Father Leadership – Who’s Doing It?

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Friends,

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 So, the shorthand of gender has been replaced by a more flexible and accurate look at competencies.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,

Dan

16 responses to “Father Leadership – Who’s Doing It?

  1. If and when I get married, I hope my better half and I are as able to work off each other’s strengths as you and Jennifer are!

    I welcome this shift away from chromosomes and towards competencies and strengths. Frankly, I break many of the stereotypes about men. I am not adventurous, risky, or physically strong. I’m more of a ‘take-it-easy’ kind of guy. So kids, if you want to ride that roller coaster, you’re gonna have to ask Mom, because Dad’s staying on terra firma! And honey, feel free to do all the heavy lifting you want (literal heavy lifting, not metaphorical), because I’m no Ironman!

    But, kids, Dad will happily teach you how to do the chores, how to read, etc. And don’t be surprised if I get as involved (or even more involved) in your education than Mom does – because, after all, I wouldn’t want you kids to be as unfortunate as the many kids whose parents (fathers in particular) aren’t as involved! I’d want you to be responsible to society and to your children, regardless of your chromosomes!

    I would close by pointing out that any guy can have a kid, but it takes a real MAN to be a father.

  2. Dan, I agree that as more women enter the workforce, and many become the primary breadwinners, there is a structural shift taking place within households and organizations.

    We know that all career women, whether in a committed relationship or not, are experiencing long days and never-ending “To Do” lists. This has caused her ongoing personal conflict and a serious time management dilemma as she struggles to handle all that is expected of her–including child guidance responsibilities.

    In an effort to squeeze even more into their nightmarish schedules, these women are continuing to make choices that actually undermine their health, family life, careers and important relationships.

  3. Good morning, Dan,

    As a woman who was widowed at a relatively young age, I was thrust into the role of both mom and dad for my just turned ten year old son. The search for male role models to offset the imbalance created was not easy. Thus, as you have so often encouraged, the need for mentors. And so gentlemen reading this blog I ask you to look deep inside and ask yourself if you have the time and generosity of heart to step to the plate and walk with a fatherless boy. I am aware that this blog today is about dads but I would be remiss if I did not ask the women reading this morning to ask themselves the same two questions. What a gift mentoring can be both to a child and to self.

  4. I was OK with this until the last two paragraphs:

    “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.”

    Please don’t patronize women.

    1. The single mothers have often been created by a system where male politicians patronize women and a broader political economy that does not help parents with work/parenting conflict or hold men accountable for doing half the unpaid work of childcare. Paternity can be proven – and disproven – now so I see no reason not to hold men accountable for their choices – and to receive the rewards of that as well. Many men may not even realize how much their children resent them and feel intense conflict with them because of this arrogant position where women and children are patronized, but not actually interacted with, related with and where the man does not carry his full weight in the family.

    2. Women are capable of saying “no” and meaning it, particularly as our standing in the political economy approaches that of men. Do you need more examples than Strauss-Kahn’s attempted victim or the women who received pictures of Weiner’s weiner and objected?

    I agree that there is a problem of too permissive parenting – and many kids need more authoritative parenting – but not some empty father caught up in “evolutionary masculinity stereotypes.” Be your own person, please. Joshua Cohen’s “The Lazy Husband” is a fantastic book with solutions to this problem.

    I don’t need a man to teach me how to caulk or to have some fantasy of “protecting” when too often this is just perpetuating cycles of violence and conflict – and is threatening to productive, peace and bringing up children in a trauma-free (but appropriately boundaried and materially and psychologically supported childhood).

    Please drop the warrior and “father knows best” fantasies.

    1. Ms. Dickinson,

      I’m not sure what you found patronizing about this. If it’s about the “caulking,” I’m not saying women can’t learn other ways, I’m just saying that men and women have tended to pass on the skills they have learned. My wife can pass on her self-taught mitre-saw skills, but in the past this was generally handed down father-to-son, or increasingly father-to-daughter. My point is that men have fallen down on the job, not that women can’t do it. Further all the language about permissive and squeamish, you seem to have taken as a shot against women. It wasn’t. It’s about the culture as a whole.

      I wonder if you are caught in a zero-sum view of things, i.e., because I want men to be strong, that means I want women weak. (I celebrate in my own life, and in this piece, the strength of women. Bully for them for finding that strength.) I guess I can use some help in understanding what set you off, because your inferences about my “fantasies” seem a thousand miles from the point I was trying to make: Kids need boundaries – from men and from women. Too many men are not in the game. Help me out here!

      Dan

  5. Dear Dan,
    Thanks for your comments.
    Creating a world where people (sons-and-daughters) can feel safe and loved is not a gender-specific responsibility, but the importance of Families (giving neither spouse absolution for being absentee when avoidable) is critical. The absence of one parent certainly makes the role of the remaining parent more complex (“whatever falls into your hand, do it with all of your might”). The Gift of Parenthood is profound and it’s a tragedy when anyone avoids doing it to the best of their ability.
    Knowing What-Is “manness” vs “womanness” is obviosly open to many interpretations, but the fact that times and cultures change does not mean that we diminish the importance of passing on values and skills and opportunities to learn for our offspring.
    We need to celebrate Fatherhood (and doing it to the best of our respective abilities and within the framework of our points of reference) and Motherhood (“…..”) and to promote what we can to allow that familyhood can contain two caring parents (when possible) who are supported to help their children succeed and be happy. When there is (as is so often the case) only one primary caregiver, then society HAS TO be supportive of making that circumstance work (and helping the single parent and children succeed). That’s a reality for so many people and very real for many developing human-beings (the foundation of tomorrow!). That’s where Men and Women have to assure success.
    Another whole issue of RFL can address the Tragedy of many men (particularly but not exclusively Black men) having been aborted from society to circumstances inconsistent with their best interests (or those of their families, children and society). Too often that seems to be a product of institutionalized racism (as with poor urban schools) and a problem begging for the implementation of Real Solutions with Real Outcomes. America CAN do better!
    Happy Father’s Day fathers (and belated happy Mother’s Day mothers). Isn’t it remarkable what we can individually & collectively do to help nurture caring human beings when we focus on what they need (and on what we can do) without getting too caught up in discussions and meetings.
    Philosophy is nice, but action is essential!!
    Jerry Leismer

  6. Noted early childhood expert, Dr. Robert Sornson, says that every child needs a firm, loving authority figure in his/her life. That person could be male or female and of any age or role; but, in the absence of one, the problems that Dan references in his column will occur. Hopefully there is such a figure in a child’s life from birth through adulthood.

    In years past, it has traditionally been the male and/or female parent, but the different family configurations of today call for others to assume the role and responsibility. Until this is true across society, cities like Detroit will experience the fallout of the absence of such a person in some children’s lives. Can America afford to let that happen to some of its children and to society?

  7. DoctorMac –
    If you’re looking for your comment here, you won’t find it. I didn’t approve it because it is not germane to this discussion.
    I attempted to honor your time and opinion by sending you a personal explanation, but I received a return message that the email address that you supplied does not exist. If you’d like to hear a full explanation, you can email me at mulhern@danmulhern.com.
    Lead with your best,
    Dan

  8. ND: no need to worry, your don’t need/don’t want men attitude can still prevail. It is the dominant one in the media so I don’t know why you’re upset.

    And Dan, you need to figure out what it is you want to convey: you can’t denounce the traditional male on the one hand, and then say we suffer because we no longer have them.

    1. Delen,

      What I want to convey is perhaps subtle, but I don’t think it’s contradictory. I am saying that there is a real place for traditional male attributes: risk-taking, protection, boundary-drawing. I think we have lost some of that. It can be performed by men and women, but it’s critical that we not lose it. We ought not throw out the baby with the bath – the bath being limiting social roles that kept women from being “strong” and men from being “open.” I can be an open, receptive, caring dad, and also draw clear lines for my kids.
      Why CAN’T I have it both ways? In the same way that women can be “feminine,” e.g., nurturing, yet also thrive in public leadership, I think men can be strong boundary-setters yet also learn the softer skills of nurturance, relationship-building, inclusion, etc.
      D.

  9. Kept women from being strong? Why is that bad? Being strong, according to all the male bashers, is not only not necessary, but is actually harmful. The problem with men, according to the legion of critics, is that they were raised to be strong, and not show weakness, and not admit they need help, etc, etc, ad infinitum. Now you’re saying that it’s bad that women were kept from being strong? So now being strong is a good thing?

    That’s funny, for years now, we’ve heard that women had superior attributes precisely because they didn’t have to be strong. Rather, we were told, by you and other critics of men, is that women are actually superior because instead of focusing on strength, they were instead focused on empathy, communication, cooperation, sensitivity, etc. We were told being strong was for neanderthals.

    The recent widely praised male-bashing essay, “The End of Men” has as it’s main point that men are in steep decline because their traditional reliance on strength is out of date and no longer necessary or relevant in the modern world. Yet here you are saying that no we actually need strength, and women need it to. That’s odd, I didn’t think traditional male values were so prized.

    As I said, you need to figure out what you want to convey. You can’t say the traditional male is the source of all problems, and then say we need more of them.

    1. Delen,

      I invite you to stick to my point – if you’re debating me – and not with “male bashers,” which I am not. That brush you’re using is way too wide for the job you’re performing here.

      You write: “Kept women from being strong? Why is that bad?” You make the point rhetorically, but really do see what you are asking and I am saying! Why is that bad? My whole point is that “keeping” people from expressing their nature and their values and their desires for self-expression runs against (classical) liberal notions of freedom that we treasure in America. Being black, female, immigrant, old or young should not prevent you from expressing who you are. Do you disagree with that?

      I am saying that under the over-simplified stereotypes of “masculine” or “feminine” virtues are very important aspects of being human. But glorifying either isn’t productive. And suggesting that because of your gender you can only express half is also not productive. “Strength” and “boundary-setting” matter. Some “male bashers” may have argued that male strength is bad. I haven’t. Strength matters. Some “chauvinist pigs” have said that men shouldn’t show “weakness” and “women should stay in the home.” I think that’s wrong-headed, too. Crying doesn’t mean you can’t be strong. Compromising and collaborating don’t mean you’re weak.

      So, what I’m saying seems clear to me:
      1. What we used to call “male” and “female” attributes both have great value.
      2. One set of values without the other – whether in the individual or in a social group or culture – can be dangerous.
      3. Individuals should be encouraged to “soar with their strengths” – including “kick-ass women” and “gentle men” – as well as to develop the other side of their personality.

      Where is the inconsistency in that?

      Dan

  10. You made my point perfectly here: “including “kick-ass women” and “gentle men” – as well as to develop the other side of their personality.”

    That’s it exactly. Women are praised for “kicking ass” while men are told they must be “gentle men.” This is by the same male bashers and anti male bigots who insist they believe in treating both men and women equally, who insist that traditional male attributes like “kicking ass” are outdated and unwanted and harmful. Yet when women display those same supposedly outdated qualities (kicking ass) they get praised and celebrated. You don’t see the obvious unfairness to men in this, the hypocrisy?

    Why do people who insist that we not insist on different behavior for each gender, insist on doing exactly what they claim to oppose? Why does it have to be kick-ass women, and gentle men? Why can’t women be gentle, or why do women have to kick-ass? Isn’t that the same kind of behavior that gets men so much condemnation from their legion of haters? Yet you praise the same behavior in women! Don’t you see the anti male bias in that? And what is wrong with women being gentle?

    Whose ass is it you want to see kicked? My son’s? No thanks. Your son or daughter? No? Then you might want to rethink your advocacy of kicking ass, because for every person kicking ass, there is someone getting their ass kicked. Usually someone smaller and weaker. Imagine the reaction from you and other male critics, to a man saying that all men should “kick ass.”

    Such monumental hypocrisy.

  11. Delen,
    Thanks for continuing in the dialogue. I appreciate your trying to get through my thick skull what you’re saying.
    It sounds to me like what you are saying is that there are double-standards – e.g., “male bashers,” the broader society, and Dan Mulhern seem to think it’s cool when women are tough, but men should not be. Women are celebrated. Men despised. I get that’s your perception. And I agree that there are such bashers and a cultural bias. I totally agreed with a guy (and appreciated his outrage) when he said that we laugh at t-shirts that say “boys are stupid. throw rocks at them.” And we would go CRAZY if the genders were flipped and it said “girls are stupid. throw rocks at them.” I get your point. And I get your outrage about it.

    I also appreciate your point about “kickass.” I meant it generically, in terms of competitiveness. I meant it the way my wife attacks work, or the way I play pick-up basketball. I mean fierceness, confidence, courage. Your point is that “kickass” implies someone is “kicked.” I didn’t mean that literally, but it’s worth my thinking more deeply about that.

    Your other point, I think, is that you’re concerned that the male bashers, society in general and Dan Mulhern don’t want “gentle women” any longer. I suspect you’re on to something there, although I think it’s more about an aggressive capitalist country than about feminism or male bashing. In our American (and globally competitive) culture, we don’t much celebrate gentleness. When I think about my own three kids, I have spent an awful lot of energy around their ability to excel – setting big goals, fighting through obstacles, persevering, pushing outside their comfort zones. Although virtues of gentleness – listening, kindness, deference, inclusion, etc – are very important to me, I don’t think I push them so much with my kids. (Maybe I need to adjust.) With my Title 9 era daughters I certainly pushed them hard – academically and athletically. But I think that was gender-blind. I find that my biggest push with my 13-year old son is towards getting up and out and moving.

    In the end I don’t see a reason to return to traditional gender roles. I don’t see it more important to urge my girls to be “gentle” than to urge my son to be “gentle.” I don’t see it more important to urge my son to conquer the world, than to urge my daughters to conquer the world. I think my daughters and son need both sets of skills/virtues. I agree that society runs a risk of overdoing it, but in my view the way forward is towards internal balance, and being a genuine individual (not a generic man or generic woman).

    Again, although I don’t much appreciate being accused of “monumental hypocrisy,” as I’m trying to engage in a genuine dialogue of learning, I do appreciate your not giving up on the conversation.

    I have tried to understand and appreciate what you’re saying. Is there something in what I’m writing that you appreciate as a fellow dad, raising kids in this era?

    Dan

  12. Dan, I said it earlier (on June13th) and continue to agree that as more women enter the workforce, and many become the primary breadwinners, there is a structural shift taking place within households and organizations….and we all must respect this cultural change in roles.

    Co-author Barb McEwen and I have written a new ebook that deserves to be read by all women who strive to achieve fulfillment in both their personal and professional lives. We have examined the reasons behind why so many articulate and well-educated women today feel overwhelmed and underappreciated.

    It is hardly news that, despite the feminine “revolution” that began in the 1970’s, the majority of women haven’t found the enjoyment, lifestyle or satisfaction they once imagined. The reason they attribute to their problem is that they have taken on too much! But, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Career women, in particular, have come to believe it is their lot in life to be running on 8-cylinders day in and day out.

    Women are dancing to a frenzied beat, believing just because they can, they think they should. They have been taught if they are capable of doing something it shouldn’t be necessary to look for help.

    This has led women to become frustrated by experiencing long days and nightmarish schedules. Women are exhausted. In this new book we not only challenge women to get their supports in place, but to make the right choices so their health, family life, careers and relationships are not undermined. We also give the reader tools to do so.

    The concept for the book came about because of the very real, very important needs that our female clients repeatedly expressed. Year-after-year, we have heard women’s frustrations as they struggle with the countless roles and duties that are routinely placed upon them.

    “When Doing It All Won’t Do: A self-coaching guide for career women” (Workbook Edition) by Barbara McEwen & John G. Agno, ISBN-10: 0983586527, ISBN-13: 9780983586524

    Full Screen Display (high quality PDF in book format for computer viewing and/or on-site printing). Special pre-published price of $9.99 US for a limited time (Regular Price: $12.99) More information at: http://www.CareerWomenCoaching.com

    As you embrace the concepts in the book and become a more effective leader, you’ll learn how you can negotiate what you want and fine tune your time management skills.

    Since each of us has been given the gift of choice and the power to act, you are encouraged to take the time to complete a variety of workbook exercises which will help to determine your passions, purpose, and priorities in order to achieve the fulfilling life you want.

    John

  13. Besides the important 1-5 years where many attitudes, ethics, morals and behaviors are initially learned from whomever is around and their behaviors (good or bad), there is a significant overpowering attitude out there that life is owed to people whether or not they have done a darn thing to earn it. Balancing and sharing of wealth means “you have it and I deserve it” to many. How can people fight in a McDonald’s restaurant. How can people just sign their life away without knowing what they are signing. An example: Health Care. No one knows who signed the bill what is in it. The nurses and doctors that I spoke with who took the time to read it say it is really messed up. I haven’t been able to look at a copy yet. Why do people vote for someone? Because he has a documented answer to problems or because he is a percieved friend? People are still children when they are old enough to vote. They have no clue what they are voting for and the teachers that are pushing them through school aren’t helping. Georgia is the most recent example. These are teachers that should be doing everything they can to even the playing field, not throwing people out into life with improper training. Fathers, mothers, grandparents, friends, peers, etc. are all guilty of the dumbing of America not the equality and opportunity that is supposed to be being offered. Every morning look in the mirror, better yet, carry a small mirror with you and ask yourself during the day, am I really helping or putting down additional road blocks that people can’t get through. There are a lot of adults out there that need to get more involved with reality, not their own short sightedness.

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