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The Dad Redefined

Why Ward Cleaver would no longer cut it.

June 12, 2005|Lisa Teasley | Novelist Lisa Teasley is the author of the forthcoming "Heat Signature."

When I became a mother nine years ago, I found myself watching men with their babies. Fascinated, dumbfounded by their ease, I was an equal opportunity voyeur, whether it was my daughter's father happily bathing our infant in the sink, a diner sharing food with his lap companion in a restaurant, or a dude on the sidewalk having a conversation with his friend while bouncing a toddler on his hip. I'm still watching these fathers with awe and appreciation.

Many of these men--born in the '60s, '70s and '80s--carry their babies with a natural grace. None of them appear to be "Sunday fathers," as the term used to so aptly apply. Nor are these new fathers anything like my wonderful dad, a man of the '50s middle-class mold, still married to my mother, and who was never truly comfortable with his infants, toddlers or teenagers. My childhood memories of him are with a newspaper, a book, a briefcase, and not with a binky, Bjorn or ball.

To be fair to my dad and old-school fathers like him, one must fully appreciate the deep societal differences between then and now. He was the sole provider. He brought home the bacon, and my mother fried it up in the pan. Never once did they deviate, nor do they to this day. His friends and colleagues didn't witness the births of their children, and neither did their wives encourage them to. He was not taught to analyze or share his emotions. There were no touchy-feely talk shows, no open forums where people aired their guilt and fears. Recovery groups were not talked about. There were few openly gay men or male icons embracing their feminine side. Shows such as "My Three Sons," "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and "The Andy Griffith Show" all hinged upon the assumption that what we were viewing was unusual: the tragic, touching circumstance of a man forced to be sensitive while rearing children without a mother.

Men of the generation that followed have not experienced loyalty from any company they've worked for, so why would work take priority over family? Most of these men started a family when they were ready to, rather than when they were expected to. The issues of divorce, however directly or indirectly these new fathers might have experienced them, have opened their eyes to the difference that parenting styles make. I can see it in the way they carry a diaper bag. I can see it in the man who was my husband for 16 years as he continues, two years after our divorce, to be an equal, generous and nurturing partner in raising our daughter.

Men like my father didn't have the option to nurture. Society didn't allow them. Men's public bathrooms didn't have diaper changing stations in my father's day, so why would he have thought to change one? My mother wouldn't have dreamed of asking him. I can't remember her ever leaving my sisters and me with him to baby-sit when we were little. He often was in his library, and when I needed help with homework, my mother usually said, "Don't disturb your father."

At home, he was always reading. I don't think I became a writer to get his attention; it's just that by his example I found books absorbing places to be. Once I began to read conscientiously, I came to understand his world. He was not unsocial, my dad; he threw many a company pool party. And he was not unhappy, though he quipped, "Happiness is a trivial pursuit." He always took us on beachy vacations. He also had the habit of merrily driving us through the L.A. streets and proclaiming "I love California!" (He was born and raised in Cleveland.) But his children definitely seemed like creatures to him, not fully formed people. He wasn't one for Band-Aiding a boo-boo or asking us how our day was at school. He simply demanded excellence--straight As--and only questioned us about classroom particulars if something went wrong.

The new fathers attend PTA meetings, book and bake sales, Open House and teacher conferences. They take the kids to weekend birthday parties and pediatrician appointments, and they always have been there for the child and mother. They buy parenting books and help discipline today's child, who rarely hears "Wait until your father gets home!"

My cousin is a fabulous stay-at-home dad, a term that did not exist when my father had his three girls still in the nest. And just as any parent, mother or father, may find more ease with a particular age set--infant, toddler, teen or grownup--I feel my dad's relief and comfort with me as an adult. He put the three of us through college and now he can relax and applaud our successes. What's more, my father has truly opened up emotionally. He calls with good news, he e-mails invitations for lunch with his girls and he has a favorite Trader Joe's he frequents for the quality and color of its roses.

I've been watching my dad bloom as a person, whether it is in his loving attention to his plants, his charity toward someone in need on the street or his passion for a piece of music. He is not yet retired; he still runs the company he's worked for for 40-plus years, and serves on various boards. But his eyes are much more focused on his family and quality of life. Whether we're having a political, spiritual, career or relationship discussion, he's there for me. And though my daughter will grow up knowing that her father has been there for her since Lamaze class, I too know that my father--perhaps subtly inspired by this new generation--is making up for lost time.

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