As Fathers Day approaches I’m wondering where father leadership is these days. In my home, we have watched my wife play most of what used to be considered male roles; many of you have witnessed the obvious – Jennifer as primary breadwinner, public face of the family. In our house too, roles were flipped from very early on, e.g., she cut the lawn, and I shopped and did most of the cooking. With the kids our roles were often reversed, as well. Jennifer set many of the boundaries and standards that related to grades, homework, duties, etc. And I, as most moms had done, negotiated in real daily practice, deciding when to relax the rules, when to mix in mercy with compassion. For the most part, it’s worked. Often, we’ve each worked out of our well-fitting strengths, instead of some rough-cut gender roles.
Isn’t it great that there’s room for this type of flexibility? Great for the market economy and great for kids (or aging parents) that they all stand to get the best talents men and women have – regardless of X/Y chromosomes. At work, women have largely erased male roles and styles. Women can boss, be decisive, execute, etc. So, the shorthand of gender has been replaced by a more flexible and accurate look at competencies. But unless we’re more conscious at and about home, I think we stand to lose what used to be “father leadership.” This point hit me like a ton of bricks during a conversation with four couples a few weeks back.
I was interrogating the husbands/fathers, asking them, “Does it mean anything to ‘be a man,’ any longer? Is there any content based on being masculine, or when we say ‘be a man,’ do we just mean, ‘be a good person,’ or ‘be mature,’ or ‘have character?'” Two men gave their thoughts about what it means to ‘be a man’ (largely unrelated to gender, I thought); then the third who’d been listening quietly said, “I think this city is dying for more ‘man.'” He lives in (and loves!) Detroit, and said, “Look around, the lack of ‘man’ and ‘father’ is everywhere.” That was deep.
Obvious in many ways. For so many kids in Detroit (in America) lack a man presence. 40% of children are now born to single mothers. One in every three children is growing up without the presence of their biological father. The statistical effects would blow you away – higher numbers by multiples, in prison, alcohol abuse, dropouts, even rape, when there’s no father presence. But I took my friend’s point about the “city dying for more ‘man'” in another way. Detroit is the poster child for a broader cultural phenomenon: The traditionally male evolutionary functions are going unperformed: kids aren’t protected, women aren’t protected, homes and whole blocks are literally as well as figuratively falling apart.
It’s like a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez surrealist novel, where men have forgotten how to be men, to care for their home, their block. (Women are some combination of too busy, too stretched financially, untrained – where’s the grandpa or dad to teacher her to caulk a window? – or unaware that all these functions now fall to them.) And the traditional male function of boundary-setting with kids is also badly missing, in a culture that’s become so permissive, so squeamish, so undisciplined and so self-centered. Kids need fathers – or mothers – to exercise that formerly father leadership – clear and consistent rules, where no means no.
Your kids are lucky this fathers day if they’ve got a dad doing father leadership. Our kids deserve boundaries – physical and behavioral – to protect them. Encourage a dad, challenge a dad, celebrate a dad (or a heroic mom) who does this work. Kids and culture depend on us to bring challenge, strength, and clarity to
Lead with our best selves,