My son is only 3 years old, but he's already demonstrating his commitment to gender-blindness in our household. "You're the best mama, ever," he tells me, his dad, when I take care of him. But a part of me is concerned that he's already internalized some gender stereotypes. Does being a good parent mean being more "mom-like"?
Traditionally, dialogue surrounding the balance between work and family has been framed around women. Women are asked how they cope with missing their children when they reenter the workforce. Do they have any regrets? Do they have trouble subsequently connecting with their children? Are they happy?
But women aren't the only ones forced to make those tough choices. My father sought career goals in lieu of being around on a grand scale. He planted himself on the other side of the country at one point.
I often wonder if my father would've read my website on fatherhood, if he would've embraced the large and mounting group of dads who are sharing their journeys. I wonder if it would've helped him to stick around and join those of us who've dedicated ourselves to being better men for our kids.
Men find themselves in their own tug-of-war. Do we step out on our kids' lives in an effort to support our families, or do we give in to our impulses, of which men are proud owners too, to bask in the radiance and muck of being around our kids all the time? Greater numbers of men are choosing to be direct, active participants in the lives of their brood.
So why aren't we asking men about their choices? For once, I'd love to see powerful men in any field get bombarded with questions about finding balance between work and parenthood. How do they feel about missing the milestones? Do they miss swaddling their babies? Do they choose deadlines over "daddydom"?
The irony is, as a digital dad and strategist, the more inroads I make blogging, traveling on business, and taking speaking engagements, effectively furthering my career, the farther away from my son I'm flung. I'm no expert at fatherhood, but people are paying me for my opinions about being a dad — and the more time I spend as a professional dad expert, the less time I spent with my child. I've let the paradox coil itself around me, but it leaves me completely disoriented. And so it is for any parent who wants to provide for their kids by stepping outside the home. We strive to give our kids what they need and want, but it often means being around a bit less.
Recently, the New York Times included me in a piece it published on a conference I attended, the Dad 2.0 Summit, where dads and marketers met in a sort of informal congress. The brand representatives who took part agreed that it was in everyone's best interest to stop portraying men as bumbling, idiotic babysitters of kids. The caricature just doesn't hold up. We do get pangs of nostalgia as our children grow. We do want more resources for ourselves as parents. We may not leak breast milk every time a child cries, but I certainly get phantom pains when my son injures himself, a strange twinge in my abdomen that moms I've talked with describe as "uterus-quake." Call it a scrotal spidey-sense. I don't have a uterus, of course, but I don't need mom parts to be deeply and physically connected with my son.
Men aren't judged in the same way if we decide to work full-time outside the home. We aren't bludgeoned by criticism for taking a job or going on a business trip. But the fact remains that we do have self-critical thoughts similar to those of our female counterparts.
We live in a world that asks us to choose between resources and time. Men are not exempt. My son has made me feel like a superhero and yet more vulnerable than ever. He has given me reason to work harder on myself and the world around me, while he's opened a gaping wound whenever I'm not around him.
The stories of dads balancing work and family still aren't told nearly as much as moms' are, but our voices are gaining volume every day. And as that happens, I hope that when we really kick ass at home, we're not considered the "best moms ever," but the "best dads ever" — so that, ultimately, these stories become about parenting and not gender. If there's one place to start, sacrifice seems to be a universal parenting theme that binds us.
We all give something up to become something new.
Charlie Capen is a writer and speaker on fatherhood issues who blogs at How to Be a Dad.