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Engaged fatherhood, a global call to action

June 23, 2015

Engaged fatherhood, a global call to action

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

I remember learning I was a father. I had just returned from a few-days work trip. As we sat on the edge of our bed, my wife, Lori, handed me an envelope. When I opened the card there was a picture of a baby and written in Lori’s handwriting the words, “Congratulations, Daddy!”

For a moment I was confused, then tears of joy streamed down my cheeks. I instantly felt part of something bigger than myself — part of the human family as both child and parent.

By the time Zoe was born, over 41 weeks in the making, I had already turned 40. And before Zoe turned 1, she had already taught me more about life — and myself — than I had learned in all the time before her.

Today, at 8 and 5 — excuse me, 8 ½ and 5 ½ — Zoe and Adam continue to be my primary teachers. This is not to say that I am always an attentive student. To the contrary, my frequent inattentiveness means that they must sometimes work very hard to help me learn and relearn life’s important lessons about how to be the best father — and person — I can be. And, through their perseverance and my dedication, try I do.

So when my father, during his recent annual visit, said: “You’re a better father than I ever was,” it was a difficult moment. It seemed that his words were both compliment and apology — a difficult combination to hear.

Sure, in many was, but not all, I parent differently than my father did — that is part of his legacy, a son who prioritizes a form of fatherhood that was unknown to many of his generation.

I know he and I are not alone, for by the time I became a father, I had heard from many of my peers — men and women — that they wanted to provide a different type of fathering, and mothering, than what they received. I was no exception, and despite my best efforts, I accept that when they are older, Zoe and Adam may have similar feelings.

Still, it’s the idea of comparing fathers — making one ‘better’ than another that has limited value, for me. Instead, I recognize that my father — in 1966, at the age of 24 — received the standard message that his job — along with all the male peers of his and prior generations — was to be provider and protector, leaving most or all of the nurturing and care giving to my mother.

Increasingly, this narrow range of gender roles is viewed as limiting to children, mothers and fathers, while mounting research demonstrates that engaged fatherhood produces tremendous benefits. By actively nurturing and bonding with their children, thereby sharing caregiving roles and domestic roles with mothers, fathers enhance maternal and child health, father-child connection later in life, and men’s health and wellbeing overall.

This does not make engaged fathers inherently better than other fathers. Rather, the health outcomes associated with fathers who embrace nurturing and caretaking roles makes a compelling case for removing barriers that inhibit broader acceptance of engaged-fatherhood.

One step is eliminating the stigma for men associated with being vulnerable and sensitive — two core conditions that enhance one’s ability to be a nurturing caretaker of children and an emotionally mature co-parent.

Another step is adopting a national paid leave policy for mothers — the United States is one of approximately 15 out of 196 countries worldwide that lacks such a policy. Doing so empowers women and families to prioritize parenting, while maintaining access to economic security and making room for shared parenting roles.

A third step is eliminating the stigma associated with fathers taking parental leave from work, leaving families vulnerable to economic insecurity, and reinforcing strict gender roles where mother is caretaker and father is provider.

The implication of this shift — from narrowly defined fatherhood to a more engaged model of fathering — is staggering, given that an estimated 80 percent of men and boys — roughly half the world’s 7.2 billion people — will become fathers in their lifetimes, according to Men Care, a global fatherhood campaign.

So, on Father’s Day Sunday I celebrated the joys of fatherhood and accepted appreciation from Lori, Zoe and Adam for the way I choose to parent. I also celebrated the day as a call to action — joining the global chorus that challenges the limitations of strict gender roles, promoting instead models of fatherhood that promote the health and wellbeing of all people.

To be inspired by the global movement to promote engaged fatherhood, visit and view the State of the World’s Fathers video. Consider it a four-minute, electronic Father’s Day card, to yourself.

Editor’s note: The recently published, “Dads Behaving Dadly 2: 72 More Truths, Tears and Triumphs of Modern Fatherhood,” edited by Hogan Hilling and Al Watts, contains stories written by fathers from throughout the United States, including two of John Engel’s earliest Gazette Fatherhood Journey columns. The book is now available through Amazon. Engel will donate all royalties, pennies per copy, to the Healthy Men and Boys Network of Western Massachusetts.

John Engel is organizational consultant and coordinator of the Healthy Men and Boys Network of Western Massachusetts. He can be reached through his website

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