by John Hoffman
You’re not supposed to think about work when you’re on holidays. But on my recent trip to Europe I couldn’t help it. I kept seeing soooo many great examples of hands-on fatherhood. I guess I kind of have an eye for that sort of thing.
Most of the dads and kids I observed were on holiday. But, as any dad or mom knows, when you holiday with kids, you’re still working as a parent. At times, you’re working pretty hard.
Both of my trans-Atlantic flights had babies and toddlers on board. And, as is often the case, the babies weren’t always happy. Trying to deal with a crying tot on a crowded airplane has got to be one of the toughest high-pressure situations for parents. Nowhere to take your baby. Scarcely any room to walk. And all these people watching – people who you just know are really hoping you can get your baby to be quiet. (Mind you, I have to say that I’ve never seen parents of crying babies getting nasty looks on airplanes).
The thing that struck me on this trip was how often I saw fathers doing that tough work. And they did it well, with grace, courage, dogged persistence and some obvious skill. You know, kind of like what we expect from a mother. That showed me that we really have made progress in the father involvement department. For 30 years I’ve been seeing guys walk their kids to school, take them shopping, wear their babies in carriers, push strollers, and, of course, play. But when the going got really tough, moms tended to take over.
That’s not what I saw this time. On the flight home, I watched with admiration as an African-American fellow, with many pairs of eyes watching, jiggled his crying baby ever so gently until she fell asleep. Later, when his little girl was rested and happier (it was a long flight), I watched him gently move her in a circle and talk to her softly. Actually, I could barely see the Dad at that point. He was sitting several rows in front. But his daughter was facing me. So I could see the way her wide eyes were locked on her dad’s face. And my heart melted every time she smiled at him.
I also remember another more classic Dad/kid scene. This was in Rossio Square in Lisbon. An English family was killing time – waiting for an airport bus or something like that. The dad had improvised a footy (soccer) game with his 3 year-old son, using a bottle cap for a ball. Good idea, because there wasn’t much for a preschooler to do in that situation except get cranky. What got me about this game was that the boy was really just starting to learn to coordinate a kicking motion. So he couldn’t really kick a tiny thing like a bottle cap. He missed more often than he made contact. And when he did hit the cap it only moved a few inches. But, still, his father found a way to make the game work. He’d nudge the cap into a position where the little guy was more likely to be able to make contact. And when the boy did manage to kick the bottle cap, Dad would do dramatic goalkeeper moves that made his son laugh. Dad, the entertainer! And the thing that really, really got me was how much fun this father was having. Just as much fun as his kid. You gotta love that stuff! That fun was giving both father and child positive energy that would help them get through a busy day of travel.
I’ve seen that kind of Dad/child play lots of times. And it always makes me happy. But seeing fathers do the grunt work, like comforting a squalling baby on a plane, makes me even happier in some ways. I came away with the sense that we really are making progress on the more equal parenting front. I have long believed in the ideal of more or less interchangeable mothers and fathers (except when it comes of child-bearing and breastfeeding). That ideal is not easy to achieve fully, partly because our social history of gender roles, which put the main responsibility for child care on moms.
But what I saw on my holiday opened my eyes to the possibility that we might be getting closer to equal parenting than I had thought.
Good work Dads!