Why I want my son, and all boys, to play with dolls

Boys and dolls ... more important than you think.
Boys and dolls ... more important than you think. Photo: Getty

Shortly after the birth of my third child, I was walking through Washington, D.C. My wife and I were pushing our newborn in a stroller. My two-year-old daughter was pushing her baby doll in a stroller.

So was my four-year-old son.

Within a few minutes, we were verbally accosted by a mum who was taking her two small children from the car to her house. How old was our son, she demanded. Why was he pushing a stroller?

My wife - a few days home from the hospital - held herself together well enough to respond that he was taking care of his baby, just like his daddy.

"It's just so gay," she said, noting he should be playing with trucks.

Admittedly, reactions like this are unusual. But it speaks to a larger problem - as a society, we do not equip men to make the successful transition to parenthood. Fathers from the United States - and throughout the world - feel that they do not have the information they need to prepare them for fatherhood. Many new and expectant fathers describe a frustration at the lack of inclusion, involvement, and information.

That deficit has consequences. Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of the $2 billion PIMCO Investment Fund, recently explained that he quit his job after his 10-year-old daughter gave him a list of 22 milestones he had missed in her young life. Reflecting on the choice, he said his "need to be a good father" was greater than his "desire to be a good investor."

And it's not just true of investment bankers, it's true of doctors and lawyers, architects and scientists. When men who excel in their careers become new fathers they face a contrast between their work life where they know exactly what success looks like, and their home life where they face an unclear role and limited information.

When my wife was pregnant with our first son, I made a point of attending every prenatal appointment. I even attended a breastfeeding class. I was the only male there. The clear message from the instructor was - you are invited, but this is not for you. You are the secondary parent.

During that first pregnancy, my wife joined an elite sisterhood where she was offered advice on everything from strollers to daycare, and breast pumps to diapers. There were baby showers, childbirth classes, even celebratory dinners.

As an expectant father, I was offered congratulations and well wishes, but when I searched for information I found a bounty of resources for new mums and very few for new dads.

This month, the Moms section of Huffington Post has over 130 articles while the Dads section has less than 30. Parents magazine has a "Just for Moms" section on their main page but no mention of Dad at all. And the leading parenting books like "What to Expect When You're Expecting," have a clear focus on preparing mums not dads.

The explanation researchers offer for this imbalance is the lack of a clear role for fathers in pregnancy, birth, and the health-care system.

There are promising US government programs to recognise good dads and promote fatherhood. The federal Fatherhood.gov effort provides helpful resources to dads and fatherhood programs. The New York Mayor's Fatherhood Initiative recently awarded their fourth annual NYC DADS Matter Awards to 10 men who have "overcome obstacles and become great dads."

But these programs are really focused on triage where fatherhood is hard, not raising the quality of fatherhood across the nation.

It starts at the very beginning. According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is the only developed country not to guarantee paid maternity leave. While paid paternity leave is somewhat less common worldwide, almost two-thirds of the developed nations studied offer some form of paid leave to fathers. If we don't give our mums - and dads - time to connect with their baby and work out how to parent well, we should not be surprised when they face struggles.

Men have a responsibility, too. We need to talk to our sons about being good dads. Just like forming a good baseball player begins with catch in the backyard, forming good dads must start early in life. The Census tells us that 24 million children live in homes without their biological father. But limited engagement by fathers affects even more children. When we start by telling dads their role is secondary and provide few social supports to prepare them to succeed, it's easier for them to go than stay. It's even easier for new dads to throw themselves into their work and forget the positive influence they can have on the future of their children.

I am intentional in teaching my oldest son to care for his siblings. I purchased him that baby doll to help him prepare to be a good big brother, and eventually a good father. I turned down a dream job because it would have meant less flexibility to spend time with my kids and no parental leave when my daughter was born. Almost every Friday morning, I take my son to breakfast to have focused time together. "Daddy-Sammy" time was a phrase he knew when his vocabulary could be counted on two hands. And now, I make dedicated time with each of my kids a top priority.

My parenting style is a learned behavior. Research shows that role models and social networks are critical to increasing the success of dads. Dads need to talk to other men about the struggles and triumphs of fatherhood. We need to take other men along with us when we're spending time with junior. They need to see the spit up, diaper changes and tantrums, before they experience them in their own children.

And of course women have a role. I know many mums that yearn to have husbands who are full partners in raising their children. But they need to be willing to engage with their partners as equals and push against the notion of dads as "secondary parents."

We need dads who will step up and embrace true manhood. And some days, that starts with little boys pushing pink strollers down the street.

Peter Morris is a senior adviser at the National Congress of American Indians and a participant in the Center for Global Policy Solutions Public Voices Greenhouse through The OpEd Project.

Washington Post

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