On December 17th, I became a first-time father. Leading up to being a father was a difficult time for me: I had never before experienced the kind of helplessness that I experienced through my wife’s pregnancy. During that time, I felt as though I was purely an accessory: a nice-to-have luxury, but fundamentally irrelevant. The reality is that I felt that way because that is what I was. My part in creating the child was done long before, and now I was auxiliary (“ancillary” would be too strong a term) while my wife grew our baby.
Handling this reality was rough. I thrive in positions where I am vital and essential, and now I was neither. As things went along, I became increasingly concerned that this role would not change once the baby was born, and I began to ask myself what I thought I was doing becoming a father. Unfortunately, my extensive time among academic post-structuralists has left me with a knee-jerk dismissal of gender roles as models. And, truth be told, my own poor performance in traditional male gender roles made it an easy sell. So, in an effort to get a handle around what a “good father” is, I reached for books, because that’s what I do.
Among the books that I read was The Role of the Father in Child Development. That one would be better titled “The Irrelevancy of Masculine Identity in Child-Rearing Outcomes”: it’s basically a whole lot of sociological evidence that a two-parent household with an extended support network is the best structure for raising children in contemporary North America, and it’s really rather irrelevant whether those two parents are mother and father, grandmother and mother, father and father, or mother and mother. Based on that book, it seems fathers as fathers have nothing unique to offer.
Yet this struck me as odd. Dismissing the father as simply equivalent to any other parenting resource is certainly counter to popular wisdom. Popular wisdom has a father being a model for a young girl’s romantic ideal, among other things. People want to use the word “mother” for God in place of “father” specifically because the terms “father” and “mother” evoke different responses. Absentee dads are blamed for all kinds of societal problems: is it true that the problem is simply the loss of a second parent, and that the absence of dad as masculine figure isn’t really the problem at all?
And, if being a father is basically irrelevant, then what would it mean for me to be a “good father”? Whether or not a masculine figure has a special role to play, how can I be a good parent who also happens to be a man? Even the most ardent post-structuralist has to admit that being a man creates a different position in our society than not being a man. I’m not interested in abdicating that position as some act of futile rebellion (I’m currently at my quota of acts of futile rebellion), so I have to work with the position where I am. So I kept looking.
This book, Wild at Heart: Discovering The Secret of a Man’s Soul By John Eldredge, came strongly recommended to me. Now, I have never been impressed by conservative Christianity’s conception of gender roles. In their weak form, they don’t seem to do any work. For instance, there’s the idea that men-as-men are outward-directed while women-as-women are inward-directed. Yet any act can be viewed as either inward- or outward-directed, and, of course, we all need a blend of inward and outward directed, and so the categories serve no purpose to advance understanding. And even though they do nothing to advance understanding, I’ve seen them used by people flog themselves and others for not meeting the standards of these arbitrary categories. In conservative Christianity’s stronger form of gender roles, the result is more consistently harmful than helpful: women deferring to men when they shouldn’t, women being denied roles that they are called and qualified to perform, and men being molded into an adult with a strange kind of adolescent vibe.
On top of that, I have never had an interest in or call to being the God-like head of a household. I don’t have time, energy, or interest to be keeping another adult: I have too much else I’d rather be doing. I want a partnership that will offer mutual encouragement, support, and challenge: I want an Agent Scully to my Mulder, not a Princess Peach to my Mario. The Scully-Mulder way of conceiving of gender dynamics seems entirely foreign to conservative Christianity, however. I would suspect that I might be in the wrong in expecting women to be strong if it weren’t for Deborah, the woman Jesus called “dog”, Perpetua and Felicity, Catherine of Alexandria, Angela Merici, Joan of Arc, Dorothy Day, and a whole cloud of powerful contemporary Christian women witnesses that I know. Their stories give lie to the prooftext-based construct of femininity that conservative Christianity is selling.
But this book wasn’t that, I was assured, and so I read through it. Reading through it was interesting, because there were times when the book was really right. There were also times when the book seemed really wrong. But where the book was right, I wanted to share those ideas. Where the book seemed wrong, I needed to wrestle with things a bit more to figure out what seemed wrong about it. And so I decided to create this blogthrough series to work my way through the book.
What is the best advice you have for being a "good father"? Where did it come from? Is there anything that you would like me to be sure I address as I read through this book?