An essay from a father: 21st Century Dad
Last year, a Chinese-Filipino businessman cooked dinner for his family and poisoned his wife and two daughters. After having made sure they were dead, he went upstairs, took a gun from the family safe, and shot himself. It was later revealed that despite appearances of a stable, upper-middle-class lifestyle, he was saddled with debt and had mortgaged the house several times over. His wife and children had known nothing about this situation.
A lot of people, including many fathers, think that fatherhood is about money. A good father is one who can support his family; a better one can take the family on trips to Japan, treat his wife to Fendi baguettes, and raise the children on organic food and the best math tutors. And if one has so much money that one family can’t spend it fast enough, then he starts a second one. By these standards, a father who is broke is a failed one; and it would be reprehensible to saddle one’s surviving family with debt, so best make sure there is no surviving family.
The modern family is a myth: not that it exists, but that it is modern. From the dawn of history the role of the father is one that has been constantly redefined. The mercantilist 19th century idea of father as a limitless source of funds, with women and children, especially female children, too delicate to be sullied by anything as crass as handling money except in the capacity of spending it (just as he would never sully his hands with the actual day-to-day activity of raising children), is just one of the many ways the role has been understood. The sensitive, hands-on father, who takes equal responsibility in the travails of daily parenting such as changing nappies, the school run, and talking to teenagers about sex-is just another iteration of fatherhood, one that happens to be dominant in developed Western societies at the moment.
Fatherhood creates itself: one doesn’t learn how to be a father; so much as one learns what kind of father he turns out to be.
Fatherhood creates itself: one doesn’t learn how to be a father; so much as one learns what kind of father he turns out to be. All too often, it turns out to be different than what one imagined it to be. This was the case for me. I had always pictured myself as a father who was involved, caring, if slightly daft, gamely holding up that other half of the sky that women didn’t hold up. I learned early on that the thrill of successfully changing a baby’s diaper is a variable that decreases at an increasing rate, just as a baby’s poop gets exponentially more voluminous and aromatic. For all the talk of bonding and intimacy, babies don’t really care very much who does the changing, as long as it gets done.
Having children, in an ideal world, coincides with a period in a man’s life when he is stable in his career, and, apart from the necessary (though not all-encompassing) financial stability thisprovides, it usually also means a more senior position from which he can pop out of the office to attend the school play, or take a few days off if the child is in the hospital. While this might be true for some, it was certainly not true for me, and I continue to do work that feels like a start-up while juggling writing commitments and trying to stay up-to-date with my academic field. Some days are so exhausting that after driving home from work, I set an alarm for 20 minutes and take a quick nap in the back seat of the car before heading into the house.
It’s not such a bad idea, really. Creating a membrane between work and home is a tip I’ve received and would pass on to prospective fathers. All the frustrations and grievances of work and driving through traffic must disappear without a trace the moment one walks through that door; and whoever said that children are their own reward, probably never had any. There is every chance that the kids will be full of sweetness and delight, and hugs and kisses when you come home-but there is an equal chance that they will be beating each other up or having a tantrum, or have already written their name with poo on the walls.
What it means to be a father, as well as fathers themselves, will adapt and evolve, because there will always be good fathers and bad ones, but no right or wrong ones. We’re all making it up as we go along.
Fatherhood is hard work, physically and emotionally. But most of all, it’s a time-suck. I don’t mind saying this because most of the hobbies I enjoy-like hi-fi or photography or collecting fountain pens-are a time-suck, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable. More than money, what children demand from you is time: lots of it, and not at your convenience. It’s usually just when you’ve taken an Ambien that someone catapults off the chandelier and needs to be driven to the emergency room. Or you’ve just dropped the needle on a new 180-gram vinyl, when a favorite stuffed rabbit goes missing and must be found (and it turns out that it’s just a game-the rabbit was in the microwave all along). For most fathers, I know that their deepest fantasies are not of steamy nights with lissome seductresses-they dream of a long weekend in a very quiet place with a damp towel over one’s forehead, and uninterrupted sleep.
But the good news about it being a time-suck is that you can’t make more money than you do, but you can always make more time. The two, admittedly, are interrelated: you’ll always feel you could be using this time to make more money; and if you’ve got money, you can always buy someone else’s time to take care of the squishy drudge bits of raising children, or even more. And guess what? These children of parents who choose to delegate turn out perfectly fine, and love their parents as much as the ones who take on every role themselves. There is no surefire formula to ensure that your children are close to you or not, hold you in high regard, don’t marry losers, and turn out to be stable and upstanding members of society.
We’ve entered an awkward, in-between stage for fatherhood. Stay-at-home dads don’t fit into their roles very well, and they feel emasculated and frustrated, partly because they’re still a minority in a patriarchal world, but also because the new roles have simply turned the old ones upside-down: women put on tailored suits and pants and go to work like men, and men try to be mothers. There is still so much work to be done, and I don’t know what it will look like, but one day, both fathers and mothers will be able to balance work and parenting in a way that is equal and comes naturally.
This fluidity and redefinition of roles becomes even more important now that the civilized world is recognizing same-sex marriages; and within a generation or two, it will become normal to ask whether your parents are of the same or different gender. Gay and lesbian couples might choose to adopt heteronormative roles, one partner being “father” and the other being “mother”; or they might choose not to. And the children will turn out differently, and that’s alright, because children have been turning out differently with every step-change in society’s norms and practices.
What it means to be a father, as well as fathers themselves, will adapt and evolve, because there will always be good fathers and bad ones, but no right or wrong ones. We’re all making it up as we go along. No one is as good a father as they thought they would be, but no one is as bad as they fear they are. Fatherhood feels like a job, and demands one’s time like a job, and competes for your attention like a job. But work just gets you a pile of money, or maybe not; while the other has no quantifiable returns. And that’s the beauty of it.
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue. Clinton Palanca is the father of six-year-old Lucy and one-year-old William, and husband to Lourdes.