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Good fathering is not good mothering

by Dear Jon
May 5, 2009

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Dear Jon,

When it comes to parenting, is it true that mothers are better at it than fathers?

Didn't Forget To Sign

Dear Sign,

That depends on the philosophy of life that the parent wants the children to follow. Mothers certainly have a reputation for being better at parenting, but in reality, mothers are only better at being mothers than fathers are at being mothers.

I am reminded of the wisdom that came out of the feminist movement: There were two kinds of people, women and human beings, and when women wanted to be treated like human beings, they were accused of wanting to be treated like men.

(Thank goodness all of THAT has been cleared up, to everyone's satisfaction. Now no one is treated like a human being anymore. Males are now expected to run amok as jerks--forget humanity-- while women, no longer having to deal with being offended by the courtesies of chivalry, are sexually demeaned in every form of entertainment media.)

My point is, that society seems to think there are two kinds of child-rearers in the world: Responsible Parents, and Dads. The more that Dads try to behave less like jerks and try to take responsibility, the more that they are expected to resemble Moms. There is no cultural model for responsible parenting that exists outside of motherhood. Yet many Dads quietly succeed at being good Dads, even when society's assumption is that being a Dad has nothing to do with being a parent.

Let us break this down into a matter of upbringing into a philosophy of life, as I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Dad's Philosophy: The only thing to fear is fear itself, because fear often causes a loss of dignity.

Mom's Philosophy: The only thing to fear is EVERYTHING: Strangers, germs, cold weather, wet weather, sunshine, unattended swimming pools, swimming pools attended by strangers who for all we know may have purchased their life-guard certificates through some mail-order internet fraud, moving cars, parked cars, stuff lying on the floor, unsecured shelves, sharp edges, blunt edges, anything that can fit into a mouth, living bugs, dead bugs, dirt, sand, grass, strange dogs, dogs on leashes being held by strangers, irresponsible friends, milk on its expiration date, any vessel someone else has taken a drink from first, rough-housing, big kids, sports that involve running into people, sports that involve running by yourself, sports that involve a ball of any kind, etc.

Dad's Philosophy: What don't kill ya, makes ya stronger.

Mom's Philosophy: There are so many TERRIBLE WAYS TO DIE!

Dad: Give me liberty (i.e. dignity) or give me death.

Mom: Learn to live with a broken heart; at least then you're alive.

Dad: A man's home is his castle.

Mom: Home is where the heart is--so please close the door; you're not living in a barn.

The difference between these two approaches to life, is that one tends to be more nurturing, and the other tends to be more in the vein of coaching. To nurture is to protect life in the midst of dangers and to provide safety and comfort. To coach is to prepare life to cope with dangers and to promote risk and confidence.

Which is better? Both are needful. Naturally, the infant will require nurture more than coaching, and the mother is uniquely equipped to nurture the baby in comfort and intimacy, which is something that fathers are not equipped to do. The baby ought not to be confused that Dad can provide something only Mom can.

(Those rubber shoulder-harnessed nipple bags for men reflect a sick need in a father not to be a father but a mother. They ought to be burned.)

Both philosophies can also lead to their own life-or soul-destroying extremes. Dad's philosophy about being tough or die can lead to the kind of story that Shel Silverstein writes in his poem "A Boy Named Sue" which Johnny Cash narrated to music for a hit. This is the extreme of abandonment. Mom's philosophy of fearing everything and cherishing absolute emotional and environmental safety can lead to the extreme of smothering, which destroys initiative and creates the opposite result; insecurity. This is sung about in a song by Pink Floyd that I hear occasionally on a Chicago-area classic rock station but whose title or composer I do not have the time to look up.

In my view, mothers and fathers can each do a lot of damage in the tendencies toward distance and abandonment on the one hand, and smothering and emotional manipulation on the other. Yet these sad and sick tendencies, although widely understood to be tragic, are also common enough to become grist for comedians and situation comedies.

There are two crimes that society regards with special horror: The mother who is distant and neglectful is seen as particularly monstrous. The father, on the other hand, who attempts to tie the emotional apron-strings into knots -- often by wielding economic clout over their growing child's choice of extra-curricular activity, college, fiance, and career path -- might not be guilty of crimes under the law but is seen as overbearing and tyrannical.

Yet we cherish good mothering, and honor it as we will this coming Sunday. The question is, do we know and trust what good fathering looks like? Good fathering is not good mothering.

The father takes off the training wheels and let's go his hand so that the kid on the bike can learn to ride free. What mother is ever really able to do that without some twinges: of fear first for the child's safety, and then of remorse when the child can ride all alone?

Aw Mom, that's why we love you.

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