Thoughts on Fatherhood in the 21st Century

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post, and is part of a series of essays about the issues facing working families in the 21st century, leading up to the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, 2014.

You can learn more about the Summit and how you can get involved at www.workingfamiliessummit.org.


Growing up, if I wanted to play catch, I often had to play it alone. Sometimes I'd even aim at a tree for lack of person with a glove at the other end of the yard. I admit, the tree wasn't a very good replacement. But when you're a kid -- and you don't have a dad to play catch with -- you'll toss a ball at anything. Even if that thing is a 40-foot-tall oak and unlikely to toss the ball back.

In this respect, I'm probably not unique. Far too many children grow up without a dad in their lives, like I did. And for many, the effects cut deeper and last longer than being forced to have a one-way game of catch.

I'm a father now. My daughter was born 10 years ago, and my son soon after. And one of my greatest challenges, having never grown up with a father myself, is figuring out what a dad is supposed to do. I got the memo about taking out the garbage. And I change more light bulbs than Thomas Edison. But when it comes to preparing your kids for the slings and arrows of life, that's something I've only learned about fairly recently.

And here's the key: I only learned about it because I was able to make the time.

My record isn't perfect, but I'm often lucky enough to be home and to tell stories to my kids at bedtime. (I read them Harry Potter until my daughter decided I wasn't reading fast enough and finished the book herself.) Only recently, however, have I begun to tell them about my life: About the time I was seven, tried to push a huge lawnmower up a hill and failed spectacularly; or about the time I won a debate championship, after a blistering loss in the first round.

I was surprised that these stories excited my kids. (They seem sort of boring to me.) But I realized that these were also stories that allowed my kids to see me as something other than the guy who tucks them into bed and tells them what to do. They're stories that let them know I'm also the guy who's endured bumps and bruises and failures and successes.

Part of being a father, I've figured out, is letting your kids know that you're just like them -- that you're human -- and that your experience can help them navigate their own lives.

This wouldn't have happened had I not put in the time at home, obviously. After all, being a working father includes working at being a father. It's the best kind of work, but it takes man-hours nonetheless.

That's why I'm glad the President has begun a national discussion about how we can help working fathers balance the twin responsibilities of breadwinning and childcare. On Monday, I participated in a summit at the White House. It brought together leaders from the public sector and the private, as well as dads and advocates -- or, "dadvocates" -- to discuss a range of topics: everything from paternity leave to the growing number of mothers who serve as primary breadwinners. And we spoke about how policies -- both in government and at individual companies -- have to change to accommodate our changing society.

I left feeling optimistic.

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years about fatherhood -- and about how it's becoming a lost art among 21st-century pressures and distractions. (Dad never takes his eyes off his phone, and his kids never take their eyes off theirs. It's a cliché by now.) But that doesn't mean it has to be true.

Every father -- whether he grew up with one at home, or not -- can learn to be a good dad. And the good news is, most of them want to. They just need the time.

As a country, we should work together to give it to them.


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