I am an involved dad. Maybe you are, too, or perhaps your husband or partner is one. The phrase is everywhere, from news stories about this newfangled form of fatherhood to personal essays and blogs from actual specimens of this species.
I have nothing against fathers who are, physically and emotionally, an intricate part of their children’s lives. Quite the opposite. To me, it’s a requirement, even an assumption. So at what point is it no longer worthy of particular notice that we fathers drive carpools, paint our girls’ nails, stay home when our kids are sick, cook dinner, and generally believe that spending time together as a family is a top priority and one that is compatible with a successful career?
In other words, isn’t it time we are just called “dad?” When was the last time a reporter or blogger felt a need to qualify the female equivalent as an “involved mom?”
I know what you’re thinking. Many dads still have not earned the “involved” adjective. Perhaps they’re emotionally distant, focused on the traditional breadwinner role. Or worse, far too many are absent entirely, leaving their children without a father and the mothers to fend for themselves as sole parent and provider. (Of course, women who’ve chosen to raise their children without a male partner or spouse are a different story!)
So what’s the problem with the phrase “involved dad?”
For one thing, it lets the uninvolved off the hook, as if those of us who are present in our kids’ lives are the exceptions, or exceptional, doing something different, unusual, special. No, we’re not; we’re just dads. Let the rest of them be labeled “uninvolved dads,” with the assumption being that a father by definition is one who does more than inseminate a woman.
The phrase also smacks of unneeded and unwarranted celebration, perhaps even an implicit self-congratulatory pat on our own backs, for doing what we should be doing. What we need to be doing.
It’s such a common experience that it’s almost cliché: When a mom is out with her kids she receives a steady stream of uninvited advice and judgment, not all of it merely implicit, from others. But when a dad is in the same situation, we get smiles and remarks about how wonderful it is, how cute our kids are. I love the praise as much as the next guy, but I know it’s as hollow as if I regularly received plaudits from strangers merely for heading into the office in the morning.
There is a deeper, more consequential problem with considering “involved dads” as a category unto itself. Dividing the world of fathers like this allows public policy and corporate policy to cater to one group or the other. And no surprise, our laws, benefits and workplace culture favor the uninvolved dad, the one whose career comes first.
Flexible schedules, paid paternity leave, these are the things “involved dads” need. So long as mere dads are content to work without these benefits, are prioritizing their career advancement and the face time required to climb the corporate ladder over the face time with their loved ones, there is little incentive for corporate and government leaders — many of them “uninvolved dads” themselves — to make a change. True, some companies have adopted generous, progressive, parent-friendly (and gender neutral) policies, but they are the exception.
I am not saying a semantic change will cause this situation to improve. Far from it. But we do need a cultural shift, a communal reassessment of our priorities and values when it comes to family and work, from which new policies and norms can emerge.
When we as a society begin with the assumption that a dad needs to be there for his kids, when the stigma attaches to those who don’t fit this expectation rather than those who do, that’s when we can start to create a truly family-friendly society. And language can play a role, small but symbolically powerful, in ushering along that evolution.
So…so long, involved dads. It was great to chat with you at the playground. I’ll see all you dads there this weekend.
Michael Kress is the editorial director of NYMetroParents.com and its monthly NYC-area parenting magazines. He is the father of three girls.
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