An Old Guy Reflects on Changing Dad Roles

The generally accepted dad style has changed a lot during my lifetime. I’ve witnessed a steady change, an evolution towards a different kind of fatherhood parenting. And I think the new way is a lot better, for reasons that might surprise you. Not just because dads that I see are sharing more of the load than dads (including me) used to, which seems better and fairer; but also because (hear me out on this one) I think it’s better for the dads and — of course — the kids.

And this post is going to be personal. Fair warning given.

Born in 1948, I grew up in the 1950s world that television stylized by inventing the "housewife," who could be made deliriously happy by clothes coming out of a washing machine whiter than white. She wore poodle skirts and high heels while cheerily doing dishes. She was there to meet the kids coming home from school.

My parents both respected the 1950s concept of the breadwinner. What that meant, to give you a specific example, was that when dinner ended the mom and (in our house) four kids stayed in the kitchen to clear the table and do the dishes. There were four of us kids, three boys and a girl, and our mom divided the chores among us as much as she could.

Our 1950s dad was an active dad, a loving dad, the best there was. He’s 88 now, still a man I admire very much, and a role model of the professional (he was an MD until he retired) who is also a father. He was involved in all the key decisions. He was home on weekends, and he pulled us into his favorite activities, including a lot of active sports, a lot of spectator sports and (we always hated it) long sunny weekends outside doing the garden. We planted trees. We watered. Dad was usually there, rarely just supervising; and he never supervised while staying inside watching TV. If he wasn’t there with the yard work, he was working. He took us to football games, basketball games, and baseball games. He even took us to the 1962 World Series. He taught us to play football and basketball and baseball too, and coached the little league baseball team.

But, even as  medical doctor, meaning he knew where things were and how things worked, my 1950s dad as I knew him was not a dad who would change diapers, or drive a kid to baseball practice during the work day, or attend a parent-teacher conference that wasn’t vital, like when one of us was in serious trouble and the school demanded both parents (happened rarely, but happened). I was the second, just 17 months younger than the oldest so maybe he did that in the beginning but not with the younger ones, who came six and 10 years after me. And he never cooked, and he never did the dishes, and he didn’t help with the housework.

He was the breadwinner. Our mom made that position clear.

Fast forward a generation, to dadding (daddom? fatherhood is so stilted) in the 1970s.

I was a foreign correspondent in Mexico City in my 20s when we had three kids quickly, from July of ’72 to October of ’75. I like to think (memories are deceptive, and my picture, frankly, is different from my wife’s) I was a pretty good 1970s dad. When we had three little ones running around, I remember giving people bottles and changing diapers. But my wife remembers doing that pretty much all by herself, maybe with a lot of help from her mother (one of my all-time favorite people).

And how do I reconcile my memory with hers (we are still married, by the way, all these years later)? I go to the facts: in those years I pretty much got up before dawn, ran, and drove to the office before 7 a.m. because traffic was so bad in Mexico City (or maybe because I like the early mornings, or perhaps to avoid the morning chaos of a house with three young kids, but I blamed it on traffic). And I rarely got home before 8 p.m. (traffic was really bad between 4 and 7 p.m.). And I worked a lot of weekends, doing freelance stories for different publications, even writing travel brochures for the Mexican government (we were always broke). So I guess my memories of being an active dad in Mexico City were for the two and maybe three weekends that I was with the family all day Saturday and Sunday. Which would make my wife’s memories (she uses the "I" word a lot in the context of raising kids) more accurate than mine.

But then let’s fast forward again — I think this makes it more interesting — but this time only half a generation. Our fourth was born in 1982, after we had moved back from Mexico to the United States, and after I’d gone back to school for two years to get the MBA degree. And our fifth was born in 1987. We had just cashed out on my founders equity in Borland International, so for once we weren’t broke (although that didn’t last long, as Palo Alto Software started to suck up our assets, but that’s a different post).

And then, in the 1980s, I discovered what I’d been missing. I was home a lot more. I ran my consulting business (which became Palo Alto Software later) out of a home office from 1983 to 1987. I took care of our toddler daughter (not by any means the primary — my wife would kill me — but way more than I had in the 1970s when the first group of three were little. My wife’s mother was in Mexico City, we were in the U.S., so she couldn’t take up the slack I left, the way she always had. And with four and then five kids, my wife had an enormous job, which meant that like it or not, custom or not, I became way more active than I’d been 10 years earlier.

And with that I discovered what I’d been missing. I gave the 2 a.m. bottle to our fourth almost every night for more than a year. I got involved with bathing and feeding and all of that. I was almost always back-up, my wife still did the real work, but I was a lot more there. And I discovered that when dads put in quantity time with kids, they get way more back than what they put in. Over time, it became clear to me that I had missed so much with the first three that I was grateful that I had a chance to catch on for the last two. Because it’s been my experience that the biggest winner in my sudden increase in dad involvement was me. The dad.

I think before I go on I should set the record straight. I wasn’t, even in my reformed dad self of the 1980s and 1990s, like the more involved dads of today. I was still pretty much focused on work — we raised those kids with my consulting income, I was nobody’s employee, so there was a lot of pressure. And my wife cooperated to make sure that when work was needed, I was free to stay focused on work. I traveled a lot in Latin America while consulting for Apple Latin America, and got over to the Far East for several computer companies. At one stretch of four years I spent one week per month in Tokyo. And my wife, rather than insisting on full half and half participation or anything like that, kept my world clear for the work that I had to do. She still gets to say "I" when she talks about raising kids.

Still, I also coached the kids’ soccer for about eight straight years, and I made a lot of parent teacher conferences, and I was there a lot more. And nobody gained as much as I did.

Fast forward again. To today.

I’m watching it today with another generation. Having three children born between ’72 and ’75, if you do the math, it’s not surprising that we now have grandchildren: five of them, the oldest is four years old. And their dads seem to be far more involved with them than I was even with those more recent ones. And I, meanwhile, am seeing again, with a new generation, that the more quantity time these dads get with these kids, the better off they are.

It’s not just a matter of sharing the work. The more they do of that work, the better off they are. Strange math — the more you give, the more you have — but I think that’s what I’ve seen in evolving dad styles over three generations.

4 thoughts on “An Old Guy Reflects on Changing Dad Roles

  1. Thanks for the personal post Tim. I'd like to hear more about what you see as the benefits you mentioned above are for the father.

    Also, while this was a personal post, I think that there is an important link to business and planning.

    There is an excellent book on the changing nature of families in (North) America by Robert Boutilier: Targeting Families: Marketing to and Through the New Family. Boutilier outlines how the traditional family with the bread-winner father and the stay-at-home mother is now a demographic minority. Neo-traditional families with multiple bread-winners are a fast growing segment.

    That's why it amazes me that so many business and social structures are still organized to serve the needs of a shrinking population. Frankly its not enough just to put baby change stations in the men's room, if you take my meaning.

    I hope you continue to pursue this thread and wait to read the next post on the subject.

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for the insightful post. I was one of the kids who grew up when the earliest parenting model you described was still intact. I never quite understood why my dad was constantly working. In fact, he was so busy that I never got to know him until he retired. Now that he has some time, we're forging a brand new relationship. I think that missing out on getting to know one another earlier in life was the biggest cost of the one-parent model. IMHO, it's also the biggest potential benefit of the two-parent model.

    Drea

  3. Thanks Matthew, Drea and Oliver for the comments.

    Oliver, the question of the hour, the benefits to the father, that's a key question, but hard to answer without behind what my grown-up kids would call "cheesy." And hard to answer means its a better question, more important, not less.

    I think it's about more understanding of and deeper and tighter connection with your own children. Raising your children is probably the most important thing you do, the real legacy of humanity. Works notwithstanding, what you really pass on as you live is the love you leave behind you.

    Or something like that; it's hard to blog about this stuff, it's too close to the core. But I didn't want to leave that question unanswered. Tim

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