Dads

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One of the reasons I like President Obama is that he’s clearly a Dad. I don’t just mean that he has children; I mean that he’s obviously an involved parent. (If you haven’t seen the video of the two-year-old at the Medal of Honor ceremony, check it out. Obama responded as a seasoned parent would.)

That isn’t always easy. I smiled in rueful recognition at this piece from the Washington Post about the prices that involved Dads pay at work. In brief, fathers who take time to be with their kids are penalized at work even more than mothers are. It’s a kind of gender-deviance penalty. And it’s real. When TB was born, it was on a Monday; my boss told me that he expected me in the office by Friday. He never did that with new Moms. In this line of work, a reduced travel schedule and a reluctance to move on a regular basis bring real costs. Dads who are willing to slough off parenting duties don’t pay those costs; Dads who aren’t, do.

I smiled ruefully again at this piece from the Harvard Business Review. The Nordic countries are known for their world-leading family friendliness. They provide paid parental leave for over a year, and they require that the Dads take at least some of it. As a result, it has become normal for new fathers to take some time with their kids. The benefits of that are everywhere: the mothers get a break, the fathers develop parental competence, the kids get the benefit of attachment to two competent parents, and the workplace gets a generation of both men and women who understand what it is to be both an employee and a parent. As a result, the workplace is structured around an assumption that being a caretaker of some sort is a normal part of life.

We tend not to work that way here. Part-time pay isn’t scaled to full-time in most circumstances, so earning a decent salary (and health insurance) generally involves at least one full-time job. Parental leave is usually brief and unpaid, to the extent it exists at all. I couldn’t help but notice in the HBR piece that the male Scandinavian managers who did so well in Scandinavia struggled when they had to manage American men, who read their egalitarian ways as weak. A brutal system rewards brutal behavior; blind spots reproduce themselves. In a culture that gets some basic issues wrong, thoughtfulness can be a liability.

So I respect the American Dads who do the extra work and walk the walk. They — and on a good day, I like to think “we” — are swimming upstream in this culture, but it’s worth doing.

Last night was the town Daddy-Daughter dance, so I took The Girl. We both dressed up — I even bought her a wrist corsage, the first time I’ve bought one of those since the Reagan administration — and we went to a local country club for the annual event.

The place was chockablock with Dads and their daughters, mostly ages five to about twelve. (TG is eight.) The first couple of times we went, TG stuck close to me and mostly danced with me. Last year, she split her time about evenly between her friends and me. This year, I was a distinct second place; still welcome, but clearly not the point. (I’m told that in a few years, I won’t even be welcome.) I didn’t mind.

Watching TG with her friends, I couldn’t help but be proud. She was exuberant but not obnoxious, dancing in her patented ways and inventing some new ones. She led one of her friends in a version of the tango, which I didn’t know she knew. Her cluster of friends started a conga line during “Call Me Maybe,” which made up its incongruity in pure charm. And yes, I got out there with her a few times. I even managed to keep my composure during “I Loved Her First,” a song designed specifically to reduce Dads to quivering masses of jello.

But my proudest moments with her were afterwards. She’s comfortable talking to me. It’s the kind of comfort that comes from putting in the time. She floats theories, asks questions, cracks wise, and listens like it matters. We actually enjoy each other’s company.

The clock is ticking on this stage; adolescence with its angst lurks around the corner. At that point, a little more distance may well be functional. But for now, I’ll take a certain countercultural pride in knowing that The Girl — and The Boy — are getting real parenting from both Mom and Dad. And I’ll keep pushing, in my way, for a world that recognizes that caregiving is a normal part of life. Let’s get some thoughtful parents building workplaces that allow for thoughtful parents. It can be done, and it’s worth doing. It’s time to stop reproducing blind spots, and start noticing the shards of sheer genius that fall out of eight year old girls’ mouths at the end of the day.

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