Reflections of Fathers

David A. Jones

By David A. Jones

If you sit quietly and observe an engaged father interacting with his child, it can be awe inspiring. If they have cultivated their dance based upon a secure sense of trust and reciprocity, any observer might gasp. The only way practitioners can experience this, or ever get to witness it, is if they provide the space for fathers to be themselves. I'm not just referring to the physical space within program environments. I'm talking about the emotional space, the same emotional space afforded to mothers who are somewhere along the developmental trajectory of parenting but still need a lot of guidance and support to grow. They are not judged! They inspire curiosity and a desire to help. Staff are eager to learn about their past, make sense of it, and help mothers see how it has shaped their present. They are engaged in a process of discovery of interests, opportunity, and conversations about their futures. Futures that involve them and their children!

It's been a little over a year since my father died. He was 81 years old, which is a long time to be on this earth. He did not raise me, or provide for me. He didn't teach me how to grow into manhood. I was fortunate to have other individuals in my life that fulfilled the role. Today, I evaluate how different my life might have been had he been there. And then I remember it was his absence that instilled in me a desire to be an awesome father. I can laugh now, but I admit I was clueless. How could I provide for them something that was not offered to me? I decided to start by just being there from day one. I tried with all of my heart and soul to give, within reason, what I had not received. I was learning along the way, becoming increasingly more comfortable and confident in my capabilities.

David and sonsI realize I am not very much different than millions of other men who find themselves saddled with the awesome responsibility of having to father a child when they have not been fathered themselves. Yet, in most instances, they do the best they can, drawing upon their own experiences and things they learned along the way. Negotiating unbelievable hurdles and still finding ways to meet with success. However, if you were to ask them about their level of comfort walking into an early childhood education setting, you would receive a number of different responses.

A small percentage might say they were comfortable, some would tell you they are a little leery. Others would tell you child care programs are for mothers. For many men, at least initially, the feeling has nothing to do with how they've been treated by program staff or the physical space. It has more to do with their educational history, their level of comfort with the role, how they see themselves positioned next to their children, and how they define their role. How will they be received and will they be judged? Many struggle with finding a sense of ease or comfort in settings that have historically been deemed more appropriate for women.

David and son at graduationFathers who are engaged, who love their children, and are not afraid to demonstrate that love, find ways to attach, bond, and build social and emotional relationships with their children. They find comfort embracing their roles and responsibilities because they know their children as well as, and in some instances better than, some of the mothers we encounter. They too engage in the functional parenting practices that are observable and many more that are not so observable. Fathers are planning for their children, wondering about them, and quietly watching over them as they negotiate developmental trajectories, parenting in ways that cannot be measured.

If we were as curious about fathers as we are about mothers, if we were as thoughtful in our interactions, our communications, our exploratory conversations, and our developing and designing support for them, they too would thrive. Not just as fathers, but as individuals and as men who love their children and families. With confidence, their competence increases and they are able to strengthen the social and emotional relationships that drive everything they do when they understand their role, commit to it, and are supported in enhancing their capacity to fulfill that role. Early childhood educators are in a unique position to support all parents, and especially fathers. It begins by being genuine and not patronizing them or over-celebrating them for their efforts. Remember to acknowledge them and don't be afraid to ask questions about their interactions with their children.

A couple of weeks before my father died, during a telephone conversation he told me he loved me and I told him I loved him. Despite the fact that he did not raise me, I was able to build a relationship with him for the sake of my children, but for me as well. The ambivalence is deep within me and sometimes it surfaces to the top and I am confronted with unresolved feelings. I have to wrestle with the fact that he failed me, by not being there, by not providing for me, and by not laying the ground work for me to develop a healthy sense of self. Fortunately, my mother was a loving individual and I am whole because of my relationship with her. Yet, there is a void when it comes to my father. It took a long time to fully understand me because I did not know him.

Still, I advocate daily for fathers and mothers to have equal say, and an equal place at the table when it comes to their children. Head Start programs are in a prime position to create welcoming environments and establish meaningful relationships with fathers so all parents feel welcome. As we embark upon Father's Day 2016, let's extend ourselves a little more. Find ways to engage and build stronger relationships with fathers across the Head Start universe for their sake and the sake of their children.

David A. Jones is the Father Engagement Specialist for the Office of Head Start.