One of the things I remember most about the day my son was born last October, was carrying him. A nurse handed him to me wrapped in a soft white blanket and told me I could take him to our room. I was wearing powder blue scrubs and one of those hairnet things they make you put on.
I remember taking really short steps down the hallway and whispering hellos to him because he seemed so peaceful and so delicate that normal volume was out of the question.
When we got back to the room it was just the two of us. The other three beds separated by curtains were empty. Except for the faint hum from the nurse’s station out in the hall, it was silent. I stood there with my son in my arms and stroked his cheek. I welcomed him to the world. I told him I loved him. I called him Mighty Mouse, the same nickname my dad called me when I was a kid. I started to cry.
It wasn’t the kind of uncontrollable sobbing where your shoulders pump up and down involuntarily. But I had to wipe away tears. It was the same when my daughter was born a few years ago.
I’ve never seen my father cry.
Like most men of his generation, my father mostly lived the stoic ideal. Fathers were the bread-winning providers, the rock against which the family could lean. If a kid needed a hug or to talk about feelings, well, that’s what mom was for.
It’s not as if my father is an emotionally closed-off man. But if I wanted to really make him squirm on Sunday, all I’d have to do is hug him and tell him how great a dad he is and always has been.
One of my friends recently confessed to me that when he was a teenager he secretly read his father’s journal in order to know who the man was. “He was just a complete mystery to me,” my friend said.
I suppose a lot of dads had similar relationships with their kids, too caught up in their roles as providers to stop to think about making themselves emotionally available. Many likely still do.
But over the last 20 years or so, as the definitions of what a dad is – and what a mom is, for that matter – have blurred, there has also been a corresponding change in fatherly emotion.
“I think men have always felt emotion and been emotional, but they haven’t had an outlet to express it,” says Andrea Doucet, who holds the Canada research chair in gender work and care at Brock University. “My father was a very emotional man but he relied on my mother to do all the emotion work, which I think that’s what has happened in generations past.”
Now that men take a more active role in caring for their children, however, “that allows themselves to acquire or express more emotional literacy,” Prof. Doucet says.
Of course, as anyone who has raised children knows, you don’t need an academic to tell you that it can make you a bit of a softie. A few weeks ago, my daughter jumped on my lap and said she wanted to hug her daddy forever. My heart nearly exploded. Lots of silly talk back and forth ensued. I’m pretty sure it ended in a tickle fight. Whenever my son coos at me I get warm fuzzies.
Kerry Daly, co-chair of the Father Involvement Research Alliance at the University of Guelph, has studied what having children brings out in men. A wide range of dads said in interviews that having children had a profound effect on their emotional lives.
“Some men talked about how it has really precipitated a re-evaluation of some of their emotions. For example, things like patience and attentiveness,” he says.
Many men, though, are still trying to figure out just what it means to be a father in the 21st century.
“Sometimes I think we still put out good mothering as the gold standard for good fathering,” he says.
As my kids get older, I will try to be emotionally open with them, although I’ll probably try to hide my disappointment when they reach the age past which there are no tickle fights.
There will surely be people who will bemoan the notion of dads being more emotionally available to their children. These are the people who see two boys hugging and think that soon enough all men will be carrying hankies around to daub their eyes with at the first sight of mewling kittens.
Maybe that is the way we’re heading.
“I don’t know what happens to men’s bodies after 40, but I cry at everything now,” another friend recently told me. He also said that any story about fathers and sons really turns on the taps for him.
But I don’t think it’s a bad thing that men are now more able to laugh with their children, to cry with their children, to develop a deeper sense of empathy from their children. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that children now have a more solid understanding of who their dads are without having to sneak into their journals or wait half a lifetime to find out.
Men of earlier generations didn’t have the luxury of spending much more time with their children – if a decade or more ago you told a new dad he should go on paternity leave he probably would have looked at you like you were speaking Martian. Which is a good reason – one of many – to do more this weekend than hand over some perfunctory gift along with a card that expresses only acceptable generic sentiments.
On Sunday, I’ll get my dad a card and a small gift. He usually just asks for a Tim Hortons’s gift certificate. But I will also hug him and thank him for being such a great dad, even if it does make him squirm like he’s covered in fire ants. He deserves it, and deep down, where he might not show it, I know he will love it.