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Web Editorial - January 2006

Fathers and Feelings

By Michael Dover

There's a lot of talk and action these days around reaching out to fathers, encouraging them to become more involved in their children's lives. I fully support these efforts, but am sometimes troubled by a subtext (and occasionally not so "sub") suggesting that families other than those with both a mother and a father are somehow less healthy, less strong, less complete. Here in Massachusetts, that has a particular sting for those of us who have spent the last couple of years defending the right of same-sex couples to marry, often in opposition to arguments that children are somehow short-changed if they're brought up by two mothers or two fathers. It seems, too, to play into the hands of supposed traditional-family advocates who denigrate single parents (particularly mothers and especially mothers on welfare) and fight against allowing gays and lesbians to become foster parents.

The fact is, as we who support gay marriage and gay parenting often point out, that there are many different kinds of families and they can all work. I am privileged to know a woman who was widowed when her two boys were very young. They're both in college now, and doing well, thanks to her excellent parenting and a lot of support from their community and extended family. I can say the same for the children of same-sex couples and for the numerous children raised by single parents. As the bumper stickers say, we need to honor all families, not just the ones in the Dick and Jane books.

That said, how do we support efforts to invite fathers to be involved--or keep them involved--with their children? How do we make an honest, effective effort to engage fathers while supporting mothers who, by circumstance or choice, raise their children on their own?

A few years ago, the Men's Resource Center for Change (MRC) ran a pilot project in the local prison for inmates who were fathers. We taught these dads parenting skills, encouraging them to explore their feelings for their children, and helped them develop ways of communicating with the mothers so they could truly be partners in raising the children. The day came when the children visited their dads in the prison. What stood out for me in seeing a video of that visit was the emotion the fathers showed. I could feel the sense of connection and tenderness in these men.

Those scenes raised an intriguing possibility: What if we talk to fathers about the benefit to themselves in being fathers? Bringing up a child is unlike any other relationship we encounter in life. We experience the child's utter vulnerability. We get to know what unconditional love is. We discover hopes, dreams, and fears that extend beyond our own life span. We take on the responsibility for a life, and we take it on for life. In short, we are presented with the stuff of transformation. It's an opportunity to connect with emotions that are too readily ignored or suppressed in other circumstances. The highs--and the lows--of parenting are like no other.

The kind of men's work we do at the MRC is informed by an insightful observation of many years ago from the women's movement: the personal is the political. We want to change men's lives (and the lives of women and children), and we want to change a culture. Every time a man becomes a more complete human being--whether through fathering, or attending a support group, or learning to end abusive behavior--he becomes another agent for social change, a living example of what is possible in the world. And parenting the next generation is the most powerful act of changing the culture that we can engage in. I'm interested in how a man engages as a father rather than simply whether he's involved with his children. Of course it's a no-brainer that we don't want abusive men "involved" with their children; what we do want is men who model to their children--girls as well as boys--that being male includes being a nurturing parent and partner, being emotionally honest and "intelligent," and being committed to healthy relationships with women and other men.

We'll know we've succeeded when we ask a little boy what he wants to be when he grows up and he answers, "A daddy."

Michael Dover is manager of the MRC website, former co-director of the MRC and a father. He can be reached at [email protected].

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