First Person: Father types

Men should decide what kind of father they want to be

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I don't need an alarm clock anymore. Now, every morning, my almost-3-year-old daughter Sophia or my 10-month-old daughter Claire gladly serve that role. And I would rather be woken by their cries, requests for food, body slams or fears of the dark than some random beeping sound.

After the initial jolt, the rest of my morning usually entails changing their diapers, getting them out of ice-cream-themed pajamas and outfitting them for the day, fixing them breakfast (Cheerios for Claire, waffles and yogurt for Sophia) and the reading of a book or two. Then I get ready for my other job as a professor at Chatham University. It's a fun, action-packed and, some would say, nontraditional morning for a father.

I am told that previous generations of fathers did not engage in such direct child care and that bread-winning was considered the singular and necessary role of fathers. Indeed, many readers who grew up in industrial cities like Pittsburgh or mining towns throughout Appalachia may have experienced this firsthand, especially with fathers who had no choice but to work late-night shifts, two jobs and catch some sleep whenever possible.

Today, I still hear of fathers who abide by this traditional way of fathering -- they do not change diapers, work 80 hours a week and "babysit" their children now and then on weekends. I do not judge those fathers because what constitutes a "good father," after all, is up for debate and typically relies on the unique make-up and needs of each father and family.

But I am biased.

First, I am biased by my own experience as an involved father and my belief that my vocation as a father is more important than any other job I may hold.

Second, as a counseling psychologist, I am biased by research on modern families.

Quality father involvement has been found to benefit the social, emotional and academic development of children and adolescents. Supportive and mutual co-parenting helps mothers and fathers be better partners to each other and more effective parents to their children. Assuming nontraditional attitudes toward parenting and masculinity can even help keep fathers healthy.

Based on my experience and current research, I'd like to make a few suggestions to my fellow dads for this Father's Day.

First, take care of your physical, emotional, social, spiritual and psychological health. A father's health is intertwined with his family's health. And let's face it, fellow dads, numerous studies have shown that, compared to women, we have a shorter life expectancy, are at greater risk of death due to heart disease, cancer and accidents and engage at a higher rate in unhealthy behavior -- by more often eating less-than-healthy food and abusing alcohol, drugs and tobacco, for instance. To make matters worse, we are reluctant to seek help from health professionals.

Fathers, though, are presented with a unique opportunity to improve their health that other men do not have: namely, a child's birth.

For many of us, becoming a father is a magical moment and a wake-up call. Becoming a father can help us re-prioritize our values and break bad habits with a focused sense of purpose that comes with wanting to be around to see our child's first steps, first dance or graduation from high school and college.

One way for fathers to improve their health is to become aware of harmful attitudes. Strict adherence to "action hero" norms of manhood -- independence, stoicism, risk-taking, toughness, "playing through pain" and a certain type of self-sacrifice -- has proved detrimental to men's health. From boyhood we often are taught to compete, to succeed, to win, regardless of the cost. We are taught not to cry, to suck it up, to not show weakness. What we learn in sports we carry with us into fatherhood, even when the lessons get in the way of raising our families or keeping us healthy.

Balance is a key to life as a father. Many traditional traits are important to being a man but need to be shelved sometimes -- for instance, to seek medical help, or visit a counselor for psychological services, or pray for help during times of spiritual weariness.

As a graduate student, I bounced around on my own from Boston to Chicago to Oregon -- while most of my family remained here in Pittsburgh. It was all, or mostly, about me.

But when I became a father for the first time, I began to visit the doctor for regular checkups, to eat salads for lunch instead of cheeseburgers and to wear a helmet when I rode a moped. Fathering is all about family.

I continue to learn new ways to be a father.

In addition to my loving and supportive wife (Celeste), my parents (AJ and Valentina), brothers (Michael and Greg), sister (Jennifer), niece (Kayleigh) and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles have formed an extended network of support. Indeed, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child.

Since moving back to Pittsburgh last year, I have benefited as a father from the Isacco Village. I have learned to trust the collective wisdom of the family -- taking in different perspectives, listening to how other parents make decisions and exposing my daughters to a diverse group of people who love them just as much as I do. I urge all fathers to view themselves as co-parents with their villages, whether the other residents live next door or far away.

There is a wide continuum of fathering roles in today's families, ranging from breadwinner, to co-parent, to stay-at-home dad, to single dad, to a mixture of some or all of these and different mixtures at different times.

I urge fathers to reflect on fatherhood. Rather than fathering as your father did or being swayed by society's expectations or by one-dimensional TV portrayals of fathers who exist only because they read lines from scripts, take time to identify your fathering style and make a deliberate choice. Become the father you want to be.

Dr. Anthony Isacco is an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Chatham University.


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