Being A Father Doesn't Automatically Make Me The 'Backup Parent'

by Ronnie. K. Stephens for Fatherly
A young father feeding his baby while his daughter is playing next to him in the kitchen.
SolStock / iStock

I am uncomfortable with confusion.

Naturally, my immediate reaction to fatherhood was to read everything, and I do mean everything I could find on parenting. I read about rainbow boys and what to expect, cognitive development and milestones. You know, the classics. As my kids get older, I keep reading. Now the topics include the importance of showing vulnerability, parenting kids with ADHD, how to parent through bipolar disorder, and blended families.

Without fail, every book addressed specifically to fathers focused first and most often on finances. Now, I’m all for budgets and managing costs. God knows kids will find all sorts of ways to spend your money. But only the books written for moms mentioned bonding and diapers and childhood development.

You would think I would be prepared then for the myriad instances when I’m forced to defend my place beside my kids, to remind strangers and family alike that I am more than direct deposits and insurance coverage.

The weekend my ex-wife told me that she wasn’t coming home, she was genuinely shocked when I refused to let my girls move two states away. Her family encouraged her to take my daughters. Her friends encouraged her to take my daughters. Even now, as we argue over custody schedules and who will take the lead when the girls begin school, strangers in various parenting groups proclaim that kids should always be with their mothers the majority of the time, that time with mothers is always in the best interest of the kids.

I’m not here to make a case against motherhood. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of mothers who were neglectful and even dangerous for their kids. I’ve seen plenty of fathers like that too. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I believe those types of parents are rare. I think that, more often than not, both mothers and fathers are genuinely trying to do right by their children. I certainly know that, while my ex-wife and I have wildly different ideas about good parenting, we’re both motivated to give the best care and support to the daughters we share.

I say again: I am not here to make a case against motherhood. Mothers are wonderful. They are vital. I was raised almost entirely by my mother who was single for seven years and then married a man who had no real clue what to do with me. She taught me strength, respect, ambition. She taught me that there are few things as indomitable as a mother protecting her child. I am who I am because of my mother. Mothers are necessary. So are fathers.

My father was present. Though I didn’t live with him, he called often and visited at least once a month. As soon as he was able, he took me during summers and extended holidays so that we had more time to bond. The constant danger, of course, was that he was motivated by a need for me to like him. He knew that I loved him, but like many non-custodial parents, he wanted to spend our time together having fun and making memories, not disciplining me or teaching me personal responsibility. Those things fell on my mother’s shoulders. I am who I am because of my mother. But also, I am the father I am because of my father.

I embraced adulthood and responsibility early on. Therefore, I am a product of my mother.

I embraced vulnerability and speaking openly about my emotions. Therefore, I am a product of my father.

You see, my mother is practical. She’s driven. What she is not is highly emotional. My father, on the other hand, is scattered and energetic. His ambitions have little to do with career or income, a lot to do with making those around him happier and more fulfilled. So I am a product of their strengths.

I’m an ambitious, practical father with the ability to articulate my feelings often and enjoy the utter chaos of Saturday mornings.

I am my best self because of my mother and my father.

Let me be very clear: I do not believe the heteronormative family is the only version of a successful family or even the best version. I do not believe that non-traditional families are inherently flawed or inferior. I know families of all configurations, and I believe that every one of them brings something wonderful, valuable, and essential to the table.

I am not saying that families without fathers are incomplete or that children in homes without fathers will automatically suffer. No, that is not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that families who value and prioritize engaged parents equally, who challenge traditional visions of fatherhood as unemotional and reserved, who make space for kids to experience the strengths of all their caretakers, those are the most successful families.

What I am saying is that I should not have to defend the importance of my presence in my children’s lives.

What I am saying is that we cannot afford to pit one parent against another. We cannot afford to draw invisible T-charts and Venn diagrams in our minds, mapping out the pros and cons of each parent. Yes, custody battles are inevitable. Yes, some parents are genuinely not a positive presence for their kids. Those truths do not require a hierarchy of parental roles.

I am a valuable part of my children’s lives.

Their mother is a valuable part of their lives.

Those statements are not conditional. One does not depend on the other; they can coexist. Parents can coexist, even when they are no longer together, and they should (unless there is a compelling reason why one parent is not healthy for the kids).

That said, we do have some work to do with fatherhood.

We must address more than financial needs and the practical guide to parenting in books written for fathers.

We must make space for discussions about bonding with kids, about the importance of both showing and articulating emotions around our kids.

We must acknowledge fears outside the impending medical bills and sleepless nights.

Here are some things I have learned, just to get us started:

If your child is more than 3 months old and you still don’t know which side of the diaper is the back, you aren’t changing enough diapers.

Children, like all other humans, relate best to those on their level. This goes for playtime and discipline. Kneel. Roll around on the floor. Sit at the kids’ table. Take every opportunity to meet them eye-to-eye.

There are no “dad jobs” or “mom jobs.” There are only things that need to be done. Do them. If you don’t know how, ask. If you mess it up, try again.

Use your strengths to complement your partner. If one of you gets the kids to sleep faster or has a better handle on fixing their hair, that’s okay. Just make sure that for every task one parent takes the lead on, you pick up slack elsewhere.

Breaks are important. You both deserve them. Take time for yourself, and make sure your partner does too. Your kids will benefit if you are your best self, so there should be no shame or guilt in each of you taking time to meet your own needs.

This is a living list, and one which should be adapted to meet your family’s needs. Lord knows I don’t have all the answers. But I am a good father, and I am a necessary part of my children’s lives. I shouldn’t have to make that argument. Hopefully, someday, I won’t have to.

This post originally appeared on Medium.