Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reclaiming Fatherhood, or Some Other Equally Impressive Title Regarding an Unrealistically Complex Issue for a Blog Post

One of the ways my pride manifests itself is a strong desire never to let anyone point out a shortcoming or mistake without having already pointed it out myself.  If I dressed in a hurry, and put on a brown belt with my black shoes, I'll make sure to point it out to you, so that you have no opportunity to ridicule me first, and so that you won't leave questioning my ability to dress myself.  That's a dumb example, but a true one, and it happens at all levels of importance in my life.  So the unnecessarily long post title is a continuation of that defense mechanism - of course, it's ridiculous to think that in a single blog post, I can identify exactly what's wrong with our collective idea of manhood and offer a solution.  I want to point that absurdity out before you think it, and maybe even diffuse the situation with a bit of humor so that I don't come off as overly defensive. So now that we're all on the same page, let's continue.  I start you with this:

First of all, this is funny.  But it's funny for the same reason that Seinfeld was so funny: because it's satirizing what we have grown to collectively accept to be true.  This is what men do...manly things.  But we also recognize (at least many of us do) that you don't have to constantly be taming wild beasts, eating red meat, and shooting things to be a "man."  We still look up to the figure caricatured in the MANtage, but we don't think he's all that realistic.  This is the man we've begun to think of as more "real:"

Modern Family's Phil Dunphy is the latest iteration of the inept father figure we've come to know and laugh at, from Al Bundy, to Homer Simpson, to Peter Griffin.  Over the last few decades, it seems like our culture has accepted the idea that the father is the comic relief in the family, while mothers run the household.

Phil Dunphy is subservient to Claire, who is the responsible one.  He comes up with stupid ideas that she has to re-ground in reality.  She does all the parenting, while he focuses on trying (and failing) to be cool to his children.  He shares a tight bond with his equally-strange son, who serves as his comic relief co-star, but he doesn't have the faintest hints of understanding either of his daughters.  A large part of his time and energy at home is devoted to trying to cover up or clean up a problem he created.  He loves his wife and children, and aside from making frequent passes at his father-in-law's attractive Colombian wife, he's fiercely loyal to his family.  In almost every other way, though, he is a total failure when it comes to displaying the marks of manliness and fatherhood.  And we eat it up!  In my almost absurdly busy life, Modern Family is the only show I make sure to catch every week.  So it is the Seinfeld principle at work again?  Do we believe that the world (at least the suburban middle-class American version of it) is filled with Phil Dunphy?

I don't have any degrees to back up my claims, but it seems logical to me that our own fathers often serve as the first (and maybe most deeply rooted) model of fatherhood.  As a Christian, my ideal for manhood and fatherhood is taken from the Bible (for example, this) and from the teachings of the Church.  A man is meant to lead his wife and his family in practical matters, as well as leading them spiritually.  That does NOT mean I have to make more money than Tori, make all the decisions myself, or that she's somehow less than me.  Anyone who knows her knows that she's not any of those things.  But you get a sense of what I'm talking about here.  And none of it is present in the Phil Dunphys of popular culture.  It's not just Phil - be on the lookout this fall as Christmas commercials ramp up - you'll see a whole host of un-engaged, inept fathers bumbling their way across your screen.

I write this tirade now, not because I've just noticed how men are emasculated or falsely masculine-ized in our culture - I've pointed this out to young men for several years, and will likely continue all my life.  I bring it up, because I'm writing this with a 2-week-old baby sleeping in my lap, and I want her to have a model of fatherhood that is better than that.  Fiona will need a dad who understands her, who leads her and instructs her, tells her no and means it, protects her, screens her dates, helps with her homework, prays with and for her, and who loves her.  I want it to start now.

I'm also writing this during our first time alone together - Tori is out to lunch with a friend.  She asked me, almost hesitantly, if I felt OK with her by myself for an hour or two, and I jumped on the opportunity.  I know guys who went months before facing their first few hours alone with their baby, and went into it with trepidation and uncertainty, but I didn't want to be that guy.

Phil Dunphy would have made a disaster of this morning.  The baby would have started screaming as soon as mom left, and he would have come up with all sorts of charmingly ineffective ways to placate her.  He would have wanted to surprise his wife by cleaning the house while she's away, and ended up instead spilling his coffee on the baby and knocking down a shelf or something.  And it would be up to Claire to swoop in and fix it, first scolding him for holding the baby upside down, while she takes her in one arm and cleans up the mess with another.  While they'd make up by the end of the episode, and she would see the good will in his debacle and love him for it, Phil would have proven that he's incapable of handling any of this alone.

I've also realized this: the mark of a life well-lived is almost never in any sort of heroic acts.  I don't need to clean the house and potty train Fiona in a day in order to show that I'm a good dad.  The mark of a life well-lived is found in doing the mundane, every-day things well, and with purpose.  So we're sitting here, not learning to talk, but sleeping peacefully, with the occasional lap around the house for a coffee refill or to quell a spell of fussing.  And if she screams, or blows out a diaper, I can handle it without Tori needing to swoop in.

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