the hospital room (or bed-room).  One way to bring dads into the birthing room and birthing experience was to give them some specific and concrete roles that provided them/us a reason to be in the room. I would suggest that we as men, and we as human beings have progressed in the past 50 years.

Our process as we “become daddy’s” is profoundly different than our female partners.  We are not, doing the work of actually delivering a baby.  In my case, my partner was in labor for over 39 hours and resulted in a C-section.  Without comparing my experience to hers and without minimizing or discounting her physical, emotional and spiritual experience; I can also acknowledge that I had an experience too.  Being emotionally and actively with my partner as she went through the labor process and as we agreed to the c-section and then watching while they literally cut our child out of the woman I have a piece of my soul to was an experience I had.  I was not an observer, I was in it.

As men, our primary and most active focus rightly is on how to best support our partners as they go through the incredible-ness of child birth.  Individually, we are capable of paying active attention to more than one event or experience at the same moment (most of us anyway, there are, admittedly, some men who cannot). Supporting men to be engaged and responsible fathers begins with assuming that men can be both actively focused and supportive of our partners as they are in labor, while also actively paying attention to our own experiences as we become daddy’s.  If we want men to be engaged and responsible as fathers, than our coaching classes need to think of dads as more than an afterthought and provide some actual content which support men to both supporter of and advocates for our partners as they proceed through labor and attending to our own experiences while we “become daddy’s.”

Dads at Work

My jobs have consistently provided me the luxury of adjusting my schedule to be actively involved with my child.  My experience is largely unheard of (for both women and men).  Lots has been written and discussed about our paltry parental leave policies in the US, so I won’t discuss this further here.  I will say here that if really we want dads to be responsible and engaged fathers, than we creating and supporting work policies to support dads to take time off to be responsible and engaged in their children’s lives need to become the norm.  Flexible work schedules, job-sharing, and institutional support for taking parental leave should not be the purview of some non-profits and a small portion of “quirky” businesses.  It needs to become the norm.  We should expect and support dads to find ways to balance work responsibilities and daddy-ing.  We don’t admittedly, do a good job on this score for women, but we are, by all accounts, abysmal when it comes to supporting dads.  Most men still work in environments that require them to choose between being a responsible and engaged daddy or a responsible employee.  Men should not have to choose between taking their child to a doctor’s appointment, attending their child’s baseball game or dance recital, or going to a PTA meeting and being seen as a responsible employee (and thus appropriate for the raise or promotion).  In fact, it’s time the business community (both for-profit and nonprofit) prioritized being an engaged parent as one of the criteria for the next raise or promotion.

Our Expectations of Dads

As a dad of a young child, I continue to be amazed at the low expectations for me, as a dad.  The general theme continues to be my role is to keep him alive and have fun with him until his mom gets home (initially, it was just keep him alive, as he’s gotten older, the social expectation is to have fun with him as well). The clear assumption being that I am incapable of actually caring for his substance and well-being.

I have a colleague and friend who is the parent who gets his child up and ready for day care, and who drops him off.  His role in this way has been no real secret.  and yet, when his child has appeared at day care looking particularly together, my friend inevitably gets asked “who got him ready this morning?”  The surprise that this child’s father is actually capable of getting his son up and ready for school, with matching socks, is telling of the kinds of expectations we have of men’s abilities to parent.

Concluding Comments

These are just a few of the countless examples of the ways that social norms, community values, and organizational and public policy undermine our lip-service promoting responsible and engaged fatherhood.  While there is a lot of obligation on individual men to step up and become more engaged and responsible as dads, this responsibility is not and should not be located solely with the individuals.  I, like most men who are engaged and responsible are supported to do so — social norms, community values and public/organizational policy, etc… in addition to their own individual fortitude.

If we truly want men to be responsible and engaged dads, we have to create social norms, develop community values, and enforce organizational and public policies that actually support men to do so.

 © 2016 by Rus Ervin Funk