On a recent sunny morning, I sat with hundreds of men and women at the Dads Count Fifth Annual Fatherhood Breakfast and Awards Ceremony.
The official honorees were local father-friendly businesses. But above all, this was a day for dads to take a bow.
There are sad exceptions of course, but this particular morning was devoted to decent, hard-working dads who care about their kids and want to spend time with them.
Some of my favorite people are dads. I don't need to be convinced that they count, but I was happy to be in attendance that morning. Dads are often the unsung heroes, parents cast in the supporting roles, while moms get center stage.
This is no surprise, since historically parenting has largely been the domain of women. More recently dads have been asked to get involved with the kids. It is unfamiliar terrain for some, seeing as the rules and expectations are most often established by women.
On top of this, we often give a confusing message to men. We ask dads to be involved, but don't always give them permission to be themselves. The Dads Count breakfast was a reminder that kids do best when they get the unique style each parent has to offer.
Dads need to know they count even if they give the kids hotdogs for lunch — and dinner — instead of the menu mom suggested. They count even when they take the kids out in the morning still wearing their jammies, and give up on French braids altogether. Kids need a father's playfulness and even his rough edges as well as his strength.
In my opinion, dads deserve all the support and encouragement we can give them. Marriages might end, but parenting does not have to follow. I can only speak from my limited perspective, but I see men all around who are quietly and selflessly working to give all they can to their families. I don't hear them asking for recognition. For many, being a dad is its own reward, its own joy.
I don't even know if they stop to think about how hard they are working or how much they are giving. As far as I can tell, the thanks these dads are looking for is their families' happiness. Dads seldom seem to count the personal cost of all they do.
It's easy to lose sight of this and then get upset about style differences. Or forget that men have a distinct and important contribution to make, even if we don't understand their methods at the time.
I remember one such time. It was another sunny morning. This time in my kitchen. Instead of accolades along with the eggs and toast, I was dishing out a whopper of a lecture to one of our kids. I have no memory of what it was about. Probably his room was a mess — a sure sign of his impending doom. I went on and on.
As I read Neil the riot act, his dad sat reading the sports page. Eventually I ran out of steam. I paused waiting to hear what my husband would say. Looking up from his paper, he looked at me, then at Neil. "So, Neil .... Did you know that the Stanford women's swim team won the tournament last weekend?"
I was shocked, and then indignant. When I asked my husband to weigh in, he agreed with what I had said, but thought the point had been made and it was time to move on.
Looking back on this, my husband denies it happened — at least not exactly in this way. Who's to say? Regardless, for me the memory contains an important lesson.
Breakfast and getting the kids off to school on a positive note was more important. Most of all, my relationship with my son was more important than prolonging a 15-minute harangue about dirty socks on his bedroom floor.
In his own way, by not jumping into the fray, dad had helped put the pieces back together. A different perspective. A different style. And a situation that could have gone from bad to worse was made right.
Now Neil is a dad. Last week we were with him and his family at a playground. Neil ran up a hill and called out to Jack, his young son. Amy, our daughter-in-law, who suspected some mischief from her husband, called back, "No, Neil!" But that didn't discourage him from throwing himself down on the ground and rolling down the hill, much to Jack's delight.
Male bonding. But that bond belongs to fathers and daughters, as well. Our granddaughter is crazy about her "crazy" dad. Show me a little girl who is not.
Dads count because kids miss out on a whole range of emotions and experiences when we trifle with this bond. And speaking selfishly, dads count because moms would be lost without them.
(Published in the Palo Alto Weekly 6/14/06)