A few years back my oldest son showed up at my door, wearing a sheepish grin and something I thought I would never see, at least not on him.
“Do you have nail polish remover?” he asked, and pointed to his toes.
Each nail was painted a different color.
“What happened?” I could barely manage to keep a straight face.
“What do you think happened?”
He is the father of three daughters, all of whom have a distinct sense of fashion. However, nail polish remover was nowhere to be found in his house, and he had been unable to chip off the lacquer no matter how much he scraped and scoured.
I was thinking of this incident not too long ago, when I saw another son combing his eldest daughter’s hair. This child’s long tresses are so fine that they knot up as soon as she steps out the door. So I was pleasantly surprised to see how patiently he unsnarled her hair. Who would’ve thought that Mr. Cynic, a nickname I had given him during his adolescence, could be so gentle?
Soon it will be Father’s Day, a Sunday for striped ties, polo shirts and personalized mugs. A day to note how the role of fathers has steadily changed over the years, even as more children live, at least part of the time, away from their biological dads. Of course it’s not just fathers of girls who are doing more hands-on work with their kids. Today’s dads, at least the ones I know, don’t fit well into what, for decades, had been considered men’s traditional duties at home. They now change diapers, take their children to the doctor, assist in homework, ferry them to extracurricular activities — all while holding down full-time jobs.
In other words, they’re doing what many working mothers have done for a long time. And while there’s debate about the division of labor — wives still do more than their fair share — plenty of dads have risen to the occasion. No longer satisfied with being the conventional breadwinner or the old-school disciplinarian, young fathers seem to take the responsibility of caregiving and values-educating seriously. I’ve met some who refused a promotion because it would mean too much time away from their kids, some who regularly rearrange work schedules to make it to a child’s activity, and at least one who has stayed home with the baby.
Though we still have a ways to go for equality in parenting, I wonder how many young women realize what a big deal this evolution is, and how long it took and how difficult it was to arrive at this admittedly imperfect point. My generation grew up with fathers who rarely lifted a finger at home, fathers who were mostly content to leave the details of child-rearing and housekeeping to wives. My mother, for one, appeared OK with this situation.
I cannot imagine my daughter or daughters-in-law accepting such a state of affairs. They love their children but want their careers too. They’re not alone in those expectations, either. As a result, for the most part men have responded to these changing demands admirably. Maybe they can’t braid hair or fold sheets the way we women want them to, but they are making progress.
So this year, when we hand out the sappy cards and fire up the barbecue, we should also acknowledge how far we’ve traveled, not just where we need to be. In a world that makes motherhood possible without ever meeting the future dad, the role of a father in a child’s life has never been more important. I can’t stress this enough, though in some circles this view might be regarded as outdated, as retrograde.
Today’s fathers do more than play catch, organize science projects, comb waist-length hair, and supply toes for impromptu pedicures. They are modeling what a true partnership might look like.