Paternal Parenting: Mentoring counters media messages on fathering
"The idea of spending more time with your baby is discouraged, and looked down upon as not man enough," he says. "(Guys tell me) 'Everyone's telling me I'm less of a man as a result of this, but it feels right, so I'm confused about it.'"
The Good Men Project, which went from a book, to a film to an online conversation about manhood, combats that confusion by "challenging confining cultural notions of what a 'real man' must be," according to the website.
Articles on everything from sports, politics and religion to parenting, sex and aging attempt to shatter stereotypes that men are uninterested fathers or paycheck-driven robots.
"The average guy really wants to do the right thing," says founder Tom Matlack. "He increasingly wants to be a very involved father, wants to find a way to have real intimacy with (his) partner, is trying to figure out how to balance work and family — very much like women have been struggling with for the last 50 years. In a way, it's like feminism on its head."
A few times a month, a handful of men from Jervis Lee's church in Kearns, Utah, go fishing, camping, maybe watch a movie. They're even forming a bowling league.
It's a chance for Lee to be around other fathers who are also trying to make sense of toddler tantrums or teenage rebellion. They swap stories and encourage each other before heading home, refueled.
"We've been taught that asking another man is a sign of weakness and we've been taught not to be weak," says Jervis, a father of eight. "Realize you're human and you're going to make mistakes, and it's OK to ask for help."
For Jervis, who grew up without his father in Bassett, Virginia, help came from uncles, friends and other male role models. Now that he's older, he's reconnected with his father and developed close ties with men in his church and community.
"Society can't teach men how to be men," he says. "Only men can teach men to be men."
While society may criticize fathers for failing to live up to expectations, many of them have no idea where to begin. Experts and advocates say crucial instruction can come through the simple act of talking with, and learning from, other fathers.
"The way we socialize men into becoming responsible fathers is critical," says Sean Brotherson, a professor and extension family science specialist at North Dakota State University and co-editor of the book, "Why Fathers Count: The Importance of Fathers and Their Involvement with Children." "We want to provide fathers with meaningful role models (that teach them) the possibilities and power that come from being involved as a caring father."
Young boys, unlike girls, rarely get to babysit or care for children, thus when they become fathers they feel inadequate and underprepared, laments Marti Erickson, a developmental psychologist and former director of the Children Youth and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota.
Seeing that, mothers — who act as gatekeepers to protect their children — often criticize or take over, pushing the father out of the process and making him feel even more inadequate, Erickson says.
At Alpha Center, a pregnancy resource center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, new fathers learn how to change a diaper and soothe a crying baby, plus the dangers of shaken baby syndrome and what a safe carseat looks like.
But even better than the life skills courses are the one-on-one mentoring sessions between new fathers and fathers in the community, says Leslee Unruh, Alpha Center founder and president.
"So many of them don't know the first thing about how to be a dad, and they want to be," she says. "If they're given the opportunity and someone comes along side of them, they are up for it."
Mentored fathers are so eager to come back and share what they've learned that there's currently a mentor waiting list, Unruh says.
Vance Simms has seen that hunger to connect with other fathers during his free six-hour "Fathers Mentoring Fathers" workshops in Phoenix.
"We gather for sporting events we don't gather together to share our hearts, men don't do that" says Simms, executive director of the non-profit Father Matters. "But when you set up an environment to do that, you get grown men crying, hugging, exchanging phone numbers."
Support and mentoring groups like this could happen more often, Simms says, because they're easy to set up. But it's up to men to make the decision to come. To change.
"There are men that show up and might have four kids, but that doesn't mean he knows how to father," Simms says. "The goal is to take (him) from where (he is) to where (he) wants to be."
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