Happy father’s day! For this special day I thought I would share the first chapter of a book I started working on about fatherhood. I started it a year ago and put it aside to work on other projects, but it is still on my to-do list. The working title is “What did I Get Myself Into: A book for dads.”
Chapter 1: You’re Going to Have to Wipe Someone Else’s Butt
I loveThe King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I would say it was my favorite movie, but it doesn’t have aliens in it. But it is definitely my favorite documentary. And the moment it became my favorite documentary comes down to one scene. But to understand it, you need to know a little bit about the star of it. His name is Steve Wiebe.
Steve is an out-of-work father and all-around good guy. He just radiates a kind of aw-shucks kindness that makes you like him instantly. Trust me when I say that you would want Steve to be your kid’s teacher. He’s that kind of nice. But poor Steve can’t seem to get a break in life. Early in the documentary you see him as a kid playing in the big championship baseball game. His dad happened to be the coach of the team. The coach, AKA Steve’s own dad, decides to send Steve, AKA his own freaking son, into the game at the critical moment to bring home the big win. Steve goes up to bat and… chokes. Damn. In the documentary Steve has problems in his marriage. He loses his job and becomes a stay at home dad. And like many dads in that situation he really can’t seem to find a sense of purpose. His self-esteem begins to tank.
Then a weird thing happens. Steve gets his hands on a Donkey Kong arcade machine. Not the nintendo version, a REAL arcade machine. I know, I’m oozing jealousy too. He puts it in the garage and then proceeds to stay out there and play it. Way too much. You know, as unemployed guys will do. The thing though, is that Wiebe is pretty good at it. Not just pretty good. He’s amazing at Donkey Kong. On a whim he looks up the world-record score for Donkey Kong and finds out that on a good day he is actually getting close to it. And that is when Steve becomes obsessed with breaking it.
Then one day, something magical happens. He gets close to the world record. Very close.
“I was having the game of my life” he explains.
Wiebe had just broke 600,000. The world record was over 800,000. Not only that, he was still on the first of his three lives in the game. The numbers were climbing and he happened to be recording it. Watching the film you can almost feel the electric charge in the air as Steve is about to finally become a world champ.
And that is when a toddler howl is heard off-camera. “DAADDYYYYYYYYY!”
Steve gives a nervous laugh and mutters, “I can’t believe this is happening…” then calls out calmly, “What is it buddy?”
The howl pierces into a scream, “WIPE MY BUTT!”
And that is the moment I fell in love with that documentary. That is because this realer-than-real moment captures the thing about being a parent that never makes it into movies or books: you’re going to have to wipe someone else’s butt. Or do stinky laundry. Or make a dinner in under a minute. Or clean up bodily fluids. So, so many bodily fluids. Sometimes while the kids are yelling at you about it. Sometimes instead of becoming the world champ. And you have to do it all while playing nice and smiling at your little buddy, because how could they possibly understand that you just lost your shot at glory? And that captures a simple and brutally honest truth about parenting: it is a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
I know that is a cliche. But some cliches are cliches because they are inescapable truths, like space is big, rocks are hard, or pinball is way better than Donkey Kong (sorry Steve, it’s true). And this one: parenting is hard. It is extremely hard for moms. They not only have to wipe butts they have to do it while making it look effortless and instagrammable. They face judgement so severe and standards so high that it literally kills them. I mean, can you imagine if Steve had been a mom? Would I still see him as a down-on-his-luck hero? Or would I see her as selfish for ignoring her kids and escaping into the garage? Ouch. That’s some unpleasant self-reflection. But then again, as a psychologist it’s part of my job to make others do that, so I might as well do it on myself. You’ll definitely hear more about that in this book, because to be a halfway decent dad it really helps to have at least a little understanding about what moms go through.
But what are the standards for dads? In a way, answering that is even more complicated, because those standards are rapidly changing. If you are a new dad who sometimes feels like you don’t know exactly what a dad does, that is because you get it. You’re normal if you’re a little confused. It’s a confusing time to be a dad.
In this chapter let’s attack that confusion. Let’s get into just what it means to be a dad. What are the myths, the expectations, and most important, the reality.
The Two Dad Myths That Need to Die
Myth Number 1: The Perfect Dad
I watched a lot of TV as a kid, so I consider myself pretty well educated. I learned important lessons from TV. Lessons like quicksand is everywhere, the future is all spandex, or never cut the red wire. And even though I didn’t know it, I was also getting an education on being a dad. It was an education that, strangely enough, didn’t turn out to be exactly right. One of the lessons I learned comes from an ancient rerun I watched at my grandparents’ house called Father Knows Best. And the lesson is this: father knows best. But then I grew up and became a dad. I learned that this lesson is flat-out wrong. It turns out that dads aren’t always the best at figuring out life’s problems. And they often (gasp) need help! Sometimes the person that knows best isn’t the father. It’s the mother. Or the grandparents. Or the teacher. Or the coach. Or the nosey neighbor who sees how your kid acts when you’re not looking. Or if you’re good at listening and helping your kid talk things through, the kid might know best for his or her self. It depends on the problem. Like I a said in the introduction to this book, parenting is a team sport. The father knows best lesson is anti-team.
Another lesson I learned from watching a lot of old TV reruns was this: dads do nothing but give advice and go to work. I watched closely as the dad on Leave it to Beaver would come home from work, eat the dinner prepared by his immaculate wife, and then retire to the den in his smoking jacket to read and relax while she took care of the kids. It looked like a pretty sweet deal. Occasionally all that smoking and reading would be interrupted by Beaver, who would tentatively approach his dad with a question that was head-shakingly naive, like “Dad why do you just sit in here and smoke?” To which Ward would chuckle and offer sage advice in a fatherly manner. With the kindly air of a man who knows his smoking is being interrupted, but cares enough to let that happen. I watched as the black-and-white characters played out their roles, and in my little kid-brain I was taking notes. Strangely, none of the dads I encountered in real life retired to their dens after dinner to smoke and read. Hmmm, it must be because they don’t have dens, I thought.
I learned other important lessons about dads from TV. Lessons like dads have the final say, dads do the punishing, and the mother does all the housework. This last lesson really must have sunk in because just as I was writing this my wife Erin looked at me, raised an eyebrow and asked if I heard something. I stopped and listened. “Yeah,” I said, “isn’t that the beeping from the washing machine? Does that mean that my clothes are done?” Both eyebrows shot up, “Well Dr. Crouch, (she always uses my formal title when I’m being a jackass) I wondered if the beep was too high for male ears to hear.” Sigh. Time to go wipe some butts…
Clearly I’m not perfect. I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess that you’re not perfect either. But a lot of those lessons from TV revolved around the idea that dads were perfect. Or at least they were about as perfect as a parent could get. And that is why they couldn’t be bothered with all the messy stuff around the house, or even with the kids. They were simply too busy being awesome. The perfect TV dad would always say the thing that crystalized the lesson of the show. He delivered the verdict, made the final decisions, and always took the wheel when the family drove. The dad was in charge. Not for any nefarious reason like sexism mind you, but because he really did know best. It was the natural order. Handed down by the father of the cosmos, you understand. Nothing strange to see here. Now just move along.
But let’s be honest for a moment. Do you really know best? I don’t know best and I have a Ph.D. in knowing best. It is just a terrible standard to try to live up to. And that is because it is at war with reality. Another harsh truth about being a parent, or just a real person, is this: when our myths are at war with reality, reality eventually wins, sooner or later. However nice the myth might be, it eventually face-plants right into reality, and that is exactly why the myth of the perfect dad must die: it sets you up to fail.
I don’t run into a lot of dads in my office who have fully bought into this myth. These days guys who think they are the Ward Cleaver of their family are like people who speak esperanto. They’re out there, around us, but there aren’t that many and they just blend in. But I think plenty of new dads, unsure of what their role is, at least toy with the idea that maybe, just maybe, that could be how things really are meant to be. No laundry, no cooking, no bodily fluids for me. Just bread-winning and occasional advice. But that is an impossible standard for most families to live up to. Butts need to be wiped. And dads have to do it too. It’s best to start off fatherhood by ditching this myth as fast as you can, rolling up your sleeves, getting that steely flint look in your eyes, and grabbing some industrial strength cleaner. Because dads aren’t too perfect to leave the den. They have to. If they don’t, the family doesn’t really work. Yes, dads are that important. And no, cleaning up barf and giving the kid a bath when they smell like ten day old cheese may not seem as great as smoking in your den, but the thing is this: if you don’t do these things not only does the family miss out on having you there when they need you, you miss out on your own life. Not the myth. Your life. The real one. So don’t miss out on the little things. The gross things. The real things. They may not seem important, but when you have kids the little things become the big things. Becoming a world champ is nothing compared to being the dad who shows up when your kid cries out for you. Even if it is to wipe his butt.
Myth Number 2: The Bumbling Dad
I’ll admit that this myth has staying power. The force is strong with this one. This is a myth that is alive and well and fully believed by guys everywhere: the myth of bumbling dad.
Who is the bumbling dad? Think Homer Simpson. Al Bundy from Married with Children. Dagwood Bumstead, Peter from Family Guy, Fred Flintstone, Hal from Malcom in the Middle or almost every dad portrayed in a commercial doing something with a kid. The bumbling dad is useless. He can’t cook unless he’s grilling. He can’t clean unless it’s his car. And don’t let him anywhere near a diaper or your kid may end up gift-wrapped in duct tape and toilet paper.
The bumbling dad is funny, and let’s be honest, relatable. We have all experienced the feeling of being totally out of our depth as a parent. It is the feeling you get when you try to mix formula for the first time and end up with it everywhere. Or when you try to tie your toddler’s new shoes for the first time, only to discover that tying someone else’s shoes is a different skill set than tying your own. Especially when that tiny person is kicking you. In the face. We all know that oh-so-familiar feeling of total bumbling incompetence.
That is why the myth of the bumbling dad is so strong. It has a grain of truth to it.
But the secret no one tells you about being an incompetent dad is this: everyone is incompetent at first. Even moms are. Really, they are. Don’t tell them I told you this or they might alert Erin, but moms only seem more competent from the jump because they have two aces up their sleeve: babysitting and inner-family caregiving.
How many hours of babysitting experience do you think the average new dad has? If this were Vegas and you had to bet a thousand dollars, would you put it on zero? You probably would. And you would be right to do so. The correct answer is almost always zero. But if you had to place a bet for a new mom? You know the answer would never be zero. Never ever. The safe money is always on at least some experience. And while a few dads watched their younger siblings, those older brothers were almost never tasked with changing their diapers, making them dinner, putting them to bed, or doing real parent stuff like older sisters do all the time.
Sexism, ladies and gentlemen. That old cliche that it doesn’t just hurt women is a cliche for a reason. It’s true.
New dads, never having changed a diaper, soothed a colicky baby, or put a reluctant toddler to bed, are total rookies when they finally have a kid of their own. Meanwhile, new moms are already playing the game at an amateur level. That difference in experience between new moms and new dads isn’t really much in the big picture, but to a new dad the difference between the little knowledge the new mom has and the absolutely nothing that he knows, is mind-blowing. A new mom looks as wise and magical as Gandolf to a new dad. And the fact that she just seems to know what to do makes new dads believe in the magic of women’s intuition. While the new dad stares at the baby in consternation trying to decode its cries, the new mom grabs a towel, tosses it over her shoulder, and starts burping it. Somehow, the dad thinks, she just knows what to do. Meanwhile, the new mom looks at the new dad like how could you not know this? And the bumbling dad myth gets going in a new family. See how easy it is to believe it? We accidentally created a society that sets us up for it. And that is why it just seems so true.
But it isn’t.
If a dad doesn’t fall too hard for this myth and gives parenting the good old college try, then he usually finds that it doesn’t take long before he gets the hang of it. Of course, mistakes will be made. Diapers will be put on backward, all the laundry will end up pink at some point, and your toddler might learn a choice word or two when you step on a lego. But most dads discover after a while that they are actually pretty good at the basics. That small gap in knowledge between new moms and new dads closes pretty fast. And if a new dad puts in his time and wipes butts, he can truly be an equal partner with mom. A competent partner. One that is always learning on the job, but actually knows how to get the job done.
But that process of becoming an equal partner can be derailed if either the mom or the dad believes too much in the myth of the bumbling dad. When that happens dads tend to pull back from their kids, because hey I just can’t get it right. When moms believe this myth they can unintentionally push the dad away by taking over too much of the work and expecting the dad to be like just another big kid in the house. One family I worked with were so up-to-their-necks in this myth that the mom joked that she had three kids, a five year old, an eleven year old, and a thirty four year old. We had a good laugh at that one. But the dark side of that joke was that the dad did nothing with the kids. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. He stayed in his room playing video games and only came out when dinner was ready or after the kids were put to bed. When I oh-so-gently asked why was this happening, they looked at each other and giggled nervously. “He just can’t get it right,” the mom explained, “he’s tried babysitting the kids, but there is always a problem and he just ends up calling for help.”
Dads don’t babysit. They parent. But that is the consequence of falling for the myth of the bumbling dad. Dad becomes the most senior kid in the house who is sometimes put in charge to babysit. If this situation goes on too long the family gets stuck in a rut where the dad plays a background role and the mom gradually burns out. It’s a scenario I see way too often with families. And it is easily fixed. All that has to happen is that the dad needs to put in his time. Really. Just get in there and go for it. Make those mistakes. Bumble if you have to, but know that you won’t bumble for long. Soon enough you’ll get the hang of it. You just need to do the real work. And most of all, don’t fall for the myth of the bumbling dad, because it doesn’t just set you up to fail, it sets you up to never even try.
And there you have it, the two dad myths that need to die. They really are two sides of the same coin when you think about it. Whether it is the perfect dad or the bumbling dad, the effect is the same: to isolate fathers and keep them on the outside of real parenting. They are awful for the dad because they either lead you to think that you’re infallible, when you’re not, or incompetent, when you’re not. They are insulting to dads and bad for families, especially for moms, who end up bearing the brunt of all the work. Real dads are nothing like the myths. Real dads are involved partners who know how to listen and do the hard work. But wait, what is a “real dad”? If the myths aren’t true, then what is?
Have you ever tried to guess the number of marbles in a jar? Try out this thought experiment with me. Imagine if every dad in the US was represented by a marble. And each of those marbles was put in a glass jar about the size of an average gallon jug. How tall would the jar need to be to fit all the dad-marbles? It would need to be pretty damn tall. The jar would extend up over your head, through the roof, past the height of Hyperion, the tallest tree on Earth, past the Empire State building, past Mount Everest, blasting out way past the International Space Station, and well into space at 68 miles high.
Thats a lot of dads. Over seventy two million of them.
If we could reach in and randomly take marbles out of the jar and see into them, like little crystal balls with fathers in them, what would we see? What would the dads in our big thought experiment be like?
First, we would notice that most of them don’t live like Ward Cleaver or Homer Simpson. In fact, over 70% of dads don’t live in the standard married two-parent household our culture has convinced us is the norm. It looks like we dads don’t like to be told what to do. Millions of dads parent solo. They make up a sizeable number of the marbles in our giant space-jar, and represent one out of every six single parent households in the country. This is a big change in our culture, because this number has doubled in the past few decades.
If we could read the thoughts of the dads in the marbles (hey it is a thought experiment, cut me a little slack) then we would discover that most dads like being dads. And by like, I mean absolutely freaking love it. Ninety percent of dads say that they enjoy being a father and actually find it exciting. Take that in for a second. Ninety percent. That is a number we just don’t see in census data. It is the kind of number used by statisticians to completely shut down debate. It turns out that dads absolutely love being dads. That sure is a different picture than the one pop-culture would have us believe. A lot of fathers in books and movies are trapped into being fathers. They are resigned to their lot in life and are constantly trying to relive their glory days before the kids came along. Al Bundy from Married with Children knows his dad-life is terrible and that is the whole point of the show. But it is actually the opposite of what it is like for the vast majority of dads. For almost all of us, the time when we have kids running around the house are our glory days. This is our jam. We love this.
Not only do we love being dads, we are completely changing the game. Dads are intentionally doing things differently from they way they have always been done. And these changes are overwhelmingly positive. Over 50% of dads say that they are more affectionate with their kids than their dads were, and 54% say “I love you” more often to their kids. Gone are the Dan Draper days of distant fatherhood with limited emotional investment. We are all in emotionally.
Dads are not only changing how they show love, they are changing what they do with their kids. Nearly half of all dads say that they read more with their kids and play more with their kids than their dads did.
We dads are no slouches when it comes to improving ourselves and learning more. Over sixty percent of fathers say that they are actively searching for more information on how to be a better father. So if you are a dad reading this, you are in good company. Most of us are putting in the work and learning how to make our children’s lives better.
The picture looks pretty good. We love more, work harder, and play more with our kids. And on top of that, we really like it. But not everything is going great. A lot of fathers feel left out. About 40% of dads say that they would like to be more involved with raising their kids, but that their partner stops them from doing so. And 43% say that their partner takes too much control over the household and that they would like to be more involved. This problem is called “maternal gatekeeping” in the literature, and while it isn’t a something a lot of dads talk about it is something a lot of dads experience. We will get into that a bit later in the book.
Additionally, even though dads are putting in a ton more time and effort than the culture would lead you to believe, a lot of dads say that they feel unseen in all this. Sixty three percent of dads say that they don’t get enough credit for their work and feel ignored. That’s not surprising. A lot of fathers have had the experience of not being invited to the PTA meeting, having the pediatrician call the mom instead of you when there is an emergency, or being nudged out of the conversation whenever the topic turns to kids. Sexism really does mess with everything. The stereotype that moms are the real parents and dads are just there to provide labor and occasional babysitting really creeps into a lot of situations when you are a parent. Until you are a dad you might not notice it. But once your kid’s first grade teacher only talks to mom in the parent-teacher meeting or the camp counselor only sends updates to mom’s phone, you begin to feel pretty left out. But what you might find surprising is that moms notice this too. In fact 64% of moms say that dads aren’t getting enough credit for their involvement. That’s even more than the dads!
So what do all these numbers tell us about the reality of being a modern dad? The big picture looks like this: we are in a time of rapid change for fathers, and a lot of us are enjoying most of the changes. It is a confusing time to be a dad, but it also an exciting time. We are eager to raise kids, and for the most part, we are getting a chance to live that dream. But we are often left out of important parts of it because society is still running on sexist social software that hasn’t had a proper update. That explains why it is so confusing to be a dad right now. The images and messages that we all got about being a dad just don’t match reality. So for a lot of us, we feel like we have to learn the truth about what it means to be a dad on our own. The reality is that dads are nothing like the myths or the stereotypes.
When we step back and take in the reality, really gaze at all the 72 million marbles reaching to space in our hypothetical jar, one of the things that jumps out is the wide range of possibilities. There are a lot of different ways to be dad, and all of them can be successful, involved, loving parents. We can be solo dads raising kids on our own or part of a multigenerational home. We can split parenting with a married partner in all kinds of different ways. And those splits can change and evolve as we do. Or we can merge our parenting responsibilities with others in a tight-knit extended family or community we call home. We can mix it up with blended families of all different kinds, and end up becoming best friends with our new stepchild’s bio-dad. There are so many ways to father, and none of them are really better than the others, no matter what the myths might have you believe.