Fatherhood gets a bad rap.
Involved, intelligent dads are largely left out of media depictions of families. Fathers have a notoriously difficult time when it comes to access to kids in the event of a divorce. Women are told over and over again how little they need men – be it husbands, brothers, or fathers in their lives. And even for us as men, fatherhood is rarely presented as something appealing, aspirational and ideal, but instead is shown as terrifying, personality killing, and overwhelming.
At the same time, we are told how crucial fatherhood is – how fatherlessness correlates extremely high with things like imprisonment, dropping out of school, drug use, mental illness, and suicide.
On one hand we’re told how ridiculous and unnecessary fathers are (and how much we’ll give up by becoming one) and, on the other, we’re shamed for being Peter Pan boys by either not having kids or simply living up to the stereotypes we’ve been presented with our whole lives.
Either way, there are negative associations with fatherhood for far too many men.
No that doesn’t mean that it’s all bad. But a large cohort of dads struggle with simultaneously experiencing the low expectations of fatherhood and the vast amount of love they feel for their children.
Like many stereotypes – the dopey dad, the Homer Simpson, the overgrown toddler, the bumbling idiot that Mom has to take care of just like the other kids – exists for a reason. There are fathers like this – and there are a lot of them.
Far too many dads set their own expectations too low. They act as if the only thing that’s required to them is work a full-time job, not cheat on their wife, and not beat their kids. That’s it – anything else is icing on the cake.
They use the burden and mantle of fatherhood as an excuse to justify their lack of ambition and desire for ease and comfort.
They give up hobbies because they don’t have the time anymore.
They give up their friends because their wives “won’t let them” go hand out with the boys.
They stop going to the gym because they’re too exhausted after a long day of work.
They scream at their kids because they transfer the disrespect they deal with out in the world onto people who are beneath them in the hierarchy.
They use fatherhood as a way to justify and multiply their force of laziness, complacency, and mediocrity.
Fatherhood doesn’t make them this way. It gives them plausible justifications for why they already are this way.
And they are plausible justifications.
Fatherhood is hard (I have five kids myself, all under the age of 10). It demands massive amounts of time, energy, resources, and attention from the men who choose to become dads.
To some extent you do have to learn how to sacrifice aspects of your hobbies, friendships, and the other things you enjoyed – or even defined yourself by – before you became a dad.
Fatherhood is sacrifice.
But it doesn’t have to be the sacrifice many men make it to be.
Fatherhood can be a force multiplier for good. It can take good men and make them better or better men and make them great.
When treated the right way, fatherhood can and should be fuel for individual excellence – because we dads have a moral obligation to be the best version of ourselves we possibly can be.
The world will do everything it can to teach your daughters that men are awful and they don’t need us. It will do everything it can do teach your sons they’re inherently broken and the things they naturally experience and desire as boys are wrong.
And if you’re a complacent, ease-seeking, toeing-the-line dad – you’re not going to do much to help your kids see the value of masculinity in the 21st century.
Who you are as a man, a husband, and a father will create and facilitate your children’s relationship with manhood for the rest of their lives. Your girls will grow up and have relationships with men like you. Your sons will forever live under your shadow and a large part of their own self-development will be either trying to live up to the example that you set or trying to escape whatever you were.
The world wants your kids to believe that masculinity is either outright toxic or, at the very least, quaint and antiquated. But you have the opportunity to show them how false that idea is.
But fatherhood isn’t only sacrifice.
Our kids and our wives aren’t the only people who benefit from us treating fatherhood as the path to greatness rather than the excuse of mediocrity.
When we start to realize that continuing to improve ourselves – to take care of our bodies, nurture friendships with other men, pursue hobbies and interests that aren’t just consuming the excellence of other men, and continuing to learn new things and develop new skills are necessary parts of being a good and competent father – we become happier on our own.
Aspirational, intentional, self-driven fatherhood is not only good for women and children. In many ways, the ultimate good of this pursuit is experienced by us as men. Rather than constantly trying to escape feelings of shame, guilt, remorse, frustration that all too often stems from our deep knowledge we’re not living as well as we can or should, we are and continue to be men who like, love, and respect ourselves – and become worthy of love and respect from those around us.
Does this mean that good, happy, and fulfilling fatherhood has to be all go all the time? That your hobbies, friendships, and other interests have to be another full-time job your feel obligated to to because they make you a better dad and help you set a better example for your kids?
Of course not. There are times to relax and let off the gas. Relaxation is good and you’re not a bad father for taking a nap or winding down with a show or two at the end of the day.
And good dads know the difference. They know when they’re backing off because they truly need to rest and recharge or when they’re doing so because it’s an excuse for their complacency.
This isn’t a switch that you can turn on or off. The desires to take it easy and to be better aren’t mutually exclusive and you can will simultaneously experience both throughout your life. Even the best dads have days where they have to remind themselves that the burdens of fatherhood are a blessing to them and their family so they have to pony up and do the hard things they don’t want to do.
That’s part and parcel of being a man. We are happy, capable men when we do the hard things we know we want to do in the long run, even if we don’t want to do them right now.
And, just like we experience the inertia of either aspiration or complacency build within us in the gym, dating, our careers, or anything else we can do as men without children, that same momentum builds for us as fathers.
The more we treat this role with the energy, enthusiasm, and seriousness it deserves, the more that becomes our natural relationship with it. And the better, happier, and more capable fathers and men we will become.