National Post

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Saturday, March 27, 1999

Boys Should Be Boys
And so should middle-aged men

Danielle Crittenden


Illustration by Jennifer Playford

Not long ago I attended a child's birthday party and saw an extraordinary sight: While the mothers sat upstairs in the living room, drinking and complaining about their jobs, the fathers were downstairs, jiggling babies on their shoulders, cutting cake, and running the games. Occasionally, a father would emerge to hand off a wailing baby or emptied bottle. Otherwise the party was a perfectly reversed scene from the 1950s, when the fathers would have been the ones upstairs drinking and perhaps watching a football game, if they were there at all.

This little scene was similar to another I witnessed one winter's afternoon at an indoor children's playground. Although it was a weekday, the place was packed with fathers, dressed in the New Dad uniform of the 1990s: a flannel or cotton shirt, open at the collar, jeans or chinos, and running shoes. They bore their little charges along with great patience, their lilting voices unnaturally high and overly pacifying: "Honey, do you want some Teddy Grahams, sweetie? No? How do we say it? No, thank you. That's a good girl! Now let's . . . sweetie, sweetie, hold on, I know you're thirsty . . . let's have a juice box. How do we ask for it? Yes, please. That's great, honey!! Now, do you want to go pee-pee? Pee-pee with Daddy?!"

I became so absorbed watching these fathers that I lost sight of my own children, who vanished like lab mice into the noisy mazes of plastic tubes and slides. I found myself trying to imagine these same men wearing green metal combat helmets, their faces streaked with mud, marching under the weight of guns and ammo packs instead of diaper bags and baby carriers; or charging over a trench into enemy gunfire instead of hopping across a Playskool castle to snag a rampaging toddler. No, not possible. So then I tried to imbue them with the quiet dignity and fortitude of the men of a generation ago -- who were shot up into space or held down dangerous and exhausting jobs in factories and mines to support their wives and children. But these benign, gentle fathers didn't exude those qualities either. Nor did they give off any air of paternal authority. They were often reduced to pleading with their unruly children like Madeleine Albright dealing with the Serbs.

I know we're supposed to regard this new kind of Dad -- and Dad involvement in general -- as one of the great modern improvements, like Tetra paks, cellular phones, and the Internet. But whenever I see men like this, I can't help being reminded of the Amazon husbands in Greek mythology, who stayed at home weaving and cooking while their warrior wives went to battle. No doubt these modern men are married to women who are out slaying the corporate world, and bully for them. But they belie the progressive view that we can somehow merge our roles as parents without sacrificing some of the valuable, let alone attractive, qualities of each sex.

The man who wishes to be an enlightened husband and father, but also to retain his sense of masculinity, is in the uneasy position of trying to appear involved but not too involved, adept at caring for his children but not too adept, and authoritative without seeming overbearing or oppressive. You can see this uneasiness on display at Promise Keeper rallies -- husbands who have taken to heart the Biblical teaching that they should be head of the household, but who, as modern men, are so uncomfortable in this role that they need to support each other with lots of hugging and weeping. Imagine how this behaviour would have gone over at an old Lodge meeting. I've often thought that a group truly dedicated to reviving traditional fatherhood would fill stadiums with men smoking pipes and reading the newspaper, maybe breaking occasionally for games of craps.

You can see the uneasiness with the man's role, too, on display in the larger problems of fatherlessness and paternal abandonment. Outside the middle class, in which men are willing to be New Dads, there are often no dads at all. Many of today's social ills strongly connect to the absence of fathers in the home, whether it's a teenager's propensity to commit crimes, abuse drugs, get pregnant, drop out of school, or even commit suicide.

Yet it's difficult to speak frankly about the problem of fatherlessness without facing the fact that we have denigrated the importance of fathers as fathers. Indeed, men are often told that they have no special role outside of being surrogate mothers -- changing 50% of the diapers and doing 50% of the housekeeping. What men are not being told is that their presence as men is vital. The mother intuitively knows her unique importance to her children -- and when she forgets, they let her know. But who is Dad? Why is he important? Today it's hard to say.

It's interesting that the U.S. military is having a crisis in recruitment in all divisions except the Marines -- the one branch that still segregates the sexes during training and is thus regarded, among lower-income, minority males who make up the bulk of recruits, as still having manly prestige. But there is little of that manly prestige connected to being a father -- so we should be unsurprised when fewer sign up for it.

In the end, the Amazon Queen fell for the brave hero Hercules. As I left the indoor playground that day, I wondered if these New Dads were really, truly, the fathers their wives wanted. Does the woman married to such a man, however much she may appreciate his help and applaud his willingness to comply with the politically correct role, not secretly yearn for a man with more of the qualities we are determined to breed out of existence: male courage, protectiveness, fortitude, and gentlemanly deference to the opposite sex?

If we do want these qualities, we'll have to start reckoning with the current, cultural aversion to masculinity. As it is, I know of no surer way to stop a roomful of parents today -- mothers and fathers alike -- than to lean over a little boy who is crying because he has fallen, stroke his head, and say, "There, there, darling, stop crying and be a man."

Danielle Crittenden is a new monthly columnist for the Manners page.

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