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Celebrating five years; lessons about fatherhood, and more

September 28, 2016

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 28, 2016

Fatherhood is a learning journey. This I believed when, five years ago, I wrote my first ‘Fatherhood Journey’ column. What I have learned along the way so far has exceeded my greatest expectations.

In June 2011, I gathered a small group of fathers, in the after-hours privacy of Cup & Top, a local café near my home. The purpose of the meeting was to create a space for fathers to listen to one another and share fatherhood experiences. In the days that followed, while seated in the same café, sipping tea and reflecting on what took place, I realized I had never read a newspaper column written by a father about the experience of fatherhood.

So, I stepped outside, called the Gazette and stated the purpose of my call to the friendly receptionist, who said she would transfer me to the editor. Disappointment loomed — I would hear a voicemail greeting, leave a message and never hear from this very busy and important person, I imagined. But, the editor answered, I pitched my idea and received encouragement: I was invited to send a sample column. I felt exuberant, for about three seconds.

The call ended and instantly I felt overwhelmed, filled with self-doubt. What would I write? Will the editor return my copy – like my seventh-grade English teacher – hemorrhaging red ink, assigning me a set of sentence diagramming exercises? Will sophisticated New England readers tolerate my Midwest colloquialisms, lowbrow vocabulary and unskilled use of punctuation?

In time, I found a rhythm — how to tell a story in 600 to 800 words, what to include and omit. I took cues from other columnists. I learned to trust my editor.

Mostly, I learned it’s not about writing; it’s about fatherhood. So on this anniversary — the 60th monthly run of ‘The Fatherhood Journey’ — I share three of the over-arching lessons I have learned.

One, children are profound teachers. Zoe and Adam, now ages 10 and 7, remind me daily what really matters. Their mere presence cuts through the businesses of life, demonstrating the basic truth of what they — and all of us — need most. Be with me, listen to me, support me, love me as I am. And, when I forget this lesson, Zoe and Adam exhibit great skill, persistence and creativity through their teaching methods.

Two, fatherhood is evolving. Increasingly, fathers are living beyond the restrictive family roles of physical protector and economic provider. Instead, a broader vision is emerging, one in which fathers embrace more equitable roles as caretakers and supporters, by sharing in the basic family responsibilities of child care and house work. This shift is helping debunk the cultural myth that fathers know best, creating more flexible parent and gender roles, which in turn can help families more readily adapt and thrive in our ever-changing world.

Three, mothers are under-valued. My mother, my wife, Lori, the love of my life and mother to our Zoe and Adam, and generations of mothers, continue to shoulder the primary responsibility for managing child care and home life. And, shifting social and economic conditions — opportunities and pressures alike — mean that many mothers also manage a career, too.

Mothers are expected to do it all, and often are judged harshly — by themselves and others — if they fail to fulfill these inflated expectations.

From the beginning, my mission has been to promote public and private conversations about fatherhood, though I had no idea what would emerge.

Lessons that affirm the inherent wisdom of children, promote the evolution of fatherhood, and elevate the value of motherhood, exceed my expectations, leaving me curious about the lessons that lay ahead and inspired to continue the journey.

Note: Larry Parnass was the editor who took my cold call five years ago, though I have worked directly with other editors on this column ever since. The morning I sat down to write this column, I read the announcement that he is leaving the Daily Hampshire Gazette. To you, Larry, I offer a deep bow of gratitude, for offering a father space to write about fatherhood, and, in turn, promoting public and private conversations about fatherhood.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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