The punchline of Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’ Father’s Day joke is the reason he doesn’t want a gift for the occasion: he can’t bear to see any more of his money spent. As a husband and father, his purpose—he explains, sardonically—often seems little more than to function as a walking ATM. The perfect gift, then, would be a day of no withdrawals.
If one stereotype of man that has persevered through the ages has been as provider—from he who brings home the kill, to he who resignedly finances Disney cruises—how does society typecast the man who, for many possible reasons, forsakes the role of provider for that of caregiver as a stay-at-home dad?
Arguably, he exists in greater numbers today than ever before. But, I suspect most, if they’re honest, will speak of a period of struggling, principally for validation, before coming to embrace the role of primary caregiver. Many may still be struggling. Despite increased support for those who take this path, this role remains a uniquely trying experience for men, even in our more liberated generation. Lurking behind corners are those cutting questions that plague many men: did you not have what it takes to be a provider, to have a real career? Raising kids is for women; what are you? Did you fail at whatever it was you were supposed to be doing and, therefore, turn to being a stay-at-home dad as a consolation?
I have struggled with each of these questions during my time at home with my sons.
Raise these boys, Doug. That is what you are supposed to be doing. That is the most important job you can have right now.
I was so low then that I saw this only as paid lip service.
I understood, in theory, the truths the therapist spoke to me, but in reality, they weren’t enough. I was caught in a loop of toxic thought conditioning me to believe there was some other vocation out there far more important than being a dad, though one never managed to reveal itself to me. It was maddening, and it caused me to do everything else in my life poorly.
And then something changed.
Perhaps I needed to experience the full weight of the job’s responsibility, to be pushed to the breaking point—and sometimes beyond—by its rigors. Only then was I able to internalize properly the ludicrousness of the claim that full-time parenting isn’t ‘real’ work. This pervasive theory was propped up more than anything else by the flimsy logic that ‘real’ work is only identified by monetary compensation. I started to reject that logic and take real pride in what I could accept as legitimate—my work as a stay-at-home dad.
Along the way, I gained insight into the strength and resolve of generation after generation of strong women who have borne this weight, often toiling in solitude and in deplorable conditions, both physically and psychologically, for the cause—in its most righteous form—of civilization’s enduring forward march. If I were to run away from the job, refused to get my hands dirty in its inner workings, fled to the relative safety and predictability of a 9 to 5, what would that say about me when no one else was watching? What kind of statement would that make about my true strength?
Standing at such a threshold, many men turn back. Some literally, some figuratively. I somehow managed to emerge from my existential crisis over vocation with a fresh determination and a willingness to cross over.
Read any article in the popular press on the subject, and a central belief on modern fathering emerges almost every time: the best thing a man can give to his kid(s) is his time. The wounds of absenteeism are damaging. Just spending time with our kids—sometimes enjoyably, other times overwhelmed by frustration or drowning in boredom—is the essence of helping our children be happy and successful, we are told. Somehow this helps them steer through their childhoods with confidence, pluck, and verve. It gives them just enough armor to protect against life’s hurts, and the inevitable bumps and bruises they endure.
My sons and I have marked the time, literally, over this past year by running 5K races together.
For now, it definitely feels like an act of pushing the plow, as my boys are still quite young, and running 3.1 miles in one shot is a tall order. Often, they don’t want to do it (and I don’t blame them); often, they whine and complain for the entire time (which drives me crazy). But, we have several races in the books now, and I have kept records of all their times. When we review this data, peeled off my watch and written down on paper as we eat ice cream in our sweaty outfits, I can always count on the telltale signs of satisfaction and pride to replace the resistance and disinterest that was so prominent at the onset.
Many of our races are virtual, where we run at our leisure, in our own locale, on our own time. Our entry fees cover donations to selected charities as well as the chunky medal that comes in the mail. We upload our results online, joining a virtual community of people who are racing against us somewhere else in the country.
Medals, the tangible reward for completing an often-difficult undertaking, count for a lot when you’re just getting started as a competitive runner. On Sunday, my boys and I will do the “You’re My Hero” Father’s Day 5K, and I just received the medals for the race in the mail.
Still riffing on Father’s Day, Jim Jefferies considers the best gift he’s ever received: a misshapen ceramic coffee mug made for him by his 5-year-old son. The punch line: It didn’t cost him a thing. In the same way, the “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt, the monogrammed beer stein, and the BBQ grill toolkit epitomize the stock Father’s Day gift, the “You’re My Hero!” 5K medal could easily be seen as a clanging trinket devoid of any real meaning.
But when I put mine on, after hanging one on each of my sons, I know I will feel its weight of significance. Precisely because I put the time in.
Guest Author: Doug Yates
Doug Yates lives in Mount Pleasant, SC, and strives to recount the most salient (as well as a few of the mundane) narratives of his existence in his blog twelvemiledump.com. He has had almost every conceivable haircut over the course of his life, including a mullet, and his kids are still young enough not to be embarrassed by his quirkiness. Secretly, he has always wanted to be a famous rock guitarist and has just started taking lessons, putting all his faith in the old saying, “It’s never too late to make your dreams come true.”