A Father’s Day Reflection

Father’s Day Platform  – offered to The Ethical Society of St Louis, Sunday 6/16/24 by Interim Director Amy L. Miller.

Reflecting on my Mother’s Day Platform and the leveraging of the verb “mothering” as in “to mother” through caring, protection, and kindness, I was lowkey surprised to be unable to find a comparable verb form of “Fathering”. All references to “fathering” were about literally making a baby by impregnating someone with a uterus.

Which seems wild to me, given that so many of the dads I personally know are incredibly “caring, protective, and kind”. But we wouldn’t say they are “mothering” the children. As is so often the case, we have failed to expand our knowledge and understanding of the emotional capacity of men.  

Men have historically suffered from our collective limited imagination, and we have all suffered as a result.  

I want to state upfront that the binary nature of using “women” and “men” is problematic and limiting given the vast spectrum of gender expression. For ease of language, I will mostly default to using these binary terms, but please know that the ways in which masculine and feminine traits actually show up in human beings is quite varied.  

So many dads I know are nurturing and gentle and emotionally available to their children. We have done and are doing real work on gender parity and on giving men a broader emotional range to work with. More men than ever are seeking out therapy to sort through their big and little T traumas and to learn how to express their feelings in a healthy way. More men than ever are rejecting toxic, violent expressions of masculinity and embracing their full range of human emotion.  

But there were many years of modern American life where the man was simply the father- the literal co-creator of the child- and the silent provider, who went to work and was measured not by how kind or caring he was but only by how well he provided.  

I’m sure many of us in this room were raised by these fathers. Maybe you are or have been this father.  

Sadly, I don’t think there is an outcome to this limitation on fathers that doesn’t cause harm to the children.  

Maybe you could see and sense within your father’s spirit a longing for emotional expression that never found its way out.  

Maybe you only saw anger from your dad. Maybe you only got silence. Maybe your father only tenderized in old age when he finally released the trappings of “being a man” and was able to say how he felt about his children. I am sure he was unspeakably proud of you, but I hope he told you out loud before he left this realm.  

Maybe you never tell your children you love them. Maybe your father never told you.  

I think a lot of men still hold that restricted understanding of what it can mean to be a father and indeed to be a man. What is and is not “ok” for a man to express.  

As a progressive community, we may have made more progress than others, but I imagine some of this still resonates with men in this room or sounds familiar for some of us reflecting on our own parents.  

Quick personal story, my husband stayed home with our daughter for the first two years of her life. I went back to work as soon as the doctor released me- two weeks after a c-section- because I had no interest in sitting around watching a baby sleep all day. Babies are cute, but really boring.  

Rodney, on the other hand, was living his very best life. He did the night shift also, so he was the one to get up when she’d wake up crying. The trade was I would get up with her in the morning.  

He tracked her formula intake, her diapers, her naps. For the first 9 months of her life, every biological activity of this baby was documented in a green notebook on the kitchen counter. He would make up songs and send them to me throughout the day as they hung out together, napping, watching sports center, and having tummy time.  

He also did all the cooking for us and the laundry. He was finishing grad school at the time, so we were able to make this work for about two years before he had to get a job-job and we had to figure out childcare.  

I want you all to know he is very resentful currently that I don’t make enough money for him to resume his life as a QUOTE “elite level house husband” – I have promised him to continue working towards that goal but meanwhile I need him to continue to have a job with health insurance.   

Anyway, my purpose in sharing this is to say: it was astounding how many people couldn’t believe he WANTED this life. We were doing things differently in all ways than everyone around us.  

Even in 2016, our situation was unusual enough that it routinely got a handful of predictable responses, mostly aimed at the fact that I was NOT the one interested in staying home with the baby. Being a woman and a mom has a whole slew of pressures and expectations of its own.  

 But also, I gathered that it was a challenge to the imagination of some to believe that a big strong Black man would ENJOY and even PREFER to be the primary caregiver of his child.  

There are rampant stereotypes about Black fathers, but the truth is those stereotypes were manufactured through the intentional separation of families during enslavement. Later, the stereotypes are enforced via the insidiously long reach of white supremacy which (among many other methods) disenfranchises Black men and then uses policing and the American justice system to disproportionately imprison them, often including Black fathers.  

People having the audacity to prescribe pathology to Black fatherhood or to suggest that Zoe’s dad is anomalous are relying on false data for their scripts. When Black fathers are free to be in the home with their children, their commitment shines above all other groups of men.  

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 National Health Statistics Report, Black fathers (70%) who live with their children were most likely to have bathed, dressed, changed or helped their child with the toilet every day, compared with their white (60%) or Hispanic (45%) counterparts. 

Black fathers (78%) were also more likely to eat meals with their children every day compared with white (74%) and Hispanic fathers (64%). And, a higher percentage of Black fathers (27%) took their children to or from activities every day compared with white fathers (20%).  

Black fathers (41%) in the home were also significantly more likely to help their children with homework every day compared with Hispanic (29%) or white (28%) fathers. 

This has been my personal experience, and the data supports it- Black fathers are among the most emotionally available, gentle, and committed to parenting. I shouldn’t have to say that, but I’m afraid not everyone really knows this in their bones yet, and this matters to me.  

But of course, Black men aren’t the only men who melt into puddles for their children.  

I love watching men become dads.  

If they allow it, having children softens them in a profound way. It makes them sweet and gentle and tender and vulnerable, if only – often, only- in the small, private moments with their children.  

A new dad is terrified, anxious, and in love. A seasoned dad is relaxed, confident, and in love. It’s an amazing thing. Dads are an invaluable resource, and for those of us lucky to have or know them, we are blessed beyond measure. Zoe is blessed beyond measure. I have been blessed beyond measure.  

But. From working with many couples in distress, I know that many men aren’t always able or willing to extend that vulnerability and softness to their partners. This can be very upsetting to their partners; to be so close to such sweetness and not be able to access it is painful.  

But I understand: adult partners can hurt a man. Adult partners can say “your love is not good enough”.  

Children are all love and acceptance. Children have no expectations of a man’s ability to produce or make money or express his emotions with any degree of articulateness. Children are a safe place to invest all the emotional energy a man may have stored up from lifetime of suppression.  

To all the fathers out there, please know that the softening that comes from falling profoundly in love with your children is a gift the world desperately needs, and it is safe to share it beyond the borders of your home.  

Look around at all the violence in the world, both interpersonal and global, nearly all of which has been perpetrated by men, throughout human history. At the risk of over-simplifying, most human violence is the multigenerational outcome of resource competition, ego, rage, stunted ability to empathize, and limited emotional capacity of men.   

We need more men who are tender and gentle and willing to take emotional risks. Who will hold space for other men to sort through the emotional quagmire of being human. We need men who are vulnerable and honest and actively engaged in dismantling the impossible expectations of “being a man” this culture has imposed. It reminds me of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, which highlights the virtual impossibility of the demands of “being a man”.  

 Instead of men preoccupied with “masculinity” and achieving stoic perfection, we need gentle men.  

And specifically for those who choose and are able to have children, we need good dads raising healthy, happy children of all genders. Zoe’s daddy is an amazing example of emotionally intelligent fatherhood, and my hope is she will grow into a happy, confident adult as a result of having such a profoundly good dad. I am unspeakably grateful to have him as my partner. He is really excelling at parenting.  

But it’s not easy. So I want to also say Happy Fathers’ Day to the men who are struggling to integrate the role of being a good dad with being an American Man. It is hard. Keep trying. We need you.  

Happy Fathers’ Day to all the people who’ve stepped into parenting roles for children not their own through adoption or foster care. You’re doing the world a valuable service. Those children are lucky to have you.  

Happy Fathers’ Day to step-dads. It’s a tricky job to occupy a space someone else holds or has held before you, particularly when male ego can get in the way. I salute your efforts to father at whatever prescribed emotional distance is required, as well as your willingness to whole-heartedly love your partner’s children if allowed.  

Happy Fathers’ Day to the dads who can’t be with their children today for a reason not your own, whether due to incarceration, deployment, or custodial agreements. I am sure your children know you love them, but I hope you have a chance to tell and show them soon.  

Happy Father’s Day to those who are desperate to become fathers and haven’t been able to yet. And I know some single dads out here making it happen for your kids, and you should know you’re doing a great job.  

Happy Fathers Day to the gay dads who have had to fight tooth and nail to achieve fatherhood, whether via surrogate birth or adoption. I am grateful the world caught up to the fact that love is love and a family is whatever you make of it, however it’s made.  

Happy Parenting Day to all the trans and nobinary people who may have had to challenge the binary of “mother” and “father” to include your unique expression of parenting, or who’ve navigated a transition. May you be seen and accepted for your whole self and celebrated for your caring and kindness.  

I want to hold space for fathers who have lost children, and with that loss, a part of themselves. There are some wounds that never really heal.  

I want to hold space for you if you have lost your own father, literally or through estrangement or rejection, or if you never knew him. There is grief even in ambiguous loss. May you find peace and support today if it is a hard day for you. 

Thank you to all the men who have gotten vasectomies. I especially appreciate men who’ve done this recently in solidarity with those of us suffering under attacks on reproductive justice. Your willingness to be responsible for your own decision to not have children (or not have more children) is a testament to your caring and kindness.  

I value men who choose to be uncles, guncles, big brothers, mentors, teachers, coaches, and various other caretaking roles. Whether you are literally a father or not, so many of you are filling in gaps that would otherwise go unfilled for the children you’re caring for.  

Whatever your feelings may be about your own father, or your own experience of being a father, may we all be cared for, protected, and supported today.