Engaged Fatherhood

Engaged fatherhood is as unique as each father, each relationship, each family. For me, some principles that come up again and again when I try to describe engaged fatherhood are:

full participation
equal partnership
compassion
intention

What does engaged fatherhood mean to you? What have you seen or experienced? What would you like to see, what do you envision? Is it a set of values, or a quality of interaction? Is it an action, or feeling? Your stories and ideas are key to nudging the cultural shift. Please share!

PS: This exploration of engaged fatherhood transcends romantic partnership between parents. In other words, fathers can (and in many cases should) still be positively engaged whether or not both parents are romantically involved. It is sensitive, and so important. Thoughts?

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22 thoughts on “Engaged Fatherhood

  1. For me, engaged fatherhood entails embracing parenthood’s vast capacity for personal transformation. It means answering fatherhood’s call to fulfill our potential as human beings, partners, and parents.

  2. To me, it means having a husband who is not just the babysitter, but an active parent. He isn’t there just to change diapers, but to raise our baby as an true partner. Although he can’t do a lot of the parenting while she’s still so little, it means supporting me in multiple ways, whether that means supporting me in breastfeeding, making sure I’m well-rested, making yummy meals, or just to tell me I’m doing a good job. He’s not afraid to take care of her when I’m not there, and is looking forward to being involved in her life. I couldn’t ask for more!

  3. Engaged fathers to me translates as a man developing his child in his image while allowing them to also grow up and learn themselves. This simply means teaching this child the things he knows so the child can be equipped for his/her future. At the same time a father leaves those painful moments for them to figure life out on their own, and allow their character to come into being.

    An engaged father is there when he’s there and he is there even when he is not there – footprints in the sand.

  4. To me, a really important part of engaged fatherhood (parenthood) is valuing children for who they are, rather than as a means to personal validation or invalidation. Getting to know your children as people, at all ages, and cherishing opportunities to care for them and provide for them teaches them that they matter in the world and that they are loved- and humans can overcome a lot when we know we are loved. A father/parent who is wrapped up in how his children reflect on him, or who is concerned with “being a good dad” only when it earns him credit with other adults, or who sees fit to treat his children as subordinates or worse in order to feel powerful, is only self involved (and is abusing his role). Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that sometimes a father does not find the time, or is not brave enough to ask his son [children] what it is that they need from him, in order to feel loved and understood, but that it is very important to ask this question of everyone we love.

    Also, compassion is a very good word for what engaged parenthood requires, and altruism; but not self-sacrifice. Involved/engaged fathers are examples to their children and communicate to them that they are glad to be their fathers. They model love, responsibility, compassion and enjoyment of life- They do not preach from on high about ideals and standards that they can’t model themselves, and/or count their children among life’s burdens.

    I appreciate your PS, Janine. As a child of divorce, I strongly agree that, while a key component to being an engaged father in a stable single-household family is a commitment to being a generous and supportive romantic partner to the child’s mother- the relationships should absolutely be separate. Too often, children are subjected to a lot of emotional pain and turmoil when, for example, a father who is angry with a child’s mother, directs that frustration at the child; or a child is put in a position to take one parent’s lack of respect for the other personally, or as an example… Single parents or step-parents are equally responsible as primary role models, support people and sources of love and comfort to their children.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Nelle! And for being so open about your personal experience. The wisdom and insights you share shine through. I love how parenthood gives us the opportunity to create and recreate in every moment the reality we would like for our little ones (especially as it relates and contrasts with our own childhoods).

  5. To me its just doing the best job you can do. Its asking others father who are doing it for advice.Its giving advice when asked. Its challenging personal and societal norms/pressures/stereotypes. Its knowing that the little one staring up at you chose you and only you to guide them through this life, and they will not judge you. They only want to love, and want to love you. The idea of just telling the story of an engaged fathers will soon replace the experience i’ve had where 9 out of 10 brothers I know or grew up with either never knew their dad or had a horrible relationship with them. Thanks for being you Janine. One love!
    -Rob

    • Robert, this is beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing. I do hope our little ones have a different fatherhood experience, and their little ones, and their’s. Children, fathers, mothers… all of us benefit so much. The exciting part is that it’s so clear that it has already begun. 🙂 Keep shining.

  6. There is so much to say here, as my husband is considered the “primary care-giver.” He has stayed at home with our children as I have continued my work outside the home as an educator. Being an engaged father for our family is simply being an engaged parent. While it can be heartbreaking to leave the kids each day (it’s a little easier now that our oldest is in school- we’re both going off to big adventures every day!) I am totally peaceful knowing our children are with someone who sees them for who they are, encourages them to grow, and to see the world in all of it’s beautiful complexity. A concrete example happened after our little guy was born seven months ago. My husband couldn’t wait for our son to be a month old because this meant he could give him pumped milk in a bottle. For my husband, feeding our children is a huge symbol of all that a parent does. It’s an important part of his developing relationship with his children to be able to hold them close and feed them. So even while I was on maternity leave, I pumped at least once a day so Jake could feed our boy.

    I went back to work a few weeks ago and it wasn’t as hard this time. Our girl, now three, is thriving. My boy and Jake are growing closer every day and they both have huge smiles when S and I come home at the end of the day. Our family is cohesive and whole. I’m present for my children when I’m home, and when I’m not they have a loving, funny, nurturing dad. This all seems normal to me, though, because I was lucky enough to have a dad like that. While things weren’t perfect, my dad was definitely my go-to support as I grew up. It was easy for me to accept a partner who had these same goals because it just felt normal. My dad’s father wasn’t like that though, so he was the true pioneer in our family. It goes to show just how much can change in a generation. It’s definitely a challenge though. We live in a town where there are so many different kinds of families- that’s part of the reason we moved here. But the “stay-at-home dad” is still a huge minority. We often find that even though Jake is home more, when we are talking about our children with other people (teachers, doctors, even friends) they will speak directly to me, which reveals that subtle reinforcement of traditional gender roles. I am so glad you are taking on the challenge of changing the image of fatherhood out there- it definitely needs to be done. I can’t tell you the number of conversations Jake and I have had about the absence of dads in children’s literature. And your artwork is stunning- no doubt it will touch hearts, minds, and souls.

    I might have more to come soon…I asked Jake to share some perspective and he’s working on it 🙂

    • Emily, thanks for all the time and care you gave to this response. It really reminds me of how unique everyone’s situation is, but how some themes continue to ring true. So beautiful! Much love.
      PS: So great! I hope Jake gets a chance to share his thoughts, too!

  7. Being an engaged father is one of the easiest and hardest things for me. It’s easy because I always wanted to be a father, I love being around kids and their exuberant energy, and I feel lucky all the time to have the greatest kid in the world.

    At the same time, it’s a daunting aspiration, right on par with some of the biggest challenges in life—like how to be my best self, how to be a loving human being, how to create and sustain intimate relationships, and how to make a meaningful contribution to the world—things I’ve far from mastered.

    Engaged fatherhood involves ongoing commitment and connection. The commitment is both daily and long-term—to make your kid(s) the center of your life and the priority for your time and attention. The connection part is even more immediate—to learn and remember how to be fully present in the moment and emotionally available during the mundane, fun and difficult times.

    I try not to get too hung up on whether or not I’m doing everything right for my son, since that would surely bring me down.

    The basic things I try and remember are:
    Have I told him today how much I love him?
    And how wonderful he is?
    And how happy I am to be his Daddy?
    Have we spent some quality time together where I’ve been fully present?
    Have I given him plenty of physical affection?
    Have we played together and laughed or danced ourselves silly?

    The way we are socialized, fathers sometimes get caught up into thinking that it’s all about the “doing” or fixing things to make it right. But I think parenting is more about the “being.” Being present. Being loving. Being thoughtful. Being connected.

    Even though my son is now a big 7-year old, I try to make it a daily habit to still get down on the floor with him, just to play or to talk. It instantly changes my perspective and reminds me how to be fully immersed in his world as a kid—and my world as a parent—and to feel the simple wonder and deep gratitude of our being together.

    — Terry Keleher

  8. Well my five siblings and I were raised by our single father. He didn’t have help or support from our mother. He had to be the mom and the dad in one. You could catch him cooking, cleaning, teaching, everything. He brushed our hair; he made us stand in time-out when we acted up. His love and his care for us had no limits. He made sure he provided so we could have food on the table.

    My father was caring and loving. The disciplinarian and the nurturer. And that’s what I think engaged fathering looks like. My father was an active participant in all of our development: social, moral, intellectual, or personal. He did whatever he could to maximize our potentials.

  9. to me engaged fatherhood is complete and unconditional love for you child. equal partnership and support for the child and mother (regardless of father and mother relationship). thinking of more than just the immediate–imagining the future for and with the child. it’s when my partner is holding our baby, and i can hear him whispering words of love and compassion softly into his ears.

    also, watching my father’s relationship with his new grandson has made me realize what a loving and caring, though at times overprotective, father he was to me and my siblings. his love for my son is so strong and overwhelming, just imagine how he was with his own newborn babies.

    this is as much as my sleep deprived brain can muster right now. but i sit here typing this as my partner tries to get our babe to sleep, holding him his arms, rocking back and forth. after another long day of baby-care and work, i look at them and know that this father loves his son, even with that dazed sleep-deprived look in father’s eyes. and just knowing his babe spits up, the sweet fatherly voice of concern fills the house. to me this is what defines engaged fatherhood.

    • Hatty, you paint such a loving picture of fatherhood, and between the lines is a story about your partnership. Sending wishes for lots of laughter and rest (even if the rest takes a while)!

  10. Janine – thaks for this opportunity. It is an interesting question for me – now as grandmother and great aunt! My own Father was engaged – totally committed to his three girls – despite a dificult and conflictual relationship with my Mother. My love for him was founded on his unconditional support for us in whatever we chose – even though this posed battle with my Mother at times. He talked -he prodded -he probed- he philosophized and then said – you will know what is best for you. This support built self esteem and confidence and the happiness that is known when you are truly loved…..these are gifts I thank my father for every day of my life. I most appreciate that it would have been less difficult for him to be passive and just agree with my Mother (they never mastered any level of compromise), but his insistence on Being There allowed us to have the best of both our parents. I see these qualities in my husband as he fathers five adults and six grandchildren — the kids don’t always feel like they get all they want from him, but they do know they get what they need and that they are loved and valued.

  11. Engaged fatherhood is the hardest and simplest thing at the same time. It’s recognizing you can have all of the answers and none of the answers at the same time. It’s sensitivity and territorial protection. It’s, if your fortunate, loving and being engaged with your partner as much as with your child. Engaged fatherhood is not an act, it’s your child’s example. It is emotional intelligence, advanced education, and Sesame Street all at the same time. It is the opportunity to be your child’s superhero. It’s being physically and emotionally present at all times. It is the purest love and the most unselfish thing you will do in your life. And if you do it right, it will be positively replicated.

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