What is a Father?
The documentary wishes to make clear that the role of the modern father is not defined. For previous generations the father role was perhaps a bit clearer. Fathers were seen as the breadwinners who worked tirelessly to provide for their children, and as a result, tended to spend less time with their children, leaving the care and nurturing of children primarily to the mothers. As SNL’s Kenan Thompson says, “It’s a societal thing that the dads are in the background.”
Similarly, Henry, a stay-at-home father of four who runs a vlog about being a stay-at-home dad, says that fatherhood has gone from providing, disciplining, and being present at holidays to being all the way involved. All the way, in Henry’s case, means being a full-time, stay-at-home dad. In between celebrity interviews, the documentary features six personal looks at fatherhood—and of these six stories, three of the men featured are stay-at-home dads. Given how fatherhood has traditionally been conceived, the stay-at-home father is a paradigm shift.
Of course, as many dads attest, there is still a strong sense of having the responsibility to provide that goes along with being a father. Duties like protecting and providing are crucial to the role of fatherhood. Ron Howard says that “at its best, a father provides a kind of consistent sense of safety, and therefore possibility”—the possibility for the child to flourish and become the best version of themselves.
At the same time, Ron Howard notes that he really felt like he was doing a man’s work when he was taking care of his wife and doing menial tasks around the house after the birth of their twins. Fathers are more than just providers, they can be nurturing caregivers—a role traditionally assumed by mothers.
The documentary invites us to consider by way of example, Thiago, who, though he is not a stay-at-home dad, makes a strong effort to be there for his children, to care for and nurture them. “It’s true,” says Thiago’s wife, “that a baby depends mostly on the mother in the early days, but who can the mother depend on?” A father is more than just a provider, “He creates together. He’s a caretaker.”
Highlighting the caregiving and nurturing responsibility of men alongside more traditional duties like providing and protecting is commendable. Each family will have to decide what is the best way to raise their children—who should be the main provider?, how much should they work?, etc. But whatever the case may be, the important thing for fathers is to be there for their kids, to be available to talk, and to be active in caring for and nurturing their children. As Howard sums up, fathers should provide a loving and safe environment while setting an example for their children to follow.
A Few Critiques and Questions
Dads, for all its good, is not without a number of things that Christians might take issue with. For starters, Dads includes examples of same-sex couples raising children. The showcase example is Rob and Reece Scheer, parents of four adopted children. Rob Scheer endured his own abusive upbringing to become a proud father and the founder of Comfort Cases, an organization dedicated to helping foster children.
The Scheers look to be excellent parents and very loving individuals. There is no reason to doubt this, and the work that they are doing to help other foster children is commendable. Even as we may disagree with same-sex marriage from a biblical viewpoint, we need not disparage anyone who is trying to provide a safe and loving environment for children.
However, Scheer’s story highlights a subtle undercurrent that seems to run throughout the documentary as a whole—the idea that men and women are basically the same. One father acknowledges that besides giving birth and breastfeeding, a father can do everything else a mother can. To that we can say, yes . . . and no. While men can and should do many of the things that have been traditionally assigned to women—such as being caretakers in the home, cooking meals, raising children, etc.—this does not mean that men and women are interchangeable.
Indeed, one wonders if gender stereotyping (i.e. “This is a man’s work, this is a woman’s work”) is part of what has fueled the idea that men and women are basically the same. After all, if the difference between men and women lies primarily in what they do, there’s little reason to think that they are not interchangeable.
Rob Scheer says that he is often asked who is the mother in their situation. In response, Scheer says, “We both partner. That’s what parents should be doing.” He has a good point. Parents are meant to work together at this thing. While God may gift men and women differently, it is not for men to offload the job of raising children on women, nor for women to leave breadwinning exclusively to men. Each couple will have to figure out how best to divide tasks so that both of them can love their children well and be involved in their lives.
Stay-at-home fathers are commendable people, as are the Scheers. And while fathers may be able to do a lot of the things that women can do, there is one thing they can’t do: a father cannot be a woman.
At its most basic level, in a parenting relationship, men and women simply bring different things to the table—beyond what they do. Men and women have differences on many levels, from the biological to the emotional and spiritual (and I don’t mean that women are more emotional/spiritual than men or that men are more intellectual than women).
Our male or female sex is among the most fundamental things about us. After God created Adam and Eve in his image, the first thing he says about them is that they are male and female. And what is the purpose for God making two different sexes? That’s a tough question, but a cursory look at the rest of Genesis 1-2 reveals that God is following a pattern: first he creates something, then he divides it, and finally he brings them back together in such a way that flourishing can happen. Light is divided from darkness, water from sky, land from water, man from woman. Unity in diversity, love in harmony, all working together to bring abundance out of God’s good creation.
As such, a man cannot replace a woman, nor a woman a man. Even in a home where one parent has to serve as both father and mother, it is obviously not the ideal state. Again, this is not to say that a single parent or a same-sex couple cannot raise a child. It is to say that there is no replacement for having a committed mother and father.
There’s a lot more that we could say about sex and gender, but maybe that’s a good place to start the conversation. We need to recognize and teach that the differences in the genders lie much deeper than stereotypical duties and behaviors (e.g. boys like blue, girls like pink; or men should work, women should cook). Even if we can observe behaviors generally common to men and behaviors generally common to women, the picture is much bigger than that. Our sex is something much more fundamental about how we were created. What exactly is that? Well, that would take another article (or more likely, several books). In the meantime, we should think and pray hard about it, talk about it, and look for bridges with those who disagree.
This is one of those moments where I look back at what I have written and wonder how I got here. I realize I haven’t really said anything much about some of the more traditional aspects of fatherhood (among which there are many, many commendable attributes), almost nothing about how to be a good father (because I’m not one), and absolutely nothing about mothers (because this is a piece about fathers). I guess, in the end, Dads left me feeling grateful for my own father, sad for those who don’t have a father in their life, and pondering God’s design in making men and women different.
So, I rejoice with Dads as it highlights committed fathers who provide loving, safe, and nurturing environments for their children, even as I want to question some of the assumptions that culture is making about sex and gender, relationships, and parenting.
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